THE Global Justice Movement Website

THE Global Justice Movement Website
This is the "Global Justice Movement" (dot org) we refer to in the title of this blog.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

The War Against Fulton Sheen

As we saw in the previous posting on this subject, there were two important stages in the development of social justice as understood in Aristotelian-Thomist philosophy.  The first was in the 1830s when, in response to the “new things” of socialism, modernism, and esotericism, Msgr. Aloysius Taparelli developed a principle of social justice.

Later, in the 1920s, the second stage in the development of social justice was Pope Pius XI’s discernment of social justice as a particular virtue, not merely a principle.  This meant that the common good could be accessed directly by people as members of organized groups.

Just as there were two important stages in the development of social justice as understood in Aristotelian-Thomism, there were two important developments in the understanding of social justice.  Somewhat ironically, Msgr. John A. Ryan epitomized the first and most damaging misunderstanding, while Fulton J. Sheen epitomized the second, and understandable misunderstanding.  Specifically, Msgr. Ryan believed that social justice is the same as socialism, while Sheen believed social justice to be a principle guiding individual virtues, not itself a particular virtue with its own defined act.

Msgr. John A. Ryan

We covered Msgr. Ryan’s incorrect understanding of social justice in a previous posting.  That leaves us with that of Fulton Sheen, which at least was partially correct.

Fulton Sheen had a number of audiences with Pius XI, who seems to have taken a personal interest in Sheen’s career.  During the first of these audiences in 1922, the newly elected pontiff “asked Sheen about his university studies, wondering at one point if Fulton had read Taparelli.” (Reeves, America’s Bishop, op. cit., 50.)

Embarrassed, Sheen admitted he had not, whereupon Pius XI made him promise to purchase Taparelli’s works in Latin and read every word.  Sheen faithfully carried out the assignment, acquiring insights that stood him in good stead for his doctoral thesis, God and Intelligence in Modern Philosophy and his subsequent refutations of socialism, modernism, and New Age thought. (Ibid.)

The “problem” — if you want to call it that — was that Sheen imbibed Msgr. Taparelli’s principle of social justice, not Pius XI’s act of social justice.  Not that it made much difference to Msgr. Ryan in his campaign to remove all opposition to his doctrines at the Catholic University of America.

Once he had secured his position at Catholic U. by putting the rector in his place and sabotaging the academic career of “the American Chesterton,” Fulton Sheen, Msgr. John A. Ryan began extending and enhancing his reputation as the premier authority on social justice in the United States.  Nor was this a particularly difficult task, given his political acumen and the methods he employed; it was, in fact, in the reinterpretation of papal teaching that Msgr. Ryan had his greatest influence.

Bishop Shahan

As with so many others, Quadragesimo Anno gave Msgr. Ryan the opportunity to claim papal endorsement of the New Christian understanding of Catholic social thought.  In his autobiography, Msgr. Ryan recorded his reaction to the encyclical.  As he related,

On May 15, 1931, in the office of the New York Times, I listened to the transmission by radio from the Vatican of the words of the encyclical issued that day by Pope Pius XI.  Long before the process was completed, I realized that this was an exceptionally great Papal message on the social question — powerful, comprehensive, traditionally Catholic, and, in the true sense of the word, radical.  I also derived great comfort from the implicit approval which the Holy Father’s pronouncement gave to the socio-ethical doctrines which I had been defending for almost forty years.  Referring to the new encyclical a few days later, Bishop Shahan, the rector of the Catholic University, observed: “Well, this is a great vindication for John Ryan.” (Ryan, Social Doctrine in Action, op. cit., 242.)

Bishop Shahan’s comment that the encyclical justified Msgr. Ryan’s theories has been repeated to the point where it is now accepted without question by many authorities as the final word on the orthodoxy of Msgr. Ryan’s thought.  The problem is that Msgr. Ryan is the only source for Shahan’s alleged statement.

It is, in fact, highly unlikely that Shahan said any such thing.  On May 13, 1931, a few days before the release of the encyclical, Msgr. Ryan testified before a special Visiting Committee at Catholic University, one of two committees appointed to investigate certain irregularities in the school of theology for which Msgr. Ryan was believed responsible.

During the hearing Msgr. Ryan made damaging — and demonstrably false — statements about Sheen, who was (in a sense) Shahan’s protégé.  Further, Msgr. Ryan was the cause of Sheen’s transfer out of the School of Sacred Sciences, now the School of Theology and Religious Studies.

The Visiting Committee was, in part, charged with looking into John A. Ryan’s efforts to remove James H. Ryan as rector.  It would therefore not only have been imprudent and irregular, but grossly improper for Shahan as past rector to comment on anything connected with John A. Ryan, unless called to testify.  It is inconceivable that Shahan would actually have made any statement in support of John A. Ryan, undercutting the current rector’s position and authority.

Nor was that the end of the matter, as we will see in the next posting on this subject.