Thomas C. Reeves’ America’s Bishop: The Life and Times of Fulton J. Sheen is a useful new biography of one of the fascinating figures in 20th-century American culture. Drawing upon numerous interviews with many of Sheen’s associates and family members as well as personal material and private correspondence, Reeves corrects the image of Sheen as primarily an anti-Communist ideologue or an expression of 1950’s culture religion to which he has often been consigned. What emerges instead is a much more complete portrait of a complex, enigmatic figure who was ambitious, lonely, spiritual and who helped construct the public face of American Catholicism at mid-century.
Sheen’s life has all the elements of a classic American story. Born Peter John Sheen, (the Peter changed to Fulton in the first grade) in El Paso, Illinois in 1895, Sheen used his talents for study and drama to escape the rural and small-town life of his parents. College at St. Viator and then seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota provided conduits for Sheen’s youthful talents. Eventually Sheen would make it East, first as a professor of philosophy at Catholic University and later a bishop all the while achieving glamorous success in the emerging world of American mass culture as a major spokesman of the Catholic Church.
Reeves covers all the major aspects of Sheen’s public career-his years at Catholic University, his media fame, his participation in Vatican II and his late role as bishop of Rochester. But the biography sheds important new light on that career. He recounts, for instance, how Sheen became the first American to receive a postdoctoral degree from the prestigious University of Louvain. Sheen turned his dissertation into God and Intelligence in Modern Philosophy: A Critical Study in the Light of the Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, a highly regarded work of neo-Thomistic philosophy at the time. But Reeves also reveals that Sheen falsely claimed that he possessed a second doctorate. He suggests this duplicity may have stemmed from Sheen’s insecurity as a Midwestern farmboy trying to prove himself in the world of Catholic intellectuals.
Whatever his uncertainties about academic merit, by the mid-1940’s Sheen had become famous for his success winning people to Catholicism including high profile victories such as newspaper columnist Heywood Broun, the Communist Louis Budenz and Clare Booth Luce. Reeves reveals that this was no accident. For instance, Sheen was constantly on the lookout for prospective converts including showing up on the door of noted violinist Fritz Kreisler and asking him if he’d like to join the Catholic Church. Kreisler accepted the invitation and he and Sheen enjoyed a long friendship. Further, Reeves reveals that Sheen’s could tailor his conversion techniques to the needs of his growing success. His method could assume an almost assembly line character, having some candidates listen to hours of Sheen’s talks on tape and meeting with them afterwards to answer questions.
Reeves discusses Sheen’s media achievements including the famous television show Life is Worth Living and his radio broadcasts on the Catholic Hour from 1930 to 1952. The latter is an important aspect of Sheen’s career that has often been overlooked in accounts that focus on his 1950’s television popularity, and Reeves makes clear that Sheen captured popular audiences long before the era of television.
Similarly, Reeves deepens a portrait of Sheen as a leading anti-Communist by revealing that Sheen and J. Edgar Hoover developed a long friendship that began in 1944 grounded in their mutual concerns about communism. Indeed, Sheen spoke at the graduation ceremony at the FBI academy in 1953 at the personal invitation of Hoover and served as a special contact for the FBI for in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
While providing a generally high assessment of Sheen, Reeves doesn’t blinker his less appealing side. Indeed, one of Sheen’s greatest weakness, Reeves suggests was his inability to dialogue. Not only did Sheen have a hard time engaging in intellectual debates with opponents, but as Reeves reveals, his actions as bishop of Rochester in the 1960’s evidenced a lack of sensitivity to the laity.
Sheen was also prone to sweeping generalizations in his public pronouncements against communism and psychiatry that undermined his intellectual credibility. Particularly in regards to the communist threat this tendency, Reeves suggests, lent support to the worst forms of strident anti-communism.
There’s also no gainsaying Sheen’s vanity. A diary Sheen kept in 1948 during a trip to the Far East where he was continually greeted by cheering crowds makes clear how much he enjoyed his celebrityhood as his stature skyrocketed. But Sheen’s public piety was no mere media spectacle. Rather it was rooted in a deeply held faith. Reeves notes that since his days in the seminary Sheen observed Holy Hour daily.
For some readers, America’s Bishop will be most interesting for its account of Sheen’s relationship with Cardinal Francis Spellman. Sheen, the author suggests, felt Spellman his intellectual inferior and was disheartened to learn that Spellman had been named archbishop of New York in 1939. Yet Sheen managed to bury his doubts about Spellman for the latter proved very helpful to Sheen’s rise within the Church which included serving as national director of the Society of the Propagation of the Faith and becoming Spellman’s auxiliary bishop in the 1950’s. Yet the relationship was far from harmonious. Politics may have played a role. Spellman became close to Franklin Roosevelt while Sheen did not hide his criticisms of the New Dealer. Their relationship started to really fray beginning in the mid-1950’s over Sheen’s refusal to carry out Spellman’s directives concerning funds from the Society of the Propagation of the Faith. For reasons still unclear, Sheen abruptly stopped his Life is Worth Living television show in 1957 even though ABC network was still interested in it. In 1966, Sheen was sent to Rochester as bishop, which Sheen believed was the cardinal’s revenge for insubordination. Reeves believes the full story of the increasingly sour relationship between these two powerful figures of modern American Catholicism lies buried in Sheen-Spellman documents that remain off limits to scholars.
America’s Bishop adds greatly to an understanding of Fulton J. Sheen rectifying the short shift he has been given by historians. One only wishes that Reeves had spent more time interpreting Sheen’s success. He may have been ambitious and gifted but so were other Catholic figures. Yet Sheen enjoyed a cultural presence few other Catholic leaders have ever achieved. Did Sheen understand, earlier than other Catholics, the transforming power of the media in 20th-century American society? Was Sheen, learned and charismatic, well positioned to take advantage of the shifting religious and cultural landscape as Catholics became increasingly central to a pluralist understanding of modern America? Or were Sheen’s ambitions far more than simply personal. Was his desire to succeed part of a broader effort to actually evangelize America for Catholicism? These questions remain concerning this most compelling figure in American Catholicism. Nonetheless, Reeves’ account moves us toward realizing that Sheen’s own life is very much a story of both Catholicism and America at mid-20th century.