Sometimes Even the Brightest Sheen Can Lose Its Mettle: Teilhard’s Surprising Fan
Archbishop Fulton Sheen was one of America’s most admirable prelates. But his postconciliar life should give us pause before shouting “Santo subito!”
When I attended the Roman Forum in Exile a couple of summers ago, held at Immaculate Conception Seminary in Huntington, Long Island, I was struck by a giant display book kept in a glass case near the entrance to the chapel. Upon closer inspection, it proved to be the documentation for the canonization process of Archbishop Fulton Sheen. And curiously, it was opened (permanently, it seems) to a page that recorded Sheen’s reaction to a lay person asking him about whether it was bad to receive Communion in the hand. The bishop responded, in essence: “We might not personally agree with it, and we don’t have to do it ourselves, but Church authority allows it, and therefore it can’t be bad.”
Bishops are famous for issuing lukewarm statements that manage to say both yes and no, and neither of them with particular force. It is disappointing, however, to see a man of Sheen’s stature sounding like a servile administrator rather than a prophetic voice denouncing what he surely must have been able to see as a grave deviation not only from healthy piety but even from the reasoning given by the Vatican itself a few years earlier, when Memoriale Domini argued that the longstanding custom of receiving communion on the tongue and kneeling should be retained—a position backed, at that time, by a sizeable majority of the world’s bishops, whom Rome had asked to express their opinion.
Vital words for a changing world?
This brought back to mind other disturbing things I had learned about the famous bishop of the airwaves. In his 1967 book Footprints in a Darkened Forest: Vital Words for Today’s Changing World (New York: Meredith Press), Sheen devotes a lengthy chapter (pp. 69–82) to praising Teilhard de Chardin, SJ. Yes, you read that correctly: praising. Here are the archbishop’s words, just a couple of years after he returned from Vatican II, where he had participated in all four sessions. They are worth quoting at length, to show that this wasn’t an incidental toss-off.
At a period when science was beginning to construct a synthesis of the laws of matter and life—that is, of chemistry and biology—Teilhard was thinking of adding to them psychology, so as to produce a union of physical energy and psychic energy. As he wrote shortly before his death: “Since the time of Darwin, evolution has passed beyond the narrow limits of zoology and has become a general process, covering the atom as well as the cell.” Evolution to him was not just a biological theory; it was an essential part of all sciences.
His life was spent digging into the earth, finding in its rocks, its strata, and its bones the secret of the universe… he gave to the world the most complete theory of evolution it had ever known… (69-70)
Coincidentally, right after this, Sheen quotes in full the text about offering a cosmic Mass upon the altar of the earth that Pope Francis quoted selectively in Mongolia a few weeks ago. This passage from Teilhard contains some very curious expressions. Let’s have a look at it:
Since once again, O Lord, in the steppes of Asia,
I have no bread, no wine, no altar
I will raise myself above those symbols
To the pure majesty of Reality,
And I will offer to Thee, I, your priest,
Upon the altar of the entire earth,
the labor and the suffering of the world….
Receive, O Lord, in its totality the Host
Which Creation, drawn by Thy magnetism,
Presents to Thee at the dawn of a new day.
This Bread, our effort, is in itself, I know,
Nothing but an immense disintegration.
This wine, our anguish, as yet, alas!
Is only an evaporating beverage.
But in the depths of this inchoate mass
Thou hast placed—I am certain, for I feel it—
An irresistible and holy desire that moves us all,
The impious as well as the faithful to cry out:
“O Lord, make us one!”
Bishop Sheen continues by waxing enthusiastic about the labors and sufferings of Teilhard, including his time spent in the war alongside Muslims, who “wanted him near when they died”—no mention of any attempt to bring them to Christ before they died. Indeed, the fact that “he saw a vast civilized humanity [in China] growing up outside of the consciousness of Christ…to him was not exclusively a tragedy” (73).
Sheen goes on to say that Teilhard “sought to bridge this gap between world and God… His background prepared him for seeking the union of the two,” and quotes, with favor, several damning passages, such as when Teilhard admits that his goal is “a rethinking of Christianity on the scale and dimensions of the universe as it is revealed ever more clearly to us” (72).
As one looks at the various trends in our day, one sees that Teilhard’s conception of spirituality is in the forefront. [!] He knew that he had to pass through many hazards, but his was directed principally to the cosmic world…. His fundamental orientation was “to attain heaven through the fulfillment of earth. Christify matter.” It is very likely that within fifty years when all the trivial, verbal disputes about the meaning of Teilhard’s “unfortunate” vocacbulary will have died away or have taken a secondary place, Teilhard will appear like John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila, as the spiritual genius of the twentieth century. (73)
That, my friends, was Bishop Sheen in 1967. It is hard to imagine an assessment that is more plainly incorrect, more unjustifiably incorrect, or more scandalously incorrect. I don’t know if saints roll over in their graves, but if they could, John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila would have rolled.
