The Influence of Fulton Sheen: Converting a Communist
BOOK PICK: ‘The Devil and Bella Dodd’ tells the conversion story of a woman who tried to ‘infiltrate’ the Church.
THE DEVIL AND BELLA DODD
One Woman’s Struggle Against Communism and Her Redemption
By Mary R. Nicholas and Paul Kengor
TAN Books, 2022
422 pages, $29.95
To order: tanbooks.com
Archbishop Fulton Sheen became famous as one of the world’s first televangelists, a man who took advantage of emerging radio and television platforms to evangelize.
In Chapter Six of his autobiography, Treasure in Clay, the Venerable Sheen recalls delivering the first radio message from Radio City, New York, when it opened in December 1932. He also notes that he was the first person to host a religious television show in New York City at a time when very few people had TV sets.
Millions of Americans in the 1950s watched his inspirational television program, Life Is Worth Living, making it second only to comedian Milton Berle in the ratings.
“I was born in the electronic age, when light waves are used to communicate the Word,” Archbishop Sheen wrote at the start of Chapter Six.
“Radio is like the Old Testament, for it is the hearing of the word without the seeing,” the archbishop added. “Television is like the New Testament, for the Word is seen as it becomes flesh and dwells among us.”
Sheen’s melodious cadences and lilting voice made him an appealing spokesman for American Catholicism in the middle of the last century. It also made him an avowed enemy of communism, an atheist ideology that sought to destroy religion.
“The anti-God regime is always the anti-human regime,” Sheen once stated. “What more clearly proves it than the Red Fascism of Communism and the Brown Fascism of Nazism which, by denying the spirit of God as the source of human rights, makes the State the source?”
In the new biography The Devil and Bella Dodd, authors Mary Nicholas and Paul Kengor tell the story of the Communist Party’s attempt to infiltrate the Catholic Church — and of the surprise conversion of its top agent.
Communist national executive committee member Bella Dodd (1904-1969) set out to infiltrate Catholic seminaries with more than a thousand “communist men.”
Instead, God infiltrated her heart — and Sheen brought her into the Church.
Recalling her first meeting with Sheen, the book quotes Dodd as follows: “He kept saying, ‘There, there, it won’t be long now.’ ... He only let me cry, and then, without realizing it, I found that we were both on our knees before the Blessed Mother in the little chapel.”
The archbishop told her: “Bella, if you want to protect the people whom you say that you love, the people of this country, and all the human beings of the world, then to do the right things, you must know something about Christianity. Your parents were peasants, but you, an educated woman, have to know.”
Sheen then gave her a rosary and sent her on her way.
He ultimately baptized Dodd at New York City’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City on April 7, 1952 — the anniversary of her mother’s birthday and the Monday of Holy Week.
A retired medical doctor in Maine, Nicholas spent years researching Dodd. As part of her digging, she used Freedom of Information Act requests to obtain materials on Dodd that make their first public appearance in the new book.
Kengor, a frequent contributor to the Register, is no stranger to the topic. A professor of political science at Grove City College in Pennsylvania, he has written several historical and biographical works about Marxism and communism.
“This book is about conversion and recovery, about hope and redemption. It is about overcoming evil, about looking for a flicker of faith beyond the cold walls of a school of darkness,” the authors write in the introduction.
Their book also does not shy away from politics. Besides acknowledging communist efforts to infiltrate American teachers’ unions, it references modern-day “cancel culture” by recalling that some labeled Dodd a “racist” and “fascist” for converting to Catholicism.
This blend of politics and faith helps explain the book’s endorsements, which range from Catholic scholars to conservative political pundits.
“Bella Dodd is a seminal figure of the Cold War, a brave American woman who fearlessly battled against atheistic communism,” writes Sebastian Gorka, a talk-show host and former adviser to President Donald Trump. “She should not be forgotten. Finally, thanks to this work, she won’t be.”
Sociologist Anne Hendershott, a professor at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio, praised the book’s “impeccable research and riveting prose” in uncovering the work of Marxist agents.
“Dodd herself acknowledged that their most important demonic goal was to destroy the faith of the Catholic people by promoting a pseudo-religion of ‘social justice’ that looked like Catholicism but clearly was not,” Hendershott writes.
“Nicholas and Kengor expose the many ways in which Bella Dodd appeared to be truly a ‘lost soul,’” she adds. “But more importantly, this inspirational book reveals that even the wicked can be saved, as Dodd was saved through divine intervention and the support of the Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen.”
With debates raging over Democratic socialism and Marxism in modern-day U.S. political movements, students of history may find the book an enlightening read.
At the end of the book, the authors offer this summary:
“In the clash between the devil and Bella Dodd, Lucifer had his small victories along the way, but in the end, Bella Dodd prevailed. She won, Bishop Sheen won, and her Church won.”
Sean Salai, D.Min, is a pastoral theologian and the culture reporter for The Washington Times. A former Jesuit, his most recent book is Sharing Faith Online: A Guide to Digital Evangelization (New City Press, 2022).