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Tuesday, June 2, 2020

“A Time of Great Trial”

As we saw in the previous posting on this subject, the rise of Fulton Sheen at the Catholic University of America in the 1920s could only be called meteoric.  Not surprisingly, the advent of someone so obviously intellectually gifted not only shook up the faculty, it seems to have been taken as an actual threat, especially by those of a less orthodox and more modernist bent, such as Msgr. John A. Ryan.

Fr. Edward McGlynn

The simple fact was that Msgr. Ryan was an extremely jealous individual and inordinately proud of his innovations that resulted in massive changes in the popular understanding of Catholic teaching.  That his innovations were based on the “new things” of socialism, modernism, and the New Age — as he tacitly admitted by acknowledging Fr. Edward McGlynn and Ignatius Loyola Donnelly as his guides and mentors — did not appear to affect his popularity adversely in any way.

Msgr. Ryan was, in fact, able to use the suspicions of his superiors to great personal advantage.  For example, although he was the one persecuting people like Sheen, he himself claimed to be persecuted!  Still, despite reorienting moral philosophy along modernist lines and his “daily excursions close to excommunication,” Ryan avoided censure due to his skill at equivocation and political maneuvering. (Eric F.  Goldman, Rendezvous with Destiny: A History of Modern American Reform.  New York: Vintage Books, 1956, 86.)

Although Msgr. Ryan’s expressed fears of excommunication were grandstanding for effect, the need to prevaricate was real.  This is because he reinterpreted Rerum Novarum to justify a vast expansion of State power explicitly repudiated in the document itself (Rerum Novarum, § 7).  As historian Eric Frederick Goldman (1916-1989) related,

Ryan proceeded to apply the Rerum Novarum in a way scarcely distinguishable from the Reform Darwinists* of Protestants and Jews. . . . After Ryan had been hurling the Rerum Novarum at his enemies for years, a reform-minded rabbi achieved a masterpiece of superfluity by saying to the priest: “You have a very great advantage over men in my position. . . . You can hang your ‘radical’ utterances on a papal encyclical.”

“Yes,” I suppose there is something to that,” said Father Ryan, smiling. (Goldman, Rendezvous with Destiny, op. cit., 86.)

* Cf. Pascendi Dominici Gregis, § 13.  Social Darwinism was influenced by the utopian and religious socialists and their emphasis on the need for social regeneration by improving or changing human nature by spiritual enlightenment, selective breeding, or some combination thereof.  (Adam Morris, American Messiahs: False Prophets of a Damned Nation.  New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2019, 83, 121, 152, 163-165, 186, 203.)

Msgr. John A. Ryan

The problem from Msgr. Ryan’s point of view, of course, was that Sheen was well able to see through his screen of prevarication and philosophical doubletalk, as Sheen’s book, God and Intelligence, demonstrated.  Even a cursory examination of Msgr. Ryan’s work reveals his heavy reliance on the “new things” condemned repeatedly by the Catholic Church.  As we saw in a previous posting, in theology and philosophy, Msgr. Ryan was a modernist, a socialist, and a New Ager.  He knew Sheen’s work in God and Intelligence completely devastated his argument about the living wage and his attacks on the natural right of private property.

It was, therefore, soon after Sheen’s patron, Bishop Shahan, retired that Msgr. Ryan began forcing confrontations.  He could not but have been aware that Sheen’s doctoral thesis at the Louvain utterly destroyed the basis of his, Msgr. Ryan’s, own theories.  Evidence and his own account in Treasure in Clay suggest that Sheen’s thesis, possibly inspired by Pius XI, may even have been prompted in part by the weaknesses Sheen saw first-hand in the program at the Catholic University under Ryan’s auspices. (Sheen, Treasure in Clay, op. cit., 23.)

In any event, faculty under Msgr. Ryan’s thumb went to work, and soon, “the theologians were . . . charging Sheen with heresy in order to get him removed from the faculty.” (Thomas C. Reeves, America’s Bishop: The Life and Times of Fulton J. Sheen. San Francisco, California: Encounter Books, 2001, 71.) Incidents were 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.)

Fulton J. Sheen

     Msgr. Ryan, of course, denied any involvement.  In sworn testimony before the commission sent to investigate the situation he had created 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.) In other words, Msgr. Ryan called Fulton Sheen a liar.

Other ad hominem attacks continued following the Brockmann affair.  Rector James H. 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.)

Finally, Rector James H. Ryan refused to approve the appointment of Ryan‘s handpicked successor at the School of Sacred Sciences, Dr. Francis Joseph Haas (1889-1953), until Haas obtained a Doctor of Divinity (D.D.).  Haas was later, along with Ryan, a strong supporter of the New Deal.  As part of the effort initiated by 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.

Ryan immediately 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.  Sheen refused. (Sheen, Treasure in Clay, op. cit., 45.) As he 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, 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 again put the blame wholly on Sheen.  As reported by Kathleen L. Riley in her biography of Sheen,

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.)

Eugenio Pacelli (Pius XII)

After this, someone spread a rumor concerning a meeting Sheen had in the summer of 1931 with Vatican Secretary of State, Eugenio Maria Giuseppe Giovanni Cardinal Pacelli (1876-1958), later 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 James H. Ryan.  This was allegedly the eventual cause of Rector James H. 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 the problem of Msgr. John A. Ryan, the probable source of the rumor, was the real reason Rector James H. Ryan was transferred.

Nor did the matter end there.  Sheen had begun his “Electronic Gospel” in 1928, the year after joining the faculty at Catholic University of America.  Within six years he had become one of the most popular religious broadcasters in the country.

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.)

Nor did the matter end there, as we shall see in the next posting on this subject.