Thursday, January 21, 2016

The American Chesterton, XVI: What is Truth?


As we saw in the previous posting in this series, the real issue for our day (and for the past several centuries, if you believe people like Mortimer Adler and G.K. Chesterton) boils down to the question that Pontius Pilate asked Jesus: “What is truth?”

Aquinas: Truth is part of a unity.
Aquinas answered that question for Fulton Sheen.  According to Aquinas, three transcendent things, unum, bonum, and verum (the one, the good, and the true) form a unity that he called “ens realissimum,” or “the most real being.”  Thus, goodness and truth are “one” with each other; that which is good is true, and that which is true is good.  This is not a tautology, because truth and goodness are different particular aspects of the same general unity, the “one”; to say that something is true is not exactly the same as saying it is good, and vice versa.

And what is good?  According to Aristotle, good is that which is in conformity with nature . . . all nature, not just some subjective aspect about which we may be mistaken.  And we can be mistaken.  As Aristotle said, lack of knowledge or wisdom or something else may cause someone to have a bad idea of what is true and good because it appears good to him.  That, however, doesn’t make it true or good, but expedient.

We cannot, therefore, let our personal subjective beliefs or opinions dictate what must be verified with empirical evidence and logical argument.  We must not regard something as true just because we personally believe it to be good, but believe something to be good because we have objective reasons to believe it is true.

Why was Fulton Sheen ignored?
In God and Intelligence and subsequent books Sheen examined the issue of truth as it applies to our idea of God and religion, and the validity of reason as the foundation of faith.  As we have seen, G.K. Chesterton, Msgr. Ronald Knox, and Mortimer J. Adler agreed with Sheen’s analysis, while Father William Ferree shared his Aristotelian-Thomist framework.  They all made understanding truth and goodness the focus of their lives’ work.

Why, then, did neither Chesterton nor Knox make any substantive references to Sheen?  Why did Adler ignore him?  Why did Father Ferree dismiss him as a “radio preacher”?

After consulting with people who have studied Sheen’s work in-depth, examining the evidence, and tying some threads together, we think we may have come up with an answer as to why Sheen’s great intellect has been ignored.  On consideration, we believe that Msgr. John A. Ryan of the Catholic University of America sabotaged Sheen’s academic and intellectual career.

So that the reader will know that we do not make this claim lightly, we’ll present some of the evidence that we have come across in the course of researching what happened in the modern world to the concept of God and religion, and why reason has been rejected.  This is, of course, not proof (i.e., it remains opinion, not knowledge), but it has a high probability of conforming materially to the truth and is, furthermore, consistent with the facts.

Msgr. John A. Ryan
It appears to have begun in September 1919 when, immediately after he was ordained a priest, Sheen entered the Catholic University of America to pursue graduate studies for a doctorate in philosophy.  At once we notice something unusual about the way Sheen characterized the institution: “Some of the teachers were excellent — such as Dr. Edward Pace and the famous Dr. John A. Ryan, who was a leader in this country in the field of social ethics.” (Sheen, Treasure in Clay, op. cit., 22.)

This seems innocuous, even complimentary.  On the basis of this sentence one biographer claimed that Sheen “greatly admired John A. Ryan.”  (Thomas C. Reeves, America’s Bishop: The Life and Times of Fulton J. Sheen. San Francisco, California: Encounter Books, 2001, 41.)

Note, however, that Sheen said nothing about the substance of what Ryan taught, just that the famous Ryan as a teacher was “excellent,” and that he was a leader in the field of social ethics — which he was . . . after a fashion.  In The Act of Social Justice (1941, ©1943), however, Father William Ferree mentioned Ryan among Catholic writers who dissented from the Church's teaching on the subject of social justice (Rev. William Ferree, S.M., Ph.D., The Act of Social Justice.  Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1943, 87).  Ferree (who received his Ph.D. from the Catholic University of America very soon after Ryan retired) also noted that Ryan disregarded Pius XI’s careful analysis, and confused legal justice with social justice, and social justice with distributive justice, commenting,

Ferree: Incredible that social justice was misunderstood.
“It may seem incredible that so clear and scientifically exact a statement [Quadragesimo Anno, §§ 56-57] should be interpreted that social justice must somehow straddle the traditional fields of both legal and distributive justice, dipping now into one and now into the other, but it has been so understood.”  (Ibid., 104, 139n.)

