One of the many ways in which the late Fulton J. Sheen upset and irritated a great many people was to claim that only the Catholic Church could save America. When mentioned at all, this opinion (and it was opinion, not knowledge), is used to illustrate what a number of people have decided are Sheen’s unfortunate lapses into arrogance and vanity.
Of course, people who claim that Sheen was arrogant never seem to be able to give any definite examples of his alleged arrogance. Vanity, yes; Sheen himself is the source for virtually every claim that he was vain. Of course, it is very easy to assert that someone is arrogant — or a liar, a thief, or anything else — when you don’t have to prove your claim or retract it in the absence of proof.
In any event (as is usually the case with such sound bytes), few people bother to try and figure out what Sheen really meant. It’s much easier simply to hear what you want to hear. At this point in our analysis of G. K. Chesterton’s chances of being canonized any time soon, however, it should be obvious.
Sheen was an Aristotelian-Thomist. Judging from his first book, God and Intelligence in Modern Philosophy (1925), he, like Chesterton, knew very well what had happened to the world. The shift from the Intellect to the Will, that is, from reason to faith, and thus a change in the nature of what it means for something even to be a right, was a disaster. As he declared in the Baccalaureate sermon he gave at the University of Notre Dame in 1941, a legal system “which declares that the State is the source of all rights and liberties” is completely antithetical to what it means to be an American, even a human being. (Fulton J. Sheen, “The Baccalaureate Sermon,” Notre Dame Alumnus magazine, June 1941, 7-8.)
This was especially true in the United States, where the Constitution specifically acknowledged that the people granted rights to the State, not the other way around: “We, the People.” The people, not the State, established the Constitution. Basing matters on faith instead of reason changed all the rules of the game, even in some cases abolished altogether the whole concept of rules that reflected anything more than the will of the strongest.
This meant that if you could garner enough support for your position, browbeat or bully your opponents into submission, or otherwise neutralize or even destroy anyone who disagreed with you, you were “obviously” in the right. Might, not reason, makes right. If the statists or collectivists could get enough power, then they could impose their will on the non-statists or individualists, and vice versa. Conflicts over natural rights of life, liberty, and property would not be settled on the basis of the inherent rightness or lack thereof of the respective positions, but by which side could accrue sufficient power to force the other side to its will, which by that fact alone became “right”.
And here was the great danger to both philosophy and religion, as well as the whole of society. If the Will (faith) is supreme, only power matters, and the Intellect (reason) has no validity whatsoever. It is not by chance that the men who have had the greatest faith in themselves (e.g., Alexander, Napoleon, Hitler) and who managed to seize power have wrought the most damage in history. Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 film Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will), chronicling the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg, was aptly titled.
Unfortunately, as Ferree pointed out, Sheen was an “individualist,” at least in the sense that he did not recognize a particular act of social justice. This limited Sheen’s recommendations for social reform to individual acts directed at individual good that affect the common good indirectly, not organized social acts directed specifically at the common good.
Prayer (or, for the non-religious, honest self-examination), fasting (i.e., personal discipline), personal reformation, and individual virtue are (properly understood) essential, of course, but such things are not sufficient in and of themselves to restructure the whole of the social order. Nor is the coercive power of the State adequate — or proper — to the task of establishing and maintaining a just and virtuous society. People must be trained in right reason (Sheen and Chesterton were absolutely right in that), otherwise matters will fall by default to the State, which will consequently grow in power until it takes over every aspect of life, but it does take follow up in the form of acts of social justice.
Power, not inherent rightness or persuasion, is critical to the Triumph of the Will, as the example of Hitler demonstrates. Do not argue or persuade with logic. Insult, lie, sneer, mock, ridicule, and attack. Everything and anything can be justified by faith.
Nor does it matter whether you take the Will of God (as you understand it, of course), that of the State, or Der Volk, or the Zeitgeist, or anything else as your justification. The danger is in the Triumph of the Will itself, not in whose or what’s will. As Chesterton explained the wrath of Aquinas when confronted with people who refused to base their position on reason and insisted on basing matters on faith,
“At the top of his fury, Thomas Aquinas understands, what so many defenders of orthodoxy will not understand. It is no good to tell an atheist that he is an atheist; or to charge a denier of immortality with the infamy of denying it; or to imagine that one can force an opponent to admit he is wrong, by proving that he is wrong on somebody else’s principles, but not on his own. After the great example of St. Thomas, the principle stands, or ought always to have stood established; that we must either not argue with a man at all, or we must argue on his grounds and not ours. We may do other things instead of arguing, according to our views of what actions are morally permissible; but if we argue we must argue ‘on the reasons and statements of the philosophers themselves.’” (Chesterton, The “Dumb Ox,” op. cit., 95-96.)
Still, Chesterton hinted that perhaps Aquinas saw the writing on the wall; that despite his victory over the forces of unreason in one argument, they were not truly defeated. They would keep asserting and reasserting the Triumph of the Will at every opportunity, even infiltrating the Catholic Church itself. This is possibly what Paul VI meant when he said that “the smoke of Satan has entered the temple of God.” As Chesterton related,
“[Aquinas’s] friend Reginald asked him [after Aquinas resumed the routine of his religious duties] to return also to his equally regular habits of reading and writing, and following the controversies of the hour. He said with a singular emphasis, ‘I can write no more.’ There seems to have been a silence; after which Reginald again ventured to approach the subject; and Thomas answered him with even greater vigor, ‘I can write no more. I have seen things which make all my writings like straw.” (Ibid., 141.)
As both Chesterton and Sheen (whom an English newspaper once labeled in a cartoon depicting both men as “the American Chesterton”) saw it, however, alone of all the institutions on earth, the Catholic Church maintained the primacy of the Intellect, of reason, what we call common sense. Both men repeated this with emphasis on every possible occasion. As Chesterton opened the introduction he wrote to Sheen’s first book, “In this book, as in the modern world generally, the Catholic Church comes forward as the one and only real Champion of Reason.” (G. K. Chesterton, “Introduction,” God and Intelligence, op. cit., 9.)
With the rise of unreason, however, the Catholic Church became the prime target for all those intent upon the Triumph of the Will. It is not by accident that Adolf Hitler had a fanatical hatred for the institution, or that Stalin attacked the Church at every opportunity. The Catholic Church was the only organized institution that stood in the way of the total victory of unreason, the Triumph of the Will.
For the State to reign supreme and the Totalitarian Age to commence in earnest, then, the reason-based position of the Catholic Church would have to change — and a man soon appeared with the ability and the will to do just that.
That man was Monsignor John A. Ryan. How this came about is somewhat convoluted, but well worth investigating to find out how Catholic social teaching was disconnected from its foundation in the natural law.