In what is generally considered one of his best books, Communism and the Conscience of the West (1948), Fulton J. Sheen noted that the greatest danger to America — to civilization itself — is the loss of reason. Reason has been “liquidated” and replaced either with a false faith in material progress, or no faith at all. (Fulton J. Sheen, Communism and the Conscience of the West. New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1948, 18.) As Sheen stated,
“Communism represents an active barbarism outside Western civilization which has made inroads because of the passive barbarism within, which manifested itself in the general demoralization of society. It is the passive barbarism from within which contributes to some extent to active barbarism without for, as Toynbee shows, sixteen out of the nineteen civilizations which have decayed from the beginning of history until now, decayed from within.
“The basic struggle today is not between individualism and collectivism, free enterprise and socialism, democracy and dictatorship. These are only the superficial manifestations of a deeper struggle which is moral and spiritual and involves above all else whether man shall exist for the State, or the State for man, and whether freedom is of the spirit or a concession of a materialized society.” (Sheen, “Preface,” Communism and the Conscience of the West, op. cit.)
There is no better way to bring down a stronghold than to betray it from within. Once the gates are opened, its fall is all but assured. Assured, that is, unless divine intervention or its equivalent brings about some miracle to prevent the victory of treachery. Possibly to oversell and get more than a trifle apocalyptic, Chesterton and Sheen (the “American Chesterton”) might be the men “chosen” by God, heaven, fate, or whatever, to save the social order from being crucified between the twin evils of capitalism and socialism, to steal one of Sheen’s favorite analogies.
This makes it all the more ironic that Chesterton’s followers seem to be in the forefront of those who put their subjective understanding of what they take to be God’s Will over the objective argument and empirical evidence favored, even mandated by Chesterton — the Intellect, or faith over reason. History has been somewhat kinder to Sheen: most of his fans and those promoting his cause for canonization simply ignore or “bleep over” his thought in the area of political economy and philosophy.
After being marginalized in those areas (mostly by behind-the-scenes backstabbing and vilification that seems to have been engineered by Msgr. John A. Ryan), in the opinion of many people today Sheen appeared to shift to more “spiritual” topics from his embarrassing “rants” against capitalism and socialism. “Nice” topics like spirituality are much easier to comprehend and accept. Individual sins rock only the individual boat, not the social ship, and are thus much easier to project on to others, not ourselves, when seeking to place blame.
As any viewer of the Life is Worth Living television show can tell you, however, Sheen did not abate his focus on reason by one iota. Virtually everyone commented on the absence of proselytizing for Catholicism on the popular show, and how everything Sheen said seemed infused with “common sense,” i.e., reason. As a result, significant numbers of people were led to investigate the claims of the Catholic Church objectively, on the basis of reason, leading to many conversions.
Consequently, Sheen’s popularity with non-Catholics, even non-Christians was, proportionately, even greater than it was with Catholics. In his autobiography, Sheen noted that (proportionately) he got the most letters from Jews, then Protestants, and finally Catholics, and that very few of them were critical. A number of people praised him for not trying to shove “religion” down people’s throats from a bully pulpit.
Incidentally, this is another (although minor) reason why Chesterton will probably not be canonized anytime soon. Many of his latter day followers insist on characterizing distributism as a “Catholic” system. They completely ignore the fact that, aside from its own creed, the Catholic Church neither advocates nor supports any particular system. As John Paul II explained (not failing to insert a “plug” for worker ownership),
“The Church has no models to present; models that are real and truly effective can only arise within the framework of different historical situations, through the efforts of all those who responsibly confront concrete problems in all their social, economic, political and cultural aspects, as these interact with one another. For such a task the Church offers her social teaching as an indispensable and ideal orientation, a teaching which, as already mentioned, recognizes the positive value of the market and of enterprise, but which at the same time points out that these need to be oriented towards the common good. This teaching also recognizes the legitimacy of workers' efforts to obtain full respect for their dignity and to gain broader areas of participation in the life of industrial enterprises so that, while cooperating with others and under the direction of others, they can in a certain sense ‘work for themselves’ through the exercise of their intelligence and freedom.” (John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, § 43.)
Despite such an unequivocal statement from the highest authority in the Catholic Church (who, by the way, gave his personal encouragement to the work of CESJ), I have seen instances of people attracted to Chesterton’s thought turned away out of spite — or turning away in disgust — at the insistence of the Chestertonian Establishment that Chesterton is only for Catholics, and then only for the “right” kind of Catholics . . . their kind. Anyone else must necessarily be operating in bad faith.
The implication, of course, is that you must convert to their kind of Catholicism in order to be a “good Chestertonian,” and (of course) you must first be a “good Chestertonian” before you can be a “good Catholic.” Consequently, few people are led to investigate the claims of the Catholic Church objectively, and fewer (if any) convert with these people as examples.
This habit of dragging a horse to water and then holding its head under the water to drink is why Pope Francis has disparaged the “solemn nonsense” of proselytizing. Such bullying and intimidation not only do not have the desired effect of bringing people into the Catholic Church, they drive people away who might otherwise be led naturally, on the basis of reason and common sense, to investigate the claims of the Catholic Church further and convince themselves of its truth (or lack thereof) — which is where the only genuine conversions and honest disagreement come from, anyway.