Bishop Fulton Sheen (1895-1979)


Educator, author, radio and television apologist, archbishop.  He was born Peter Sheen (May 8, 1895) the first of four sons to Newton Morris Sheen and Delia Fulton Sheen on the second floor of the family hardware store, Elpaso, Illinois.  He died in New York City on Dec. 9, 1979.  Three grandparents were Irish immigrants. His uncle financially supported his education in Peoria at St. Mary’s Cathedral School from 1901-1909, where he took the confirmation name of John and continued at Spalding Institute (1909-1913), a Catholic High School run by the Brothers of Mary, where he enrolled as Fulton John Sheen, adopting his mother’s maiden name.   Sheen received an A.B. (1916) and M.A. (1917) at St. Viator College and Seminary in Bourbannais, Illinois, where his articles on Shakespearean drama in the school journal Viatorian, and a string of debating contents displayed a promising aptitude for writing and oratory.  He completed his studies at St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota.  He was ordained to the priesthood, (Sept. 20, 1919) for the diocese of Peoria, under Bishop Edmund M. Dunne.  He earned an S.T.L. and J.C.B. at the Catholic University of America (1920) and his Ph.D. at the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium (1923), on of the foremost centers of scholastic studies in the Catholic world.   In 1925 Sheen received the Agrege en Philosophe for his doctoral dissertation, “God and Intelligence in Modern Philosophy: A Critical Study in Light of the Philosophy of St. Thomas”.  While teaching dogmatic theology at St. Edmund’s College, Ware, England, he met the renowned apologist G.K. Chesterton, whose weekly radio broadcast over the BBC inspired Sheen’s later work as the feature speaker on the NBC broadcast “The Catholic Hour” (1030-1952).  His dissertation with Chesterton’s introduction was acclaimed to be a masterpiece in which “The Catholic Church comes forward as the one and only real champion of Reason” and earned Sheen the distinction of being the first American to receive the Cardinal Mercier Prize for International Philosophy.  Sheen set the pattern for what followed in his own career in what he saw as a task to “make St. Thomas functional, not for school, but for the world… a remedy against the anarchy of ideas, riot of philosophical systems and breakdown of spiritual forces.   Professor at the Catholic University of America-After calling him back home to his home diocese for a few months to at St. Patrick’s Church, a poor inner-city parish.  Dunne released Sheen to teach theology at the Catholic University of America in D.C.  Altercations among faculty concerning standards of seminary training forced his abrupt reassignment to the Philosophy Department and the Chair of Apologetics.  Recurrent disputes with academic theologians created skepticism concerning his scholarly reputation.  A Commonweal Review of Old Errors, New Labels (1931) indicated he was more interested in imparting an effect than information. He was accused of plagiarism and careless scholarship in a review about his work The Mystical Body of Christ. Archbishop Francesco Laurdo, faculty of canon law encouraged Sheen to discontinue his attempts at popularizing Catholic doctrine on radio and to restrict himself to the classroom.  John Tracy Ellis, a historian, said that Sheen abandoned the life of a scholar for that of the preacher, realizing in a realistic way that it was impossible to serve both simultaneously.   Preacher and Convert Maker-His intellectual statur remains arguable, but the success of his apologetical career is indisputable.  The contribution of Archbishop Sheen to the Catholic world and the general American public was incalculable.  His preaching career included: annual Lenten homilist at St. Patrick’s Cathedral (1930-1952) and Paulist Church in New York City, preacher at summer conferences at Cambridge, England; Westminster Cathedral in London (1925-31); Cardinal Spellman’s 1948 Pacific Tour; and countless retreats for priests and religious congregations, which by his own report, was his most gratifying experiences and occupied his agenda to the very end of his life.   His no fewer than 92 books were invariably repetitive reworkings of his public addresses and were “designed to foster one’s spiritual growth rather than to deepen intellectual enrichment.”  Peace of Soul, rose to sixth place in New York Times best seller list and was considered his finest next to Preface to Religion (1946).  His most financially successful was Life of Christ, which was based upon 15 addresses given on “The Catholic Hour”.  He stated that Religion Without God was terrible and should never have been published.   His reputation of convert-maker was well publicized. In Washington and New York City his courses drew people from all walks of life and notably Henry Ford II, congressman Clarie Booth Luce and pro-communist journalist Louis Budenz.   Television Personality-Sheen spoke on the first televised religious service on Easter Sunday, 1940.  But it was the 129 broadcasts of “Life is Worth Living” on ABC Network and Admiral Corporation on the Dumont that established Sheen as the best known Catholic priest in 1950’s America.  