Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen: Catholic Media’s Greatest Star

As 1999 ended, there was speculation about who had been the greatest, most popular, most significant, or most influential Catholic of the preceding 100 years. When it came to the world, Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa scored high on virtually every list. In the United States, names such as Francis Cardinal Spellman, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Al Smith, and John F. Kennedy received considerable attention. Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen received little notice.

It is my contention that Sheen was the most influential Catholic of 20th-century America. Indeed, it could be argued that his impact was far superior to others receiving more attention in polls and in the media.

In the first place, he was the most popular public speaker in the Church, and arguably the best. Millions listened to his Catholic Hour radio programs from 1928 to 1952. Millions also received printed copies of these talks. In 1949, Gladys Baker, a noted journalist, observed that Sheen was “the name priest in America.” She added, “By members of all faiths, Monsignor Sheen is conceded to be the most electric orator of our times.”

When Sheen went on television in February 1952, his Life Is Worth Living programs became extremely popular, competing effectively against shows starring “Mr. Television,” Milton Berle, and singer-actor Frank Sinatra. A television critic exclaimed, “Bishop Sheen can’t sing, can’t dance, and can’t act. All he is…is sensational.” In his first year on television, Sheen won the Emmy for Most Outstanding Television Personality, winning over media giants Lucille Ball, Arthur Godfrey, Edward R. Murrow, and Jimmy Durante. After winning, he was featured on the covers of Time, TV Guide, Colliers, and Look. The journalist James Conniff stated, “No Catholic bishop has burst on the world with such power as Sheen wields since long before the Protestant Reformation.” By early 1955, his programs were reaching 5.5 million households a week.

No record can be made of the thousands of sermons, speeches, and retreats Sheen gave over the decades, often to large audiences. When he was scheduled to preach at St. Patrick’s cathedral in New York City, 6,000 people regularly packed the church. On Easter Sunday 1941, 7,500 worshippers were jammed into the cathedral, and 800 waited outside, hoping to get in. On Good Friday, his sermons were broadcast outdoors to the thousands standing outside St. Patrick’s. “For three hours,” the New York Times reported, “the heart of Manhattan’s most congested midtown area became a miniature St. Peter’s Square. The phenomenon is repeated for the evening service.” Many of his television shows, sermons, and speeches are still available on video and audiotape.

An intellectual, theologian, and philosopher of the first rank, Sheen was one of the Church in America’s most prolific writers. Over a period of 54 years, he was the author of 64 books. In addition, he published 65 booklets, pamphlets, and printed radio and television talks. He wrote countless magazine and newspaper articles. In the early 1950s, he was writing two regular newspaper columns, God Love You and Bishop Sheen Writes (which was syndicated in the secular press and ran for 30 years). He edited two magazines, one, Mission, for 16 years.

Sheen’s expertise included a wide variety of topics, from Aristotle, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas to Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and John Dewey. His academic credentials were excellent; he was the first American to be awarded a rare postdoctorate degree from the prestigious University of Louvain. His linguistic achievements were admirable. His writing ability was also exceptional, his style being as lucid and yet consistently less pedantic than that of the great Anglican apologist, C.S. Lewis. More than a dozen of his books remain in print. Fifteen anthologies of his writings have appeared, four in the 1990s.

Servant of the People

The archbishop was one of the Church’s great missionaries. In 1979, the Jesuit magazine America called him “the greatest evangelizer in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States. He lavished personal attention on both rich and poor.” A reporter observed in 1952: “The bishop’s official date book, listing names of those he plans to see (‘I will see anybody with a spiritual problem’), regularly bulges with eight hundred to a thousand entries.” Thousands attended his convert classes. No one, of course, could count the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, who came into the Church, wholly or in part, as a result of Sheen’s publications and media and personal appearances.

