America’s Bishop, the first full biography of Fulton Sheen, holds a candle to its subject. The prose does not burn the page: Trying to outshine a shooting star is doomed to failure. For all his solid scholarship, however, Thomas C. Reeves gives us fast and focused narrative. Although loaded with detail (some from private sources in Sheen’s extended family), the book maintains dramatic pace in covering major issues in this life of faith (and works). Because of political differences, some parts of this book might not please everyone, as they did not entirely please me; but no one can say it is notstarting with its brief but comprehensive introductionthoroughly well written.
Perhaps because I was born in 1949and therefore had the pleasure of reliving parts of my life through this storyI zipped right through, especially the parts about the 1950’s. No Tuesday night was complete without Fulton Sheen, who clobbered Milton Berle in the ratings (of Sheen’s sponsorship by Texaco, Berle quipped: He had Sky Chief on his side). Whether or not (as Sheen joked) angels cleaned the blackboard that served as his main studio prop, the Force was with him. Mid-decade, a young actor, Ramon Estevez, yearned to catch that lightning and renamed himself Martin Sheen.
Reeves, a history professor at University of Wisconsin at Parkside who has written biographies of John Kennedy and Joe McCarthy, is fair-minded in his assessments of his subject, other churchmen, statesmen and others. He likes Sheen; but he does not varnish over his faults. He is excellent in reporting Sheen’s struggles with his ego, and, at times, with egoism, a human failure and therefore at times, as we know, a priestly and pastoral one. In this instance, it could be no secret to any audience that Fulton Sheen enjoyed the sound of his own rhetoricoh, how he would delight in clinching a point, when his eyes would breathe fire and he would reclench his arms over his chest with such sublime (or smug?) triumph! (Among Catholics, only William Buckley rivals Sheen, with the one-two punch of a spreading smile and arched eyebrow.)
But the real issue is whether self-delight and fame was for Sheen a means or an end. Reeves records how Sheen tried to keep his ambition in checkand his love of luxurynot always successfully. He was born a farmer’s son from the plains of Illinois in 1895; in 1923 he found himself with a celebrated postdoctoral degree from Louvain; when he died in 1979, he had written 60 books, many bestsellers. He had reason for pride, and life gave him occasions for temper. Nevertheless, one comes away from this book thinking Sheen handled these better than some apparently self-effacing prelates.
Sheen was as close as we will ever get to Cicero, Demosthenes or Newmansilver tongued, as Joyce said, on air if not in print. If one regards oratory as an art, Sheen was one of the best American Catholic artists ever. Like many artists, he got under some folks’ skin, including (eventually) that of his one-time mentor, Cardinal Francis Spellman.
In this conflict, Sheen was protected by several popes (with whom, Reeves shows, he was on friendly terms). They valued him as the heavyweight champion fundraiser of the church (I have a letter from him still, written for a peanut size contribution to the Society for the Propagation of the Faith). In 1966, however, Spellman prevailed to have Sheen exiled to his first and only diocese, Rochester, N.Y. As bishop there, as Reeves details, he turned out to be a disaster. In his passion for social justicestimulated post-Vatican II by Mater et Magistra, Reeves showsSheen wanted to donate to the poor some buildings belonging to an inner city parish in decline. Unfortunately, he failed to consult the remaining parishioners or clergy. As Reeves shows by delving into newly available diocesan records, Sheen was a better visionary than practical leader or administrator. The book’s title suggests Sheen’s most successful diocese. One notes, however, the Fulton Sheen Ecumenical Housing Foundation survives to this day.
One other aspect of the break with Spellman was Sheen’s celebrated 1967 dissent on Vietnamall the more stunning because of his previous anti-Communist preaching. Sheen never renounced anti-Communism; under the influence of Pacem in Terris, he just saw Vietnam in a different context. Moreover, as Reeves details, he had always been critical of the excesses of capitalism and was firmly rooted in the social tradition of Rerum Novarum, published two years before his birth. As Reeves notes, Sheen attacked the Klan at its height in the 1920’s; he passionately denounced anti-Semitism.
Reeves acknowledges that Sheen’s anti-Communism contributes to his lack of appeal for many modern intellectuals. But the files opened in eastern Europe after 1990 (especially the Venoma archive) place it in a new context. As Reeves says, one regrets that Sheen befriended J. Edgar Hoover and supported Joe McCarthy. Many so-called Communists had only been idealistic (or in the right’s damning terms, premature) anti-fascists. Many suffered terribly; rights were travestied, careers wrecked. Church figures like Sheen fired up witch-hunts. On the other hand, as the new archival materials show, Soviet agents were afoot, part of a vast left-wing conspiracy directed by someone whose only virtue (only from 1941 to 1945) was that he wasn’t Hitler. Between Uncle Joe and Tail-Gunner Joe, a middle way was hard to find, although, to be fair, some of our leaders managed it over time. Sheen was wrong on McCarthy; but he was right on Stalinwho, he once said, one must remember also has a soul.
Sheen was also militant about the defects of mainstream Protestantism. Some of his jibes make for uncomfortable reading. However, while reading, I could not shake the thought there was more than one grain of truth in his worry that some Protestant churches have become too modernist and relativist. Sheen was too certain of truth; but does seeing through a glass darkly mean we are blind?
For those old enough, Reeves recreates pre-Vatican II Catholicism in detailing Sheen’s devotion to novenas, the rosary, Fatima prophecies and so forth. But above all, Reeves brings alive Sheen’s neo-Thomism and his faith that faith and reason do not necessarily conflict and that reason, helpless with first or final causes (the problem of genesis, honest physicists call it), still has its uses. One longs for another Sheen today, articulate and visionary, who would rudely ask the new deity before whom all bow, postmodernism, this key question: how can you question everything but questioning?
Full of Grace is a tribute to Cardinal John O’Connor, and has therefore little analytical content to explore. It is a set of testimonials from many admirers and makes clear that O’Connor was an impressive and industrious man, especially through good works. He labored hard to get Catholic hospitals to assist AIDS patients as much as possible. He was also often down-to-earth about his charitable efforts, as, for example, when he helped a disabled New York policeman and his family in the most informal and friendliest of ways.
In an introduction and throughout the interviews that he conducted, Terry Golwaywho is city editor for the New York Observer and a columnist for Americais rightly at pains to stress O’Connor’s commitment to social justice. This is important, because, as obvious as it is to many Catholics, the general media (stuck in a rut as old as Voltaire) still portray many clerics, especially those who can be labeled conservative on some lifestyle issues, as conservative in the political (and economic) sense on all issues. As Golway shows, this is hardly true of O’Connor. He is right to take on this caricature here; one only wishes someone would deconstruct it with a more lengthy study.
Among the admirers whose recollections are recorded here is Nat Hentoff, a Jewish-born but quite secular civil libertarian who tries to be consistent on rights issues. Hentoff became an ally of O’Connor’s because Hentoff believes, if one respects rights, one ought to consider those of the unborn, absent proof they are not human. The Hentoff-O’Connor alliance is only one of the many detailed in this book.
Golway has done a good job in assembling all this interview material, which includes comments from the powerful and famous to the salt of the earth. He also had wonderful access. Former New York City mayor Ed Koch has provided some friendly letters to and from the cardinal (including one in which Hizzoner tells a sick O’Connor he needs to take some time off and go to Guys and Dolls. O’Connor’s nephew and sister are also heard from, as well as numerous New York rabbis who befriended the cardinal and appreciated his firm and outspoken antagonism to anti-Semitism.
Although not the last or only word on O’Connor, Full of Grace provides proof of the solid achievements and virtue of New York’s most recent shepherd.