Key Issues Remain in Archbishop Sheen’s Cause

COMMENTARY: Vatican Intervention Seems Necessary

(photo: Fred Palumbo, World Telegram staff photographer, public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The latest court ruling in the matter of Archbishop Fulton Sheen is being celebrated in Illinois and examined in New York. Those who desire to see Sheen beatified, though, will likely have to wait for a Roman intervention as a result of issues highlighted by the ruling.

The ruling orders that Sheen’s body be transferred to Peoria, Illinois, at the request of his niece, Joan Sheen Cunningham. Yet it excoriates the conduct of Peoria Bishop Daniel Jenky and makes clear that the request for transfer is due to his insistence that the cause cannot proceed otherwise. Those issues will have to be resolved, lest the beatification proceed under a cloud.

It seems only the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome will be able to resolve them. If it chooses not to, the cause will likely remain on ice.

Bishop Jenky and the Diocese of Peoria have undertaken the substantial work of preparing Sheen’s cause, after the Archdiocese of New York declined to do so in 2002, when Cardinal Edward Egan was archbishop. Bishop Jenky insists that the body of Archbishop Sheen be moved from the crypt under the high altar of St. Patrick’s Cathedral to Peoria’s St. Mary’s Cathedral. New York refuses on the grounds that Sheen himself made clear that he wanted to be buried in New York.

In 2010, Bishop Jenky suspended the cause because he would not get the body. That was very badly received by Archbishop Sheen’s devotees, so he reversed himself and let the cause continue. But then, in 2014, Jenky withdrew the cause, stating that unless the body is in Peoria, the cause will not continue.

Given that the heroic nature of Sheen’s virtues have already been decreed, earning him the title “Venerable,” and a miracle by his intercession has already been approved, Bishop Jenky stopped the cause on the threshold of beatification.

Enter Archbishop Sheen’s niece. Cunningham opposed moving Sheen’s body until Bishop Jenky delivered his ultimatum in 2014 — no body, no beatification. As she was 86, this likely meant that she would not live to see her uncle beatified. So, in 2016, she changed her mind and petitioned the court in New York for a transfer. It was granted later that year. The appeals court then overturned the order and sent the original decision back for review. On June 8, Judge Arlene Bluth again ordered that the body be transferred.

The judgment, though, raises significant problems from the Church’s perspective, aside from the legal issues.

Bluth’s ruling found the following:

• Archbishop Sheen clearly wished to be buried in New York. He had bought a plot in Calvary Cemetery and left instructions that he be buried there.

• Cardinal Terrence Cooke offered instead that Archbishop Sheen be buried in St. Patrick’s, and Cunningham accepted the offer. She maintained that position until 2016, 37 years after his death.

• Cunningham only changed her position after Bishop Jenky’s ultimatum: “She contends that once the remains are transferred, Bishop Jenky will continue the cause.”

• Bishop Jenky’s conduct is harshly criticized: “During the time period that [Cunningham] publicly opposed transfer … Bishop Jenky had no qualms about unleashing a disrespectful attack on [her]. … Bishop Jenky wrote: ‘… I consider your actions of the past year to be publicly scandalous. Public repentance is now called for.’ After receiving a letter like that, any ordinary person would never speak to Bishop Jenky again.”

• Bluth concluded that “Archbishop Sheen’s primary calling was his faith rather than the location of his earthly remains. There is no basis whatsoever to conclude that Archbishop Sheen would have prioritized keeping his earthly remains in New York over the chance to become a saint.”

That last point about the “chance to become a saint” confirms the wisdom of St. Paul in admonishing Christians against taking their disputes to civil courts (1 Corinthians 6). Bluth continually writes about Sheen wanting the “chance to become a saint,” misunderstanding that the canonization process is not about making saints, but recognizing saints God has already made.

Bluth’s ruling brings forward four key issues that will have to be resolved from the Church’s perspective.

First, what is the position of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints? The Diocese of Peoria insists that the congregation says that the body must be transferred to Peoria for the cause to continue. The Archdiocese of New York insists that the congregation says that the beatification can proceed without a transfer. Both cannot be right, and only the congregation itself can clarify the matter.

Second, there is the conduct of Bishop Jenky as the promoter of the cause. That he was nasty to Cunningham when she did not agree with him is sad, but not greatly consequential. The key issue is whether his ultimatum of no body, no beatification is legitimate.

Bluth’s ruling recognized that Archbishop Sheen wanted to be buried in New York. His niece wanted him in New York. But, the court ruled, it is reasonable for Cunningham to want her uncle transferred because, otherwise, Bishop Jenky will refuse to allow the cause to go forward. Bluth ruled on what it was reasonable for Cunningham to do in response to the Peoria bishop’s position. But she did not rule on whether Bishop Jenky’s position itself is reasonable.

The reasonableness of Bishop Jenky’s stance is the critical issue for the Church. Should the promoter of a cause suspend the proceedings unless he receives the body, contrary to the wishes of the deceased?

The Congregation for the Causes of Saints can hardly advise the Holy Father to proceed with a beatification under false pretenses. But it is exceedingly delicate. If the Congregation for the Causes of Saints is of the view that the ultimatum that led Cunningham to change her mind was improper, then it will have to make a decision about how to correct that. And if Bishop Jenky is adamant in his position, will the cause be able to continue at all under his promotion? Or will it have to be transferred to a different promoter?

Third, the Diocese of Peoria, in its response to the ruling, said that new 2017 guidelines from the Congregation for the Causes of Saints about relics indicate that the family’s wishes be respected. There is a certain chutzpah in making that claim, as it was not the position of the diocese when Cunningham disagreed with them. Nevertheless, the congregation ought to clarify what should be done regarding priests, religious and bishops. In the case of a lay saint or “Blessed” — Gianna Molla, Pier Giorgio Frassati — it makes sense that the family ought to prevail.

But for bishops? What if, upon Cardinal Dolan’s death, his family decided to have him buried in his native Missouri instead of alongside the other bishops of New York in St. Patrick’s? It would seem that a bishop no longer belongs to his family in the same way that a layman does.

Fourth, the additional question that Judge Bluth assigned herself was: What would Archbishop Sheen have wanted if he knew that the only way he could become a saint would be to have his body transferred to Peoria?

It is not clear that that is the proper legal question, and that will likely be tested upon appeal. But from a spiritual point of view, it is absurd. Saints don’t plan for their own canonizations. And the question is based on what may well be a false choice; it is quite possible that Sheen could be canonized and remain buried in New York.

Peoria’s statements in response to the court ruling have emphasized the conclusion, but not the argument or the characterization of Bishop Jenky and his position. That’s understandable for Peoria, but the broader Church cannot ignore those issues.

Father Raymond J. de Souza 

is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.

‘The 7 Last Words of Christ’ aired on EWTN on Good Friday 2023.

‘The 7 Last Words of Christ’ 2023

This year’s meditations by Father Raymond J. de Souza honored the late Cardinal George Pell, including some of his meditations from his ‘Prison Journal.’