Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The American Chesterton, XVII: Sheen v. Radical Catholicism


As we saw in the previous posting in this series, what was being taught in the theology department at the Catholic University of America in the 1920s under the auspices of Msgr. John A. Ryan was substandard.  While it cannot be proved, it fits the facts that Bishop Shahan, the rector of Catholic U., brought Fulton Sheen in to counter Ryan and improve the quality of the theology and philosophy taught there.

Fulton Sheen began radio broadcasting in 1928.
This would have been in part because Sheen’s intellectual achievements, but even more because Sheen had demonstrated that he would not surrender a principle even on seemingly unimportant matters.  Sheen knew that it was by giving in on things because they appear trivial that we train ourselves for greater treasons of self and of others.

Unfortunately, Shahan retired soon afterwards.  It also appears that Ryan was well able to look after his own interests, and was extremely effective in neutralizing Sheen.  As a result, to this day Ryan is revered at Catholic U., while Sheen is scarcely mentioned at all, and then often negatively.

The departure of Shahan and the appointment of a new rector, Monsignor (later Bishop) James Hugh Ryan (1886-1947), marked the beginning of what Sheen later described as a period of great suffering, tantamount to a crucifixion.  As he noted in the Preface to Life of Christ, “This book was written to find solace in the Cross of Christ, as for about ten years of my life I endured a great trial.”  (Fulton Sheen, Life of Christ.  New York: Image Books, 1977, 9.)  The year 1928 when the new rector came in, to 1939 when Famous Ryan retired — “about ten years” — fits the parameters Sheen gave.

Bishop James H. Ryan
In hindsight, it is obvious that Rector Ryan was not the man to deal with Famous Ryan, or run interference for Sheen.  Shortly after James Ryan’s appointment as rector, “the theologians were . . . charging Sheen with heresy in order to get him removed from the faculty.”  (Reeves, America’s Bishop, op. cit., 71.)  The theological faculty would scarcely have dared say such things without the concurrence, implied or explicit, or even at the instigation of Famous Ryan.

Incidents were soon manufactured.  There was a dispute involving a graduate student, Father Lambert Victor Brockmann, O.F.M. (1898-1973), whom Sheen was advising, and whose thesis had been rejected.  In a special meeting of the faculty of the School of Sacred Sciences on May 30, 1930 (Riley, Fulton J. Sheen, op. cit., 14), Brockmann alleged that the faculty had acted “out of jealousy against Fr. Sheen.” (Ibid. Cf. Reeves, America’s Bishop. op. cit., 71.)

Famous Ryan denied any involvement.  Instead, he asserted, “‘the charge of jealousy, etc. all emanated from Dr. Sheen’s very vivid imagination’ and ‘he made them quite generally known around the university and off campus’.” (Reeves, America’s Bishop. op. cit., 71.)  Famous Ryan was the only source of these accusations and the allegation that Sheen, contrary to his character and established practice, had aired grievances publicly and lied.

Charges of jealousy and other ad hominem attacks continued following the Brockmann affair.  Rector Ryan reported that, “one faculty member informed him that another had stated that ‘he would use every means, no matter how crooked it was, in order to have Dr. Sheen removed’.”  (Minutes of the Meetings of the Faculty of Theology, May 30, 1930, quoted in Riley, Fulton J. Sheen, op. cit., 15.)

Dr. Francis J. Haas, New Dealer.
Matters came to a head when Rector Ryan refused to approve the appointment of Famous Ryan’s handpicked successor at the School of Sacred Sciences, Dr. Francis Joseph Haas (1889-1953), later, along with Famous Ryan, a strong supporter of the New Deal, until Haas obtained a Doctor of Divinity (D.D.).  As part of the effort initiated by Bishop Shahan to raise academic standards in the graduate school, Rector Ryan had decided all professors in the school of theology must have a D.D. or the equivalent.

As Famous Ryan was probably the one most responsible for the drop in academic standards, he took Rector Ryan’s action as a slap in the face.  He circulated a petition against the rector that he intended to submit to the bishops of the United States, and demanded that every professor in the school sign it.

As was to be expected, Sheen refused.  As he said,

“I thought it was unfair to send to the bishops an accusation against the rector of the university when the rector of the university had never been given a hearing.  I suggested: ‘Before sending out the letter why not call in the rector, read to him the accusations you have made and give him a chance to respond.  If he cannot, then send the letter, but I will not sign the document without giving James H. Ryan the right to answer.’” (Sheen, Treasure in Clay, op. cit., 45.)

