Sunday, November 13, 2016

Book Review: Peace of Soul

Title: Peace of Soul

Author: Fulton J. Sheen

Author's (memorial) web site:

Date: 1949

Publisher: McGraw-Hill

ISBN: none

Length: 217 pages

Quote: “[T]here can be no world peace unless there is soul peace.”

Oh, how people wanted world peace in 1949. Protestant authors, notably including C.S. Lewis and George Buttrick, were writing classic books about the peace of mind Bishop Sheen calls “soul peace” in this book. It was time, some felt, for a Catholic to add a book to the list. Sheen stepped forward with Peace of Soul.

It is, in many ways, a good “conservative” Christian book.

“Paraphrasing the story of the Pharisee (who was a very nice man) we can imagine him praying…‘I thank Thee, O Lord, that my Freudian adviser has told me that there is no such thing as guilt, that sin is a myth, and that Thou, O Father, art only a projection of my father complex…I thank Thee that I am not like…the christian there in the back…who thinks that he is a sinner, that his soul stands in need of grace’…The Pharisee who went up to the temple to pray has millions of lineal descendants in this generation who say, ‘I have no need of a code or a creed.’…Very harmful effects can follow accepting the philosophy which denies personal guilt or sin and thereby makes everyone nice.”

Lewis had mentioned this distinction between what is good (virtuous) and what is merely nice (pleasing) before; for those who appreciate the distinction (I am certainly one of those), Sheen had some valuable comments to add.

“The really unforgivable sin is the denial of sin, because, by its nature, there is now nothing to be forgiven. By refusing to admit to personal guilt,t he nice people are made into scandalmongers, gossips, talebearers, and supercritics, for they must project their real if unrecognized guilt to others…The nice people do not come to God, because they think they are good through their own merits or bad through inherited instincts…Husbands who are unfaithful will beat their wives who are faithful…they want to increase evil until all distinction between right and wrong is blotted out.”

Unfortunately from most Christians’ point of view, Sheen tends to confuse Christianity with Catholicism. “When a man does wrong, he wants to avow it” is true of anyone seeking “peace of soul,” but only Catholics, evidently relying on documents other than the Gospels all Christians agree to accept, will agree that “The Sacrament of Penance, or Confession, was instituted by Our Divine Lord” (Jesus). In the Bible Jesus instituted no such thing. The Lord’s Prayer, which includes the line “…and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors…”, is public and general, with no suggestion of confessing any private sin against God to any fellow mortal.

In the Gospels there are some suggestions that some sins against individuals may need to be confessed to those individuals. When Zacchaeus says “If I have cheated anyone, I will pay,” the “if” suggests that Zacchaeus either was remarkably honest, or else had not dared to cheat anyone who could assert positively that he was being cheated. Roman tax collectors were told to collect their own salaries, as best they could, along with the taxes. Zacchaeus, being a man of small stature, might not have dared to ask bigger, stronger men who knew What was What for as much money as the law entitled him to take, and might have taken the deficit out of ignorant people who didn’t know how much they were really supposed to pay. Nobody would have gone to an ordinary dinner party at his house, as he well knew, and even when he gleefully added to the news that Jesus was willing to attend his party, “If I have cheated anyone, I will pay,” very likely Zacchaeus was still hoping that several people would not step forward. If he was that sort of man, and if he really changed in an hour, that was a miracle. But even then we are not told, although we might hope, that Jesus with His supernatural understanding might have seen to it that poor old Blind Lemuel and Chaggit the Permanently Confused got their handfuls of sesterces back.We do not actually read “Then at this feast Zacchaeus took out his records, and went to each one, following him that served, saying ‘Behold, I owe you this much’…” That ought to have happened, but—we are not told.

And there are no such suggestions that Jesus ever advised anyone to confess all of his or her sins, even in the most general terms, to a man and let that man tell them whether they were or were not fit to partake of the Lord’s Supper. In fact Jesus deliberately passed a piece of bread to the one who was surely unfit to partake, if ever anyone was, and told John he was doing so. Judas was of course a peculiar case; perhaps the classical “Judas Paradox” needs to be invoked to explain his presence at the Last Supper. But, whatever the disciples were talking about before or during the Last Supper, the fact that they were all asking who would inadvertently betray Jesus—including Judas, who planned to do that, and was not admitting it—shows that they were not confessing their sins to one another, or even to Jesus; nor had they done so, nor would they have done so. They had no such custom.

Many Catholic customs and beliefs have extrabiblical sources. It is not my business to judge those customs, nor to say whether some of them may be innocent or even helpful, unless they “make the (plain) commandment of God of no effect.” Confession to a priest is one of those customs. The act of confession to a priest may not be a positive sin, and for those who believe it to be good it may even be a good thing to do, but it is not the duty of a Bible-believing Christian.

So it is with Sheen’s book as it is with most things written for the general public by Catholics. Some things in these books are true; for most of the questions they are likely to be asked, Catholics are as likely to give a true answer as anyone else is. Some things are, unfortunately, part of some Catholic tradition that has nothing to do with what other Christians believe, and must therefore be marked “false” for most Christians.

I do not recommend Peace of Soul to non-Christians or new Christians who are still seeking “peace of soul.” I recommend it to mature and discerning Christians who may find useful phrasing, even useful arguments, in this book. Sheen was a tremendously successful writer and speaker--author of sayings like "Hearing the confessions of nuns is like being stoned to death with popcorn"--and had a gift for saying things in a memorable and useful way.

Although it's not a Fair Trade Book, Peace of Soul can be purchased online from either of the addresses at the very bottom of the screen for $5 per book, $5 per package, and $1 per online payment. (If you send a postal money order to P.O. Box 322, make it for $10 per copy--the post office collects its own surcharge. If you send money via Paypal, send $11, since Paypal collects its surcharge from this web site.)