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The Preaching of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen: The Gospel Meets the Cold War
The Preaching of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen: The Gospel Meets the Cold War
Timothy H. Sherwood
Lexington Books, 2010
168 pp., 120.00

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Kirk Farney

A Sheen on the Pulpit

Fulton J. Sheen, preacher par excellence.

Mention of the late Archbishop Fulton Sheen triggers a variety of images in the minds of those who remember his unmistakable presence on the American Christian scene. They may be recollections of his smooth voice coming through walnut radio cabinets on the Catholic Hour. They may be of the Emmy-winning television star whose screen presence and ratings on Life is Worth Living were envied by the likes of Milton Berle and Jackie Gleason. They may be of the amiable, Americanized face Sheen put on a Catholicism previously held at arm's length by the country's Protestant establishment. They may be of magazine photos showing Sheen moving comfortably amongst his celebrity pals and converts like Loretta Young and Clare Booth Luce. And, they may be of a purple-caped cleric who displayed an uncommon blend of erudition and warmth, with just a hint of vanity.

The priest from Peoria indeed attended to a "parish" whose boundaries were broader than most. Yet, the memory of Sheen's celebrity and media savvy frequently overshadows another area in which he achieved no mean prowess—that of preacher. In The Preaching of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, euphemistically acknowledging a "general lack of recognition for Catholic preaching," priest and scholar Timothy H. Sherwood endeavors to heighten appreciation for this aspect of Sheen's ministry.

Sherwood does not deny that Sheen's oratorical skills were broadly recognized during and after his lifetime, and have received considerable scholarly attention. However, most studies rely heavily on his 1950s TV programs, which Sherwood claims were "never designed or intended to be a preaching ministry." Sheen crafted messages with more generic Christian content for television audiences than he did for parish pulpits. Thus, in a study that is "not biographical, but rhetorical," Sherwood primarily focuses on Sheen's Good Friday homilies delivered over a span of five decades (1930 to 1979), often at New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral. These sermons typically expounded upon "the suffering Christ," identified by Sherwood as "the most common and consistent theme that Sheen preached throughout his lifetime." As a practical matter, in that Sheen "never preached from a manuscript," his Good Friday sermons represent some of the few primary sources of his preaching available, as they were recorded for broader distribution.

In his sometimes meandering study, Sherwood analyzes Sheen's preaching style and sermon content. A central theme is how Sheen's ardent anti-Communism helped build, as well as fed off of, the American Cold War consensus. Sheen first connected this consensus to "the spiritual struggle between good and evil, virtue and sin, and life and death," and then provided his congregation a "rationale for living in the age of anxiety." Indeed, Sherwood concludes that "Sheen's popularity and persuasiveness seemed to parallel with the rise and fall of the Cold War era." Ultimately, he would have us understand that as Cold War angst waned, "Sheen lost touch with the pulse of the audience's evolving persona … [and] his Good Friday rhetorical vision had lost the level of audience enthusiasm it once enjoyed."

This insistent framing of Sheen's ministry via the Cold War fails to give him his due as a preacher and teacher who placed Christian truth-claims in conversation with a broad range of ideas and issues; it also overlooks his remarkable ability to apply faith perspectives to everyday life. What is more, Sherwood's conclusion seems to be out of step with his own evidence, which demonstrates how the "Spirit of Christ was clearly for [Sheen] the single most important component to every preacher." True, Sheen directed no small amount of ire at Communism, but such was due to the perceived hostility Communism posed to the message of Christ for all of mankind.

One welcome aspect of Sherwood's book is its reminder of just how substantive Fulton Sheen's messages were—over the airwaves and from the pulpit. While Sheen tailored his messages to appeal to broad audiences, he could never be accused of preaching to the "itching of ears." His conviction that Christian truths offered the only hope to a perilous world and its sinful inhabitants generated a sense of urgency which was manifest in his words and the style with which he delivered them. While Sherwood may be correct in asserting that Sheen contributed to an American civil religion, his preaching went well beyond some bland religiosity. In fact, Sheen had little patience for the inclination of many of his fellow Americans to waffle on distinctly Christian beliefs.

When Time magazine placed Sheen on their April 14, 1952, cover, they quoted the opinionated bishop:

America, it is said, is suffering from intolerance. It is not. It is suffering from tolerance: tolerance of right and wrong, truth and error, virtue and evil, Christ and chaos …. The man who can make up his mind in an orderly way, as a man might make up his bed, is called a bigot; but a man who cannot make up his mind, any more than he can make up for lost time, is called tolerant and broad minded.[1]

To the extent that he did indeed employ the "suffering Christ" as his favorite sermon theme, as Sherwood asserts, it was because he so firmly believed that this Christ suffered for very distinct and critical reasons—reasons about which one needed to "make up his [or her] mind." Real sins—both societal and individual—required a real answer, and Sheen was sure he had it. The "bottom line" of his message, he believed, "must be Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior of the world through his Passion, Death and Resurrection and the sending of the Spirit." Thus, Sheen meticulously crafted his addresses with a "unity of thought" designed to penetrate the minds of his listeners with his salvific convictions. Interestingly, Sherwood points out that despite Sheen's affinity for emotional appeals, he fretted that too many people evaluated religious ideas on a scale of feelings. "The world gravely needs … norms outside the self …. We have become preoccupied with feelings. Never before was truth left so much to the vacillation of an ulcer!" In response, the Thomist Sheen laid "a strong foundation of sound logic for his assertions," and balanced emotion with "a sense of reason." In short, he expected his listeners to objectively apprehend the objective declarations of Christ.

Sherwood demonstrates Sheen's proclivity for drawing parallels between characters and events in the Bible with those of his own day. Pharisees were coupled with modern Fundamentalists, while Sadducees were aligned with Modernists. Sheen spotted "modern Pilates" exercising tyrannical power in "Mexico, Germany, Russia, and Red Spain" as World War II loomed on the horizon. And he explained that "the sickle mowed down the weeds on Calvary's hill, and the hammer drove the nails." While many such rhetorical linkages placed dictatorial political leaders in league with Satan, and although Sheen possessed a genuine concern for political liberties, his primary goal was to demonstrate that "sin and evil do not change." Thus, "place and time were irrelevant for Sheen … and the message of the Gospel is timeless."

Notwithstanding his Cold War emphasis, Sherwood does admit that "saving souls was the singular purpose of Sheen's preaching." That said, Sheen did indeed believe that blessings would accrue to the nation, if "the three gods that are worshipped by our modern culture … [,] Bacchus, Venus, and Mammon," were to be abandoned for the one true God. Sounding much like prominent Protestant preachers of his day, Sheen used a wheel-and-spokes analogy: "As we [the spokes] draw closer to our God, the hub of the center of everything, we draw closer together. That's what I'm trying to do: draw Americans closer together." Such desires notwithstanding, Sheen's doctrinal precepts forced him to articulate something more substantive than civil religion. Rather, he preached Christ crucified for the salvation of souls, hoping for a secondary civil harvest from the engagement of such souls in society.

In 1956, Bishop Fulton Sheen appeared as a guest on the TV show What's My Line? Timothy Sherwood's book makes clear that the correct answer to that question was "Preacher." For that, Sherwood is to be commended.

Kirk Farney, a former international banking executive, is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Notre Dame, where he is studying American Religious History.

1. See "Microphone Missionary," Time, Vol. LIX, No. 15 (April 14, 1952), p. 73. This quote was originally from Sheen's 1931 book, Old Errors and New Labels (The Century Co.).

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