For many he represented the movement of Catholicism into mainstream American Life.  His talks redefined the Church within larger society by telling stories of Catholics in Terms of their own heritage.  His telecasts had ecumenical appeal to non-Catholic audiences.  He emphasized the importance of reason in sorting out problems of the day especially of American confrontation of Communism.  The infusion of anti-Communism into his talks recast its social meaning as a spiritual component of the postwar religious revival of the 1950’s America.  He forty-two programs he treated evils of atheistic Communism, yet at the same time he argued the need for love of the Russian people.  His program on “The Death of Stalin” aired live one week before Stalin’s death (March 5, 1953), which drew enormous media attention and clinched Sheen’s role as the premier Catholic ant-Communist.  He also attacked Freudian psychology.   Sheen was building his television audience of millions. He also served as auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese of New York (1951-1966) and as national director of Society for the Propagation of Faith (1950-66).  The telecasts displayed the SPF logo on the studio set and in 1955 had reached 25 million dollars in donations.  His generosity from his personal royalties was regularly directed to Archbishop Toolen for mission work in poor black neighborhoods in the diocese of Birmingham-Mobile.   Sheen and Cardinal Spellman –As director of SPF, Sheen had frequent confrontations with his superior, Francis Cardinal Spellman over the disposition of funds.  In 1957 Spellman demanded that SPF reimburse the archdiocese for large quantities of powdered milk acquired by Spellman as head of the Military Ordinariate during the Korean conflict.  Sheen, knowing that Spellman had not paid for the milk, balked at the idea and led his board of directors to refuse to pay it.At Spellman’s request the matter was brought to ailing Pope Pius XII, whose own investigation revealed the accuracy of Sheen’s position.  But repercussions for Sheen were severe.  Spellman, who had direct responsibility for approving Sheen’s television contract with Admiral Corporation, notified its president that Sheen was no longer permitted to perform.  Sheen publicly explained that for personal reasons he was moving on to other projects.  After Spellman’s death (1967), Sheen disclosed that he could have gone higher had he forgone principal in his clash with the Cardinal.  Two later attempts to revive the television program failed to get the prominence of a network timeslot and faded quickly into syndication.   From 1958 to 1966, Sheen galvanized his work at SPF, traveling to Catholic missions around the world, editing the Mission and World Mission magazines and serving on the Commission on the Missions at the Second Vatican Council in Rome (1962-65).  Taken by the spirit of conciliar reform, Sheen felt poised to create the model postconciliar diocese, a goal he set out to realize when installed as the sixth bishop of the diocese of Rochester, New York (Dec. 16, 1966).   Bishop of Rochester-His agenda to implement council decrees was driven by a collegial approach to administrative and social justice issues. He immediately created territorial vicars, a diocesan priest council, a board of counselors and a new vicar for Urban Ministry.  E spoke out against abortion legislation in a pastoral letter in 1967, radical discrimination in Kodak Company and the Vietnam War.  He instituted annual parish missionary appeals and a tax cut on new church construction to assist the poor in repairing housing units.  His crowning ecumenical concept was the Rochester Center for Theological Studies (1968).  He was more of a man of ideas than of details.  The ideas were successful but were achieved by local individuals.  Sheen seldom consulted with his various committees.  One of his most notable failures was Sheen’s offer of St. Bridget Church property to the federal government (HUD) as a site for federal housing.  Learning of the project from the national media, the parishioners picketed the Pastoral office, diocesan officers were caught off guard and HUD pulled out of the deal. Discouraged, Sheen resigned as ordinary (Oct. 10, 1969) a full year short of seventy-five, the mandatory age for retirement.   Last Years-For the next ten years, Sheen conducted countless retreats worldwide, until heart disease confined him to his Manhattan apartment.  In 1969 Pope Paul VI appointed him to the Papal Commission for Nonbelievers and named him titular archbishop of Newport, Wales.  All of the awards and testimonials amassed during his career, Sheen cherished the words of Pope John Paul II spoke to him personally two months before his death: “You have written and spoken well of the Lord Jesus, and you are a loyal son of the Church.”  He was buried in the crypt of St. Patrick’s Cathedral (Dec. 13, 1979).   At the end of the twentieth century, historians increasingly note the prophetic quality of Sheen’s ecumenical ambition.  To be sure, no other American Roman Catholic churchperson has matched the popularity and influence of this mediagenic bishop whose apologetic touched the lives of millions of Catholics and non-Catholics.