Fulton J. Sheen On Statism
Sheen clearly knew about the dangers of godless statism:
The past century has seen the twin evils of Communism and Nazism. Both were godless ideologies built on the worship of the state. It was a characteristic of the great thinkers, writers and political figures of the past century to clearly see the evils of statism and to warn against it. I have penned various pieces on some of these figures, such as:
G. K. Chesterton: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2022/02/13/chesterton-on-statism-and-tyranny/
C. S. Lewis: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2021/12/20/c-s-lewis-on-politics/
Ronald Reagan: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2020/10/07/reagan-statism-and-limited-government/
R. J. Rushdoony: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2021/06/08/when-the-state-becomes-god/
Here I want to look at another very important individual who has said much about these matters. I refer to the American Catholic Bishop Fulton John Sheen (1896-1979). He was a prolific writer and popular radio and television host. Having lived through the age of both Communism and Nazism, he knew all about the evils of statism and how it clashes with Christianity.
I must confess I only have three of his books (my bad), but all three can be drawn upon to speak to these issues. I will present them here in the order they were written, and offer a sampling of quotes from each. They make it clear that Sheen fully understood the dangers of humanistic statism.
Old Errors and New Labels (1931)
In this volume Sheen does not directly speak to statism and totalitarianism as such, but he does give us the vital background material as he looks at humanism and its antithesis to Christianity. Indeed, statism seeks to replace God with man, as does humanism. So we need to understand both. He concludes one chapter in this book with these words:
Man has always wanted to be like God and man has always been right in wanting that likeness. He was wrong only when someone on a tree told him that to be like God was to be independent of God; he was right when Someone else on the Tree of the Cross told him that to be like God was to be dependent on Him like a son. This is the supernatural; and when I hear men with loyalties to Christ decry the supernatural, I feel as if they were trying to sap the blood of the King of Kings from our veins and make us not gods, but just men.
In another chapter he calls humanism the new Pelagianism:
What was Pelagianism? It was a doctrine taught by a great student of Greek philosophy, Pelagius by name, who held that human nature by its own power is able to save itself without the help of God’s grace. This is the central doctrine of Humanism….
In its essence, the Humanism of today is nothing but a revival of Pelagianism. It is the heresy of human action and intellection, the assertion that humanity can climb divine heights without divine help, and that of itself and by itself it is sufficient for the perfection of its capacities and powers. Briefly, it is the assertion that the human mind needs not faith and human power needs not grace.
He makes clear the radical dissimilarities between humanism and Christianity:
It is a strange paradox, but a true one, nevertheless, that man only becomes most human when he becomes most divine, because he has been destined from all eternity to be conformable to the image of the Son of God. Any form of Humanism, therefore, which denies the necessity of grace, and attempts to perfect man without it, is asking man to grow without an environment in which to grow. To remain on the level of the purely human, and to hold up the ideal of “decorum,” I to permit man to expand horizontally, in the direction of the human, but not vertically, in the direction of the divine. . . . That is why Humanism without the superhuman is not Humanism but Naturalism. Man by nature is not an idol but an idolater, and to turn back upon himself is to condemn him to selfishness, which is death….
Humanism, denying the absolute necessity of Christ, suffers from the fatal defect of all such denials: It asks men to worship a system, and that, too, is inhuman.
Philosophies At War (1943)
Sheen makes some important observations in this volume:
Totalitarianism has three negative dogmas: it denies the value of a person by affirming the primacy of the mass, the race, the class. It denies the equality of man, and it affirms that evil is the method and the goal of the revolution…
The basic principle of democracy is the sacredness of the individual as a creature endowed by God with inalienable rights. The basic principle of Nazism and other totalitarian systems is that the individual has no rights except those given him by the Party or the State. In America, freedom resides in man; in Nazism, freedom resides in the race. In America, man endows the State with rights which he received from God; in Nazism, the State endows man with rights which it got from Hitler. One of the best expressions of this totalitarian idea — that the individual has no value because all value resides in collectivity — is to be found in that influential German, Karl Marx…
In plain language, this means that Marx had no use for the individual worker or proletariat as such. The person in himself has no value; he has value only as a representative of a revolutionary class. Once the person ceased to be a member of that class, he ceased to have value. This despisal of the human person, as such, is the first dogma of all totalitarian systems. It explains why the individual Jew has no value or rights in Nazism, because he is not a member of the revolutionary race; it explains Fascism which affirms: “society is the end, individuals only the means and the instruments of social ends.” It explains the wanton disregard of individual life by the Japanese Imperial Government and the statement of the Japanese educators: “The individual is not an entity but depends upon the whole arising from and kept in being by the State.” These low and unspiritual views of man are the beginning of slavery.
Persons lose their identity in Totalitarianism very much like grapes in a wine press; they continue to exist only in the wine…. Totalitarianism, on the contrary, denies the basic equality of all men as children of God. Men are equal only on condition that they belong to a certain class, a certain race, a certain dynasty, a certain nation. Hitler, therefore, proclaims the superiority of the German race over all the peoples of the earth with the possible exception of the Japanese, for Hitler has discovered that one of the Japanese sun-gods is a first cousin of the German god Wotan.
