Lest anyone think, however, that The Pilot has gone overboard for orthodoxy, it quickly corrects the impression by assuring its readers that Protestants and Jews, “whose religious life is sincere and practical must inevitably be closer to God and more helpful to their fellow man than those who do not belong to any church ... We can and must recognize the objective goodness of non-Catholics who are faithful to their religious convictions.”
The Pilot knows that the unforgivable sin in the American Catholic Church is not to gainsay a doctrine of the Faith. It is to discourage America’s heretics and infidels from practicing their heresy and infidelity.
The above statement was not made by a vote-seeking politician, or an agnostic sociology professor, or the chairlady of a suburban bridge club. It is the considered and published sentiment of the Reverend John A. O’ Brien of the University of Notre Dame, and it may be found in his recent pamphlet, “The American Dream.”
Father O’ Brien feels that “brotherhood” with Protestants and Jews is a Catholic’s most imperative mission on this earth. Father O’ Brien wants Catholics, who are by Sacrament the children of God the Father and Our Blessed Mother, to greet as “brothers” Jews who despise the Our Father and Protestants who snub the Hail Mary. As a solution to the supreme problem facing mankind, Father O’ Brien proposes a “brotherhood” apart from any father and mother, a coast-to-coast sheep-fold apart from any shepherd.
Distributed by the National Conference of Christians and Jews, Father O’ Brien’s “American Dream” will provide quite an awakening for some of his brother priests. The program advocated by Father O’ Brien calls for Americans to “rise above” differences of creed, and what minister of what sect has more creedal differences for people to rise above than a Catholic priest, with his confessional box, his Blessed Sacrament and his un-American loyalty to the Bishop of Rome?
When Our Lord gave His last instructions to His Apostles, He commissioned them to go forth into every nation, preaching the Gospel and baptizing those who believed. He did not ask of them that they be successful, as the world measures success. But if He had, the man who would be best fulfilling Our Lord’s commission would be Bishop Fulton J. Sheen.
Bishop Sheen has done what no other priest has been able to do, though some notable ones have tried: he has made himself a hit with Americans. And what is more, he has done this, not on the Church’s terms, as a preacher of the Catholic Faith; he has done it on America’s terms, as an entertainer on television, in free competition with other television entertainers.
While it is true that the Bishop’s amazing popularity is largely due to the applause of Catholics, still, the ease with which he has become familiar as Uncle Fultie and the Face on the Barroom Screen shows that he has made a hit with Protestants and Jews as well. Indeed, so general has the Bishop’s popularity been, and so overwhelming, that he can well serve as a model for other priests who might want to become successful. As a service for such readers, as well as for those who are merely curious to know what Bishop Sheen has done and how he has done it, The Point has taken advantage of the lull provided by his summer vacation to make a careful analysis of his technique; and herewith it makes its report.
The first thing that strikes you about Bishop Sheen’s message is that he never allows himself to be tied down by any narrow sectarianism. He is never too specifically Catholic. He is not so much a proponent of the one, true Faith as a proponent of Religion. Here is the way he has summarized the world’s spiritual ills, as they have grown worse through the centuries: “In the sixteenth century,” he says, “we denied belief in the Church; in the seventeenth, the inspiration of Sacred Scripture; in the eighteenth, the Divinity of Christ; in the nineteenth, the existence of God; and in the twentieth, the necessity of Religion.”
Being not merely an apt student of history, but a very perceptive philosopher as well, Bishop Sheen has been quick to sense that in trying to restore these values priority must be given to those most recently lost. The modern world must be convinced first of the necessity of Religion, and after that of the existence of God, etc. The farthest the Bishop generally gets in this journey toward Faith and the Middle Ages, is the nineteenth century. Once he has succeeded in exposing the position of the atheist as being theoretically absurd and practically impossible, Bishop Sheen is inclined to let up. As long as a man gives evidence of being somehow for God, the Bishop will not press him to tell how he feels about Christ.
Protestants and Jews enjoy listening to Bishop Sheen because they can always relax when doing so. They know they will never hear anything from him to upset them — no insinuations that his religion is any better than theirs, no remarks calculated to make them feel that they ought to become Catholics. Rather, he gives them a new appreciation of their own faith and fires them with a determination to be better Protestants and better Jews than ever. He even tells them how to do this. For instance, in a pamphlet he wrote, entitled “What Can I Do?”, Bishop Sheen tells everyone how to practice better his own faith and thus unite all Americans in “a common love of God.” He tells Protestants to practice fidelity to the marriage bond and give their children instruction in their Protestant religion. He urges Jews to do their bit by keeping the Ten Commandments. And he asks Catholics to show that they do not belong to this world by giving good example.
The effect of such appeals is to make Protestants and Jews feel delighted to find that a Catholic bishop approves of their Protestantism and Judaism and wants to strengthen them in it, while at the same time it lets Catholics know, by a certain added intimacy that only they will notice, that they are really his special favorites.
