Archbishop Fulton Sheen on War and Peace

When looking back on the life of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, there are some that would refer to him as “a man for all seasons.” Over his lifetime, he spent himself for souls, transforming lives with the clear teaching of the truths of Christ and His Church through his books, radio addresses, lectures, television series and his many newspaper columns.  

Fulton J. Sheen was born in 1895 in El Paso, Illinois.  He lived and studied through a time in history in which he witnessed the effects of two World Wars and many other conflicts whether they were social, political or economic in nature.

Whether as a graduate student or as a university professor in the United States or Europe, Sheen made friends with a number of the great thinkers and writers of his day such as G.K. Chesterton, Christopher Dawson, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. 

After his ordination to the priesthood in 1919, Sheen would go on to receive numerous degrees from the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, Louvain University in Belgium and the Angelico University in Rome.  Sheen taught as a full-time professor at The Catholic University of America from 1926-1950, first in the School of Theology and later in the School of Philosophy. At the start of his teaching career, Sheen was regarded as one of the premier scholars of his time.  His esteem within the worlds of academic theology and philosophy skyrocketed. The publication of his first book in 1925, God and Intelligence in Modern Philosophy: A Critical Study in the Light of the Philosophy of Saint Thomas,garnered Sheen extraordinary respect in the academy for his scholarship on Thomas Aquinas. The book was so well received that Sheen was awarded the Cardinal Mercier International Philosophy Award for it. Impressed, too, with the text was G.K. Chesterton, whose admiration for it is evidenced by his willingness to write the text’s introduction.

During his time at the Catholic University of America, Sheen wrote thirty-four books on various topics.  He also was the featured speaker on The Catholic Hour radio broadcast, and millions of listeners heard his radio addresses each week.

The threat of Communism had been on the rise since the 1920’s and it became sufficiently clear to Sheen that modern atheism was not only an esoteric philosophy preached by learned professors at Harvard and Yale; it was a new Messianism emanating from Moscow and threatening to cover the face of the earth. So in the same year that Pope Pius XI issued his encyclical on atheistic communism (1937), Fulton J. Sheen published three books entitled, in sequence: Communism, Communism and Religion, and Liberty Under Communism.

Sheen stressed the need for reason in dealing with Communism. On the subject matter he was no intellectual featherweight, and he brought his formidable powers of intellection to bear on the problem of Communism, the better to refute it.  He absorbed Marx, Lenin and Stalin to prepare himself for the assaults he would sustain in his attack on their theories.  He was a tremendous success.  He converted or influenced a number of Communists and leftists in the heyday of American Communism, including Louis Budenz, Elizabeth T. Bentley, Bella Dodd and Heywood Broun.

Toward the end of the 1930’s, talk of war started to surface.  When German forces invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, World War II began.  Almost immediately Fulton J. Sheen rose to the occasion of being called to bring sense to a nation that was looking for answers to the questions of war.

In 1940, Sheen responded to the question of what issues are involved in this war?  He said in one of his radio addresses:

One of the clearest answers that has ever been given to that question appeared recently in a book published in Germany entitled “God and the People.”  This book of course bore the official sanction of Hitler himself. In it we find this notion.  Wherever there are ideas, there are fronts.  Wherever there are fronts, there are struggles. There are only two ideas in the world. The idea of the German soul, and the idea of Christianity. We are fighting not against men.  We are fighting against an idea.  This war is a struggle between the cross and the sword.  Such is the official idea of Nazism.  In other words Hitler puts us on the side of the Cross.  The side of charity and justice, pain and love of humanity.  That being so, we should realize the necessity of prayer in our national life. And when we pray, we pray not that God be on our side, we pray rather that we may be on his.

Sheen encouraged his audience to think of the great spiritual transformation that there would be in America if every Jew, Protestant and Catholic according to the light of his conscience prayed one continuous hour a day, for the President, for Congress and for victory.

He continued to explain that:

The point of the struggle as Hitler himself has put it, this fight is one against the Cross, against the sword.  We will take him literally.  He has put us on the side of the Cross and so we are.  And we he reaches out his sword to us with a naked blade, may a day come when we will be strong enough to take that naked blade in our hand and pull it from him and then lift the sword high in the sky with the hilt up towards heaven blue, in order that the hilt may frame against the august blue of heavens’ sky the glorious symbol of the cross of Christ.

Archbishop Sheen called World War II not only a political struggle, but also a “theological one.” He referred to Hitler as an example of the “Anti-Christ.”  Sheen also said “that the means of life no longer ministers to peace and order because we have perverted and forgotten the true ends of life…Now the basic reason why our economics and politics have failed as a means to peace is that both have forgotten the end and purpose of life.  We have been living as if civilization, culture and peace were by-products of economic activity, instead of the other way round, so that economics and politics are subordinated to the moral and the spiritual… It is not our politics that has soured, nor our economics that have rusted; it is our hearts.  We live and act as if God had never made us.”

In 1941, the United States officially entered World War II.  That same year Sheen penned the book A Declaration of Dependence, in which he writes:

The Declaration of Independence, I repeat, is a Declaration of Dependence! We are independent of dictators because we are dependent on God.” God is the necessary factor of our salvation. As a result, he is to be the center of our lives. His ways ought to permeate every aspect and area of our lives: education, employment, pleasure, mourning, socializing, etc. All is done in sight of the omnipotent Lord, and all we do should be done reflecting this knowledge. Our every interaction should be filled with the love of our Savior.

