The canonization of Cardinal Newman on October 13, 2019 and the approval of the beatification of Bishop Sheen within the same calendar year offers new and needed hope for philosophy.* These two luminaries, are like proximate stars reinforcing each other’s light. Among their many gifts is a philosophical outlook that includes realism, clarity of thought, and a grasp of the paradoxical nature of truth.
Philosophy in the modern world is in disarray. Alfred North Whitehead has observed that the dominant philosophies of the modern age lack realism and may be characterized as so much “juggling with abstractions” (Science and the Modern World). As a result, he states, “modern philosophy has been ruined”. From a Catholic perspective, Joseph Pieper remarks that the problem that philosophy now faces is not this or that issue that is germane to the philosophical enterprise, but, as he laments, “Why philosophy at all?”.
Fulton Sheen maintained that “Science deals with an aspect of reality based on abstraction, and therefore can never give us reality as such.” Nor was Saint Newman interested in abstractions as he informs us in poetic terms: “I sought to hear the voice of God and climbed the topmost steeple, but God declared: ‘Go down again – I dwell among the people’.” Bishop Sheen ratifies this statement on the level of the parent to child relationship: “When a child is given to his parents, a crown is made for that child in heaven, and woe to the parents who raise a child without consciousness of that eternal crown.” Realism places heavy demands on both the community and the family. It also places a heavy demand on the philosopher.
A brief comparison between the thought of Saint Newman and the soon to be beatified Blessed Sheen illustrates their keen minds and clarity of expression. In addition to their strong intellects, both were gifted writers. Newman and Sheen, as good philosophers, had worked diligently throughout their long lives to restore philosophy as a viable way of communicating truth to people. The following reveals similarities and subtle differences in their thought.
Cardinal Newman raises the question, “What is the world’s religion now?” He answers it by stating that the world “has taken the brighter side of the Gospel, – its tidings of comfort, its precepts of love; all darker, deeper views of man’s condition and prospects being comparatively forgotten.” For Bishop Sheen, “Christ without the Cross” becomes the “cross without Christ.” Realism demands the acceptance of both the dark as well as the bright side of life. We cannot re-create reality on our own terms.
The world does not want to believe in either suffering or inconvenience. Hence the ready acceptance of euthanasia and abortion. Nor does the world want to believe in sinners. However, as Bishop Sheen tells us, it is “Far better to say: ‘I am a sinner,’ than to say: ‘I have no need of religion’. The empty can be filled, but the self-intoxicated have no room for God.” When we become drunk on pride, our thirst for God becomes all the stronger.
In choosing only that which pleases us, we transform Truth into a Lie. And we cannot be true to ourselves and fulfill our destinies by living out a lie. Only the whole Truth and not merely one of its fragments can serve as a practical guide for our life’s journey. A bird cannot fly without wings, nor can a deer run without legs.
Good philosophers know how to make subtle adjustments to distinguish what is true from what is deceptive. The world says, “choose,” but refrains from telling us that choice is not self-justifying. But there are dire consequences to making the wrong choices. “We can believe what we choose,” writes Saint John Henry Newman. But we should know that “We are answerable for what we choose to believe”. For Fulton Sheen, “If you don’t behave as you believe, you will end by believing as you behave.” Hell is a place where bad behavior is the result of believing in the wrong things.
The recent attention bestowed on these two extraordinary figures, one ardently hopes, will foster a renewed, if not intensified, interest in philosophy. Real communication between people is possible only if there is an agreed upon acceptance of the rational elements that philosophy embraces.
*The beatification of Bishop Sheen, scheduled for December 21 in Peoria, Illinois at the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception, has been delayed. Peoria Bishop Danial Jenky “is firmly convinced of the great holiness of the Venerable Servant of God and remains confident that Sheen will be beatified.