Sheen also had a passion about helping the world’s poor. As national director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith from 1950 to 1966, he raised more money for the poor than any other American Catholic, an effort that was augmented by the donation of more than $10 million of his personal earnings. Not long before his death, he declared “My greatest love has always been the missions of the Church.”

He was decades ahead of others in his opposition to racism, raising funds and donating very large sums of personal income to help build a hospital and churches for blacks in Alabama. In the late 1920s, while Klansmen were riding through the streets of hundreds of American cities, Sheen was giving speeches stressing racial equality and brotherhood. In 1944, at a time when America’s armed forces were segregated, Sheen wrote of Christ’s “explicit command to love all men, regardless of race or class or color.” He strongly opposed anti-Semitism. “For a Catholic to be anti-Semitic,” he wrote during World War II, “is to be un-Catholic.” He had a special place in his heart for people disfigured by leprosy and disease.

Frequently outspoken, Sheen stirred controversy with strong statements on such topics as communism, socialism, the Spanish Civil War, World War II diplomacy, psychiatry, secularism, education, and the left in general. He often attacked liberal Protestantism: “Satan’s last assault was an effort to make religion worldly.” And yet Sheen defied efforts to place him on the political left or right. He was equally critical of monopolistic capitalists, irresponsible labor union leaders, and idealistic advocates of the welfare state. He eschewed all forms of earthly utopianism. Still, he often supported reform, eager to help create a world rid of inequality, insensitivity, hatred, crime, and corruption. In 1967, he fell under attack from the right by opposing the Vietnam War. He was the first American bishop to attempt to implement in a diocese the full teachings of the Second Vatican Council, producing severe criticism from conservatives.

A Model for the American Church

If Sheen wasn’t the holiest priest in the American Church (he harbored a few secrets, and his ambition, vanity, and luxurious lifestyle embarrassed him in his old age), there were surely few, at least among the Church’s intellectuals, who tried harder to be a model for others. Few colleagues surpassed his tenacious efforts, over such a long period, to adhere to Church teachings. His soul and mind rested on Church authority rather than the fads of his particular time and place. That trust, plus a rigorous prayer life, generated a peace and joy that influenced almost everyone who knew, met, saw, or heard Fulton J. Sheen.

Although he was a major figure in the Church by the early 1930s and lived until 1979, Sheen is primarily remembered as a man who helped set the tone of the 1950s. In April 1952, he appeared on the cover of Time magazine and was lionized as “perhaps the most famous preacher in the U.S., certainly America’s best-known Roman Catholic priest, and the newest star of U.S. television?’ A spokesperson for the archdiocese of New York exclaimed, “He’s telegenic. He’s wonderful. The gestures, the timing, the voice. If he came out in a barrel and read the telephone book, they’d love him.”

The Time article provided biographical data, emphasizing the bishop’s humble background in rural and small- town Illinois. It commented on his many publications, sniffing slightly that the most popular books, such as Peace of Soul and Lift Up Your Heart, “were designed for the middlebrow reader.” It presented photographs of his most prominent converts: automobile magnate Henry Ford II, leftist writer Heywood Broun, author Clare Boothe Luce (wife of Time owner Henry Luce), former communist editor Louis Budenz, and famed violinist Fritz Kreisler. And it presented excerpts from his writings, such as: “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.”

This celebration of religious certainty that characterized Sheen, and much of the 1950s in this country, has been responsible in part for his neglect at the hands of more recent historians and journalists. Especially since the upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s, it has become decidedly unfashionable in intellectual circles to talk about objective moral standards or to assert that one religion or denomination might be superior to another. Ideas have consequences: In recent years religion itself has been virtually banished from public education and rendered nearly invisible in the media (except, of course, reports on clerical malefactions).

The Catholic Church has been a major target of this animus; anti-Catholicism, often called the anti- Semitism of the intellectuals, has flourished in an age led by spiritual and moral relativists. Crisis’s own Deal W. Hudson has observed, “The Church attracts hatred because its very existence proclaims an Absolute standard to all.” A University of Michigan historian noted in 1993 that “the sexual politics of the past twenty years have kept alive—indeed, helped legitimize—the anti-Catholic bias that has long been part of academic life.”

