Vessel of Clay
America’s Bishop: The Life and Times of Fulton J. Sheen
reviewed by James Hitchcock
Some people epitomize the age in which they live, and no one epitomized the “golden age” of American Catholicism—roughly the three decades prior to the Second Vatican Council—better than Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. Thomas Reeves’s book is the latest and by far the best biography of the famous prelate and is likely to remain so for a long time.
Born in central Illinois in 1895, Sheen was a typical American Catholic of his age in that he came from a family in humble circumstances. His subsequent life was far from typical, but it epitomized the Catholicism of his era in that certain features of that age perhaps reached their most conspicuous development in him.
After a brilliant academic record and a short period as a parish priest in Peoria (to teach him humility, his bishop later said), he became a professor of philosophy at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., a post he held for several decades, although teaching was never one of his highest priorities. (Oddly, although he had an earned doctorate in philosophy, he later also claimed a doctorate in divinity which he did not possess.)
By 1930 he was a popular radio preacher and greatly in demand as a lecturer. He also began a writing career for which the word “prolific” is scarcely adequate—a total of 66 books and countless articles over half a century. In the 1950s he showed his mastery of the new medium of television, where his weekly program cut into the audience of Mr. Television himself, Milton Berle, and helped drive Frank Sinatra’s weekly program off the air entirely. Next to Pius XII, Sheen was by then probably the most famous priest in the world.
Besides his presence in the media he was best known as a convert-maker to the Catholic Church, his list including the ex-Communists Louis Budenz and Bella V. Dodd, the violinist Fritz Kreisler, the author (and later ambassador) Clare Booth Luce, and the industrialist Henry Ford II.
Sheen’s fame, and his world travels, made him ideally suited for a position he was given in 1950—head of the American branch of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, an organization primarily devoted to raising funds for foreign missions. Along with that directorship, he served as auxiliary bishop of New York. Reeves estimates that over a period of sixteen years he raised almost 200 million dollars.
But suddenly, in l966, he was made bishop of Rochester, New York, a transfer generally recognized as a kind of demotion, since it removed him from the nerve centers of Manhattan and left him as merely the head of a middle-sized diocese. After less than two years he retired, was made a titular archbishop, and remained active as a speaker and writer until his death in 1979.
Such is the bare outline of an extraordinary clerical career, one with no parallel in any other time and place and one that could have been possible only in the United States in the middle of the twentieth century.
Behind this curriculum vitae is the story of a soul, a story that embodies all the ambiguities of the era.
Sheen epitomized the Catholicism of his age above all in his untiring zeal for the Church, his deep yet in many ways simple piety, the courage to witness to his beliefs in public, and the seemingly rock-like solidity of his convictions. He was what liberal Catholics called a “triumphalist”—someone who believed that the Catholic Church had the solution to all the world’s problems. Prior to the 1960s he seldom even hinted that anything in the Church needed even the smallest reform. But he did not ordinarily engage in anti-Protestant polemics, and while he never muffled Catholic beliefs, his emphasis on the gospel probably resonated even with many Protestants.
He was, however, a fierce critic of modern secularism in all its forms, contending that modern philosophy had lost the sense of objective truth. A major part of that was anti-Communism, a stance that had the side effect of reinforcing the sense that Catholics were true Americans, if anything, super-patriotic.
Reeves records that Sheen sometimes made unspecified and unsupported claims that there were influential Communists in sensitive positions in the United States, and such claims were an instance of a wider tendency for which he was sometimes criticized—making sweeping assertions with only slight attention to the evidence and to the complexities of argument. Like most Catholic intellectuals of the time, he considered himself a disciple of St. Thomas Aquinas, yet in reality he followed a kind of popularized Augustinianism, even a kind of existentialism, which appealed to people on the level of their personal needs and anxieties, offering faith as the only balm for those anxieties and the only fulfillment of those needs.
