Thank Goodness Fulton Sheen’s Cause Has Been Suspended

Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen was one of the most dynamic preachers of the Catholic Faith in the twentieth century. Anyone familiar with his work in media knows the power of his influence and example. He was clearly one of the most notable products of the American Catholic revival that began in the 1920s, and the strength of his witness continues to impress today. His books remain eminently approachable, an astonishing achievement for one so gifted academically. Shining through his telegenic smile, one could sense the depth of his faith and his holiness.

The cause of Sheen’s canonization proceeded on its standard course for a long time. Introduced by local ordinaries, the faith of those touched by his example generated a spontaneous cult—the most fundamental ingredient for public recognition of sainthood in the Catholic Church. But devotion on earth must be coupled with testimony from heaven, a fact ascertained by the certification of a miracle by both medical and theological experts. Sheen seemed well on his way to the honors of the altar.

Yet a simmering debate has arisen between the Archdiocese of New York, where Sheen lived much of his life and did much of his outstanding ministry, and the diocese of Peoria, from whence he hailed.  As a preliminary step to beatification and canonization there must be a canonical recognition of the body, with the attendant removal of first-class relics. This corresponds to the classical Christian rite of “elevation,” or the removal of the potential saint’s body to a position of honor and reverence, thereby both recognizing the cult accorded by the faithful and encouraging its further development. But the process has been stopped in this case by the refusal of Cardinal Dolan to transfer the body.

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The Catholic world has been shocked by this and somewhat troubled, seeing this as an unseemly tussle between prelates in what should be a simple matter. For much of the non-Catholic world, it just seems strange to wrangle over a dead body.   Yet I would suggest that this episode demonstrates a sign of great hope, of continuity of practice, and a renewal of the Church in light of her great Tradition. I am thankful for the suspension of the cause for several notable reasons.

In the first place, the cause has been slowed down. This is encouraging in the age of fast-tracked canonizations which tend to minimize the gravity of such elevations, bound up as they are with historical affirmations of papal infallibility. It is good to slow processes, indeed sometimes stop them altogether. Cults should arise out of spontaneous devotion and proper ecclesial supervision and care. Saints should be “from the ground up” as it were. Saints were never intended to be top-down impositions of models of life or patterns of holiness dictated by mere authority. Cults should be allowed to spread organically, and sometimes be permitted to die out of their own accord, with careful shepherding by Church authorities. This is why the old fifty-year rule was in place. This should permit enough time to make sure that a cult was genuine, that it was a result of the unfolding of an authentic discernment of holiness in the life of the Church, and provides the needed leisure for the operations of the various complex tasks associated with presenting a cause. The Church should not conform itself to this age of instant gratification, with its attendant shallowness. The old rule also provided a cooling-off period so that people too intimately involved in the life and career of the potential saint had been mostly laid in their graves. Unfortunately a kind of historical chauvinism afflicts many today, thinking that they either live in the darkest times in Church history or in the “broad, sunlit uplands” of Pollyanna-ish progressivism. The endurance of a cult long after the principals are dead is a telling mark of its validity.

When a cause is rushed, questions arise both inside and outside the Church as to the thoroughness of the case, and issues swirl about motivations. Are people promoting a cause instead of a person? Are the authorities attempting to impose someone artificially, independent of genuine public cult? Are agendas, movements, ethnicities, or states in life being canonized instead of an unrepeatable singular exemplar of God’s transforming grace?

In addition, the staff at the Congregation for Saints’ Causes is massively overworked and grossly underpaid, how does this advance the proper recognition of sanctity in the Church of God? Are saints being as thoroughly vetted as both they and the People of God deserve?  It is therefore good to see a cause placed on hold, with all sides being given time for reflection and true cultivation of veneration.

In this particular instance, faithful Catholics responded generally with dismay at what they saw as a tussle unworthy of princes of the Church. On the contrary I see this as a fervent affirmation of Incarnational Christianity. The bishops involved want their holy ones “home.” They are doing this, on at least some level, for the sake of their people. It is no minor thing to have the body of a saint at the heart of a local Church, something those of us across the Atlantic tend to forget.   I will offer no opinion here on which local Church should win, save by reminding the participants of a well-established custom, saints have heads and bodies. Relics, even major ones, are divisible. How advantageous to a cult to have two centers of veneration?

The bodies and tombs of the saints are a privileged nexus, a place where heaven and earth come together in a special way. There, before the devotee, lie the earthly remains of one whose soul is now in heaven, beholding the beatific vision. There one supplicates before not simply moldering bones and flesh, but that very body redeemed by the Risen Christ, which will with certitude be raised unto glory on the last day. It is one of the most stunningly Incarnational affirmations made by the Christian faith which is, as Robert Wilken said, “an affair of things.” We are not saved by Gnostic spiritualism, we are saved through bread and wine, water and oil, and yes, even through the bodies of the dead. This is something easily lost even by Catholics, especially those who live in a post-Protestant, post-modern world, alienated from the traditional human proximity to death. The struggle for the bodies of saints is at root a profoundly Christian act. Tawdry motivations can come into play it is true, even in the most sacred transaction. But here at least, Cardinal Dolan and Bishop Jenky are acting in accord with the deepest traditions of Christianity, traditions that rooted themselves in the sub-Apostolic era itself. The bodies of saints, besides the Eucharist, are the greatest thing possessed by the Church on earth, and both of them are present witnesses to the deep Incarnational reality of historical Christianity.

Genuine cults will endure, popular devotion will increase, and God will magnify his holy ones by the performance of miracles. All of these are organic processes that must unfold in a natural way, giving the Holy Spirit and the officials in charge time to do their jobs. Bishop Sheen, I am convinced, will be canonized, but even in death he is still showing the Church of God how to keep that faith “once for all delivered to the saints.”

  • Donald S. Prudlo

    Donald S. Prudlo is Chair and Warren Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Tulsa. His specialty is saints and sainthood in the Christian tradition, and he is the author of The Martyred Inquisitor: The Life and Cult of Peter of Verona (Ashgate, 2008) and has recently edited The Origin, Development, and Refinement of Medieval Religious Mendicancies (Brill, 2011).

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