Perspective: The promise and peril of the Catholic Church

The Washington Post

January 2, 2020

By William Schultz

The conflict between obedience and hierarchy and social justice.

James Fulton Engstrom was delivered stillborn on Sept. 16, 2010. Sixty-one minutes later, his heartbeat resumed. His mother credited his recovery to prayers she said to Fulton Sheen, the Roman Catholic bishop who today is best remembered as the host of the 1950s television program “Life Is Worth Living.” Investigators from the Vatican concluded that the recovery was a miracle, placing Sheen one step closer to sainthood.

Media coverage of Sheen’s beatification has focused on his television career — not surprising, given “Life Is Worth Living” attracted tens of millions of viewers and made Sheen as recognizable a television personality as Ed Sullivan. The show symbolized the hopes of the American Catholic Church in the 1950s: It seemed proof one could engage in the modern world while remaining authentically Catholic.

Recently, however, the Vatican took the unusual step of delaying Sheen’s beatification (originally scheduled for Dec. 21) as officials investigate a once-forgotten chapter of Sheen’s life: his three years as bishop of Rochester, N.Y. Officials are focused on the assignment of priests in Rochester during Sheen’s tenure, an investigation tied to the ongoing issue of priestly sexual abuse.

What role, if any, Sheen played in the assignment of sexually abusive priests remains unclear. But Sheen’s time in Rochester is worth examining for reasons that go beyond the crisis of sexual abuse. His tumultuous career as Rochester’s bishop reveals how the Catholic Church’s attempt to reconcile social justice with a commitment to authority and hierarchy has at times led to disaster.

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