A Pope, a President and a Bishop: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan and Fulton Sheen
COMMENTARY: The confluence of their efforts changed the century and the world for the better.
I’ve been writing and talking quite a bit recently on Pope John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and their extraordinary partnership to win the battle of the 20th century against the destructive force of atheistic Soviet communism — an evil that Our Lady of Fatima had warned about 100 years ago. It’s a great story, a touching story. So much so that, as readers here know, I dedicated an in-depth book to the topic — on that Pope and president.
But if there’s a third person in that story, it’s a bishop, an American Catholic renowned throughout the 20th century — a remarkable priest named Fulton Sheen.
In retrospect, Archbishop Sheen began the good fight that John Paul II and Ronald Reagan would pick up and carry across the finish line. His earthly work on that ideological battlefield ended smack between when Karol Wojtyla became pope and Reagan became president. A torch was being passed.
I’ve told the John Paul II-Reagan side of the story at length, but consider Archbishop Sheen’s place in this historical-spiritual picture:
Fulton Sheen was born May 8, 1895, in El Paso, Illinois, a tiny town about 90 miles south of Reagan’s hometown of Dixon — and not unlike Reagan, born humbly in an apartment over a hardware store. Sheen was ordained in the Diocese of Peoria in 1919. Today, a drive out of the parking lot at Sheen’s onetime church takes motorists along the Ronald Reagan Highway to Eureka College and various towns where Reagan lived.
Like Reagan, Sheen never lost that Midwest touch, even as he ascended heights of popularity on both coasts and in every household. Like Reagan, he had great success not only in his primary vocation, but with the microphone and camera. These two Midwest men took New York and Hollywood by storm, with two hugely popular TV shows in the 1950s: Sheen’s Life Is Worth Living and Reagan’s GE Theatre.
Archbishop Sheen became a tour de force in America generally and the Church specifically. There was no more effective Catholic apologist in the United States, teaching and preaching on every aspect of the faith, but he was especially effective in dissecting atheistic communism.
At the direct request of Pope Pius XI during a meeting they had together in Rome in 1935, then-Father Sheen dove into an intense study of Marxist-Leninist thought. The Holy Father advised Father Sheen to speak on communism “at every opportunity” and “warn Americans of its dangers.”
Sheen never failed to heed the request. It became central to his mission, message and outreach. Sheen read several languages and thus unearthed from Karl Marx’s obscurest writings various untranslated tidbits and introduced them to the English world. For instance, Sheen exhumed this Marx quotation from the original French, “Communism begins where atheism begins,” which he repeated often.
“Marx was not first a communist and then an atheist,” Sheen wrote. “He was first an atheist, then a communist. Communism was merely the political expression of his atheism.”
In a statement very similar to Reagan’s later statements, Sheen explained: “In order to understand the communists’ idea of truth, we have to substitute the philosophy of communism for God; in other words, the ultimate origin of truth is in their party.”
Sheen dramatically forecast that Soviet communists had “put before the world a dilemma,” an “apocalyptic” one:
“They have thrown down the gauntlet to the world. The voice is either brotherhood in Christ or comradeship in anti-Christ.” Communism was inspired not by the spirit of Christ, but “by the spirit of the serpent … the Mystical Body of the Antichrist.”
In a 1936 Lenten sermon at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, Father Sheen called Stalin’s Soviet Union “the most anti-Christ nation on the face of the earth.” He said it was fitting that Soviet communism’s emblem was “a rotted corpse, the body of Lenin — a perfect symbol of that to which all communism must lead us all.”
Sheen said communists had failed to convince the world there’s no God. Rather, he quipped, they succeeded only in convincing the world that there is a devil.
When Sheen was saying these things, Ronald Reagan and Karol Wojtyla were young men. In fact, as a young Reagan in Hollywood and Wojtyla in Krakow learned in horror that Hitler and Stalin had signed a pact Aug. 23-24, 1939, launching World War II in Poland, Sheen was unsurprised.
Five months earlier, he had openly expressed his suspicion of a possible alliance between the two dictators. They could find common ground in their joint hatred of good and God. “There is not a vast difference between them,” Sheen said. “What class is to Russia, race is to Germany; what the bourgeois are to the Russians, the Jews are to the Germans.”