In other words, Ryan, who made a name for himself as an authority on social justice, did not (in Ferree’s opinion) understand social justice.  Interestingly, Sheen made the following comment later in his autobiography:

“In an age of social justice one phase [of teaching] that seems neglected is the moral duty of professors to give their students a just return for their tuition.  This applies not only to the method of teaching but to the content as well.” [Emphasis added.] (Sheen, Treasure in Clay, op. cit., 54.)

Giving value for money, however, is not social justice, as Sheen knew full well.  It is commutative justice, which is individual, not social.  This suggests that Sheen had a particular reason for intruding the non sequitur of social justice.  Then, on the page following his comment about Famous Ryan being an excellent teacher whose renown was in the field of social ethics, Sheen related how in his second year of a three-year program —

Louvain University, cir. 1925.
“I felt that I did not have a sufficiently good education to merit the degree of Doctor of Philosophy.  I confided my worries to one of the professors, who said: ‘What would you like to have in education?’  I said: ‘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.’  He said: ‘You will never get it here, but you will get it at the University of Louvain in Belgium.’”  (Ibid., 23.)

Evidently, what was being taught at Catholic U. did not match the how, that is, the quality of the teaching as teaching.  The institution had excellent teachers who were highly skilled at conveying substandard content.  Consequently, in September 1921, Sheen entered the University of Louvain . . . without taking his degree at the Catholic University of America.

The implied criticism of the quality of the education available at Catholic U. might have annoyed the Rector, Bishop Thomas Joseph Shahan (1857-1932), who served from 1909 to 1927.  This would explain Shahan’s initial coolness to Sheen years later when Sheen was assigned to the faculty of the Catholic University.


It would definitely have irritated Famous Ryan, who by 1921 was nationally prominent due to his bestselling books A Living Wage (1906) and Distributive Justice (1916).  Ryan would have interpreted a criticism of the education at the Catholic University as a personal attack on him and on his work —which, in a sense, it was.

A scholar of Sheen’s caliber would instantly have seen certain key elements in Ryan’s thought that contradict Aristotelian-Thomism, such as Ryan’s implication that property is not a natural right in the Aristotelian-Thomist sense.  Worse, Sheen would have seen in Ryan’s theories the embodiment of the very thing Sheen opposed in God and Intelligence: glorifying the State and the abstraction of “humanity” above flesh-and-blood human beings and even God Himself.

Sheen took his degree at the Louvain “With Very Highest Distinction” — one of only forty or so people in the last six hundred years to do so.  He was then offered two teaching positions.  One was from Francis Cardinal Bourne (1861-1935), Archbishop of Westminster, who said Sheen should go with Msgr. Ronald Knox to Oxford.  The other was from the president of Columbia University in New York.

Bishop Dunne of Peoria.
Sheen’s bishop, Edmund Michael Dunne (1864-1929) of the Diocese of Peoria, Illinois, however, ordered him home and assigned him to a parish for a year.  At the end of the year, Sheen’s bishop called him in and assigned him to the Catholic University of America where he was to teach graduate courses in theology . . . under the auspices of Ryan.

From the first, it appears evident that Sheen was made unwelcome in “the School of Sacred Sciences,” as the graduate school of theology was called.  Before he had been there a year he requested a transfer to the School of Philosophy.  The other faculty voted to approve Sheen’s request, but it was denied, by whom it is not clear. (Kathleen L. Riley, Fulton J. Sheen: An American Catholic Response to the Twentieth Century. New York: Society of St. Paul, 2004, 12.)

Things went from bad to worse.  Finally, matters seemed to come to a head.  In a meeting with the rector, Sheen was the only member of the faculty to disagree with what he believed to be an unwise proposal by Bishop Shahan.  As Sheen recalled the incident,

Bishop Thomas Shahan, Rector CUA
“I was seated down at the far end of the table from the Bishop.  He took off his little trumpet, rolled it up like a coiled serpent and pushed it down the whole length of the table toward me.  Then he stood up and, flushed with emotion, said: ‘If I cannot get professors in this university to agree with me, I shall discharge them and get professors who will.’  And he left the room.”  (Sheen, Treasure in Clay, op. cit., 44.)

Everyone thought Sheen’s career was over.  As he said, “The other professors gathered around me and said: ‘Well, you certainly killed yourself.  Here you are at this university only a year and now you are an outcast.”  (Sheen, Treasure in Clay, op. cit., 44.)

A few days later, Shahan called Sheen into his private quarters.  The rector put on his full ecclesiastical regalia, sat down, and ordered Sheen to kneel before him.

