Fulton Sheen and the Problem of Celebrity Clergy

Fulton Sheen and the Problem of Celebrity Clergy December 3, 2019



I have no opinion  about Archbishop Fulton Sheen.

Well, that’s not true. I have many opinions about Archbishop Fulton Sheen. I thought his television show was very comforting to me when I lived alone and watched vintage episodes on EWTN more than a decade ago. Now I’m inclined to think him fishy because I’ve grown cynical and automatically assume Catholic TV personalities are trying to sell me some beachfront property in Arizona. I think he looks a little like Mr. Rogers, which I like because I love Mr. Rogers, and I think his voice sounds a bit like Bert from Sesame Street whom I also love, although Ernie is my favorite. I hope and pray that he is in paradise with Christ right now, and if he is in purgatory I pray that his stay is short. I hope that neither he nor anybody else is in hell. Those are my opinions on Archbishop Fulton Sheen.

I have barely been following his canonization process. I was vaguely aware that two dioceses were having a tug-of-war over his remains. Awhile back I heard that there was an allegation that he had aided in covering up sexual abuse, but I didn’t know anything more about it than a quick paragraph I quote tweeted cynically on Twitter once because I am always commenting cynically on things on Twitter. My friend Rebecca wrote more about the allegations,  some other bloggers put their oar in, Rebecca responded to them, and then I stopped thinking about Fulton Sheen again.

Today, the news has just broken that Sheen’s beatification has been postponed.

I have no idea why it was postponed, because the reason hasn’t been published. I was inclined to think that it was some sort of bureaucratic SNAFU right up until I read the press release which contains the statement: “In our current climate, it is important for the faithful to know that there has never been, nor is there now, any allegation against Sheen involving the abuse of a minor.” And again, “At every stage, it has been demonstrated definitively that he was an exemplary model of Christian conduct and a model of leadership in the church. At no time has his life of virtue ever been called into question.” And that seems to me like an incredibly weird and defensive way of handling the postponement, one designed to cause rumors rather than quell them. Maybe they’re just being cautious in the dumbest way imaginable. But if there’s no reason to doubt that he was an “exemplary model of Christian conduct,” why didn’t they just say “the beatification has been postponed due to a scheduling error” or something like that? There are a million very mild ways to explain this that wouldn’t leave us scratching our heads and trying to read between the lines. We all know The Vatican is a giant bureaucracy where things move at a snail’s pace. That was reason enough.

I still trust that this is all just an irritating bureaucratic issue and will be resolved shortly.

And yet, here we are, having this conversation.

All over social media in the past hour or so, I’ve seen frustrated people asking questions about what’s going on. Many people– not crabby cynics like me but reasonable people– suspect the worst. And why wouldn’t they, after the time we’ve had lately?

That brings me to my point: our Church is in crisis because of the sins of the clergy and the culture the clergy built to protect themselves. Our Church’s reputation is in the toilet for the most just of reasons. The faithful are hurt, traumatized and furious. So many of the people we were groomed to revere as saints have turned out to be monsters– and I do use that word “groomed” deliberately. Abusers don’t just groom their victims; they groom their whole community. That’s what happened in the Church. We were all groomed to feel that it was a sin to ask questions about priests and bishops. We were groomed to mind our p’s and q’s, shut up if we noticed anything, and treat the clergy like living saints. And under that cloud of goodwill, they abused thousands of people. We’re getting new credible allegations all the time, and nothing like a just recompense has been made. Our trust has been shattered and there’s no bringing it back, nor will there be for a long time. This isn’t something that’s over. It’s something that’s still happening right now.

Now, every time anything irregular happens associated with the Catholic Church, we all jump out of our skins and start asking if this was to do with sexual abuse.

We don’t need to be canonizing any Catholic clergy celebrities right now.

We ought to postpone the beatification of Archbishop Fulton Sheen, not because of anything Fulton Sheen was or was not, but because of the culture we live in. We still live in a culture of Catholic clergy celebrities with cult followings who groomed us to think the Church could do no wrong, and then did grave wrong. We still live in the culture of Marcial Maciel, whose thousands upon thousands of dupes called “nuestro padre” and treated him like a living saint while he abused them and ruined countless lives. We live in the culture of Saint John Paul the Second, whom I believe to be in Heaven with Christ now, but who shamefully protected Maciel and left his successors holding the bag. We live in the culture of Father Sam Tiesi who was treated as a living saint right here in Steubenville while he allegedly brazenly sexually abused vulnerable women, and of Father Mike Scanlan, a man I loved and admired, who turned out to be a monster deliberately endangering Franciscan University’s whole student body by covering Father Tiesi’s tracks. We live in the culture of Pell, McCarrick, Bransfield and Malone. Pell is in prison, McCarrick was defrocked, Bransfield may or may not be severely punished and they tell me that Malone is going to step down, but their legacy remains. Those are just a handful of examples of the things that have been happening everywhere in the Church. Trust has been betrayed like that all around the world. And there is no reason to believe that the other Catholic clergy who enjoyed the limelight over the past several generations are blameless. Maybe they were. But why should we believe it?

The legacy of all of this abuse will take at least several generations more to be healed. We’ve not even begun to heal yet; we’re right in the middle of it.

This is not the time for another Catholic clergy celebrity to be held up for our admiration.

No, canonization isn’t the declaration that a person was perfectly virtuous in every way; all saints are also sinners expect Our Lady. But beatifying or canonizing someone is deliberately holding up that person for our veneration and admiration, and this isn’t the time to do that for a clergy celebrity.

This is the time for the clergy to do real penance, far above and beyond what they’ve begun to do. This is a time for real reform, not slapping on a few more regulations and muttering about prayer and fasting. The change has to happen first. When our own era has become a thing of the past and the culture is very different, the Church can start opening the causes for canonization of all sorts of people who were shining lights in a terrible time. If God wishes them to be recognized as saints, their legacy will be remembered and in the meanwhile, the wicked can prove wicked. But right now, it’s just too soon.

We have more important things to worry about.


(image via wikimedia commons) 




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