Fulton Sheen’s Timely Insights on Today’s America
As we’ve seen Bishop Fulton Sheen was prophetic about the problems he foresaw years before they came over the horizon. He was no less so about America in a TV broadcast more than half a century ago.
"Our nation is too full of those that are crying Down…Down with schools. Down with the churches. Down with teachers. Down with government. Down with the police. Can you build anything down? You cannot!” Archbishop Fulton Sheen exclaimed to his TV audiences about America during his popular TV show in the mid-1960s.
He honed in on the same theme twice — the first time during his mid-1950s telecasts. Although these were over half a century ago, it looks like he was actually doing the broadcast currently in 2020.
It wasn’t the first time Sheen seemed to see what was on the other side of the horizon from what was gaining some footholds in his day. Decades earlier he could foresee what might happen. And tried to reroute people.
“The subject of this telecast is patriotism,” he told his 1960s TV audience. He titled the talk Quo Vadis, America? He tied the title into the story of Peter fleeing from persecution in Rome. Peter meets the Lord heading the other way and asks, Quo Vadis, Domine — Where are you going, Lord? — who answers, “I am going to Rome.”
“Quo Vadis America — America, where are you going? Where are we going in this day and age?d” Sheen asked. What about patriotism? “Patriotism is a virtue that was allied to the old virtue of the Greeks and Latin called pietas, meaning love of God, love of neighbor, love of country. And when one goes out, all go out.”
When “we no longer have love of God,” he paused, “we no longer have love of country.” He said this at a time when churches were still fairly full and when most Catholics took their Sunday obligation seriously.
Sheen went on. We examine particularly “today the problem of revolution. We started our country with a revolution. Revolution is in the air today … do we live in America in a revolutionary tradition? Certainly. But the question is: what kind of a revolution should we have? There are two kinds. One the kind we started with, the other the kind we have today.”
The American Revolution was about “governing ourselves,” he said. “What's the revolution of today? What's its nature?” he again asked. “Violence. Violence just for the sake of violence. I mean the new type of revolt which involves destruction of everything that is in the past.” Tear down the statues. Saints. Sinners. Presidents. Remove all history.
Sheen turned to the America Revolution. “The one who best expressed the principles of the American Revolution was Thomas Jefferson,” he said. “Thomas Jefferson is the antecedent of all Americans today who believe in self-government.” Pointing to the large word “Violence” he had written on the chalkboard, Sheen said, “Who's the preachy progenitor of this kind of revolution? Someone who was a contemporary of Thomas Jefferson. (Louis Antoine de) St.-Just (one of the architects of the 1793 French revolution) and all who were associated with him.”
The saintly Sheen explained the difference of the two revolutions — “What Jefferson taught us, what we believe, what are the conditions of the preservation of our country, and St.-Just who holds exactly the same thing that the violent revolutionists of today hold in our country. They may not know that they are adopting his principles, but they are.”
But Jefferson “founded our democracy upon two principles — one, the dignity of man,” Sheen emphasized. “Secondly, I would just simplify it for all rights and liberties come to us from God.”
Jefferson “believed that the government must be founded upon the respect for the individual. So he investigated what are the source of our rights and liberties? Where do they come from? Where does my right of free speech come from? Or the right of assembly? Or any other right? ...From the federal government? Certainly not. If they came from the federal government, the federal government could take them away.”
But Jefferson set down “in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence that it is a self-evident principle — self-evident — that the Creator,” Sheen again emphasized as he pointed a hand and finger dramatically to heaven, “the Creator — has endowed man with certain unalienable rights — unalienable! It cannot be taken away — among which are the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That is our democracy. Those are the two principles.”
Speaking on the same subject in the mid-1950’s, Bishop Sheen put it this way: We must never think we have these rights because they’re listed in the Constitution. “No,” he emphasized, “because they are divinely given…See, our county has theological foundations. In other words, our Declaration of Independence is a declaration of dependence. We are independent because we are dependent on God. If we wish to keep our rights and liberties, we must also keep our God…Piety and patriotism go together. That’s the first glory of being an American.”