A new and improved Common Doctor
Sheen goes on to say that Teilhard has done for the synthesis or unification of all human knowledge what Aristotle did when he made metaphysics the central science, and the medieval scholastics when they made theology the queen of the sciences—both of which positions he apparently regards as having been exploded by the scientific revolution and now outmoded. Modernity was left with a fragmentation of branches of learning, in dire need of a new St. Thomas to unify them:
No one attempted a synthesis of the new departments of advanced knowledge until the time of Chardin. What Aristotle had done in pre-Christian times, what Thomas Aquinas did in the Middle Ages—and both on the basis of the old astronomy—what Descartes attempted in philosophy, Teilhard did but without appeal to astronomy…. In place of astronomy as the basis of the universe, he used evolution…. (75)
Recall Wolfgang Smith’s critique of Teilhard’s scientific inadequacies and metaphysical absurdities, which I shared last week. Back to Sheen:
Teilhard posits consciousness on the “inside of things,” or better, a protoconsciousness, even in the lowest forms of matter…. The Omega is not the end product of natural evolution; it is “the prime mover ahead…the principle which at one and the same time makes this cosmic coiling irreversible and moves and collects it.”… This Alpha-Omega has three notes: It is immanent and central, in order to unite all things. It is personal, in order to personalize all things. It is transcendent, in order to consolidate all things. It is a first mover and also the point of achievement. What Teilhard has done is to break with the sharp dualism between matter and consciousness, which was introduced into philosophy by Descartes. (77-78)
“Dualism,” yes, is a problem; but I think St. Augustine and St. Thomas would be very surprised to hear what sounds like a smudging of the boundary between matter and consciousness. After all, it was none other than St. Thomas who argued that something is intellectual to the extent that it is immaterial, and something is intellectualized to the extent it is immaterialized. That is how mind works, including the human mind, which is a power of that singular human soul that informs the body in a hylomorphic union so intimate that man is incapable of thinking and willing without the aid of his interior and exterior senses. Descartes’s dualism is a perversion of the truth about the duality of matter and spirit, while Teilhard’s spiritualist materialism or materialist spiritualism is a perversion of the truth about the intimate bonds of matter and spirit, which always remain what they are, even when yoked together.
The ease with which Sheen is tricked into seeing parallels between St. Paul’s logocentric theology and Chardin’s evolutionary Christification (81) is disappointing, to say the least, as the differences are not difficult to see. In my post a week ago, we saw Fr. Mankowski, Fr. Steckler, Fr. Lanzetta, Wolfgang Smith, and Jean Borella pointing out the many ways in which Teilhard is not only not an orthodox Catholic thinker, but an abuser of religious language and a subverter of divine revelation. Sheen allows himself to be captivated by the guru:
Because he was misunderstood, because he was maligned by his brethren, because he was suspect in his orthodoxy, he asked God that if He was pleased with his life and work that he would die on Easter Sunday. Without any previous warning, he dropped dead on the Day of the Resurrection (April 10) 1955. (82)
Incidentally, in the same book Sheen lavishly praises the United Nations (see pp. 171ff.) and exalts Gandhi, John F. Kennedy [!], John XXIII, and Dag Hammarskjöld as “Modern Saints” (see pp. 241ff.). Of JFK, we read how, the night before he was killed, he “was about to be ushered into the Vision of visions” (248). No purgatory for him!
Don’t get me wrong, Footprints in a Darkened Forest has a lot of tell-tale Sheen brilliance in it: clever wordplay, incisive observations about modern culture and modern thinkers (he proffers a powerful critique of Nietzsche’s “God is dead”), ample evidence of an urbane world-traveler. The pages are shot through with the sentiments of a sincere and ardent Christian.
Tradition & Sanity runs on reader support and plentiful supplies of coffee.
Public Kool-Aid dispensaries
Now, some may say: “Why are you being so hard on Bishop Sheen? Wasn’t everyone drinking the Kool-Aid in the late sixties—some more, some less?”
It’s true that the Kool-Aid was making the rounds back then more freely than beer in a midsummer Bavarian Biergarten. But as we saw in my post two weeks ago, there were also at that time many fine Catholic minds who sounded the alarm about Teilhard de Chardin, philosophers and theologians who had divined the cluster of errors at the heart of his audacious enterprise: Gilson, Maritain, Tresmontant, Journet, and von Hildebrand, just for starters. This makes Bishop Sheen’s over-the-top enthusiasm for Teilhard all the more problematic: he was no mean scholar himself, and surely must have been aware of the chorus of critics warning against the fundamental flaws in the Jesuit’s theology-fiction.
