Publishing is often a pain and a drain, but it is not without a few pleasures. When I started ACS Books as an arm of the American Chesterton Society, it was fun to bring some titles into print that did not fall into any known category, which meant that nobody else was likely to publish them anyway. In general, writers are creative; publishers are not. Being a writer myself, I probably don’t think enough like a publisher. Which is why my publishing arm is part of a non-profit organization. And so I have had the privilege of publishing the first ever biography of Frances (Mrs. Gilbert) Chesterton, a new annotated version of Hilaire Belloc’s oddball masterpiece The Four Men (with notes provided by Deacon Nathan Allen, who along with three others, recreated Belloc’s famous fictional-factional walk across Sussex), a creative and unexpected explanation of the Catholic faith under the cover of The Catechism of Hockey, and a hilarious piece of crime fiction called Get Louie Stigs about a low-level mob figure who gets convicted of fraud and sentenced to…a monastery. You should read them all.
But I’ve just done something different. Thanks to some clever snooping around on the part of my former executive director, Richard Aleman, I have had the great good fortune to publish a new book by a bestselling author. Who? Why, the Venerable Fulton Sheen, of course. How, you ask, did I get a new book from an author who died in 1979? The answer is this: Justice and Charity is a collection of 18 weekly talks that Sheen delivered in 1938. They have never appeared in book form before. Somebody else probably would have published them if they had only known about them.
In the 1930’s, Fulton Sheen was establishing his great reputation as a writer, teacher and lecturer, giving talks throughout the United States and Europe. Interestingly enough, he was being referred to as “the American Chesterton” because of his wide range of subject matter, easy and likable manner, amazing knowledge, ready wit and quotable quotes. And the fact is, Sheen was immensely influenced by Chesterton to the point that some of those famous Sheen quotes are actually Chesterton quotes, as in “We don’t need a Church that moves with the world, we need a Church that moves the world.”
And for those who don’t know the story, a young Fulton Sheen approached G.K. Chesterton and asked him to write the introduction to his first book, God and Intelligence, which was his doctoral dissertation. Chesterton, in typical humility, told him, “I don’t know anything about philosophy.”
Sheen replied, “But, Mr. Chesterton, your book Orthodoxy is one of the most important works of philosophy of our time!”
Chesterton laughed and said, “I will write the introduction to your book. After all, we’re both Catholic, and we have a responsibility to defend each other.”
And that was the other connection. Sheen’s popularity, like Chesterton’s, was due in part to his profound and joyful and inviting Catholic faith. But in Sheen’s case, one could not help but notice that he was also a priest. Just over a decade later he would be made a bishop and then be featured in a nationwide television show that drew more viewers than anything else on TV at the time.
So what is Justice and Charity about? Brace yourself. It’s about economics. Now, there are some people who are passionate about economics, especially if it is tied to political upheaval or leveraging mountains of money, but when I hear the word “economics” I immediately suppress a yawn and give vague consideration to the echoing sound in my checking account. But when Fulton Sheen is discussing economics, it not only gets my attention, it holds it. Even though he is expounding on concepts that can sometimes be difficult for the average reader to grasp, what makes the book so accessible is his clear and crisp writing, and the short and sweet chapters. Sheen always had the gift for being able to connect with his audience, and here is no exception, even with a topic as dry as economics. I would have published this book even if someone else had written it.
He utterly tears apart Communism, using the damning texts of the Communists themselves. But he quickly cautions that attacking Communism does not mean endorsing Fascism. This is especially important, considering that this was written in 1938. One of the tricks of the Left is to accuse Catholics of being sympathetic with Fascism or even Nazism, simply because they are critical of Communism. (They did with Pius XII.)
But Sheen also goes after Capitalism, which he defines as “a system by which great masses of wage-earners are so subject to capital in the hands of a few” that they have no freedom or dignity for themselves and can contribute nothing to the common good.
So, if neither Communism nor Capitalism work, if both inflict injustice on a society, what is the solution? Where do we turn?
To the Catholic Church. Specifically, to the great Catholic Social Encyclicals: Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum from 1891and Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno from 1931. And this is what Sheen does. He uses these texts to provide not only a cure for what ails us, but to lay down the foundation for the right kind of society. Even though the ideas and writing are fresh and timely, it is interesting to note that Sheen is writing this before World War II. In fact, Pope Pius XI is still the pope. And although Sheen sometimes uses terms in a different sense in which we use them today (e.g. Liberalism), he clearly defines his terms so there can be no confusion to current readers or any excuse on the part of those who tend to twist words in order to misunderstand them.
And it should be no surprise that his ideas exactly reflect G.K. Chesterton’s: the best kind of society is one based on the family, on widespread ownership, which would provide more freedom and self-sufficiency.
This book appears at a perfect time. We are trying to fix a broken society. It occurred to me recently when I was involved in a debate about all the present problems plaguing marriage and how the Church should deal with them, that if Catholics had simply paid more attention to implementing Catholic Social Teaching, rather than ignoring it or dismissing it, there would be less pressure on marriages, stronger families, and a more stable, less volatile economy. These things are all connected. If we would rely less on big government and be less influenced by commercial trends, if we would do more things for ourselves, including thinking for ourselves, we would not be swept away by the corrosive cultural currents that rob us of our God-given dignity and our happiness. But we have gone too much the way of the world and have been swayed by secular thinking in the social sciences, like economics, and everything else. If we took Catholic Teaching seriously, including Catholic Social Teaching, not only would we be better Catholics, the world would be a better place.