My Thoughts

Few could or would argue that the Venerable Fulton J. Sheen was a superb communicator, both as an author and orator. His 73 books written over a span of 54 years stands as testament to his intellect and his talents. In one of his first books Old Errors and New Labels first published in 1930 he decries the decline in the art of controversy and places such decline on two underlying causes: religious and philosophical. But he begins with a rather astute observation concerning the difficult task of thinking:

The hardest thing to find in the world today is an argument. Because so few are thinking, naturally there are found but few to argue. Prejudice here is in abundance and sentiment too, for these things are born of enthusiasms without pain of labor. Thinking, on the contrary, is a difficult task; it is the hardest work a man can do — that is perhaps why so few indulge in it. Thought-saving devices have been invented that rival labor-saving devices in their ingenuity. Fine-sounding phrases like “Life is bigger than logic,” or “Progress is the spirit of the age,” go rattling by us like express trains, carrying the burden of those who are too lazy to think for themselves.

Not even philosophers argue today; they only explain away. A book full of bad logic, advocating all manner of moral laxity, is not refuted by critics; it is merely called “bold, honest, and fearless.” Even those periodicals which pride themselves upon their open-mindedness on all questions are far from practicing the lost art of controversy. Their pages contain no controversies, but only presentations of points of view; these never rise to the level of abstract thought in which argument clashes with argument like steel with steel, but rather they content themselves with the personal reflections of one who has lost his faith, writing against the sanctity of marriage, and of another who has kept his faith, writing in favor of it. Both sides are shooting off firecrackers, making all the noise of an intellectual warfare and creating the illusion of conflict, but it is only a sham battle in which there are no casualties; there are plenty of explosions, but never an exploded argument.

As you read your mind cannot readily disassociate his words from the prevailing social and cultural norms of today even with the clear understanding, they were written over 90 years ago. Either the times have not changed as much as we might suppose or the norms have been slowly deteriorating over the ensuing years, or both; whichever it may prove to be, the reality appears to be things have not improved in the slightest. Sheen goes on to explain the religious and philosophical causes for the decline in the art of controversy.

Creeds and confessions of faith are no longer the fashion; religious leaders have agreed not to disagree and those beliefs for which some of our ancestors would have died they have melted into a spineless Humanism. Like other Pilates they have turned their backs on the uniqueness of truth and have opened their arms wide to all the moods and fancies the hour might dictate. The passing of creeds and dogmas means the passing of controversies. Creeds and dogmas are social; prejudices are private. Believers bump into one another at a thousand different angles, but bigots keep out of one another’s way, because prejudice is antisocial.

The second cause, which is philosophical, bases itself on that peculiar American philosophy called “Pragmatism,” the aim of which is to prove that all proofs are useless. … As a result, there has sprung up a disturbing indifference to truth, and a tendency to regard the useful as the true, and the impractical as the false. The man who can make up his mind when proofs are presented to him is looked upon as a bigot, and the man who ignores proofs and the search for truth is looked upon as broadminded and tolerant.

Another evidence of this same disrespect for rational foundations is the general readiness of the modern mind to accept a statement because of the literary way in which it is couched, or because of the popularity of the one who says it, rather than for the reasons behind the statement. In this sense, it is unfortunate that some men who think poorly can write so well. … To some minds, of course, the startling will always appear to be the profound. It is easier to get the attention of the press when one says, as Ibsen did, that “two and two make five,” than to be orthodox and say that two and two make four.

He reasoned the Catholic Church was then impoverished for want of good sound intellectual opposition; the fact the Church then did not appear to be producing great chunks of thought was because she had not been challenged to do so.

The Church loves controversy, and loves it for two reasons: because intellectual conflict is informing, and because she is madly in love with rationalism. The great structure of the Catholic Church has been built up through controversy. It was the attacks of the Docetists and the Monophysites in the early centuries of the Church that made her clear on the doctrine concerning the nature of Christ; it was the controversy with the Reformers that clarified her teaching on justification. And if today there are not nearly so many dogmas defined as in the early ages of the Church, it is because there is less controversy — and less thinking. One must think to be a heretic, even though it be wrong thinking.

The fact is that there is now less intellectual opposition to the Church and more prejudice, which, being interpreted, means less thinking, even less bad thinking.

The Church is accused of being the enemy of reason; as a matter of fact, she is the only one who believes in it.

The Church asks her children to think hard and think clean. Then she asks them to do two things with their thoughts. First, she asks them to externalize them in the concrete world of economics, government, commerce, and education, and by this externalization of beautiful, clean thoughts to produce a beautiful and clean civilization. The quality of any civilization depends upon the nature of the thoughts its great minds bequeath to it. If the thoughts that are externalized in the press, in the senate chamber, on the public platform, are base, civilization itself will take on their base character with the same readiness with which a chameleon takes on the color of the object upon which it is placed. But if the thoughts that are vocalized and articulated are high and lofty, civilization will be filled, like a crucible, with the gold of the things worthwhile. …

But no thought is born without silence and contemplation. It is in the stillness and quiet of one’s own intellectual pastures, wherein man meditates on the purpose of life and its goal, that real and true character is developed. A character is made by the kind of thoughts a man thinks when alone, and a civilization is made by the kind of thoughts a man speaks to his neighbor.

Fulton Sheen certainly offers us some timely food for thought—and this was only the first chapter.[1]

That the Venerable Archbishop saw such impoverishment of “good sound intellectual opposition” nine decades ago, ratifies that the “hardest thing to find in the world today is an argument,” which has become not merely more difficult to find but improbable, if not impossible, today. As he noted then, so it is today that philosophers (and pundits alike) only explain away what they cannot with reason argue. Critics and criticism there are more than plenty, rational reasoned thinkers and sound intellectual argument are in very scarce supply. It is striking when he says, “If the thoughts that are externalized in the press, in the senate chamber, on the public platform, are base, civilization itself will take on their base character with the same readiness with which a chameleon takes on the color of the object upon which it is placed.”

Wake up America.

Just my thoughts for a Tuesday for what it is worth.

Check me out on Parler @ChuckLanham #dadeacon #wakeupamerica

[1] Another essay from the archives, “Idle Thoughts: Too tired to think,” Colloqui, July 01, 2016.

About the author: Deacon Chuck

Deacon Chuck was ordained into the permanent diaconate on September 17, 2011, in the ministry of service to the Diocese of Reno and assigned to St. Albert the Great Catholic Community. He currently serves as the parish bulletin editor and website administrator. Deacon Chuck continues to serve the parish of Saint Albert the Great Catholic Community of the Diocese of Reno, Nevada. He is the Director of Adult Faith Formation and Homebound Ministries for the parish, conducts frequent adult faith formation workshops, and is a regular homilist. He currently serves as the bulletin editor for the parish bulletin. He writes a weekly column intended to encompass a broad landscape of thoughts and ideas on matters of theology, faith, morals, teachings of the magisterium and the Catholic Church; they are meant to illuminate, illustrate, and catechize the readers and now number more than 230 articles. His latest endeavor is "Colloqui: A journal for restless minds", a weekly journal of about 8 pages similar in content to bulletin reflections. All his reflections, homilies, commentaries, and Colloqui are posted and can be found on his website: Comments are always welcome and appreciated. He is the author of two books: "The Voices of God: hearing God in the silence" which offers the reader insights into how to hear God’s voice through all of the noise that surrounds us; and "Echoes of Love: Effervescent Memories" which through a combination of prose and verse provides the reader with a wonderful journey on the way to discovering forever love. He regularly speaks to groups of all ages and size and would welcome the opportunity to speak to your group.

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