Religion

The Beatification of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen

Bishop Fulton J. Sheen in 1952 (Library of Congress)
Few men are more deserving of the honorific ‘Blessed.’

James Fulton Engstrom, an apparent stillborn, was delivered without vital signs on September 16, 2010. For 61 minutes, he lay without a heartbeat as his parents, Bonnie and Travis, prayed for the intercession of the late Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. As doctors prepared to declare James deceased, his heart began beating, and soon rose to a normal rate. James, once presumed dead, is now “a healthy eight-year-old” who “likes chicken nuggets, ‘Star Wars’ and riding his bicycle,” according to Catholic News Service.

After the resolution of a years-long dispute over the proper burial location for Sheen’s remains — his remains were recently transferred from New York, where he died in 1979, to his hometown of Peoria, Ill. — the Vatican finally confirmed the miracle on Saturday. Fulton J. Sheen will now be beatified, with inevitable canonization efforts soon to follow.

Fulton J. Sheen was a progenitor of the modern televangelist, though he bore little in common with the genre’s more lamentable figures. He was a showman with no pretense, an honest broker who expressed in vivacious tones the virtues of the Church he gave his life to.

Sheen was something of a paradoxical figure — an apt spokesman for a faith that reveres as its God an itinerant, allegedly seditious Jewish preacher. A man of short stature with an affable wit, Sheen had an audacious on-camera persona; draped in his regal ferraiolo, he would stare beady-eyed into the souls of a captive audience as his tele-sermon reached its climax, his hand trembling with a patented gravity.

“God love you!” Sheen would exclaim, his hands receding to the chest of his cassock.

The audience would explode in applause at the bishop’s infamous sign-off, with network cameras capturing the rhetorical crescendo of this most-odd conductor. In his half-hour lectures he decried the evils of relativism, warned of the wages of sin, and proclaimed the glory of the Lord’s Passion; fodder once reserved for incense-filled cathedrals or religious bulletins became a nationwide spectacle broadcast on ABC and, before that, the Dumont Television Network. What in the world was Bishop Fulton Sheen doing on network television?

God, as it happens, works in mysterious ways.

Sheen spoke with conviction and clarity, with a sense of life’s stakes and the terminal fate awaiting a culture that ran not only from God, but from the silence that might force it to confront Him. Sheen’s almost obsessive distaste for psychiatry (as popularly practiced) was a recurring theme in his critiques of 20th-century Americana; as he saw it, Americans often rushed to medicalize their faults, eager to dispense with moral agency in favor of Freudian “complexes” that obscured their moral decay. The country’s errors ran far deeper than an undue deference to morally circuitous psychiatrists. While it is said that America “is suffering from intolerance — it is not,” Sheen famously insisted. “It is suffering from tolerance. Tolerance of right and wrong, truth and error, virtue and evil, Christ and chaos. Our country is not nearly so overrun with the bigoted as it is overrun with the broadminded.”

Sheen was also a staunch opponent of Communism, which he called “the final logic of the dehumanization of man.” It was the materialism of Marx that he despised, Marx’s reduction of the moral law to an ad hoc edifice to preserve monied interests, with man subjugated as a fleshy pawn in a dispassionate global Sáhkku match between Capital and Labor. Just as Sheen abhorred clinicalizing the moral failures of asocial delinquents, he rejected the materialism that obviated man’s free will and responsibility. “It is the basic principle of Marxism,” he observed, “that any attempt to reconcile capital and labor so that they both cooperate in peace and prosperity is a betrayal of Communism.” Practice be damned so that theory might reign — Sheen thought that to be nonsense, a symptom of the modern temptation to insist that “there are no sick people, there is only a sick society.”

He changed untold lives by trafficking in that now-passé virtue of plain speech. The modern clergy does not, in genere, speak in such unequivocal language; it has been infected by that malady of the mind that is so open that the brain falls out, as Chesterton put it. In an age when clergymen celebrate the queen of all sins, enshrine situation ethics, and muddy the heretofore unambiguous precision of bimillennial dogmas, Bishop Sheen’s world is comparatively delightful in its clarity. In his view, there is a such thing as good and evil, right and wrong, and — the kicker — we can discern one from the other. Difficulty, strife, and the local burdens of circumstance do not absolve man from his moral duties.

Is there a more compelling exhortation?

Sheen does not leave the flock without consolation: In a world of unfathomable misery, where children hunger and thirst, where babies are killed by their mothers, where the good die while the evil prosper, and where the cruel pillage the earth, he quotes that great refrain: “We have a God who stumbled to His throne.”

Few men in the modern era are more deserving of the honorific “Blessed” than Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. May God hasten his canonization.

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