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The Catholic Historical Review 88.2 (2002) 387-389
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The Life and Times of Fulton J. Sheen
America's Bishop: The Life and Times of Fulton J. Sheen. By Thomas C. Reeves. (San Francisco, California: Encounter Books. 2001. Pp. vii, 479. $25.95.)
When Bishop Sheen spoke at the dedication of the Fulton Sheen Archives in Rochester, New York, in 1976, he warned those gathered there to honor him (and future historians by implication) of the difficulties inherent in trying to arrive at an understanding of the heart of his life, for there was no complete explanation [End Page 387] to be found in that repository, in the books and tapes compiled over a most productive lifetime. "You have to look for the secret from the outside," he said, suggesting that the only answer to his life was to be found in his faith, and that a man is better known by his character than his writing. A fine effort to arrive at an understanding of Sheen's character, and the central place he deservedly occupies in the history of American Catholicism, can now be found in America's Bishop by Thomas C. Reeves.
Reeves, an experienced political historian and biographer, makes much of the fact that there was no published book on the "life and times of Fulton Sheen" until his appeared; that fact and his conversion to Catholicism inspired him to write about the famous bishop. The broad outlines of Sheen's story and his multi-faceted career are presented well, from Sheen's humble beginnings in small-town El Paso, Illinois, in 1895 to his prominence as American Catholicism's most famous prelate at the time of his death in New York City in 1979. Monsignor John Tracy Ellis memorialized his friend as the "greatest evangelizer" in the history of American Catholicism... the most eloquent exponent and effective champion of the faith in the United States—recognizing Sheen's unparalleled odyssey as Thomistic philosopher, theologian, and professor at the Catholic University of America, convert-maker and pioneer of the electronic gospel on radio and television, missionary director of the National Society for the Propagation of the Faith, and post-Vatican Council II bishop of Rochester toward the close of his career.
The real contribution of Professor Reeves is to build upon this more familiar foundation by digging deeper into Sheen's life, providing a wealth of details about his subject's personal life. His research into hitherto unexplored areas (e.g., FBI files) and the number of personal interviews he conducted, is both impressive and enlightening. Throughout the book, Reeves seems determined to reveal Fulton Sheen's secrets, lamenting the fact that the bishop had not been more forthcoming in his autobiography. At times, this tendency borders on gossip and sensationalism, and the minutiae can be a bit distracting—descriptions of Sheen nicknamed "Spike" in high school because of his pompadour, and his secretaries in New York as a "vivacious attractive redhead" and an "attractive woman who wore her blond hair in a chignon" leave the reader wondering about the relevance of hairstyles. A more revealing and valuable result of this investigative search is found in Reeves's argument that a vain and ambitious Sheen "invented" a second doctorate for himself, for he never earned the S.T.D. and D.D. degrees that were added to his vita; this "shocking... deepest secret" was not uncovered until Reeves tracked it down. His psychological speculations about Sheen's motives notwithstanding, it does shed new light on the character "flaw" of vanity which Monsignor Ellis wrote about in his memoirs.
Other valuable insights from Reeves are found in his treatment of Sheen's vociferous and persistent opposition to the Communist menace, and his costly "feud" with Francis Cardinal Spellman (the focus of the chapters entitled "Backed Up Against the Cross" and "Exile in Rochester," the end result of his [End Page 388] clash with the powerful cardinal). New information on Sheen's relationship with J. Edgar Hoover, and the...