Tolerance, diversity, multiculturalism, and reigning ideologies of the politically correct assume that one view of reality, as long as it isn’t conservative or supernatural, is as good as another. Sheen and others like him are often dismissed as mere relics of an unenlightened past that is best ignored. In American Catholic: The Saints and Sinners Who Built America’s Most Powerful Church, liberal writer Charles R. Morris uses Sheen to symbolize the “Church’s triumphal era in America,” a short-lived and backward period known principally for its “extraordinary ideological self-confidence,” Mariolatry, and “the Church’s obsessive anticommunism.”

Sheen’s staunch and well-known anticommunism stance undoubtedly contributes to his lack of appeal for many modern intellectuals. A few examples could include: Donald F. Crosby’s God, Church, and Flag: Senator Joseph R. McCarthy and the Catholic Church, 1950-1957, wherein he devotes a page to Sheen, noting that he “poured forth a gushing stream of books, articles, pamphlets, sermons, and speeches” attacking the theory and dynamics of communism and emphasizing its opposition to Roman Catholicism. David Caute, in The Great Fear: The Anti-Communism notes Sheen’s radio sermons attacking communism and cites an anticommunist speech he gave before the American Legion’s All-American Conference in 1950.

Still, each of these books reveals only a superficial knowledge of Sheen, largely gleaned from newspapers.

Sadly, the archbishop has been criticized by academics for abandoning his scholarly discipline and writing for the masses. C.S. Lewis was attacked for the same reason. Even the sympathetic Time story cited above contained this criticism. Sophisticated readers looking at the likes of the slight volume, Prayer Book for Our Times; the collection of columns published as Children and Parents; and These Are the Sacraments, with its large number of absurdly pompous photos of Sheen, might easily conclude that the author was merely a media personality and an intellectual lightweight.

In reply, it must be said that Sheen was essentially a missionary. He might have spent his life writing for philosophy journals. Instead, he reached out to as many people as possible, convinced that human souls were more important than scholarly disputation. Still, the intellectual level of his publications never descended very far. Anyone who reads These Are the Sacraments, as well as looks at the photographs, will discover a learned, sound, and appealing exposition of Church teaching. Children and Parents is both wise and thoughtful. It also bears pointing out that Sheen produced many volumes to raise funds for the world’s poor. Almost all the royalties from his books after 1950 went to the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, and the proceeds from his sponsored television programs were devoted to the same cause.

Piecing Together His Past

Until now, there has been no full-scale biography of Fulton J. Sheen. The two most widely quoted books on him, Missionary with a Mike and The Passion of Fulton Sheen, are extremely similar to each other and were written by a disgruntled priest, D.P. Noonan, who was one of the very few people Sheen ever fired. Both books contain useful insights but are sometimes misleading and unreliable. Amazingly, only a single, unpublished doctoral dissertation has been written by a historian.

Treatment of Sheen has been all too shallow. He is mentioned, for example, only once in David J. O’Brien’s American Catholics and Social Reform: The New Deal Years, and it is in a condescending sentence linked with the extremist Fr. Charles Coughlin. In William M. Halsey’s The Survival of American Innocence: Catholicism in an Era of Disillusionment, 1920-1940, Sheen is simply dismissed as “the Catholic counterpart of Norman Vince Peale and Billy Graham” while his Thomism is rejected as “a vehicle for domination.”

One would think that Catholic scholars today might pay more attention to the good archbishop. University of Notre Dame historian Jay P. Dolan in The American Catholic Experience: A History from Colonial Times to the Present calls Sheen, in a brief paragraph, a “true Catholic hero” for his achievements in the media. But the sole source cited for his comments on Sheen is an obituary from a Rochester, New York, newspaper! Similar examples are difficult to find. This may be an example of how Catholic academics have internalized the anti-Catholicism of the mainstream intellectual culture.