Sheen’s refusal to accuse Rector Ryan without first giving him a chance to respond or defend himself was all the excuse Famous Ryan needed.  As Sheen related,

“The next day there appeared on the bulletin board of the School of Theology a notice to the effect that all of the classes of Dr. Fulton J. Sheen had been suspended in the School of Theology.  James H. Ryan, the rector, knew the reason — namely, because I had defended him.  He then transferred me to the School of Philosophy.”  (Ibid., 45-46.)

On May 13, 1931, Famous Ryan testified before one of the committees investigating the problems in the School of Sacred Sciences.  He glossed over his role in the incidents and put the blame wholly on Sheen.  As reported by Kathleen L. Riley,

“Later, during the course of the investigations launched by the two special committees, other references to Sheen’s status and personality conflicts emerged.  In 1931, Fr. John A. Ryan told the committee that Dr. Sheen was transferred because he was unhappy; he seemed to feel that he was not fitted for the work in theology and was academically unprepared to teach the classes he was asked to teach.” (“Ryan to the Visiting Committee, May 13, 1931 — McNicholas Papers, ACHA,” cited by Riley, Fulton J. Sheen, op. cit., 15.)

Cardinal Pacelli (Pius XII): concerned about Nazis.
After this, someone spread a rumor concerning a meeting Sheen had in the summer of 1931 with Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pacelli (Eugenio Maria Giuseppe Giovanni Pacelli, 1876-1958), later Pope Pius XII.  During the meeting Sheen and the cardinal discussed the problems represented by Hitler and the Nazis.

The story began circulating that Sheen had in reality delivered a secret report about Rector Ryan.  This was allegedly the eventual cause of Rector Ryan’s removal from office in 1935.  (Sheen, Treasure in Clay, op. cit., 46-47.)  It seems more likely, however, that the failure to deal effectively with Famous Ryan, the probable source of the rumor, was the real reason Rector Ryan was transferred.

Sheen began his “Electronic Gospel” in 1928, the year after joining the faculty at Catholic U.  Within six years he had become one of the most popular religious broadcasters in the country.  Out of the blue one day in 1933 a fellow professor who was a good friend of Sheen’s advised him to drop all outside activities such as radio and lectures, and concentrate solely on teaching at the university.  Sheen responded,

“I asked him the same question that the Lord had asked the scribes and Pharisees: ‘Do you say this of yourself or has someone else told you?’  He said: ‘You are right; someone else told me to tell you.’  We both knew who it was.” (Ibid., 78.)

Ryan supported FDR's Keynesian New Deal
Famous Ryan was a fervent supporter of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  He became known as “Monsignor New Deal” and “the Right Reverend New Dealer” for his advocacy of FDR’s programs, although contrary to popular belief he was not the inspiration for them.  In 1937, however, he was the first Catholic priest to give the invocation at a U.S. presidential inauguration, a performance he repeated in 1945.

Famous Ryan’s strong personal relationship with FDR would explain the bizarre reception the president accorded Sheen in 1936.  Against his better judgment, Sheen met with Roosevelt to ask for a job for a friend of Sheen’s who had been very active in supporting the New Deal while a Congressman.  The man was a good friend, and needed Sheen’s help badly, so Sheen overcame his distaste for what people call politics.

Roosevelt behaved erratically during the encounter, ranting and shouting, and making false accusations against Sheen and other orthodox Catholic figures.  The president also contradicted himself more than once, but in the end promised Sheen’s friend a job.  As Sheen related,

FDR: "Tell him he has the job."
“I said: ‘Mr. President, I came to see you about a position in Housing.’  He said: ‘Oh, Eddie voted for everything I wanted in Congress. He wants to be in Housing, does he not?’  ‘Yes.’  So he wrote on a pad his name and said: ‘The moment you leave this office I will call Mrs. So-and-So (he mentioned the name of a woman who was in charge of Housing) and you call Eddie and tell him he has the job.’

“When I left the White House I called Eddie and said: ‘Eddie, I saw the President.  I am sorry, you do not get the job.’  He said: ‘Is that what the President said after all I did for him?’  I said: ‘No, he said you would have it.’  My friend never received the job.”  (Sheen, Treasure in Clay, op. cit., 82-84.)

