During the 1950s, Catholic clergyman Fulton Sheen (1895-1979) hosted Life is Worth Living, a popular television show for which he earned an Emmy Award, and on which he presented his views on religious topics, everyday life, and politics.
One of the unlikeliest successful television personalities of the "Golden Age" in the 1950s was a Catholic clergyman named Fulton Sheen. He was on a small network with few affiliates as a throwaway program slotted against the hugely popular Milton Berle, but caught on and became one of the most popular figures in the country, even drawing admirers from among those who dislike Catholicism. While never really becoming a major figure in the hierarchy of the Catholic church, Sheen was one of its most visible members and an excellent ambassador for the church to the secular world.
Peter John Sheen was born May 8, 1895 in El Paso, Illinois, the first of four sons born to Newton Morris Sheen and the former Delta Fulton. The child suffered from tuberculosis at an early age, and was often cared for by his mother's family. They enrolled him in school as "a Fulton," and that maiden name became his first name. It was a farming family, but Fulton knew early on he wanted a career in the priesthood. He attended parochial schools in Peoria, Illinois, and at St. Viator's College in Kankakee, Illinois, then at St. Paul's Seminary in Minnesota before becoming ordained in Peoria in 1919.
Being a good student, Sheen was sent to the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., then to the University of Louvain in Belgium. He obtained his doctorate there in 1923, and received a degree in philosophie with highest honors in 1925 while studying in Paris and Rome. He was teaching theology at St. Edmund's College in Ware, England, when he was called home to Peoria to take over his first parish.
Eight months later he was transferred to a teacher of philosophy job at Catholic University. He drew attention to himself there through his total dedication to his work, neither smoking nor drinking, taking no holidays, enjoying no luxuries and giving away almost all his earnings. He rose quickly to the rank of full professor, and also was promoted to papal chamberlain, then domestic prelate and Bishop.
In 1930 Sheen began his broadcast career, hosting the Sunday evening Catholic Hour program on NBC Radio. In the 1940s he performed some religious services on television, and in 1948 he was guest speaker on the television program Television Chapel on WPIX in New York. Director Edward Stasheff remembered for Television Quarterly, "His whole technique was the magnetic effect of the way he looked into the camera. I hate to use a cliché, but the word is 'telegenic.' He was made for the medium."
In 1952 Milton Berle owned Tuesday night television with his 8 p.m. show, Texaco Star Theatre. The small DuMont network decided to put Sheen on the air opposite Berle as something of a sacrificial lamb, thinking a program with no potential may as well be on in a time slot with no chance. Life is Worth Living premiered on February 12, 1952, with the Bishop Fulton Sheen appearing in a long cassock, a gold cross and chain on his chest, a long purple cape and a skull cap, speaking from a set designed to look like a rectory study before an audience at the Adelphi Theatre in midtown Manhattan. The half-hour program consisted of a one-minute commercial for Admiral, followed by a 28-minute talk delivered without notes or teleprompter by the bishop, ended with a two-minute peroration and the sign-off "God love you," followed by another one-minute commercial for Admiral. This formula proved to be a success.
Sheen's talks were never straight appeals for loyalty to the Catholic church, but universal in nature, designed to appeal to people of any faith. "Starting with something that was common to the audience and me, I would gradually proceed from the known to the unknown or to the moral and Christian philosophy," he is quoted as saying in his posthumously published biography, Treasure in Clay. "When I began television nationally and on a commercial basis, I was no longer talking in the name of the church."
Initially, Life is Worth Living aired on only three stations nationwide. The show proved popular with audiences, however, and immediately began cutting into the ratings of Berle and Frank Sinatra, who had a Tuesday night show on CBS. Within two months Sheen's show was seen on 15 stations, and the bishop was overwhelmed with fan mail and requests to sit in the studio audience. NBC even tried to lure him away from DuMont at one point, but loyalty bid the bishop decline. At the 1952 Emmy Awards, Sheen defeated Edward R. Murrow, Lucille Ball and Arthur Godfrey for the title of Most Outstanding Television Personality. Upon accepting his award, he said, "I wish to thank my four writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John."
Eventually Sheen's program was seen by 20 million viewers on 123 stations. His fame grew along with his audience, and one of the things he became known for was performing conversions to Catholicism of well-known people, including Fritz Kreisler, Heywood Broun, Clare Boothe Luce, Henry Ford II and Louis Budenz. He also attracted attention for his political views, and at various times drew heat from both conservatives and liberals. He supported the anti-communist Franco in the Spanish Civil War, while conceding the dictator's fascism; he also defended corporal punishment in schools and spoke out against Freudian psychology. Following the reforms of Vatican II—which Sheen advised on mission problems—he spoke out against poverty and nuclear war, and alternately opposed and supported U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Throughout the '50s and most of the '60s, he also served as national director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, raising funds for missions around the world.
In 1966 Sheen was named archbishop of Rochester, New York, amid speculation as to whether the church was trying to promote him or neutralize him. He continued the church's reforms in that area, and was considered progressive in his policies. Questions were raised about his administrative practices, however, and he opted for early retirement in 1969, at the age of 74. He was named titular archbishop and moved to a small apartment in New York City. He underwent open heart surgery in July 1977, and was largely confined to his home until his death from heart disease in 1979.