Despite the publicity he has received as a convert-maker, Bishop Sheen would never suggest on radio or television that his non-Catholic listeners ought to come into the Church. The Bishop has had long experience speaking on the air, and he knows that such suggestions are not allowed. That is why he prefers to make his appeal more for a return to generic religion than for a return to the Catholic Faith. On those occasions when he is forced to become organizationally specific and refer to the Church, he is very careful to present it in such a way that no one could possibly consider his remarks offensive to other religions. The mission of the Church, as presented by Bishop Sheen, is not so much to save souls — he seldom mentions eternal salvation at all — as to eliminate the need for a psychoanalyst and to provide a consistent philosophy of life. He is not so much concerned with those aspects of truth that belong to the Faith alone as with those that have a larger heritage. It is the morals, the ethics, and the logic of the Faith that he prefers to emphasize — those things that came to Christianity from the pagan Greeks rather than those things that came to it from Christ.
In an article in Cosmopolitan magazine, Bob Considine tells how he asked Bishop Sheen if he ever eliminated certain Catholic dogmas that might scare off Protestant and Jewish viewers of his television program. The Bishop’s answer illustrates perfectly the attitude he takes in presenting the Faith: “There is nothing in my television sermons,” he replied, “that one cannot find in Aristotle.” This pre-Christian outlook on Christianity accounts for the fact that, although Bishop Sheen holds the title of U. S. director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, there is only one thing that ever gets propagated to the U. S. Protestants and Jews who watch the Bishop on television, and that is his own personality.
How and why all this can happen is our own precious secret. It is the secret of men who climb a lonely drawbridge, mount a narrow stair, and sleep in a lofty citadel that floats a white flag. Singly we go, independent and unpossessed, establishing no generation, each a conclusion of his race and name; yet always companioning one another with a strange sympathy, too tender to be called love, but which God will find a name for when He searches our hearts in Eternity.
(from Fish on Friday)
Americans are spectators, supervisors, reviewers, observers, analysts, critics, and, at best, fans. America is a country where one well-hit baseball can standardize the dinner conversation of fifty million people. It is a country that works hard all day and spends its evenings in front of a television screen, hoping that a few highly-paid faces will keep America laughing a lot, crying a little, but, in any event, distracted.
Americans love to be an audience, and therefore they turn up with a good performer only about once every decade. This spectatorial disposition has a parallel application among Americans who are Catholics: they abound in hagiographers, but have only once been able to claim an American canonized saint.
America’s biographers of the saints are not writing for a country that is falling away from God, nostalgic with a tradition of sanctity and the Faith, preserving in its places the remembrance of holy people, keeping in its customs a love for the saints. America began as a departure from God, from sixteen centuries of Christianity. America was a haven for those who wanted to escape the tradition of a Catholic Europe, who wanted the right to choose their own kind of worship of their own kind of God, for they had become discontented with the God of Saint Augustine of Hippo, and Saint Francis of Assisi, and Saint Teresa of Avila. American writers of the lives of the saints must therefore use their spectator-manner to preside over the canonized and prayed-to non-Americans who are the subjects of their books.
The problem of tempering Catholic hagiography to Protestant America has had few solutions as successful as that most obvious one: get some Protestants, or former Protestants, to write the lives of the saints. Typical of the Protestants who have found employment as Catholic hagiographers are a lady and two gentlemen, whose names are Frances Keyes, Theodore Maynard, and Daniel Sargent. All of this trio have made the required abjurations of the heresies which they inherited from parents who were, respectively, Calvinists, Salvation Army officers, and Boston Unitarians.
For many years an avid party-giver, political hostess and salon-keeper, Frances Keyes one day determined to give up gloomy Calvinism in exchange for gay Catholicism. Two years before she came into the Church, Mrs. Keyes published her life of the Little Flower, modestly entitled Written in Heaven. Probably her best known “Catholic” book, Written in Heaven is an evaluation of Saint Theresa of Lisieux, from which the Saint emerges as one of those fascinating people whom Mrs. Keyes would be only too delighted to have at one of her less bibulous soirees.
Theodore Maynard was an alert child, and quick to see that the Salvation Army is hardly a fashionable sort of heresy. Thus, he abandoned the faith of his drumbeating parents and started preaching in Unitarian pulpits. Maynard came into the Catholic Church from a very liberal variety of Unitarianism, but his fellow-hagiographer, Daniel Sargent, is a convert from that rigid Unitarianism which insists on Boston birth, Harvard breeding, and a religious respect for usury.
By the very titles of their books, Maynard and Mr. Sargent have tried to convince their former co-religionists that interest in the saints need not be just a lot of relic-kissing. Both gentlemen have produced a life of the English martyr, Saint Thomas More. Maynard stripped the holy man of his holy title and gave him an air of academic respectability by calling his book, Humanist as Hero: The Life of Sir Thomas More. Mr. Sargent, with characteristic frugality, left the saint quite naked of any title, not even Blessed, and published Thomas More.
Mrs. Keyes, Maynard and Mr. Sargent are Americans observing, and therefore do not represent Americans at their best. For Americans at their best are fans, and the word fan is derived from fanatic, and a fanatic, when his fanaticism is for the Faith, will always become a saint, and often a martyr, and maybe someday Jesus and Mary will have some fans among Americans, and these Americans will become Saints, and, just like European Saints, their motives will be doubted, their hearts will be broken, and, when they die, their biographies will be written by Mrs. Keyes, Maynard and Mr. Sargent.