Numerous articles, radio reflections, and books would continue to be produced by Sheen throughout the war.  Given their importance and the impact they had on society in his day, it seemed appropriate to bring together into an anthology some of Archbishop Sheen’s reflections on war and peace taken from five books he wrote from 1941 to 1944.

The book War and Peace: An Anthology (2022) contains five of Sheen’s most treasured books from the period of the Second World War.  Even though these writings are reflective of a certain time in history, the wisdom contained in these texts is still quite relevant today.

         For God and Country (New York: P.J. Kenedy and Sons, 1941)

         God and War (New York: P.J. Kenedy and Sons, 1942)

         The Divine Verdict (New York: P.J. Kenedy and Sons, 1943)

         Philosophies of War (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1943)

         Seven Pillars of Peace (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1944)

The first three books contained in War and Peace: An Anthology are a collection of Sheen’s Catholic Hour radio addresses that were heard by over three million listeners each week. They are a collection of short essays that address the many concerns of the listeners of his day.  

Sheen answered questions about the Anti-Christ, Hope, Faith, Prayer, the Power of God and the Divine Path to Victory.  Some of the most clearly delineated investigations into the underlying causes of the war and an entirely sound and hopeful program for winning both the war and the even more important peace are found. These powerful reflections can be most heartily recommended for its wise counsel, sane and penetrating analysis and its logical, well-wrought conclusion.

In the fourth book of this anthology, The Philosophies of War, Sheen addresses the great mass of people who were frankly dissatisfied with the ephemeral and superficial commentaries on what was happening in the war. Being endowed with intelligence, they wanted to know why it was happening. Like a master surgeon, Sheen applied the sharp scalpel of his crystal-clear logic to lay open the sources of the world’s infection.

Sheen writes:

There are two ways of looking at the war: one as a journalist, the other as a theologian. The journalist tells you what happens; the theologian not only why it happens, but also what matters. If we look at this war through the eyes of a journalist or a commentator, it will be only a succession of events without any remote causes in the past, or any great purpose in the future. But if we look at the war through the eyes of God, then the war is not meaningless, though we may not presently understand its details. It may very well be a purposeful purging of the world’s evil that the world may have a rebirth of freedom under His Holy Law, for: Every human path leads on to God.

Our approach is from the divine point of view, first of all, because it is the only explanation which fits the facts; secondly because the American people who have been confused by catchwords and slogans are seeking an inspiration for a total surrender of their great potentialities for sacrifice, both for God and country.

He continues, “We all know what we are fighting against; we want to know what we are fighting for. We all know that we are in a war; we want to know what we must do to make a lasting peace. We know whom we hate; but we want to know what we ought to love. We know we are fighting against a barbarism that is intrinsically wicked; we want to know what we have to do to make the resurrection of that wickedness impossible.”

The fifth book of this anthology entitled Seven Pillars of Peace; Sheen presents the principles which he believes must be the foundations for a just and lasting peace, following the cessation of hostilities.

Sheen is firm in his conviction that real peace cannot be declared, it must be made. It is with peace-making and the fundamental conditions on which peace must be based that this book is concerned. In its seven forceful and readable chapters it challenges the theory of many planners today that military allies are necessarily political allies; it affirms that a common hatred can make nations allies, but only a common love can make them neighbors; it denies the primacy of action over reason, in the sense that the will of the State is that which makes a State right; and it contends that utility does not establish justice, but it is justice which makes utility.

With the same lucid and persuasive reasoning which has made him outstanding, both as a writer and as a lecturer, Sheen asks all men of good will to unite for the preservation of personal rights, freedom of conscience, human justice, and civilization itself – all of which are in danger in the present conflict. All thinking persons will recognize the urgency of Sheen’s subject and will find in his far-sighted principles pillars of peace and of promise as well.

Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen’s destiny was encrypted in his name, for in the Gaelic language, “Fulton means war and “Sheen” means peace.  Sheen’s lifelong goal was to establish peace, but he was constantly at war with the various obstacles that got in the way of that noble ideal.  As a warrior for peace, he established a unique and enviable place within the Catholic Church of twentieth century America.  It is as though his very name foretold the kind of life he was to have: an uninterrupted warring against the powers of darkness to promote the peace of Christ’s kingdom.

Editor’s note: War and Peace and A Declaration of Dependence are both available from Sophia Institute Press.

Image: Stars on the Freedom Wall in Washington DC. Shutterstock/Victor Maschek

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Al Smith is the editor of four best-selling books available from Sophia Institute Press: The Cries of the Jesus from the Cross: A Fulton Sheen Anthology (2018),  Lord, Teach Us To Pray: A Fulton Sheen Anthology (2020), Archbishop Sheen's Book of Sacraments: A Fulton Sheen Anthology (2021), The Greatest Commandment: A Fulton Sheen Anthology on Love (2022). He is a husband, father, grandfather, a man of trade, and a business owner. Al has served the Church for fifteen years as a Catholic evangelist, radio host, writer, Internet broadcaster, and retreat director. He is the founder and director of the Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen Mission Society of Canada and has served on the Board of Directors of the Archbishop Fulton John Sheen Foundation in Peoria, Illinois, which promotes the cause of Fulton J. Sheen's canonization process. Al is the creator of the website Bishop Sheen Today, which features the life and works of the Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen.

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