The Bishop Who Can Unite the Clans

Bishop Fulton Sheen can be a figure around which all orthodox Catholics—whether "traditional" or "conservative"—can unite in combatting our current crisis.

In this age of confusion, both in the state and in the Church, not only is it difficult to tell up from down, but it is often hard to find rallying points where we can find common cause with people of good will.

In politics, we throw our lot in with the “conservatives,” only to find, for example, that some of the most influential figures in the movement are in gay “marriages” and promoting in vitro surrogacy.

In the Church, a traditionalist and a conservative Catholic might stand shoulder to shoulder praying a Rosary outside an abortion clinic. Then come the Luminous Mysteries or a conversation about Marcel Lefebvre…and before you know it, we are witnessing a prelude to a replay of Cain and Abel.

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The point is, there are real differences that are very hard to work out among faithful Catholics, and no matter how unimportant some may view certain differences, they are immensely important to those who hold the views.

I am in no way asserting that I have the solution, or that I even care to wade into the murky waters of intra-Catholic liturgical and dogmatic disagreements here. However, I do believe there is a loveable figure that “trads” and “conservatives” can unite around—namely, Bishop Fulton Sheen.

Of course, I am sure there is someone who will have an issue with something that Sheen said. But you cannot please everyone.

Why I believe that Fulton Sheen is a unifier for Catholics of goodwill is because he is both modern yet traditional; a man with the theological and philosophical acumen of a pre-Vatican II scholar but with the delivery and pedigree that pleases the New Evangelization crowd.

Since most of his life as a prelate took place before the rupture intensified in the ’60s and ’70s, it is difficult to accuse him of being a “post-conciliar” prelate filled with dubious theological leanings. On the other hand, since in a historical sense he is more like a contemporary American Catholic hero than a medieval saint, there is something palatable about his works and broadcasts for conservative Catholics who get a bit squeamish about an overemphasis of a time in the Church so beloved by the “Lefebvrists.”

The unique place that Fulton Sheen plays in the hearts of Catholics was made more evident to me during the lead-up to Easter this year. During Lent—especially during Holy Week—Catholics often look to literature that aids meditation on the Passion of Christ. In the English-speaking world, there may not be a prelate in recent history who spent so much time expounding on the importance of the Crucifixion. To be sure, all good Catholic theologians give ample attention to the Passion. However, Sheen appeared to have a particular devotion to it.

It is seen throughout his literature and seems to have pride of place. When he would compare the Western World to the Soviet World, he would often remark that the Communists wanted the Cross without Christ and the West wanted Christ without His Cross. That is to say, the Soviets wanted all the austerity and sacrifice without redemption or salvation, and the West wanted to be saved without having to sacrifice.

For Sheen, the Cross and Christ were indivisible in some sense, and the ills of the modern world could be attributed to a rejection of the Passion by the vestiges of Christendom. For this reason, he spent his entire public life as a prelate preaching the Seven Last Words of Christ. He wrote tens of thousands of words on the subject and recorded countless hours of audio explaining the significance of that Sermon from the Cross.

It might just be my own perception, but I believe I saw an uptick in the sharing of Sheen’s meditations of Christ’s final moments in Catholic circles—both traditionalist and non-traditionalist. On social media forums and YouTube, Sheen’s musings on those final words were shared by Catholics and Catholic content makers of all stripes.

Something about this time in recent history, with all that we have gone through over the past two years, seems to have encouraged Catholics to contemplate the Crucifixion with increased devotion. Devotion to the Crucifixion is at the heart of the life of virtually every saint.

Another thing that Sheen can offer to our Church today that can unify disputing Catholics of goodwill is his admission that the Church is in crisis and has been for some time. 

Today, when we think of Catholic voices crying out about the crisis in the Church, it is easy for those skeptical about “rad trads” to brush them off: “So and so is just a layman with a podcast,” “so and so is dubious about the election of Pope Francis,” or, “that bishop is just bitter he is no longer a big shot in Rome.”

There are some welcome non-traditionalist voices, like Ralph Martin, who will speak about the crisis. However, it is my opinion that, in works such as his, rose-colored glasses are required to avoid some of the uglier bits of John Paul II’s papacy, for example. Now, this should not be taken as a criticism of Martin, or any of the traditionalist voices that say things that Martin wouldn’t. 

What I am getting at is that the crisis is so deep and that so much has transpired in the past 50 years that it is near impossible to approach the subject without ticking someone off. At the same time, we see with the popularity of figures like Taylor Marshall and Ralph Martin on both sides of the orthodox Catholic divide that there is a desire to understand the root of the issue out of love for the Church.

Insert Fulton Sheen.

Near the end of his life, Sheen spoke openly about the end of Christendom and a Church going through a crisis of faith with shades of the anti-Christ looming about. He spoke about the “ape of the Church” or an “anti-Church” during a time of great tribulation.

The benefit of looking to Sheen’s words on the topic rather than a commentator from our time is that his words were prophetic rather than opinionated. Surely, he looked at the state of affairs and made statements about what might come, but his was more a spiritual approach than a contemporary historical or ecclesiological critique. 

For Sheen, society had to devolve, and the Church had to go through a sort of Passion in order that the world would not confuse the modern state with the Church. He believed that the ultimate solution would be a renaissance of faith amidst a crumbling Church and culture. He was right.

With all possible respect given to any laymen who opine on the subject today, we should be giving more credence to the words of a great bishop whose work has stood the test of time. 

In addition, Sheen’s commentary offers the benefit of being eminently poignant and insightful without falling into the trap of making debatable assertions about contemporary politicking both in and outside the Church.

I believe that all Catholics of goodwill can unify around the wisdom of Fulton Sheen. We can look to Sheen and take to heart his words, like he did for so many years as he looked to the Cross and took to heart Christ’s.

[Photo Credit: Sister Marlene Brownette via the Diocese of Peoria]


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