In particular, one would have expected Dietrich von Hildebrand’s trenchant critique of the collectivist-fascist aspects of Teilhardian thought to have resonated with Sheen, who, instead, blithely quotes the Jesuit’s starry-eyed praises of “the evolution of collective thought, which alone can realize on earth the fullness of human consciousness” and thus “a consummated Christ” (80-81), and his assertion that Christianity’s superiority consists in “Christogenesis,” which is “the rise, collectively recognized, of a certain universal Presence, at once immortalizing and unifying” (81).
It has been reflection on Sheen’s monstrous lack of judgment with regard to Teilhard that has not only tempered my personal enthusiasm for his canonization, but has helped me to understand why he could have been so duped by the “new conciliarism” that consists in a disproportionate exaltation of Vatican II. It has helped me to see how a monsignor who frequently praised the traditional Mass in the tenderest terms—can anyone forget how, in the course of narrating an Easter Sunday Mass filmed in 1941 at the Church of Our Lady of Sorrows in Chicago, Sheen cited the words of Newman, reading them in a voice trembling with emotion: “It is a long established principle of the Church never to completely drop from her public worship any ceremony, object, or prayer which once occupied a place in that worship”—could now, as a bishop, defend its pathetic replacement with the modern rite of Paul VI (which, of course, completely dropped about a thousand ceremonies, objects, and prayers that once occupied a place in the Catholic worship) and then, even reproach ordinary Catholics for disobedience in seeking out what they had loved all their lives.
In short, I see Sheen as a great but tragic figure, who demonstrated at the end of his career the debilitating effects of Zeitgeist absorption and unexamined hyperpapalism.
Am I throwing out the bishop with the bathwater?
In writing this article, I have no intention of besmirching the genuinely great qualities of Archbishop Sheen. He was the most charismatic Catholic prelate, preacher, and apologist the USA has ever produced. Sheen did the best Catholic TV shows this country or any country is ever likely to see. He wrote a lot of outstanding books, not just popular titles but scholarly tomes as well. Undoubtedly thousands of conversions can be traced to his influence and he continues to move us with his striking sermons and instruct us with his copious writings. His humor, intelligence, and orthodoxy shine through nearly everything he wrote and said. He contributed in countless ways to building up the Mystical Body of Christ. He had the courage to identify both communism and capitalism as twin scourges: he saw, in the words of another author, that Catholic Social Teaching was, as it were, “crucified between two thieves.” In the heyday of his career he stalwartly condemned modernist ideas and all the fashionable vices of the West, including contraception. He personally received many converts into the Church. The list of praise could go on and on. That is why so many love him and want to see him canonized. Everybody loves the original “America’s bishop,” even as good Catholics today love our new “America’s bishop,” Joseph Strickland.
That’s all beyond dispute. The problem is that Sheen had his postconciliar ra-ra period as well. Granted, he wasn’t passed out, face-down in the Kool-Aid, as were most of his episcopal brethren, but he dabbled with the dark side, and we ought to be disturbed by this as much as we are disturbed by John Paul II convoking interreligious meetings at Assisi or kissing the Koran. Sheen espoused and implemented the post-Vatican II program of “singing a new church into being.” His tacit support of an egregious abuse like communion in the hand (because “Rome approved it”), and his flippant condemnation of Archbishop Lefebvre (as if Sheen didn’t even recognize the magnitude of the crisis) ought to give us pause. But above all, his over-the-top praise for Teilhard de Chardin is a drop of poison in the cup of his orthodoxy.
So… as much as we rightly love Fulton Sheen, could it not be providential that his beatification has been delayed, or even derailed? The last thing we need is to rush more candidates through the saint-factory and end up with confusing and conflicting models on our hands. Even if, as I hold on the basis of sound arguments, canonizations are not infallible, why should we be in such unseemly haste? In the old days, saints were supposed to be not only theologically bullet-proof but also towering exemplars of heroic virtue—which would certainly include prophetic witness against ecclesiastical corruption and theological error, if those were symptomatic of the age in which the purported saint lived.
As solid as Sheen was for most of his career, he seriously stumbled by failing to support the traditional liturgy and Catholics who loved it at the time of its destruction and their marginalization; by accommodating himself to ecclesiastical modernization, even when the “signs of the times” were shouting that this was a perilous dead-end; and by sending mixed signals about controversial figures during the fourteen years he lived after the Council. While we can forgive churchmen of the time for making imperfect decisions in a messy situation, that does not mean it is fitting or beneficial to exalt to the highest honors of the Church those who made them.
For the greatest irony of all would be if a Pope Francis II (quod Deus avertat) were able to cite “St. Fulton Sheen” in support of the Teilhardification of the Catholic Church.