Let no one stultify himself by believing that Totalitarianism, as we have defined it, in any of its forms can be Christianized or democratized or humanized; for here we are dealing not only with wicked men who could be converted through God’s grace but also with a wicked ideology that makes conversion impossible. Erring sheep can be brought into the sheepfold of Christ, but evil philosophies which are like wolves cannot. By their very nature they are anti-Christian because they exalt the herd recognized by the State, over the person whose value comes from God. That is why Totalitarianism persecutes the Church. Persecution could be avoided only by emptying Christianity of Christ, man of his soul and the soul of its Justice and Charity. The evil ideology we are fighting today is in revolt against both humanity and Christianity….
The choice is not between religion and no religion, but between two religions: a religion from God or a State religion; a religion with a Cross or a religion with a Double Cross.
Communism and the Conscience of the West (1948)
In the preface he offers these thoughts: “The basic struggle today is not between individualism and collectivism, free enterprise and socialism, democracy and dictatorship. These are only the superficial manifestations of a deeper struggle which is moral and spiritual and involves above all else whether man shall exist for the state, or the state for man, and whether freedom is of the spirit or a concession of a materialized society.”
And in the introduction to this book Sheen says this:
It is a characteristic of any decaying civilization that the great masses of the people are unaware of the tragedy. Humanity in a crisis is generally insensitive to the gravity of the times in which it lives. Men do not want to believe their own times are wicked, partly because they have no standard outside of themselves by which to measure their times. If there is no fixed concept of justice, how shall men know it is violated? Only those who live by faith really know what is happening in the world; the great masses without faith are unconscious of the destructive processes going on, because they have lost the vision of the heights from which they have fallen.
One last brief quote, demonstrating the utter contrast between atheistic statism and Christianity: “Communism is a futile attempt to compensate psychologically for loss of faith. Man cannot long live without a great Love, and having turned his back on Infinite Love, he staggered for a century with a tawdry love of self.”
While Nazism may no longer be with us, nor Soviet Communism, godless humanism and secular statism most certainly are. The words of Sheen are as relevant today as when they were first penned so long ago.
9 Replies to “Fulton J. Sheen On Statism”
Thanks Bill for this reprise of Fulton Sheen. Years ago at a Lifeline Bookfest I picked up an old paperback comprised of the texts of various messages delivered by Fulton Sheen as part of some sort of short ten minute TV show he had for many years in the US. “Life is Worth Living” I think it was called. I never saw the show of course, but the occasional reading the script of one of those shows during my lunch was like reading a devotional written for someone doing their best working in a secularised public sector welfare job. He knew the era he was working in and his words were so well-considered. Reading this article reminded me of times when the words of Fulton Sheen from a decaying old paperback during my lunch break lifted me into a different place in which God was present rather than absent.
And as a follow up, I have just discovered that “Life is Worth Living” by Fulton Sheen is in fact available on Kindle and also on Audible in the form of digitally remastered files of the actual radio and TV broadcasts he delivered to the American people! And as the apiel says: “His wisdom and gentle insight are once again available in digitally remastered audio recorded from his live programs.”
Many thanks for that Duncan.
Addressing 25,000 people in Sydney’s St Mary’s Cathedral in 1948 in a talk called “The Church in our Time”, Archbishop Sheen recounted something that he had never mentioned before, that in a papal audience years earlier, Pope Pius XI had said,
“I want you in every single address that you give in your country after your return to speak on the subject of Communism. I want you to do this as long as I live, and I give you this order.”
I remember watching Bishop Sheen on the television when I was a kid. Maybe giving away my age with that. I was raised in a home that could be described as solidly Christian and my dad was born again in a Protestant “tradition” where as my mom came from German Catholic roots until she came to salvation and was on fire for Jesus and she could definitely refute Catholicism. As a child, I had a somewhat interesting view of Catholicism due to my mom. I found it interesting that we would be watching this guy on TV who was clearly Catholic. I remember saying to my dad that I liked watching and listening to him and he seems like a good guy. My dad said , “yeah, he’s a good guy.” I’m glad it doesn’t fall upon me to have to judge Catholics particularly since they seem to come in many varieties, just like people who purport to be Protestant Christians do. One thing that I do admire about the Catholics, at least the official dogma, is their strong stand against abortion.
Thanks for that William.
Yes, William Diller, Babies in the womb are not too fussed about who defends them – Catholic, Protestant, Mohammedan or Hindu, but it does appear that the champions of family marriage, the innocence of children and the unborn are the Catholics, whilst our Protestant Archbishops are missing in action Is it not the Protestant nations like Britain and the USA who have promoted with a vengeance abortion, homosexuality, pornography and divorce?
David Skinner UK
The Archbishop Fulton Sheen Signature Set is being released on Sept 20th 2022 contains the following:
The five works composing this set are:
Way to Happiness
Communism and the Conscience of the West
Thinking Life Through
Philosophies at War
Preface to Religion
Available Amazon, probably elsewhere too, as well as “old errors new labels” and “moods and truths” (a book of his I have).