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:
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.
…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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.