Fulton J. Sheen’s Guide to Victory over Vice

Fulton Sheen’s Victory over Vice is a joy to read and a nightmare to review. Why? It is so quotable. The matter is made worse by the fact that it is a relatively short book. There is no padding, no excess, just thought provoking prose, judicious observation, and interesting anecdote.

Is there anyone reading this who has not heard of Fulton Sheen? The man was a priest and a bishop, but his legacy remains chiefly around his gift as a communicator. He gave sermons, wrote books, and proclaimed the Gospel in ways one would expect of a man of his calling, but there was something else besides. He was one of the first to see the potential of the media. For many, the chief form of media in the 1930s was radio so he started the Catholic Radio Hour. It was a great success. By the 1950s, it was television that was in the ascendant, so he started a show there that ended up being broadcast on networks across America. Using both media he was able to access people’s free time, enter their living rooms, present his ideas at the very centre of the family home. One can only imagine how excited and active he would be with the possibilities offered by the Digital Age.

That said Sheen would have been all too aware of the dark side to this our Digital Age. Certain vices have never before been more available due to the freely had and anonymously consumed offerings online. And, here I speak not solely of one vice: lust. How much does the internet fuel envy, with so much on display and so many displaying what they have and what others want? And what of time wasted on line wanting what we see but know we can’t have? If gluttony is over consumption, then how many wasted hours, days even, are spent on line? How many duties abandoned due to the sloth induced by the easy lure of the website that captivates our interest? Or, the anger produced by reading on line what we should have avoided? And, behind it all, there is the pride of knowledge – knowing a little but not enough to know how little, or how superficial it all is? To examine the Seven Deadly Sins in our lives perhaps we need look no further than the screen in front of us.

We know of these problems, they are all around us, therefore, I was curious to see what Victory over Vice, written in 1939, and recently republished by Sophia Institute Press, had to say – would its pages have any relevance?

Sheen’s outline is simple enough. There are seven deadly sins, and so there are seven chapters. Each chapter is a brief look at each sin – anger, lust etc. – and the means to counter it. As I said at the beginning this is a hard book to review. The author was more than able to speak for himself, so I shall step aside and give you a taste, albeit all too brief, of Sheen’s thought and style:

Anger:

It is not hatred that is wrong; it is hating the wrong thing that is wrong. It is not anger that is wrong; it is being angry at the wrong thing that is wrong. Tell me your enemy, and I will tell you what you are. Tell me your hatred, and I will tell you your character.

Envy:

…There is a bit of jealousy, a bit of envy, behind every cutting remark and barbed whispering we hear about our neighbor. It is always good to remember that there are always more sticks under the tree that has the most apples. There should be some consolation for those who are so unjustly attacked to remember that it is a physical impossibility for any man to get ahead of us who stays behind to kick us.

Lust:

Lust is selfishness or perverted love. It looks not so much at the good of the other, as to the pleasure of self. It breaks the glass that holds the wine; it breaks the lute to snare the music…Deny the quality of ‘otherness’, it seeks to make the other person care for us, but not to make us care for the other person.

Pride:

Nothing is more difficult to conquer in all the world than intellectual pride. If battleships could be lined with it instead of armour, no shell could ever pierce it. This is easy to understand, for if a man thinks he knows it all, there is nothing left for him to know, not even what God might tell him.

Gluttony:

The development of character depends on which hunger and thirst we cultivate…Tell me your hungers and your thirsts, and I will tell you who you are.

Sloth:

We lose our souls not only by the evil we do, but also by the good we leave undone…Heaven is a city on a hill. Hence we cannot coast into it; we have to climb…In any case, it is better to burn out than rust out.

Covetousness:

Man becomes like unto that which he loves, and if he loves gold, he becomes like it – cold, hard and yellow.

As you can see, none of these quotations are dated; all of them apply to us today as much as to the originally intended audience. The simple fact is these seven vices and their offspring are as old as the hills, and will be around until the hills disappear.

In 1920s, Sheen spent time in London. The parish he was assigned was in a notorious part of the city – an accursed magnet for vices of various hues. It was there that the young priest heard Confessions on a regular basis. One senses within these pages his wealth of experience of the human heart with all its travails and thwarted desires. It is, perhaps, the type of insight only a priest is able to gain whilst sat day in day out listening through a darkened grill to the whole sad experience of life repeated over and over, and, where, as the Sign of the Cross is made, the same liberating words are uttered again and again: Ego te absolvo.

Be under no illusions, this is not a self-help book with easy solutions. It may be a short book but its message is ambitious, calling its reader to a better life, a fuller life, a happier life; one lived in Christ. And, what comes across strongly is that the vices displayed on these pages are often little more than futile attempts to avoid suffering. It is as if Sheen shakes his head at such folly, knowing there is no escape from pain in this life; but there is an answer to it, and one that opens the door to another life liberated from it.