Here, too, Sheen foreshadowed words by fellow Illinoisan Ronald Reagan, who would say there’s “not a dime’s worth of difference” between a fascist and a communist, as both were, at their essence, about the tyrannical power of an abusive state that controls and kills certain categories of citizens. It was a warning that Karol Wojtyla expressed to dismayed countrymen who were hoping for “liberation” from the Nazis by the Red Army.
All three men recognized these evils. They knew there was enough commonality in the two ideologies, including a shared totalitarianism and mutual hatred and genocidal tendencies toward despised and targeted groups. For the Nazis, the hatred was based on ethnicity; for the Soviets, it was class.
“As Americans,” said Father Sheen at a January 1939 rally hosted by the National Council of Catholic Men, “we are not concerned with whether a dictator has a long moustache or a short moustache; or whether he invades the soul through the myth of race or the myth of the class.” Hitler and Stalin were “two gangsters” — period. Both were “assassins of justice.” They were modern equivalents of “Pilate and Herod — Christ haters.”
“The anti-God regime is always the anti-human regime,” said Sheen.
Once the Nazis were defeated, Sheen zeroed in on the communist threat. In the ensuing decades, he would call out that danger more ardently than any communicator — until, that is, the arrival on the world stage of Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II.
I’ve been asked over the years if Reagan and now-Venerable Fulton Sheen ever met. Here were two natives of Illinois, both vocal anti-communists with hit TV shows at the same time, and both household names. I directed the question to Nancy Reagan, who agreed “that it makes sense they would have met,” but she could not recall them having done so.
Their paths could have easily crossed, especially in Hollywood, where Sheen hosted a major annual breakfast of Hollywood Catholics and knew Reagan’s ex-wife, Jane Wyman, a Catholic convert due to the inspiration of her friend and fellow actress Loretta Young. Michael Reagan laughingly told me that Bishop Sheen was always “the biggest celebrity in the room.” (Wyman became very devout; she would die a Third Order Dominican nun and was buried in the habit.)
In fact, go back earlier: It’s a tantalizing prospect to visualize Reagan and his devoutly Catholic brother Neil and Catholic father Jack perhaps one day in the 1920s dropping into one of Sheen’s Peoria parishes on the road between Dixon and Eureka College or some other route and maybe hearing a Sheen homily or nodding hello to the youthful stranger of a priest as he walked around the sanctuary, shut a window, lit a candle, or paused in front of the tabernacle. Imagine Neil or Jack flagging down the young priest for confession, perhaps?
But alas, I know of no such instance. Unfortunately, I don’t think anyone “this side of heaven” (as Archbishop Sheen liked to say) can tell us.
As for Archbishop Sheen and John Paul II, they did meet. It was Oct. 2, 1979, at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Archbishop Sheen was weak, nearing life’s end, but he wouldn’t miss this moment, overjoyed as he was at the election of this Polish pontiff.
As Sheen’s biographer Thomas Reeves described it, the “feeble” Sheen made his way to the Holy Father in the sanctuary and fell to his knees before him. John Paul II humbly lifted him up, hugged him and thanked him for having “written and spoken well of the Lord Jesus.” He told his grateful servant that he had been a “loyal son of the Church.”
When John Paul II got back to Rome, he sent Archbishop Sheen (he was made an archbishop in 1969) a formal letter. In turn, the archbishop wrote the Holy Father what Reeves called “a lengthy, learned and extremely moving letter” powerfully predicting that this new pope was one among four holy popes who had come along every 500 years (Gregory I the Great, who helped rebuild western civilization; Gregory VII, who fought secular interference in the life of the Church; Pius V, who helped defeat the Ottoman invasion of Europe; and now John Paul II, who helped bring down the Soviet Empire) specially appointed by God for a great historical purpose — here coming at the end of a 20th century with two world wars and a nuclear-charged Cold War.
It was classic, prescient Fulton Sheen, who died not long after that letter.
After an extraordinary life, Archbishop Sheen laid down his earthly existence Dec. 9, 1979, in front of the Blessed Sacrament in his private chapel. He was declared “Venerable” by the Church in 2012.
From there, the torch was, in essence, passed to John Paul II and Ronald Reagan to defeat the communist menace Sheen fought so brilliantly and valiantly. When the pope and president proceeded to do so, they stood on the shoulders of Sheen.
A pope, a president and a bishop: Here were three great achievers and master communicators — bold, fearless, courageous and also winsome, witty and likable — all from small towns, who waded into the wider waters of the world. The confluence of their efforts changed the century and the world for the better.
Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College. His latest book is A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century.