Bishop Sheen on Patriotism

Bishop Sheen on Patriotism

An excerpt from an address then-Father Sheen delivered on The Catholic Hour radio program on February 20, 1938

Rt. Rev. Msgr. Fulton J. Sheen
The Catholic Thing
MONDAY, JULY 4, 2016

The treatise on Patriotism in the writings of the greatest philosopher of all times, St. Thomas Aquinas, is to be found under the subject of “Piety.” This at first may strike as strange those who think of piety as pertaining only to love of God. But once it is remembered that love of neighbor is inseparable from love of God, it is seen that love of our fellow citizens is a form of piety.

In these days when so many subversive activities are at work, a reminder of the necessity of loving our country is very much to the point. Consciously or unconsciously our citizens are grouping themselves around the only two possible ultimate answers to the questions vexing our country.

The first answer is that the essence of Americanism is revolution; the second answer is that the essence of Americanism consists in the recognition of the sacredness of human personality.

First let us consider the revolutionary theory. The Communists, in their attempt to justify another revolution, are rewriting American history to suit the dialectics of Marx and Lenin. Their argument is this: America began with a revolution. . . .If they insist on appealing to the American Revolution we would remind them that it was a political revolution against a government across the sea, and not a civil war and class struggle against one another.

As an American you must be opposed to all dictators, Fascist, Nazi, or Communist. The Communist trick is to accuse all who are opposed to Communism of being Fascists. This is not true. Because I dislike Russian caviar it does not follow that I am mad about spaghetti or wiener-schnitzel. . . .The best way to keep Fascism out of American life is to keep out Communism. . . .

The essence of Americanism is not revolution, but the recognition of the sacredness of human personality and the inherent inalienable rights which every man possesses independently of the State. That is why, when our country began, our Founding Fathers were most anxious to find some basis for human rights, some foundation for human liberties, some guarantee of human personality which would be above the encroachment of tyranny and abuse.

But where find the basis for the right of a man to be his own master, captain of his own soul, free in his right to pursue his ultimate end with a free conscience? Where root and ground the right to own property as the extension of personality? Where find the rock of all liberties which would be strong enough to withstand governments and powers and states which would absorb them as the monarchies did, then, and as certain dictatorships do now?

For such a foundation the Fathers looked first to England. There the theory was advanced that our liberties and rights are rooted in Parliament. This theory they rejected on the ground that if Parliament gives rights and liberties, then the Parliament can take them away. Next they looked to France, where it was held that the liberties and rights of man are rooted in the will of the majority. The Fathers equally rejected this on the ground that if the rights of man are the gift of the majority, then the majority can take away the rights of the minority.

Where find the source of the liberties and the rights of man? On what stable foundation are they to be reared? What is their source? The answer they gave was the right one. They sought the foundations of man’s rights and liberties in something so sacred and so inalienable that no State, no Parliament, no Dictator, no human power could ever take them away, and so they rooted them in God. Hence our Declaration of Independence reads: all men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights. . .among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Note that the word used is “unalienable”; that means that these rights belong to the sacredness of human personality and are not the gift of the State or the Dictator, whether Fascist, Nazi, or Communist. In other words, man’s right to own private property, man’s right to educate his own family, man’s right to adore God according to the dictates of his conscience, come not from the Constitution, the Government, Parliament, or the will of the majority, but from God.

Therefore no power on earth may take them away. This is the essence of Americanism. Now, if the essence of Americanism is the sacredness of human personality as created by God, who is doing most to preserve that Americanism? The schools that never mention His name? The universities and colleges that dissolve the Deity into the latest ultimate of physics or biology? The professors who adjust their ethics to suit unethical lives?

The answer obviously is, that the forces that are building constructive Americanism are those that take practical cognizance of the existence of God. It is the non-religious schools which are out of the tradition of Americanism; they are on the defensive. In the beginning of our national life practically all of our schools and colleges were religious schools. It was assumed by our Constitution and by its spirit that they would be religious.

