Fulton Sheen: Treasure in Clay

Fulton Sheen was a Catholic Archbishop in the 20th century, one of the first and most popular radio and t.v. evangelists, and one of only a handful of people to ever receive an agrégé (a French post-doctoral rank) from the University of Louvain in Belgium. He was also notably dramatic in some of his presentations on screen and reached a considerable amount fame and notoriety for his shows “The Catholic Hour” and “Life is Worth Living.” It took a couple of decades to acquire his secular and canonically-sanctioned academic degrees – AB, MA, JCB, STL, Sacred Theology Doctorate, PhD, and agrégé – so he was assigned to various parishes and chaplaincies, most of which allowed him to take on radio programs. However, he never mentions in his autobiography any of the actual titles of his degrees (besides the obscure agrege) or the prestigious institutions for which he worked or who pursued him. Rather, he tempers his life story with a healthy lens of realism and humility. He makes thoughtful remarks about the trouble with writing one’s own life and then presents himself as the son of Irish immigrant farmers, one of the few aspects he boasts about in the book. Ven. Sheen also achieves a surprising balance of exposition, narrative summary, and dialogue across the many chapters of his traditionally-structured work, which makes for a smooth and compelling read.

Sheen borrows from Shakespeare to comment on the trouble of autobiographies. “The evil that men do lives after them / The good is oft interred with their bones” (5). Yet, Sheen never truly comments on any of the good he did during his life like refusing to allow Bishop Spellman to charge for donated powdered milk in Chicago during the 1950s or like the hundreds of thousands in book sales he donated to leprosy treatment, St Teresa of Calcutta’s Missionaries of Charity, and soup kitchens in New York. He just claims none of the benefit he has given the world is his own but rather divine providence. On this note, he writes, “But when it comes to writing about a bishop who is given the throne a few feet above the people, there is danger of seeing him in pomp and dignity. ‘Man, proud man / dressed in a little brief authority / most ignorant of what he’s most assur’d / his glossy essence, like an angry ape / plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven / as make the angels weep’” (5). This suspicion of himself colors the rest of the 280 pages or so, leading to the apt title, Treasure in Clay.

Catholic literature and its writers have an acute and chronic illness: excessive exposition. The most popular nonfiction Catholic literature (by this, I mean widely read) is expository with no shortage of intentional, standalone quotable nuggets. Sheen gives equal measures of exposition, narrative summary, and dialogue in Treasure in Clay. In chapter fifteen, he evens spends most of those pages in the epistolary form, actual and speculative, based on his exchanges with then-Pope John Paul II. This combined with his structuralist approach allows him to shift more seamlessly from present tense exposition to flashbacks, which shouldn’t be too surprising because of the prevalence of structuralism at that time. He also breaks up exposition with distinctly different dialogue, either speculative in the present tense or past tense as a transition to or from reflection. The FBI maintained a file – now available for public access – on Sheen after several attempts on his personal documents and even his life by Soviet spies and contractors from the 1950s until his death in the late 70s. On page 88, Sheen moves from three pages of exposition and sparse dialogue on communism to a present tense flashback “sometime after World War II” in which he is conscripted into espionage by the FBI after a mysterious Soviet gentleman audits one of his classes. However, there are a few adverbs and some potentially conflated dialogue amid the narrative action. “Afterward I went to the telephone and called the head of the Communist Division of the FBI, to whom I gave the man’s name. He reacted quickly: ‘Oh, he is a very well-known spy; we didn’t know that he was in the United States. The last we heard, he was in the Philippines. He’s very dangerous; your life is in danger.’ I never heard from the man again” (89). This dialogue may be due to the cumbersome work of presenting sensitive, ethically-implicating facts while still attempting fidelity to the truth.

Ven. Sheen published nearly 70 books throughout his life and only makes brief mention of his “habit of work” in Treasure in Clay but clearly applied his father’s lessons from the farm to his writing life. This lifelong habit of work in writing has made for an excellent, compelling autobiography. Sheen takes a structuralist approach to the composition of this book and presents his life in sequential order, each chapter relating his part to a larger whole. He includes a considerable amount of intertextuality and the performative interactions between two operators, “sinner and redeemer,” also distinctly structuralist. Of course, the common objections to structuralism are that it is frequently “ahistoric” and reductive, but Sheen inoculates Treasure in Clay from this by contextualizing his personal story with the exciting era in which he lived and by a deft balance of summary, dialogue, and exposition.

image: Fulton Sheen blessing Dominican friars before they go to Pakistan / Province of St. Joseph via Flickr


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Jonathan Burgess holds a BA in English Language and Literature and currently studies creative nonfiction writing in Converse College’s MFA program. His work has appeared in O Dark Thirty, Blood & Thunder, and Catholic Exchange. He lives in upstate South Carolina with his wife and four children.

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