College textbooks also slight Sheen. John A. Garraty’s extremely popular The American Nation doesn’t mention him. Dewey W. Gratham in his work Recent America: The United States Since 1945 cited Sheen only once. His book Peace of Soul is linked with Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking, and both are relegated to the “cult of reassurance” and the “peace of mind” religion of the postwar years.

Sheen did not make the historian’s task easy. He apparently destroyed virtually all of the letters that passed across his desk in the course of his lengthy career. In 1976, he approved the creation of a Sheen archive in the Diocese of Rochester and agreed to donate his huge personal library, collections of newspaper clippings, and other memorabilia. But after his death, Rochester authorities discovered that only a handful of letters survived. The files of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith yielded next to nothing, and the archives of the Catholic University of America, where he taught for almost a quarter century, offered little more. The Diocese of Peoria, the Archdiocese of New York, and the Diocese of Rochester, places closely identified with Sheen, possessed surprisingly little.

This attitude toward his correspondence is puzzling. He did not give many interviews, and it may be that he simply cherished his privacy. In 1946, he told reporter Kenneth Stewart that he would prefer not to have a story written about him, dismissing publicity as “artificial as rouge on the cheek. Doing the job is the important thing, even if you’re a street cleaner.” Still, he had nearly finished an autobiography when death came to call. And he had agreed to donate, at his death, the potentially explosive details of a dark secret: his private correspondence with Cardinal Spellman, with whom he had endured a decade of intense, although unpublicized, feuding. That the documents wound up elsewhere was not Sheen’s fault.

Perhaps the solution to the puzzle is simply that in the course of a very busy life filled with travel and moving personal belongings from residence to residence, he lacked the inclination to carry about an enormous number of letters. How enormous? In 1946 alone, he was writing between 150 and 200 letters a day. In the early 1950s, according to Sheen, the television show was generating between 15,000 and 25,000 letters per day, and he tried to answer as many as his schedule allowed.

It may be that he never preserved his correspondence. Matthew Paratore, a friend who knew him in the 1960s and 1970s, noted that Sheen was not at all interested in his past. He did not act like an old man and was not given to reminiscence. He wanted at all times to be current—to read the latest books and articles, to be youthful and relevant.

In any case, Sheen letters and documents are to be found in a wide assortment of other manuscript collections. Scores of people who knew him have been willing, often eager, to speak for the record and his relatives have been extremely cooperative. They preserve an abundance of photographs and documents, along with their recollections.

An Enduring Treasure

The Sheen story is about a remarkable man whose spiritual intensity was the primary force that propelled him throughout his life. His life in the Church spans one of the most exciting periods in the venerable institution’s history, from an era characterized by growth, discipline, evangelism, self-confidence, and exclusivity, to the post-Vatican II period known for its change, dissent, disillusionment, ecumenism, and openness to the modern world.

Because of Sheen’s wide interests, his story encompasses virtually every major political, social, and cultural development of the 1920s through the 1970s. Fulton J. Sheen’s brilliance, knowledge, acuity, devotion, and incredible energy compel the biographer to reflect on the history of the nation as well as the individual.

In recent years, steps have been taken to beatify the archbishop. On the 20th anniversary of Sheen’s death, John Cardinal O’Connor of New York formally initiated the lengthy process. The Church will do well to give the cause serious scrutiny. Saint or not, here was an American Catholic in whom we can all take pride, a man who made—and continues to make—an enormous difference in the lives of millions.


  • Thomas C. Reeves

    Thomas C. Reeves writes from Wisconsin. Among his dozen books are Twentieth Century America: A Brief History, and biographies of John F. Kennedy, Joseph R. McCarthy, Fulton Sheen, Walter J. Kohler, Jr and Chester A. Arthur.

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