The reason was obvious. If human dignity and liberty come from God, then it follows that loss of faith in Him means loss of faith in those liberties which derive from Him. If we wish to have the light we must keep the sun; if we wish to keep our forests we must keep our trees; if we wish to keep our perfumes we must keep our flowers – and if we wish to keep our rights, then we must keep our God. It is just as vain to try to keep triangles without keeping three-sided figures, as to try to keep Liberty without the spirit which makes man independent of matter and therefore free.

We Catholics are taking religion so seriously in reference to our country that rather than see God perish out of our national life we conduct 7,929 elementary schools and 1,945 high schools, employing 58,903 and 16,784 teachers respectively. . . .and figuring on the basis of public school costs, we save the taxpayers of the country an immediate one billion dollar building program and, for maintenance, about $139,600,000 every year. Every cent of this money comes out of the pockets of Catholics, and why? Because we believe that the 2,102,889 children in Catholic elementary schools and 284,736 in Catholic high schools have a right to know the truth which makes them free.

In other words, we take very seriously the Declaration of Independence which derives the rights of man from God.

In conclusion, true Americanism is the belief in the freedom of man as a divine derivative. For that reason if we wish to keep pure Americanism we must keep our religion. To this is to be added the important fact that dictatorships, such as the Communistic, regard man only as a stomach to be fed by the State, or as a tool to amass wealth for the State. Put men on that level and they need no religion, any more than animals need religion, or a monkey wrench needs liturgy.

But to put them on that level is to de-personalize and mechanize them down to the very core of their being. A democracy needs religion, for it assumes that man has not only a stomach but also a soul which is the seat of his rights; and since that soul must be fed as well as the body, he must have religion. Democracy has to rely not on force, but on freedom and liberty. But freedom and liberty are inseparable from responsibility, and responsibility is inseparable from conscience, and conscience is inseparable from religion.

It is our solemn duty as Catholics, therefore, to be conscious of our duty to America, and to preserve its freedom by preserving its faith in God. . . .

But as we talk about patriotism, it might be well to remind ourselves that in a crisis like this even devotion to the stars and stripes is not enough to save us. We must look beyond them to other stars and stripes, namely the stars and stripes of Christ, by Whose stars we are illuminated and by whose stripes we are healed!

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5 comments on “Bishop Sheen on Patriotism

    from The Point, January 1953
    [The link is to a search for “Sheen” giving the multiple reflections Fr. Feeney and the Slaves had regarding Bishop Sheen.]

    The heresy of Americanism is fostered and advanced mainly by a few highly conspicuous and successful American priests, who have made their reputations on their ability to display their own sparkling personalities and good citizenship, while obscuring the Catholic Faith. One such priest is Fulton J. Sheen, who presents us with the spectacle and the scandal of a Catholic bishop, sworn to preach and defend the Faith even to the shedding of his blood, offering to the millions of Americans who see him on television, a “non-sectarian” program. Bishop Sheen never indicates that he is worried about, or even interested in, the eternal salvation of his audience; nor does he ever tell them anything that they would need to know in order to achieve that salvation.

    from The Point, August 1952
    [The link is to a search for “Sheen” giving the multiple reflections Fr. Feeney and the Slaves had regarding Bishop Sheen.]

    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.

    • An amazingly sharp and concise criticism. It seems by this explanation that Bishop Sheen was actually paving the way for the changes of Vatican II, especially with regard to ecumenism. Perhaps this is why he did not object to other revolutionary aspects of Vatican II.

      Back in the early 50’s Bishop Sheen had some beautiful insights into the meaning of purity (“purity is love awaiting fecundation” from Three to Get Married), but later he seemed to remain silent in the face of the growing ecclesiastical acceptance of personalism with regard to marriage.

  3. BTW, while picking on Sheen I didn’t want to belittle patriotism, love for country. For all it’s flaws, the USA is about the only place where you can fight the flaws, and have the freedom to improve your condition and care for your family. Happy 4th all.

  4. Feeney had his own problems, poor fellow.

    But he NAILED this one.

    What a stinking mess.

    Nevertheless, thank God that there are a handful of 100% Catholic priests still around to preach, if only to a couple hundred Catholics attending the True Rite of the Latin Church on any given Sunday.

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