June 2002

America’s Bishop: The Life and Times of Fulton J. Sheen.  By Thomas C. Reeves. Encounter Books. 480 pages. $25.95.

Reeves has done his homework on Fulton J. Sheen, the best-known and most influential Catholic in America for a third of the last century. Reeves’s searching look at Sheen some 22 years after his death gives the flamboyant bishop the sympathetic but unflinching attention he deserves, and the resulting biography rewards anyone curious about Sheen or the American Catholic Church of the recent past.

Sheen was famous for his speaking, writing, fundraising, and generosity, but always considered himself first and foremost a loyal son of the Church. Sheen excelled in both radio and TV, charming even non-Catholics enough to win an Emmy award in the Eisenhower era, when his Life Is Worth Living TV series gave broadcast legend Milton Berle all the competition he could handle, and a Gallup poll listed Sheen as one of the 10 most admired men in America.

Reeves echoes Sheen’s own self-understanding in presenting him as a prayerful man with strong opinions and few intimate friends who recognized vanity and arrogance as the vices to which he was most tempted. Although conservatives have long applauded Sheen’s prescient anti-Communism, Reeves sensibly abstains from pigeonholing his subject as a man of the Right.

To his credit, Reeves discovered and does not gloss over the existence of a fabricated doctoral degree in Sheen’s curriculum vitae. Apparently unsatisfied with the prospects offered by his first job in a low-level teaching position at the Catholic University of America, Sheen invented a doctorate in sacred theology to augment his legitimate academic credentials. In writing about this uncharacteristic lapse, Reeves gives us an insightful character study rather than a whitewash or hatchet job.

Not surprisingly, Reeves makes much of Sheen’s incandescent intellect. Sheen’s mind, after all, was his passport to fame and the instrument through which thousands of people were converted to Catholicism. It pushed him from the Illinois prairie of his birth to the cosmopolitan centers of the Old and New Worlds. He earned a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Louvain (Belgium) and then became by invitation the first American to earn a postdoctoral degree known as the “agrege” from that same institution.

Before winning esteem as a first-rate homilist and TV preacher, Sheen had already made important contributions to neo-Thomist philosophy. Although his 60-some popular books borrowed shamelessly from one another, more than a dozen of them are still in print. Sheen would have left his mark on the Church even if he had not also raised millions of dollars while serving as director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith between 1950 and 1966.

By way of identifying Sheen’s favorite themes, Reeves notes that he spoke often about the smothering ideologies of atheistic Communism and secular humanism, typically confounding opponents by quoting from the documents to which they laid claim. Although Reeves argues convincingly that the one weakness in Sheen’s rhetoric was his overweening fondness for generalization, he also provides telling examples of Sheen’s technique at its most effective. Pondering education, for example, Sheen declared that “Much of modern education is merely a rationalization of evil [that] makes clever devils instead of stupid devils. The world is not in a muddle because of stupidity of the intellect, but because of perversity of the will.”

Sheen’s intellectual heft is indirectly responsible for a signal deficiency in America’s Bishop, which is Reeves’s failure to make Sheen’s mid- and late-life as absorbing as his early academic triumphs. From the high drama of Sheen’s doctoral and post-doctoral examinations, the book glides through an undifferentiated round of well-received books, pilgrimages to Lourdes, sermons before increasingly larger crowds, and anecdotes from his TV career. Reeves remarks on but does not really explore Sheen’s evangelical prowess. Reeves permits Sheen himself to speak about as frequently as the Loch Ness Monster surprises tourists in Scotland. Nearly 100 pages of endnotes mark this as a strategy born of flawed storytelling rather than flawed research. When Sheen is “promoted” to be Bishop of Rochester — actually, exiled out of New York City — as a result of falling out with his former mentor, Francis Cardinal Spellman, this admittedly nosy reviewer found himself eager for the drama of conflict between them. Alas, what the book’s pre-publication press release hypes as “a battle of ecclesiastical titans” turns out to be anti-climactic.

Reeves’s few shortcomings as a writer should not obscure the magnitude of his achievement here. This work succeeds on its own terms, and represents an important addition to the increasingly impressive Encounter Books catalog. Both biographer and biographee get the big things right. Sheen died as he had lived, in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. Even when this book tries a reader’s patience, this definitive account of Sheen’s life and times is well worth reading.

- Patrick O’ Hannigan



The 33 Doctors of the Church.  By Fr. Christopher Rengers, O.F.M. Cap. TAN Books. 692 pages. $33.

Here is a wonderful reference book devoted entirely to the 33 Doctors of the Church, every one a saint and each a fascinating individual. Presented in chronological order from St. Athanasius to St. Thérèse of Lisieux, this collection is replete with pithy quotes, prayers, and insights. It is ideal for brief referral and extended reflection.

Many of these defenders of the Faith were embroiled in bitter public controversy; others led very obscure lives. But humility, forgiveness, and repentance marked each of them. The author notes that “One of the many representations of St. Jerome in art portrays him striking his breast with a stone in a gesture of contrition.” Pope Sixtus V is reported to have remarked that without that stone the Church would never have allowed his canonization. Intellect and accomplishment alone are not enough to gain honor by the Church, much less Heaven.

Not all were gifted with docile and winning natures. Several were afflicted by turbulent personalities that became barely tolerable to those around them. But as teachers and scholars they had profound impact in the spiritual and temporal realms. And it is this influence that the author so clearly illustrates, by placing each saint in historical context and giving details regarding the Church and the wider world in which they lived. Their writings by which we know them are varied, but a common theme persists. Ultimately one can only conclude as St. John of the Cross said, echoing his name, “Do not seek Christ without the Cross.”

- Elizabeth C. Hanink





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