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Selling Catholicism

Selling Catholicism: Bishop Sheen and the Power of Television

Christopher Owen Lynch
Copyright Date: 1998
Pages: 216
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  • Book Info
    Selling Catholicism
    Book Description:

    When the popularity of Milton Berle's television show began to slip, Berle quipped, "At least I'm losing my ratings to God!" He was referring to the popularity of "Life Is Worth Living" and its host, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. The show aired from 1952 to 1957, and Sheen won an Emmy, beating competition that included Lucille Ball, Jimmy Durante, and Edward R. Murrow.

    What was the secret to Sheen's on-air success? Christopher Lynch examines how he reached a diverse audience by using television to synthesize traditional American Protestantism with a reassuring vision of Catholicism as patriotic and traditional. Sheen provided his viewers with a sense of stability by sentimentalizing the medieval world and holding it out as a model for contemporary society. Offering clear-cut moral direction in order to eliminate the anxiety of cultural change, he discussed topics ranging from the role of women to the perils of Communism.

    Sheen's rhetoric united both Protestant and Catholic audiences, reflecting--and forming--a vision of mainstream, postwar America. Lynch argues that Sheen's persuasive television presentations helped Catholics gain social acceptance and paved the way for religious ecumenism in America. Yet, Sheen's work also sowed the seeds for the crisis of competing ideologies in the modern American Catholic Church.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-5709-2
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. vii-viii)
    Gerard S. Sloyan

    As a high school senior I had as an assignment through the winter season from Sister Robertus, our homeroom teacher, aprécis(her word) of Monsignor Fulton Sheen’s Sunday night Catholic Hour sermon. That was in 1935-36. He was already a nationally known figure via radio and, at least in the east, for his preaching to a packed St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York on Jesus’ “seven last words” from the cross. This Good Friday devotion came from Italy and was known as theTre Ore,the three hours the gospels speak of that Jesus hung on the cross, from...

  4. Preface
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)

    The year is 1952. It is eight o’clock on a Tuesday evening. Recently your family bought its first television set, and you are deciding what to watch: should it beThe Texaco Star Theatre,hosted by Milton Berle? or perhaps Frank Sinatra’s program? Instead you choose a new program that has become a success over the DuMont television network.

    The program opens with an image of a leather-bound book denoting the program’s title,Life Is Worth Living.In the background is upbeat music made formal by the sound of church bells. The bookshelves and the blackboard on the stage suggest...

  7. 1 The Shaping of a Medieval Knight for a Modern World
    (pp. 15-31)

    Months before Bishop Fulton Sheen’s death in 1979, Pope John Paul II, visiting Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, gave him a brotherly embrace that was broadcast, amid the drama of a papal visit, on national television. The pope whispered to Sheen, “You have been a loyal son of the Church.”¹ These words and this image captured the core of Sheen’s life. Sheen spent the last sixty of his eighty-four years as a priest, but his rootedness in the church went back far longer.

    Sheen’s life stressed his loyalty as heir to the tradition of Catholicism. His own autobiography,Treasure...

  8. 2 Quest for Stability in the Midst of Change
    (pp. 32-58)

    The Castle of Perseverance,a morality play dating from the early fifteenth century, enacts the struggle between the virtues and the vices for the soul of an individual journeying from birth toward death, en route to heaven or hell. The virtues are supported by a good angel; the vices—representing the seven deadly sins—by a bad angel.¹ The good angel advises, “Man, think of thine ending day when thou shalt be closed under clay! And if thou think of that array, certain, thou shalt not sin. Man consider the end! And in eternity you will not fail.” But the...

  9. 3 The Medieval City and the Crusade for the American Ideal
    (pp. 59-86)

    Imagine your sense of anticipation after a long journey over land or sea, having weathered storm, sickness, and danger. Now you catch your first glimpse of the journey’s end—the city on a hill. This was the experience of Puritan leader John Winthrop in 1603 as he gazed at the new colony of Boston. Winthrop declared that the new colony would be “as a city on a hill” and that “the eyes of all people are upon us.”¹ America was to be a new Jerusalem, a nation chosen with a sacred destiny to bring about God’s reign. That vision would...

  10. 4 A Television Troubador Sings His Medieval Lady’s Praise
    (pp. 87-119)

    “As you noticed, this year we have a new Madonna. This is Our Lady of Television. . . . As you know, television is a projection [of] the human word. Every human word is nothing but a broken syllable of the word Divine. Now inasmuch as the Mother of the Lord projected the Divine Word to the world, we name her the Lady of Television. She may project our world, draw mankind together in love and peace and unity, the spirit of fraternity, neighbor, above all worship of God.”¹

    With these words Sheen acknowledges the statue of Our Lady of...

  11. 5 Bishop Sheen’s Role Negotiation from Ascetic Bishop to Television Celebrity
    (pp. 120-150)

    As Bishop Sheen recognizes in this anecdote, people have expectations for him both as a Catholic priest and as a television celebrity, and he must carefully manage his diverse roles and role expectations when he appears on television. The roles’ conflicting demands require him to engage in impression management so as not to disrupt viewers’ expectations. Complicating the picture is his need to appeal to differing role prescriptions that Americans had for their clergy in the fifties—including the clergy roles defined in the Protestant tradition, which still held hegemony in American society. The genteel and the ungenteel styles of...

  12. 6 Bishop Sheen as Harbinger of an American Camelot
    (pp. 151-160)

    In the late fifties, the immigrant dream of America as a land of opportunity seemed to have become a reality. Communism appeared, temporarily, to be contained. American aid programs were eliminating poverty, and the world was a safer place. Mainstream society knew abundance as a baby boom generation matured. Youth continued America’s millennial tradition as ambassadors of peace to the world in the new army, the Peace Corps. Technology would soon enable Americans to embark on a journey to the moon. The White House would soon be inhabited by a young World War II hero whose election symbolized a new...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 161-177)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 178-195)
  15. Index
    (pp. 196-202)