There may be numerous drawbacks to this Digital Age, but there are many benefits too. One such is the possibility of access to rare film, footage not normally shown on mainstream television. Such is the case with Sheen’s television shows of the 1950s and 60s. A few minutes search online and there he is. Even in that era his screen presence was not the norm. Stood in full Roman clericals he had a penetrating look that seemed to gaze right through the camera. There is another quality though, one even more unusual. He had a passionate form of delivery tempered by the intellect that controlled it.  Nevertheless, at times, in that delivery, the passion of the man for his message breaks through – it was, it still is, compelling viewing.

There is one episode dedicated to overcoming addiction. It is typical of the shows with everything one expects from its host – wise, witty, worthwhile advice. His solution is as practical as it is thought provoking – put succinctly, we must ‘crowd out our addictions’, fill our lives with other things, better things, good obsessions, pure passions – simple enough, but so simple as to be missed in the all too common search for more complex solutions.

The name of Sheen’s television show was Life is Worth Living. What it wanted for each viewer was that they would live life to the full, to wring the last drop from every moment offered, to be as happy as is possible on this earth without clinging to the pleasures it affords. In contrast, each vice is a sort of spiritual death, repeated endlessly for those so enslaved. Therefore, to be victorious over these tendencies one must seek in the opposite direction, both practically and spiritually; and then, in any victory over vice, one shall glimpse the true Victor who has already conquered Death itself.

Editor’s note: Ven. Fulton J. Sheen’s Victory Over Vice is available in paperback or ebook from Sophia Institute Press.

K. V. Turley

By

K. V. Turley is a London based freelance writer and filmmaker with a degree in theology from the Maryvale Institute.

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  • Cooky642

    I remember Bishop Sheen! I was growing up in that era, and didn’t realize that God was using him to call me into His Most Holy Church. I loved watching him, listening to him, pondering for a whole week what he’d said and what it meant. Even though he may not need the recognition, I think we in America do. So, I hope his canonization moves forward and that America celebrates this man who was our great teacher.

  • bringiton

    Me, too, Cooky!

  • Nostromo

    A big thank you for this article and letting me know about this work
    What a Church we would have with more Father Sheens.

  • Gitanjali Sudhir

    Gita – Chennai – India.
    An interesting question: Why does the maternal womb of the Catholic Church not bring forth more Sheens, either among the clergy or among the Laity? Why this utter poverty of wise teachers and prophetic writers? Such dearth and death among the People of God for such Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Joel and John the Baptist?

  • I make it a habit of reading this book twice a year. The seven deadly sins can be overcome fixable if we apply the antidotes offered by Bishop Sheen in this book. When we go to confessional, many of us desire to recieve good council from the priest. Bishop Sheen directs our thoughts to the words of council that came from Christ The High Priest from the cross. These ‘seven last words’ from the cross on Calvary, give us food for thought on how to win the battle against sin and Satan.

    Remember that salvation is free, the maintenance program costs $10. This book by Sophia Press Institute is money well spent. It is a keeper and a life saver.

  • Nostromo

    There’s more than enough out there for me that I could never hope to finish in my lifetime to learn from.

  • Albee

    Thanks for the beautiful post….
    Sadly, Pope Francis’ exortation Amoris Laetitia just made all the above null and void.
    We are no longer in need of a well formed conscience and habitual sins (vice) are no longer considered real sins anymore, and don’t need to really be confessed since we now
    form our consciences ourselves and can choose what is a sin and what isn’t, based of course on our own personal situation. What is a sin for you is not for me and what is a sin according to the Church, is no longer applicable to me because I determined through my
    own formation that it wasn’t. So there.
    …And I wish I were kidding….

    Ven. Fulton Sheen…..pray for us!!!!

  • Michael Reardon

    No desire whatsoever to debate you, especially since I haven’t even read it yet, but I find it almost impossible that you have already given the text a complete, laborious, exacting reading, and then compared this to the (currently non-existent) opinion of professional theologians on the document in order to better mold your own opinion. Let’s give it some time huh? God be with us!

  • Yankeegator

    Didn’t you hear, there is no more sin… Pope Francis, AKA as The Dictator of Relativism, said if your conscience is ok with it, everything is AOK… Don’t worry about actually forming a conscience…

  • Alicia Summers

    So older faithful Catholic people who see nearly every action and thought as a sin and get frequent reconciliation are just fooling themselves? They should just chillax and have a good time and tell their consciences it’s all good?

  • Morrie Chamberlain

    Yankeegator and Albee, I beg to differ. Francis states very clearly in Amoris Laetitia:
    Christian marriage, as a reflection of the union between Christ and his Church, is fully realized in the union between a man and a woman who give themselves to each other in a free, faithful and exclusive love, who belong to each other until death and are open to the transmission of life, and are consecrated by the sacrament, which grants them the grace to become a domestic church and a leaven of new life for society (AL 292

    And to those who want to water down this teaching:

    A lukewarm attitude, any kind of relativism, or an undue reticence in proposing that ideal, would be a lack of fidelity to the Gospel and also of love on the part of the Church for young people themselves

  • Sarah Metts

    Great article, I am looking forward to reading Bishop Sheen’s book because of it.

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