Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Heretical miracles

1. I'm old enough to remember Fulton Sheen. As a kid I occasionally saw his TV show. Years ago I read his autobiography.

2. In his heyday he was the public face of American Catholicism. Undoubtedly the most influential Catholic propagandist. 

Sheen was a natural storyteller. And I'm impressed by how he could speak without notes. 

3. I think he was probably a sincere Catholic rather than a charlatan. However, he always struck me as rather vain. He spoke with a very artificial accent and loved to dress up in showy vestments. 

He was a social climber who cultivated the rich, famous, and powerful. He liked to move in those circles. He hogged the limelight. 

One of his biographers (Thomas Reeves) argues that Sheen was guilty of resume inflation by fabricated a second doctorate. If so, that's consistent with his ambitious streak. 

From humble origins as a farm boy, he parlayed his intellectual and theatrical talents to become a major religious celebrity. That made other ambitious, egotistical prelates like Cardinal Spellman jealous.  

4. An irony of Sheen's career is that the church he tirelessly promoted no longer exists. He was raised and educated in the shadow of Trent and the antimodernist papacy. But in practice, that's dead. It died in his lifetime. It's gone the way of the Shaker cult. Sheen's Catholicism is a museum piece. Indeed, as bishop, he was unable to make the transition to the new post-Vatican II world order. 

5. There's a YouTube presentation in which he plugs Our Lady of Lourdes. He mentions some personal anecdotes which, if he's to be believed, indicate supernatural intercession. That raises an interesting question about how to assess reported Catholic miracles. 

i) In one anecdote, he says a bunch of atheists on a trip to the Pyrenees all died when their bus plunged off a bridge. In principle, there ought to be newspaper accounts which verify or falsify that claim. 

ii) Some Catholic miracles present a bit of a theological conundrum in the sense that if they happen, they might indicate the agency of Mary in answering prayer–which validates Catholic dogma. But the conundrum is that many Protestants can also recount personal anecdotes of miracles, answered prayer, and special providence, so there's a sense in which all these claims culminate in a stalemate. 

iii) In the video I referenced, Sheen appeals to these providential incidents to bolster some appalling theology. Assuming he's telling the truth, it reminds me of Deut 13:1-5, where "heretical miracles" function as a test of fidelity. 

iv) But I also have nagging reservations about Sheen's credibility. To begin with, there's the temptation of a natural storyteller to spin tall tales. A good storyteller has the power to manipulate an audience. Have the audience eating out of his hand. If you're someone like Sheen, who seems to have an appetite for popular adulation, it's hard to resist the temptation to exploit that ability in order to foster a personality cult centered on yourself.

That's in addition to Sheen's M.O. as a status seeker and name-dropper, who went out of his way to cultivate celebrity converts and hobnob with cultural elites. So I'm not convinced that Sheen is trustworthy when he tells these self-aggrandizing stories.

That doesn't necessarily mean he was a pure con artist. People can be complex and pulled in different directions. But there's already a Hollywood quality to the swanky piety that Sheen was enamored with. At the end of the day I'm undecided about Sheen's ultimate motives. 


  1. My memories of "Life Is Worth Living" date mostly to the late 1950s. Watching it on stark black and white television, to my young eyes Fulton J. Sheen seemed a rather fearsome religious figure, though that image was softened somewhat by the gentle humor in his storytelling. He didn't influence me toward Catholicism even then, but I did appreciate his polemics against the threat of world communism--a raging political issue at the time.

    He was certainly a showman. I distinctly remember seeing him end several of his telecasts by lifting the lower area of his cape up high, and then dropping it with a dramatic flourish to make his final point which, even as a youngster, I could sense was a needless bit of theatrics. The theatrical impression was reinforced when I later saw his show in color and was startled to see that he was dressed mostly in all black with a flaming pink cape, cummerbund and zucchetto (a small beanie).

    Regarding his devotion to "Our Lady of Lourdes"in his autobiographical book "Treasure in Clay" Sheen devoted an entire chapter to Mary, “The Woman I Love.” He said:

    “When I was ordained, I took a resolution to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Eucharist every Saturday to the Blessed Mother.… All this makes me very certain that when I go before the Judgment Seat of Christ, He will say to me in His Mercy: ‘I heard My Mother speak of you.' During my life I have made about thirty pilgrimages to the shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes and about ten to her shrine in Fatima” (Fulton J. Sheen, Treasure in Clay, p. 317).

    So as a true son of Rome Fulton Sheen's entire focus to secure salvation was essentially him counting on Mary to put in a good word for him before Christ, a strategy he was "very certain" would result in the desired effect.

    I wonder what he thinks of that idea now.

  2. The Catholic patron saint, Genesius of Rome, is the patron saint of actors, barristers and drunks (drunks have more than one patron saint because it's an extra difficult job, I guess). As an actor, barrister and occasional lover of libations, I appreciate the Catholic understanding of psychology here. Fulton Sheen, to my mind, was an actor with his dramatic gowns and accent; he was also a glutton for attention - a 'drunk'; he was also a deeply committed advocate for the Catholic Faith.
    I just hope he and Genesius are in the presence of the Lord together.