Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The American Chesterton, IV: Sheen’s Obsession


One of the more unusual things (one might almost say “odd”) about the veneration accorded to Fulton Sheen is the fact that his tremendous intellectual achievements and social insights are almost always marginalized or ignored.  John A. Hardon’s entry on Sheen in The Catholic Lifetime Reading Plan (1989) makes no mention of that aspect of Sheen’s work — something that is also missing from the entries on G.K. Chesterton and Ronald Knox.  Adherents of all three seem to focus primarily on the admittedly great faith, spirituality, and mysticism of the three — those things that, with a few twists and adjustments, can easily be fitted into New Age thought.

Fulton J. Sheen
Another unusual thing about Sheen’s legacy is, while his literary output was by any standard enormous, very little of what deals with intellectual or political (in the Aristotelian sense) subjects — what makes up the bulk of his work — is readily available today.  It’s almost as if adherents are ashamed, frightened, or confused by anything intellectual or political, or that does not fit their preconceptions about the respective roles of faith and reason.

The only thing worse than Sheen’s intellectual work and political thought to such people was his embarrassing obsession with socialism, especially in its most extreme form, communism.  A cursory review of Sheen’s books available from used bookstores revealed at least fifteen books and pamphlets on communism.  Searching a newspaper database uncovered a significant number of talks and columns discussing the same subject.  Sheen’s autobiography, Treasure in Clay, goes into some detail about his run-ins with communism and communists.

"Officially Discarded"
Yet little if any of this is mentioned today.  As a case in point, take the neglect into which Sheen’s bestselling book, Communism and the Conscience of the West (1948), has fallen.  A recent informal survey on Amazon revealed that there are 559 of Sheen’s books listed, both in and out of print (and thus not necessarily available), counting all the different editions.  Of these God and Intelligence was, in order of sales, listed 148, and Communism and the Conscience of the West was listed 453.

Some of the embarrassment over Sheen’s concern with socialism may be due to the legacy of “McCarthyism.”  Sheen’s efforts, however, preceded those of Tail Gunner Joe by decades, continued long after the Red Scare to Sheen’s death in 1979, and could hardly be considered in the same class as McCarthy’s “red baiting.”

The very thing that baffles Sheen’s modern adherents — why he was so concerned with socialism — becomes immediately apparent once we understand the focus of his intellectual work.  This was the abandonment of reason and common sense, and the shift from the intellect to the will as the basis of the natural law.  As Sheen explained in God and Intelligence and its continuation, Religion Without God, this shift reverses the respective roles of God and man.

Aristotle: "Man is by nature a political animal."
Thus, Sheen’s focus on socialism was not political in the usual sense (he detested what most people mean by “politics” and did not seem entirely comfortable as one of Aristotle’s “political animals”), nor economic.  It was, rather, philosophical.  Sheen saw socialism as the natural and inevitable end of what far too many people today think of as a trivial or unimportant omission: the necessity of having a sound philosophy based on reason, as well as the shift from God to man in religion.

Reason and a God-centered religion, for G.K. Chesterton, Ronald Knox, and Sheen (and, eventually, Mortimer Adler), meant the Aristotelian-Thomist philosophy of the Catholic Church.  As Sheen explained in his Preface to Communism and the Conscience of the West,

“The one idea in this book is that the philosophy of communism and to some extent the Revolution of Communism are on the conscience of the Western world. . . . Closely allied to this is the other idea that the so-called Russian problem is not primarily economic or political but philosophical; it revolves around the nature of man. . . . the Western world generally has lost the concept of man as a creature made to the image and likeness of God, and reduced him either to a component part of the universe, to an economic animal or to a ‘physiological bag filled with psychological libido.’  Once man became materialized and atomized in Western thinking, it was only natural for a totalitarianism to arise to gather up the fragments into a new totality and substitute the collective man for the individual man who was isolated from all social responsibilities. . . .

“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.  It has not been given to every age in history to see the issue as clearly as it has been given to our own, for we have a double incentive to work for the peace and prosperity of the world: the first is the Gospel in its fullness, the second is the communism of Soviet Russia.  The first teaches us that happiness comes from living rightly; the second, that misery comes from acting wrongly.”  (Fulton J. Sheen, Communism and the Conscience of the West.  New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1948, 7-9.)

Pius IX: People drawn to socialism by "perverted teachings."
Socialism — as almost every pope since Pius IX has pointed out — thereby comes into direct conflict with the Aristotelian-Thomist philosophy that has provided the foundation of western civilization.  Fabian socialism — beloved of many in the Catholic Church today — is (if possible) even worse than many other forms of socialism, as it hides behind a screen of “social justice” and an enthusiastic (in Knox’s sense) spirituality.  It combines an unhealthy grab-bag of socialist, modernist, and New Age doctrines into a superficially attractive package that, as Brownson noted, has the capacity to “deceive the very elect.”

Capitalism corrupts Aristotelian-Thomism with an individualism that glorifies human beings and denies humanity.  Socialism, however, utterly rejects and annihilates the philosophia perennis.  It substitutes a collectivist framework that deifies humanity at the same time it degrades human beings.

Both capitalism and socialism are therefore wrong, but socialism is worse than capitalism could ever be.  This is because capitalism tends toward individualism, which accepts the reality of the human person but rejects the generalization — the idea — of humanity created by human beings, while socialism accepts the reality of the idea of the collective (humanity), while rejecting the dignity of the individual human person.  That is (broadly speaking), capitalism respects the creator but not the creation, where socialism respects the creation, but not the creator.

#30#

3 comments:

peter maurin said...

There is something a bit disturbing about such 'over the top' misrepresentations of caricaturish stereotypes set up as straw men to attack. Do people whom believe in the social security model of elder financial safety, for instance, read Das Capital and goose step? Do those people that believe in universal healthcare bow to Stalin and reject Thomas Aquinas? Do those that believe in progressive taxation reject the Scholastics enlargements on natural law and follow libertarian concepts of free will and follow syncretistic religious beliefs?
Oh my.

peter maurin said...

There is something a bit disturbing about such 'over the top' misrepresentations of caricaturish stereotypes set up as straw men to attack. Do people whom believe in the social security model of elder financial safety, for instance, read Das Capital and goose step? Do those people that believe in universal healthcare bow to Stalin and reject Thomas Aquinas? Do those that believe in progressive taxation reject the Scholastics enlargements on natural law and follow libertarian concepts of free will and follow syncretistic religious beliefs?
Oh my.

Michael D. Greaney said...

There is something a bit disturbing about such "over the top" insinuations, avoidance of facts, and putting words into others people's mouths.

"Peter Maurin" (which somehow I doubt is your real name), you would do better to support your position with facts and arguments supported with cites instead of vague insinuations and snide comments. You raise a number of issues not even mentioned in the posting, and are only related by an extremely long and tenuous thread, most of which appears to exist only in your imagination.

If you wish to post such drivel, I've suggested before that you create your own blog instead of invading mine. You may then sneer and smirk to your heart's content.