In 1937, three priests of the Pittsburgh diocese, Father Charles Owen Rice (1908-2005), Father Carl Hensler (1898-1984), and Father George Barry O’Toole (1886-1944), formed the “Catholic Radical Alliance.”  All three were heavily influenced by Famous Ryan’s social doctrine, and employed his ad hominem tactics to good effect. (George A. Coleman, “Links Alliance With Fascist Forces,” The Pittsburgh Press, July 30, 1937, 19.)

Fr. Charles O. Rice attacked Fulton Sheen
Hensler was described as “the brilliant pupil of Msgr. John A. Ryan, prominent as ‘Father of minimum wage legislation in the United States’.”  (“‘Radical Alliance’ Priests Rub Elbows With Strike Pickets Along Labor Front” The Pittsburgh Press, October 22, 1937, 42.)  The express purpose of the Alliance was to shock conservatives (ibid.), among whom they evidently numbered Sheen:

The Catholic Radical Alliance today aimed a blow at the Monday night speech of Rt. Rev. Msgr. Fulton J. Sheen, Catholic radio orator, claiming that certain of his statements ‘could be interpreted as being unfair to organized labor.’

“‘Msgr. Sheen seemed to imply that labor is responsible in whole or in a considerable part for the violence that has attended labor disputes in this country,’ said Rev. Charles Owen Rice, spokesman for the Alliance.”  (“Rev. Rice Hits Msgr. Sheen’s Labor Views: Catholic Radical Alliance Spokesman Replies to Orator’s Charges” The Pittsburgh Press, March 2, 1938, 5.)

Rice’s statements were false.  On Sunday, January 30, 1938, in part of a series of radio talks on Quadragesimo Anno prior to the talk in Pittsburgh the Alliance attacked, Sheen gave an address in which he advocated the formation of “professional groups or guilds made up of employers and employees, working together for the common good.” (Fulton J. Sheen, reference in “Distribution,” an address delivered February 6, 1938.)  On Sunday, February 6, 1938, three weeks before he went to Pittsburgh, Sheen gave a talk advocating ownership- and profit-sharing, as well as increased wages for workers.  (Ibid.)

Day: Opposed armed resistance to Hitler, endorsed Castro's violence.
Interestingly, the Catholic Radical Alliance was associated with Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement until they parted ways over the issue of legitimacy of armed resistance to Hitler and National Socialism.  Ironically, Day later endorsed violence when used by Fidel Castro to establish communist socialism.  (Dorothy Day, “Letter to an Imprisoned Editor,” The Catholic Worker, January 1960, 2, 8.)

In his biography of Sheen, Thomas C. Reeves opined that Sheen avoided having anything to do with Day and the Catholic Worker movement because of Day’s pelagianism and advocacy of Fabian socialism. (Reeves, America’s Archbishop, op. cit., 90.)  It is certainly possible that Sheen would have been reluctant to associate with someone who denied Original Sin, the need for grace, and who confused socialism and social justice.

It would seem more likely, however, that Sheen would have been wary of Day and her organization because of the association with Famous Ryan and the Catholic Radical Alliance, as well as her exclusionary understanding of Catholic social teaching.  Sheen was never shy about confronting sloppy scholarship, sin, or socialism, and it is difficult to believe anything of the sort would have made him avoid Day or the Catholic Worker movement.

"Love for the poor must be preferential, but not exclusive."
Day’s advocacy of “single issue” religion that put “the poor” at the center to the utter exclusion of all — or anyone — else may have contributed to Sheen’s caution.  There were also the manifestations of what Msgr. Ronald Knox would have termed her “enthusiastic” behavior and beliefs.  Pope John Paul II may have had Day and the Catholic Worker movement in mind when he declared to the bishops of North and South America,

“[L]ove for the poor must be preferential, but not exclusive.  The Synod Fathers observed that it was in part because of an approach to the pastoral care of the poor marked by a certain exclusiveness that the pastoral care for the leading sectors of society has been neglected and many people have thus been estranged from the Church.”  (Ecclesia in America, § 67.)

It is evident that Famous Ryan and his friends and allies inflicted a great deal of suffering on Sheen, and for no substantive reason other than to advance or maintain their own interests at his expense.  It becomes easy to understand why the Catholic Church views calumny — knowingly or without proof spreading falsehoods that damage another’s reputation — as a type of murder.

#30#

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