During the 1950s there was much discussion of the alleged intellectual immaturity of American Catholicism, and Sheen can be taken as a test case. In the eyes of some people, he was the most formidably brilliant man in America, and he was certainly highly intelligent. But he was a philosopher for whom the emotions seemed always to play the principal role, and some of his academic colleagues, for valid reasons possibly not untinged with jealousy, deprecated his scholarship. In effect, he claimed a critical understanding of all of modern thought, but his analyses sometimes seemed like superficial shots from the hip. (Besides his temperament, the extraordinary variety of activities he engaged in could have left him little time to read and think in a careful way.)
All his life he claimed an almost mystical ability to discern, often with a mere glance, that particular people were tortured in soul, even to the point of suicide or traffic with the devil, and that his own piercing spiritual insight could bring them to God. The frequency of such stories inevitably provokes a certain skepticism, but also something more—the nagging suspicion that, pastorally, the bishop was more interested in the dramatic than in the ordinary. He was deeply prayerful and often sacrificed his own comfort and convenience. But there is a sense that he also had a need to live his vocation in the glare of publicity and wanted to be recognized as an extraordinary person. Dramatic conversion stories could perhaps be embroidered if they served to impress people with the power of divine love.
In old age he repented of the ambition that had obsessed him throughout his life. As a young priest he prayed to be made a bishop (something a conscientious spiritual director would have told him was improper), and there are reports that twice he expected to be made cardinal archbishop of New York. (If so, he must have been politically very naive.) Besides the money he raised for the missions, he received large amounts personally, from writing, speaking, and donations, and he always lived in rather luxurious surroundings, despite the general asceticism of his personal life. But he was impulsively generous and kept no close account of how his money was spent. In some circles he gained a reputation as a man who made grand promises, then forgot them.
His convert-making illustrates the problem. Reeves refutes the claim that Sheen was only interested in celebrity converts—he instructed numerous obscure people. But as time went on, he set up what could be called a kind of convert assembly line, in which those who asked him for instruction came regularly to a hotel to listen to tapes of his talks, after which he swept in to give them a few concluding words. It was a two-way street—Bishop Sheen enjoyed the reputation as a prodigious convert-maker, the candidates wanted instruction from no one but the best. A more responsible course of action might have been to advise most of the prospective converts to visit their local parish priest and receive personal attention.
His appointment to Rochester was generally considered an exile, brought on because of clashes with his nominal superior, Cardinal Francis J. Spellman of New York. (Reeves gives an account of the quarrel that is highly unflattering to Spellman.) The appointment came shortly after the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, and Sheen announced that he intended to make his new diocese a model of “Vatican II” reforms.
During the council he had supported most changes, at one point even exulting that the gathering “undid” 400 years of history, although prior to that time he had given no public, and few private, intimations that he thought the Church needed change. Now he seemed often to lose his critical faculties in a rush of euphoria (including President John F. Kennedy in an account of “modern saints,” for example).
His brief career in Rochester was a sad story, full of obscure conflicts the full nature of which are not known, partly because the Sheen archives there are in disarray. What seems to have happened is that he attempted to establish himself as a leader of change, at one point even getting maneuvered by a television interviewer into saying that contraception might be a permissible practice, then found that he had unleashed forces that he could not control. Attacked from both left and right, he was practically forced to retire, and his personally chosen successor went on to make Rochester perhaps the most liberal diocese in the United States, an ironic legacy from a man who for decades epitomized Catholic orthodoxy for millions of people. Sheen’s career illustrates both why the Church was so strong in the United States for so long and also why it began to unravel after 1965.
If biography, as used to be thought, is for the purpose of teaching moral lessons—the secrets of both greatness and decline—Archbishop Sheen should perhaps above all be seen as a victim of his own success. At every stage of his career he faced an ambiguous situation in which he could use his great talents to further the kingdom of heaven, yet those very efforts required pursuing the path of ever greater fame and adulation, measuring success by public recognition. Often he seems to have been unable to distinguish between acting for God and acting for himself. But he titled his autobiography Treasure in Clay, and of few such flawed vessels has God made more prodigious use.
James Hitchcock is Professor of History at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He and his wife Helen have four daughters. His most recent book is the two-volume work, The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life (Princeton University Press, 2004). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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“Vessel of Clay” first appeared in the April 2002 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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