Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The American Chesterton, XI: The Disciple of Common Sense


Fulton Sheen’s autobiography, Treasure in Clay, published soon after his death in 1979, has the advantage to the author of telling readers what the author wanted them to know about what he had done to set an example, and entertained with a series of edifying anecdotes.  It also has the disadvantage of telling readers very little of what, perhaps, they wanted to know about Sheen himself  — something Maisie Ward pointed out the American Chesterton’s autobiography shared with that of the English Sheen, G.K. Chesterton.

Fulton J. Sheen
What comes across is a very carefully prepared presentation of a final sermon — and a very good one — but one that avoids telling very much about a very private person.  Because it is anecdotal, the stories are told to make a point, not to tell anything much about the one relating them.  Also, since Sheen grouped his stories by subject, not the order in which they necessarily occurred, the lack of a strict chronological series of events is confusing.

There is, nevertheless, enough for our purposes, especially when fleshed out and correlated with other sources.  We got the impression that Sheen deliberately left a trail a reader could follow to find what he or she needed or wanted to find, but only if the reader was willing to work for it.

What we were after, then, required a bit of work, work that we hope to save our own readers — one of the reasons for this blog series.  We believe that the situation Sheen attempted to address, personally with great success, professionally and publicly with very little (for reasons we hope to show), has gotten much worse than Sheen ever imagined it could.

That situation is, of course, the rejection of reason and common sense in the world, in religious (Church), civil (State), and now domestic society (Family).  This is reflected in the new concepts of man-centered religion, State-centered government, and the changed definitions of marriage.

Aquinas: correcting modern(ist) errors.
And the goal toward which Sheen strove?  He stated it in 1921, his second year of graduate studies at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.  As he put it, “I should like to know two things — first, what the modern world is thinking about; second, how to answer the errors of modern philosophy in the light of the philosophy of St. Thomas.” (Sheen, Treasure in Clay, op. cit., 23.)

Sheen made his statement in response to one of his professors at the Catholic University of America who asked what Sheen wanted in education.  This was after Sheen told the professor (unnamed) that he did not think he (Sheen) had “a sufficiently good education to merit the degree of Doctor of Philosophy.”  (Ibid.)  This suggests that Sheen went to CUA with his goal already in mind — and the institution fell a little short of his expectations.

In other words, Sheen’s goal was to restore common sense to its place in the world, and God to His place in the heavens.  In Sheen’s opinion, speaking as a Catholic priest, common sense is found in its fullness only in one institution: the Catholic Church — and the Church was in trouble, at least potentially, if the forces of socialism and the New Age made any more headway.

Sheen, however, appreciated and respected the fact that people of other faiths had the same opinion relative to their own set of beliefs.  That is, such people had Sheen’s respect if they had faith, showed common sense, and held their beliefs honestly.

Fulton J. Sheen, "Radio Preacher"
Sheen’s reliance on the Aristotelian-Thomist understanding of the natural law and reason as common to all people came through in his later career as a “radio preacher” and “the first televangelist.”  People from across the religious spectrum found his common sense approach spoke directly to them, and not to some label. (Sheen, Treasure in Clay, op. cit., 63-79.)  In consequence, “In proportion to the population, the greatest number of letters came to me from the Jews, the second largest amount from Protestants, and the third from Catholics.”  (Ibid., 73.)

This makes sense, for a Jew, Muslim, Protestant, or anyone else who adheres for some reason (usually utility) to a position presumably based on revelation from God, a god, or gods, yet doesn’t really believe to be true has more problems than even Sheen could have helped them with.  Honest unbelief can be handled with honest discussion and sound argument that relies on common sense.  Hypocrisy frequently can’t be handled at all.

First edition of six copies.
Sheen emphasized the goal of restoring common sense in the full title of his first book, written to qualify for the agrégé of Louvain: God and Intelligence in Modern Philosophy: A Critical Study in Light of the Philosophy of Saint Thomas.  As G.K. Chesterton said in his introduction to the book,

“In this book, as in the modern world generally, the Catholic Church comes forward as the one and only real Champion of Reason. . . . She defends the wisdom of the world as the way of dealing with the world; she defends common sense and consistent thinking and the perception that two and two make four.  And today she is alone in defending them.”  (G.K. Chesterton, “Introduction,” Fulton J. Sheen, God and Intelligence in Modern Philosophy.  New York: IVE Press, 2009, 9.)

The goal of restoring common sense was of sufficient importance for Sheen, after he completed the requirements for a degree at the Louvain, to bring the matter up again with the noted Aristotelian-Thomist, His Eminence Désiré-Félicien-François-Joseph Mercier, Cardinal Archbishop of Mechelen and Primate of Belgium (1851-1926).  (We couldn’t resist putting in Mercier’s complete name and titles.)  The Cardinal’s answer strongly suggests that he had read God and Intelligence, and was telling Sheen what Sheen already knew.  As Sheen related,

Cardinal Mercier, Primate of Belgium
“When I had completed the conditions for the agrégé of Louvain, I paid a visit to Cardinal Mercier.  ‘Your Eminence, you were always a brilliant teacher; would you kindly give me some suggestions about teaching?’  ‘I will give you two: always keep current: know what the modern world is thinking about; read its poetry, its history, its literature; observe its architecture and its art; hear its music and its theater; and then plunge deeply into St. Thomas and the wisdom of the ancients and you will be able to refute its errors.  The second suggestion: tear up your notes at the end of each year.  There is nothing that so much destroys the intellectual growth of a teacher as the keeping of notes and the repetition of the same course the following year.”  (Ibid., 51.)

In other words, put Aristotelian-Thomism to practical use in refuting the errors of the modern world as Leo XIII had recommended in Æterni Patris.  To prevent the teaching of Thomism from becoming as stale as the teaching of Aristotle did before the neo-scholastic revival, force yourself to look at it in a new light each time by starting all over from scratch.

The Catholic University of America
It becomes clear that (at least, as far as Sheen was concerned) becoming a good teacher can depend in large measure on having been a good student, and on associating with other good teachers.  Once he left his graduate studies at the Catholic University of America behind, Sheen managed to become a disciple and colleague of some of the best apostles of common sense of the twentieth century — whose number he soon joined.

From the Catholic University of America, Sheen went to St. Edmund’s College in England, where he met and worked with Msgr. Ronald Knox, who had joined the faculty there in February 1919.  With St. Edmund’s as a base (and favored by the fact that residency was not required at the University of Louvain to obtain an advanced degree) Sheen was able to make up for the lack of a solid Aristotelian-Thomist course of studies at CUA.

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