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THE Global Justice Movement Website
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Tuesday, June 8, 2021

The Attack on Fulton Sheen

In the previous posting on this subject, we related how Fulton Sheen was called to the Catholic University of America to deal with the problem of socialism and moral relativism that had taken over the university.  The problem was that Bishop Shahan, who brought Sheen in to fix the problem, retired in 1927, and the situation quickly degenerated.


Once Sheen’s patron was out of the picture, John A. Ryan immediately began forcing confrontations.  Incidents were manufactured.  “[T]heologians 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.) A graduate student Sheen was advising was harassed to get at Sheen. (Riley, Fulton J. Sheen, op. cit., 14; Reeves, America’s Bishop. op. cit., 71.)

Ryan denied any involvement and claimed Sheen was delusional.  He asserted the charges “‘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.)

James H. Ryan


Matters came to a head when the new Rector, James H. Ryan, refused to approve the appointment of Ryan’s handpicked successor at the School of Sacred Sciences, Dr. Francis Joseph Haas, until Haas obtained a Doctor of Divinity.  John A. Ryan circulated a petition to remove the Rector, and demanded that every professor in the school sign it.  Sheen refused. (Fulton J. Sheen, Treasure in Clay: The Autobiography of Fulton J. Sheen.  Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1979, 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.)

James A. Ryan


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 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.)

Charles E. Coughlin

Nor did John A. Ryan’s efforts to neutralize Sheen end there.  He was probably the source of the rumor — completely false — that Sheen had delivered a secret report about James H. Ryan to Vatican Secretary of State Eugenio Maria Giuseppe Giovanni Cardinal Pacelli.  This was allegedly the eventual cause of Rector Ryan’s removal from office in 1935. (Sheen, Treasure in Clay, op. cit., 46-47.) Later, when John A. Ryan was allied with Father Charles Edward Coughlin, the “radio priest” (Dr. Harry Elmer Barnes, “Father Coughlin,” The Pittsburgh Press, December 24, 1933, 4; Donald Pond, “The Crusader of the Air: Boos for Al [Smith] Mark Father Coughlin’s Attack on ‘Happy Warrior’,” The Pittsburgh Press, January 9, 1934, 21.) there was an effort made to persuade Sheen to stop his own increasingly popular radio broadcasts that competed with those of Coughlin. (Sheen, Treasure in Clay, op. cit., 78.)


Charles Owen Rice

A few years after that, some of Ryan’s students formed the Catholic Radical Alliance of Pittsburgh, and attacked Sheen in print for allegedly being an enemy of organized labor. (“Rev. Rice Hits Msgr. Sheen’s Labor Views: Catholic Radical Alliance Spokesman Replies to Orator’s Charges” The Pittsburgh Press, March 2, 1938, 5.) On that occasion, Sheen was able to prove what he had really said, a matter of public record that completely refuted the accusation. (A radio address by Sheen delivered February 6, 1938.) It was about this time that Father Charles Owen Rice, chief spokesman of the Alliance, hinted that Sheen was a “traitor to Christ” for opposing socialism.

Rice “branded Catholic ‘friends of the present system,’ as ‘traitors to Christ’.” (Pamphlet, Catholic University of America Archives, CIO central office papers, 1937-1941, quoted in Neil Betten, “Charles Owen Rice,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Volume 94, 524.)  As he declared, “I am a radical, a Catholic radical. I believe that the present social and economic system is a mess and should be changed from top to bottom.” (Oral history interview with Rice, February 6, 1958, 1, Rice Papers, Pennsylvania State University Archives, quoted in Betten, “Charles Owen Rice,” ibid.).

Uncle Fultie and Uncle Miltie


Fortunately, Sheen’s media ministry allowed him to survive Ryan’s sabotage of his academic career.  He went on to become “America’s Bishop” and one of the most popular figures in the Golden Age of television.

That, however, meant that Sheen’s main focus on trying to counter socialism and moral relativism was severely diluted.  In common with his English counterpart, Chesterton, Sheen is not remembered for his efforts to deal with the new things, but for his cleverness, wit, and spiritual guidance.  These are important, of course, but they are not what either Sheen or Chesterton considered the most important aspect of their work.

This is reflected in Sheen’s books, which can be divided into three broad categories.  His purely academic works, God and Intelligence and Religion Without God, are directed specifically against the new things.  They zero in on the lack of sound reasoning to support modernism and socialism, although in the opinion of these writers they do not get to the real source of the problem in the early nineteenth century.  Rather, they give a brilliant analysis of the later phase of the modernist and socialist movement from the election of Leo XIII in 1878.

The second group of Sheen’s books presents his critique of applied modernism and socialism, particularly as seen in Nazism and communism.  In works such as Freedom Under God (1940), Philosophies at War (1943), and Communism and the Conscience of the West (1948), he detailed the conflict between what we can call a personalist culture as promoted by Catholic social teaching, and a modernist culture promoted by the world.  His final group of books, of course, concentrated on that personal spirituality for which he is best remembered.