Joseph Pronechen is staff writer with the National Catholic Register since 2005. His articles have appeared in a number of national publications including Columbia magazine, Soul, Faith and Family, Catholic Digest, and Marian Helper. His religion features have also appeared in Fairfield County Catholic and in major newspapers. He is the author of Fruits of Fatima — Century of Signs and Wonders. He holds an MS degree and formerly taught English and courses in film study that he developed at a Catholic high school in Connecticut. Joseph and his wife Mary reside on the East Coast.
Archbishop Fulton Sheen often began his talks, serious subjects, with a humorous story. They produced a chuckle or laugh, but also made a point. He once told of a baby crying as he was talking in a church. He described how “the mother took the babe out. As she was going down the aisle I said, ‘Madam, the child is not bothering me.’ She said, ‘No, you're bothering the child.’”
It's a story that easily fits the reactions Sheen would get today from his talk on abortion. And the Clock of Life.
“Have you noticed that it is only within the last years that we ever had to use the words Right to Life?” he began during this mid-1970s appearance. Once all peoples believed in life, so “something has changed.” He began looking how things changed with the philosophy of abortion.
Sheen said, “The philosophy behind the destruction of life is a misunderstanding of freedom and the misunderstanding of love.” The first step is that people “understand freedom as the right to do whatever you please… there's an absolute denial of limits.”
See how he was already speaking of what we’ve come to know is relativism? He continued, “the selfish ego denies all limits in regards any law as a restriction of freedom. Once you admit freedom is the right to do whatever you please, then look at the consequences… Once that philosophy is proclaimed that the ego is supreme, there are no limits. Then abortion follows.”
Prior to this, people recognized limits. Boundaries. He gave examples which are simple to understand and still valid today. The boundary lines that identify each state in the country. Boundary lines in sports, such as foul lines.
“How do we know our own identity? By limit, by boundaries, by law, by order,” he said, adding with sadness, “and I think we lost all of these 8:15 in the morning, August the 6th, 1945, when we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. That bomb blotted out boundaries of life and death… and trust among nations. And so abortion from that point on is defended on the ground that one may do whatever he pleases.”
Sheen was already voicing what has become clearly apparent in today’s outright push and insistence upon abortion any time.
Sheen said this relativistic idea of freedom, an upside-down one, is the first false philosophy. The second is seeing “love as an experience. Love is sex. And it doesn't make very much difference who the other person is. The person does not count.” It’s rampant everywhere, from movies to TV to college and school campuses. “You drink the water, you forget the glass,” Bishop Sheen continued, then turned to the true meaning of love that’s being lost.
“Love is reciprocal. It involves persons. And love also involves responsibility.” Lack of it fuels the abortion culture as he saw over 40 years ago saying that “the principal reason why there is abortion today is women are saying, ‘Well, I don't want to have myself disturbed. I don't want to care. I want no burden. I want to do whatever I please. I want to love myself.’ This is the philosophy.”
The result? He saw people of America, and the world, dividing into two classes — those who love life and those who love death. The former believe “God is the originator of life.” Sheen cut through the latter side’s arguments, simply stating, “The problem is not when human life begins. The problem is who made it. Who produced it.”
Destruction Speeds Up
Sheen ticked off statistics of the number of unborn babies killed by abortion in Washington, DC, in New York — which since the 1970s has multiplied its extremism — and how many are murdered this way in the country.
In this mid-1970s talk he already asserted, “We are becoming a civilization of death. That is why notice the type of movies that appear today: The Towering Inferno, the Earthquake. Television, Violence. Destruction. Why is it we it that we love, [and] live in an age of destructiveness and violence?”
He had the answer because over 40 years ago he already understood the reasons for the escalating violence. The movies he cited were current during that year of 1974. Since then the destruction, violence, mayhem have multiplied countless times in movies and TV and internet games.
“Because people have no interior life,” he said fervently and with righteous anger, “they're not creating anything within themselves, and they're not creating human life. They're aborting it!”
“And instead of creating life, now by violence they go out and destroy it. That's why that type of picture is produced.”
He noted, in addition, even Freud said “that sex given over wholly to satisfaction becomes abnormally interested in the death instinct — and that is what is happening today.”
Even the words we use are escapism from reality. “Today it is said that a mother has a fetus. Who ever heard of a mother having a fetus? The mother is always with child. That is just the kind of a verbal escape from admitting that there is life within — that brings me to the rapid progress toward death in our American culture.” Fetus was soon joined by euthanesia as the "verbal escape" progressed. The words mask the real intent behind them.
