As we saw in the previous posting on this subject, Fulton J. Sheen left the Catholic University of America and transferred to the Louvain two years into a three year doctoral program due to the rapidly degenerating level of academic standards under the auspices of the noted Msgr. John A. Ryan. Not surprisingly for one of his temper, Msgr. Ryan appears to have taken Sheen’s move as an insult or a personal attack of some kind.Possibly not by coincidence, Sheen’s thesis flatly contradicted every one of Msgr. Ryan’s arguments in A Living Wage and Msgr. Ryan’s magnum opus, Distributive Justice. The fact that Sheen took his degree at the Louvain at a level only attained by forty people or so in the past six centuries only made Msgr. Ryan’s intellectual and other deficiencies that much more apparent.
From the first, Msgr. Ryan seems to have targeted Sheen for “special attention.” It was evident to other faculty that Sheen was made unwelcome in the School of Sacred Sciences. 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 for a transfer, but it was denied, by whom 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.) Subsequent events suggest it might have been Bishop Shahan, the Rector, who turned down the request for transfer, possibly because he wanted Sheen in Msgr. Ryan’s department to counter the threat of the Modernist Monsignor.
A few days after the meeting incident, 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, 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.)
It seems evident that Shahan, impressed with Sheen‘s qualifications and first-hand experience of the situation at Catholic University, saw in him a way to deal with the problem of Msgr. Ryan. Shahan first tested Sheen‘s obedience by requesting his assignment to parish work. After having Sheen reassigned to Catholic University, Shahan then tested his moral courage to see if the young priest would stand up for what he believed to be right, even in a seemingly trivial matter.
|Msgr. James Hugh Ryan|
At the end of 1927, however, before Sheen had a chance to consolidate his position on the faculty, Shahan retired. Monsignor (later Bishop) James Hugh Ryan (1886-1947) replaced Shahan in July 1928. Sheen was listed prominently among the “notables” present at the new rector’s induction, while John Ryan was not even mentioned. (“Notables to See Induction of Ryan,” The Washington Evening Star, October 14, 1928, 23.)
If there was an important group visiting the university, Sheen gave the speech. (“Clubs Observe Annual Tap Day,” The Washington Sunday Star, May 5, 1929, 21; “Women’s Council Vanguard is Here,” The Washington Evening Star, September 28, 1929, 12; “Catholic Women’s Duty to Diocese Council Stressed,” The Washington Evening Star, October 1, 1929.) His name was featured in articles about university events which Ryan seems to have ignored. (“Catholic U. Professors Hosts at Faculty Banquet,” The Washington Evening Star, December 8, 1929, 10.) Sheen presented reports (“Catholic Charities Outlines Program,” The Washington Evening Star, January 15, 1930, B-1), delivered papal benedictions (“Society News,” The Washington Evening Star, January 17, 1930, B-3), concelebrated “Solemn High Masses” on important occasions at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (“Catholic Celebration Marks Anniversary,” The Washington Evening Star, February 12, 1930, A-3), and discussed a national program of instruction in the Catholic faith with Francis Joseph “Frank” Sheed (“Plans Instruction of Catholic Laity,” The Washington Evening Star, February 19, 1930, A-3).later described as a period of great suffering, tantamount to a crucifixion. As he noted in the Preface to Life of Christ (1958), “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 J. Sheen, Life of Christ. New York: Image Books, 1977, 9.)
As we will see in the next posting on this subject, the real battle for the soul of Catholic social teaching was just beginning. . . .