PHILOSOPHIES AT WAR
by Fulton J. Sheen
Charles Scribner’s Sons, NY, 1943
Available to read online here
What strikes this reader of Fulton Sheen’s 1943 book, Philosophies at War, is its agreement with B.A. Santamaria’s Philosophies in Collision, which had its origins in a paper B.A. gave in 1973. (This paper is now available again in The Best of News Weekly.) Both men are writing of the times in which they live and diagnosing the ailments that are besetting their societies, in the one case in the United States during World War II, in the other in the Australia of the 1970s upheavals, and suggesting similar lines of defence and renewal.
And both see the root of the ailments as a civilisational crisis which is manifesting itself in the exact same tendencies in all parts of social and family life.
The other point to note in this regard is how closely relevant to today is nearly every issue Sheen writes about.
Sheen’s clarity of language and logical ordering of his arguments is exemplary and makes the book extremely readable.
These elements make for such a rich mix that it is possible to glean gems of wisdom from practically every page. The quotes below are drawn almost at random as I reread the text:
“There are two ways of looking at the war [World War II, then raging]: one as a journalist, the other as a theologian. … Our approach is from the divine point of view, first of all, because it is the only explanation which fits the facts.” (p1)
“This war is not merely a political and an economic struggle, but rather a theological one. … it is not just the means of living that have gone wrong, but the ends of living.” (p2)
“This war is not an interruption of the normal; it is rather the disintegration of the abnormal.” (p5)
“We will not get back again to the same kind of a world we had before this war, and he who would want to do so, would want the kind of world that produced Hitler.” (p6)
“The sad and tragic fact is that modern man under sufficient stress, and even amidst comforts spiced with lust, will do deeds of evil as terrible as anyone recorded in history. Barbarism is not behind us; it is beneath us.” (p49)
“Every freedom is for the sake of bondage – to a fellow creature, to the mob, to Hitler, or to God Who alone can make us truly free. That is why freedom for freedom’s sake is meaningless. I want to be free from something, only because I want to be free for something. That is why freedom is inseparable from purpose.” (p73)
“The basic principle of the Christian order is this: economic activity is not the end of life, but the servant of human life. Therefore, the true primary end of economic production is not profit but the satisfaction of human needs.” (p102)
“The modern husband and wife, like isolated atoms, resent the suggestion that they should lose their identity in the family molecule.” (p118)
“The two most evident symptoms of the breakdown of the family are: divorce and voluntary or deliberate sterility, i.e. broken contracts and frustrated loves. Divorce destroys the stability of the family; voluntary sterility destroys its continuity.” (p120)
“Every child is a potential noble-man for the kingdom of God.” (p128)
“Since nature has associated private property in a very special manner with the existence and development of the family, it follows that the state should diffuse private property through the family that its functions may be preserved and perfected.” (p129)
“Facts are for the purpose of feeding values and the moral ends of living; but when our education is devoid of these things, we leave the facts hanging in mid-air.” (p149)
“Certainly, we have rights, but there are never any rights without duties. In fact, duties are opportunities for acquiring rights.” (p157)
“We cannot equate democracy with Christianity, but we can see that democracy can grow only the seeds which Christianity planted, and indeed from which it has historically sprung.” (p170)
The only jarring note is the pride and confidence that Sheen had in the power of the Catholic Church in the U.S. as a locus of societal renewal. And it almost comes as a shock to realise that there was a time when an American churchman could even dare to speak with such confidence in his Church. Lamentably, that pride has greatly diminished in the U.S., as it has here, where the Catholic Church is in retreat and under attack and seems divided against itself.
Although this book is almost 80 years old, it is instructive to reread today, not merely as an historical document or as an insight into the thought of a man who may one day soon be raised to the altars of the Catholic Church as Saint Fulton Sheen, but as a text that delineates problems we face today and suggests solutions that with a minimum of mental effort can be applied to our own cases.
Is it now, or then, or always?