Remember, Sheen was seeing and noting the country’s direction of society in the mid-1970s as things were heating up right after Roe vs. Wade. He reminded listeners that “legality is not morality. Because the Supreme Court makes something legal, it does not necessarily make it moral.” He found the perennial example of the frog in the slowly increasing temperature of the water as a powerful analogy. “A country that's given to death can imperceptibly sink and sink and sink until it brings us to the clock” which he would detail momentarily.
First, he stressed, “if we go on with this disrespect for life, we may eventually pass a threshold where our nature will change.” He gave another example. Oxygen cooled to minus-100 degrees centigrade still remains a gas. But lowed to minus-180 degrees centigrade it turns into liquid. Once it passes a certain threshold, its nature changes.
Sheen cautioned, “And if we become a life-destroying culture, our nature may change. And then the clock will go on ticking and ticking.”
He saw many in the culture as lovers of death, and that was a serious matter. So was “fighting for the right to life” because doing that “we are also fighting for America” because “our Lord said, Wherever the carcass is, there vulture shall gather together out from mountain fastnesses. They come at the first sight of corrupting flesh. Our Lord was speaking of a culture and a civilization.”
Within a generation Rome came and laid waste “Jerusalem and nothing fell like that since Satan fell from heaven. So the presence of cadavers,” he said. And there is a presence of them. "One sewer pipe in a hospital in Los Angeles was clogged with a hundred human beings.”
The Ominous Ticking Clock
“I want you to picture a great and gigantic Clock of Life,” Sheen continued, pointing out where falls different times from dawn, noon, dusk, evening, to finally midnight.
He observed, “the killing of human persons in the womb — that's the first stroke of the clock.” Then come “new lives in middle-age” where, he said, “we've already had this strike. Six million Jews burned by Hitler… Life in the evening. Now euthanasia is recommended… the killing of the old.” Sheen saw the implications because these were the early stages of the next steps.
“Now what's going to happen to a world that takes life at dawn, life at noon, life at dusk?” Sheen asked. “We're eventually going to come to midnight.”
Reminding that the United States and Russia had enough nuclear armaments at that time to drop tons of equivalent TNT on every man, woman, and child around the world, Sheen concluded, “That's the midnight of necrophilia.”
Transferring this observation onto the Clock of Life, Bishop Sheen related the story of a well-known French publisher visited by two of the most famous French scientists in the late 19th century. They told the publisher “we have just begun to list the alphabet of destruction and in the next century we will have completed it.” The publisher answered them:
“And when that day comes, I think God will come down from heaven like a night watchman rattling his keys, and he will say, ‘Gentlemen, it's closing time.’ And then we will have to start all over again.’”
Prophetic Venerable Pius XII knew this too. Years before the first nuclear bomb was tested in New Mexico, Sheen explained, this pope surprised the atomic scientists by telling them what the precise explosive power of an ounce of uranium would be. The stunned scientists wondered how he knew. He told them he hoped it would be used peacefully, but if it wasn’t, “it will bring great harm in those places where it is used and eventually to the planet itself,” Sheen recalled.
“So you see, my good people,” the bishop said, weighing his words thoughtfully and pausing between each, “it's not just life at dawn we're protecting. It’s life at noon. It’s life at dusk. It’s life at midnight. And those who have lived closest to life, understand this.”
The good bishop didn’t leave the situation as utterly hopeless, though, concerning the Clock of Life inching closer to midnight. He turned to dissuade people from accepting that turning point of abortion. He read the story of one among many poor girls who aborted their child and the horror she continued to feel, and gave two cases about the destruction of life if that had been the road of choice.
One concerned a mother who was tubercular, a father syphilitic. Their first child was born and lived. The next died soon after birth. The third was deaf and dumb. The next, tubercular. The woman was pregnant. “Should she have aborted? This is a real case,” Sheen reminded, paused, only to emphasize, “Then she would have killed — Beethoven.”
Sheen ended with this answer, describing a scene where there were mockers but also “a penitent Magdalene and the mother who hated to see life taken from her child.” There too was John who understood life “as well as anyone except the woman and he who was on the cross. And from that cross Divine Life said, ‘Father forgive them, they know not what they do.' Forgive who?” And Sheen lists the doctors who take life, the hospitals, the nurses sickened by the sight, doctors who get the money for the deed, women who cooperated with the deaths. And the men.
“And if they ever come to him who was on that cross, they will find their forgiveness, but they must come. And they must ask,” he said as an invitation to them.
And when someone tried to take Jesus down from the cross, Sheen explained how Our Lord said he could not “be taken down until every man woman and child come together to take me down. But I said, ‘What can I do? I cannot bear your cry?’ And he said, ‘Go into the world and tell everyone that you meet there is a life in the womb.’”
And remember 2 Chronicles 7:14 — If then my people, upon whom my name has been pronounced, humble themselves and pray, and seek my face and turn from their evil ways, I will hear them from heaven and pardon their sins and heal their land.