Archbishop Sheen Dispute: An ‘Either/Or’ or ‘Both/And’ Issue?

COMMENTARY: If Fulton Sheen had known that being buried in Peoria rather than New York would be advantageous for his own beatification, what would he have decided?

Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen in 1952
Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen in 1952 (photo: Fred Palumbo, World Telegram staff photographer/public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Is the body of Venerable Fulton Sheen an “either/or” matter or a “both/and” matter?

The position of the Diocese of Peoria, Illinois, is that it is “either/or.” Either the body is removed from the crypt below the high altar of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York and transferred to Peoria, or he won’t be beatified. No body, no beatification.

The position of the Archdiocese of New York is that it should be “both/and.” The Church can both declare Sheen blessed and honor his wish to be buried in New York.

To date, the New York courts have agreed with Peoria’s position. Peoria, which is the postulator of the cause for Fulton Sheen, suspended the proceedings in 2014 and declared that they would not resume unless Sheen’s body was transferred to Peoria’s cathedral, where a shrine would be created for him upon beatification.

New York’s Court of Appeals recently upheld the lower-court decision of June 2018, which granted the request to move the body. The issues are manifold, and I commented upon them at length here. The Archdiocese of New York — specifically, the trustees of St. Patrick’s Cathedral — have appealed this latest decision in court. Peoria has, in turn, criticized New York for being obstructionist and wasting money on expensive litigation.

The position of the New York courts is that the wishes of Archbishop Sheen himself are paramount. There is no doubt that he wanted to be buried in New York, instead of Rochester, the diocese of which he was the ordinary and where, by Catholic custom, he would usually have been buried. The idea of being buried in Peoria was never considered by Sheen nor by his family.

But now Peoria and Sheen’s last remaining relative have proposed a new question: What would Archbishop Sheen have wanted if being transferred to Peoria would mean his beatification? The courts have accepted that while this “either/or” situation is not necessary in terms of Church or civil law, the position of Peoria means that it is practically the case. The courts accept as a given the no-body-no-beatification position of Peoria.

Consequently, the New York courts have ruled that in the face of this “either/or” scenario, or ultimatum, Archbishop Sheen would have put a higher priority on being a saint than on where he was buried.

It is apparent from the court decisions that the learned judges don’t quite get that Archbishop Sheen’s desire to be a saint — expressed often enough in life — was about going to heaven, as every Christian disciple desires. It is absurd for a secular court to speculate on how a saint would prefer his own beatification arrangements to be made, yet that is the question that the courts have put for themselves to answer: If Fulton Sheen had known that being buried in Peoria rather than New York would be advantageous for his own beatification, what would he have decided?

Archbishop Sheen would have certainly declared the question itself out of bounds and, if pressed, would have left the entire matter of his cause for sainthood to the judgment of the Church.

And now, it remains for the Church to clarify her position.

The New York courts are operating on the premise, as it was put in the lower-court judgment, that while a transfer may not be required for beatification “in the abstract,” that is “not so in the record here: Here, the cause will not go forward until Bishop Jenky [of Peoria] receives the remains.”

The New York courts have essentially found that Peoria has made this an “either/or” matter, and under those set of facts, Archbishop Sheen would have wanted beatification more than burial in New York. It is not an unreasonable position for the courts to take, if the “either/or” premise is established.

Yet it is for the Church, not the New York courts, to decide whether this is an “either/or” matter. The Archdiocese of New York has argued that if Peoria were to drop its no-body-no-beatification ultimatum, then the beatification could proceed. New York has claimed that the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome does not require the body to be transferred for a beatification to proceed; indeed, it is not necessary to have a body at all for beatification, as is often the case with causes that are older and with graves which are less prominent.

It is only the Congregation for the Causes of Saints which can clarify that, but to date it has not done so.

Further examination by the New York courts is likely to continue to favor the Peoria position because the “either/or” question really only has one answer. If it is either beatification or burial in New York, but not both, the courts will conclude that beatification is more important than burial, as they already have.

But from the perspective of the wider Church, is the “either/or” premise a decision that the bishop of Peoria gets to make for the entire Church? Or does it belong to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to make a decision that this matter, like so many others, is better understand as a “both/and” rather than “either/or”?

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivum magazine.