Expecting to be dismissed as threatened, Sheen obeyed.  Shahan then said, “Young man, this university has not received into its ranks in recent years anyone who is destined to shed more light and luster upon it than yourself.  God bless you.”  (Ibid.)

This is pure speculation, but a few additional facts suggest a possible explanation of these events.  One, Shahan had been one of the examiners who reviewed the excommunication of Father Edward McGlynn, Henry George’s Catholic champion — and Ryan acknowledged George as a strong influence.  This was both directly through reading George’s book Progress and Poverty, and indirectly by being guided in his ideas of economic freedom and economic reform by the spiritualist and anti-Bryan georgist populist Ignatius Donnelly.

Shahan came to Catholic U. in 1909 after Ryan had already made a name for himself with A Living Wage in 1906, but before Ryan joined the faculty in 1915 as a professor of Political Science.  Ryan’s advancement was rapid, and he published what he considered his magnum opus, Distributive Justice, in 1916 . . . the same year he became a professor of Moral Theology.  Three years later, the quality of the theology and philosophy taught at Catholic U. had degenerated to the point where the faculty and students like Sheen were aware that something was seriously wrong.

Henry George inspired Ryan
Significantly — and possibly at Shahan’s behest — in Distributive Justice Ryan ostensibly disavowed georgism by calling George’s analysis of legal title to land into question.  The problem, however, was that George considered legal title to land a legal fiction, an irrelevancy, and disregarded title in developing his theories.  As George explained,

“What I, therefore, propose, as the simple yet sovereign remedy, which will raise wages, increase the earnings of capital, extirpate pauperism, abolish poverty, give remunerative employment to whoever wishes it, afford free scope to human powers, lessen crime, elevate morals, and taste, and intelligence, purify government and carry civilization to yet nobler heights, is — to appropriate rent by taxation. [Emphasis in original.]

“In this way the State may become the universal landlord without calling herself so, and without assuming a single new function.  In form, the ownership of land would remain just as now.  No owner of land need be dispossessed, and no restriction need be placed upon the amount of land any one could hold.  For, rent being taken by the State in taxes, land, no matter in whose name it stood, or in what parcels it was held, would be really common property, and every member of the community would participate in the advantages of its ownership.” (George, Progress and Poverty, op. cit., 406.)

Any reasonably competent attorney or individual with a modicum of common sense would look at this passage and conclude that it makes legal title to land meaningless, and George’s analysis of title in the book a moot point.  “Property” means control and enjoyment of “the fruits of ownership” (usufruct), and the georgist single tax would take away all income (the fruits), regardless where legal title — the “form of ownership” — resides.

The advantage was that by attacking an unimportant element of George’s theories, Ryan could claim to be rejecting georgism.  Reading Ryan’s argument in Distributive Justice more carefully, however, we realize that Ryan not only retained the substance of georgism — the abolition of private property in land — he expanded the abolition of private property to all other forms of capital.  Further, Ryan changed the definition of distributive justice from its classical understanding, conforming it to the principles of socialism instead of to the natural law.  He then browbeat, denigrated, or dismissed anyone who suggested his program was socialist.

Shahan would have realized Ryan’s presumed recantation of georgism was meaningless, and steps had to be taken.  Then in 1925 Shahan very likely heard of the brilliant American who had startled Catholic Academia with his attainment of the Agrégé de l’Institut Supérieur de Philosophie à l’Université de Louvain at the very highest level.

Catholic University of America
It is difficult to imagine that Shahan would not have taken note of Sheen’s accomplishment.  It also could not have escaped his notice that this was the same Fulton Sheen who had left Catholic U. without taking a degree a few years before due to the substandard theology and philosophy being taught there.

Sheen would have appeared as the answer to Shahan’s prayers, but only if he were, at one and the same time, sufficiently humble to take orders and have enough backbone to stand up for what he believed to be right, regardless of the consequences.  Shahan would have asked Sheen’s bishop to assign him to Catholic U. after Sheen had demonstrated his obedience by taking a parish assignment for a year — and then would have watched him carefully and tested him further to see if he had the intellectual honesty and the strength of character to counteract Ryan’s influence and teachings.

Standing up to Shahan in a faculty meeting, especially on a relatively trivial matter, would have convinced the rector that Sheen retained his integrity and was the man to get the Catholic University of America back on track — a lesser man than Sheen would have surrendered his principles simply because the issue was trivial.  Unfortunately, a new rector replaced Shahan at the end of 1927, before Sheen had a chance to consolidate his position on the faculty — and Ryan immediately began forcing confrontations.

#30#

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