He continued in the mid-60s show, “And isn't it interesting that that particular government (the French Revolution) and those governments in the world that deny the existence of God are those that deny the existence of human rights.”
The architects of the French Revolution insisted on violence and terror as the only way to establish new government. “That was the thing that Jefferson had to fight against when he wrote the Declaration of Independence,” Sheen emphasized while adding something for the present in which communistic ideas were gaining. “I'm bringing it up now to remind you that we're going through exactly that same crisis now the Jefferson faced. Our country today has to choose once more between Jefferson and St.-Just. Which are we going to choose?”
“It will be it will be easy to identify the new type of violence that's sweeping our country, our schools, our streets,” the ever prescient Sheen said, describing three characteristics.
“The first characteristic of the new violence of our day is what we will call ‘elitism’…There used to be a virtuous elite, a corps of heroes and saints that very much influenced any culture and democracy. But the new elite practice is what is called ‘elitism,’ namely, there is a dominant minority that makes a lot of noise and that uses violence to force its will upon others.” Sheen pointed out that historian Arnold Toynbee identified two groups here.
“I would call one of the groups the man with the bullhorn,” Sheen said. “He's always the leader. You just watch in any violent group today that follows the principle of St.-Just. Watch the man with the bullhorn. He's the leader…Secondly, there are the hangmen. The kind that…destroy property. Burn homes. Do anything to enforce their will. And then there” are the group that “just profit from violence. Confiscate property to be in on the violence.”
Sheen saw another jolting aspect which he called a “new characteristic of a revolution — mysticism.” While the term “belongs to religion and doesn't belong actually in the field of politics, but has been transposed to politics.” How? The religious mystics say, God or nothing.
Sheen got fired up as he pointed out, “The political mysticism is, of course, there is no God. It's my will or nothing. This is what the elite insists upon. No alternative. No compromise. So they would make in this mysticism a tabla rasa. They would wipe the slate clean of anything that opposes them. And then after they destroyed life and property, they would ask for an amnesty and immunity.”
Thirdly…I found Toynbee saying that idea which has been in my mind — namely, Satanism. Satanism is behind it too. This is the third characteristic of it.”
“The world is built on order,” Sheen explained. “There's a plan. So scientists are able to discover the laws of the universe. And in discovering the laws of the universe, men find harmony. This harmony, and order, had to come from somewhere. It came from God. What is the essence of Satanism? The essence of Satanism is the destruction of that order — the order of law, the order of morality, order of religion, the order of ethics. Anything that you please. This is St.-Just in our day.”
“Believe me, fellow Americans, I tell you that before the flood in the book of Genesis we read — in the days of Noah there was violence on the earth… All of the violence that happens in our country is a fever graph. Read it! And it points to a decay in our civilization. How are you going to get out of it?”
“I tell you one thing that we have to do,” Sheen continued, almost out of time in the broadcast while millions of listeners remained riveted to his every word.
“We have to realize maybe why the Eagle is our national symbol,” he said, then dramatically made the analogy for us in a way that strikes deep into the heart and spirit. “The eagle always builds its nest high in the mountain crevices. When the young are hatched, the eagle pushes its young over the nest. They fly down, and to what to eaglet eyes must seem like sudden death. Just before the young eagle crashes, mother eagle swoops down from its nest, down to the abyss, and catches the young, then flies up into the sky, swoops from (under) it again and repeats the process until the bird has learned to fly.”
“Moses saw that, and he wrote, ‘As the Eagle stirs among the young, so does God stir among the nations.’ Maybe God is stirring us. Bringing us to the brink of danger in order that we might begin to examine ourselves, and restore Jefferson, the dignity of man and a belief in God.”
Sheen raised his voice and gestured, “Our nation is too full of those that are crying Down. Down with the universities. Down with schools. Down with the churches. Down with teachers. Down with government. Down with the police. Can you build anything down? You cannot! Certainly time in our nation to change our words! Let's begin now to use the word UP. Up from all of this filth! Up from this violence! Up from this indifference of courts. Up, up to the battlements of eternity. Up, Up, to God!”