December 1940—The Western democracies are in retreat, and atheistic totalitarianism seems ascendant everywhere. Adolf Hitler’s gray-clad storm troopers have conquered much of Poland, captured Denmark, Norway, and the Low Countries, and humbled the might of France. The Luftwaffe, the vaunted German air force, hammers British cities in an aerial onslaught known as the Blitz. Once Britain submits, the Nazis intend to carve up Eurasia with Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union, both dictatorships biding their time until the inevitable struggle for supremacy.
Meanwhile, Hitler’s fascist ally Benito Mussolini, eager to cobble together his own Italian empire, has invaded Greece and has designs on Egypt and the rest of the Mediterranean. In East Asia, Japan runs rampant across China and turns its imperial ambitions toward the South Pacific, a region rich in the natural resources needed to fuel Tokyo’s hungry war machine.
The United States remains isolated behind its theoretical neutrality. But for millions of anxious Americans, an unnerving question hangs over the nation like the sword of Damocles: How long can the US avoid becoming embroiled in this global war?
It was at this moment of doubt and danger that Fulton J. Sheen produced a series of nineteen remarkable radio addresses (later collected and published as the book War and Guilt) that were a clarion call to a nation in desperate need of hope.
These broadcasts are classic Fulton Sheen. His words have the qualities of the biblical prophets: uncompromising yet inspiring; electrifying in their power and boldness. Sheen called on Americans to a spiritual combat: to confront the evils of godlessness and violence with the weapons of prayer, penance, and reparation. Military victory over the Axis Powers would be an empty triumph if it was not accompanied by a spiritual offensive against personal sin. Sheen is unequivocal: “Let us not fool ourselves! Nothing short of contrition and humiliation before the Lord of the Universe can save us.” True contrition requires accepting the reality that we cannot save ourselves. Total dependence on God’s saving power is the precondition for truly lasting peace.
Reliance on divine assistance is an American tradition. It was axiomatic to many of the founders of the republic. Even Thomas Jefferson, a man of the Enlightenment who was skeptical of the dogmatic claims of orthodox Christianity, nevertheless clearly recognized that the freedom that allows true human flourishing derives ultimately from God. In Jefferson’s own immortal words, human beings are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” More than simply a manifesto of national autonomy and political freedom, the Declaration of Independence rightly establishes dependence on God as the necessary foundation of our independence.
The so-called “freedom” commonly espoused by the popular culture both of Sheen’s time and today is, by way of contrast with Jefferson, a freedom from God and from religion, an independence from the moral law and from objective truth claims. But to reject God as the foundation of all freedom is, as Sheen puts it, “not independence—it is the beginning of slavery.”
In the Bible, the Israelites experienced wars and enslavement by other nations as the inevitable consequences of ignoring God’s commandments and straying into idolatry. It was simply spiritual physics: for every action, a reaction. In modern America, we have our own idols. They are not carved out of wood and stone, but they are false gods nonetheless: their names are unhindered progress, absolute self-autonomy, and radical self-expression. It is these idols we must turn from if we hope to reorient ourselves and our national life toward the one true God.
War itself seems to have become an idol for many nations. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine seems emblematic of this. Yet in fact dozens of so-called “low-intensity conflicts” continue to simmer and boil around the globe in what Pope Francis has called “a third world war fought piecemeal.” More ominous still, Cold War–style tensions are building between the United States and its geopolitical rivals. The news media and the internet intensify our fears with incessant reporting on “wars and rumors of wars” (cf. Matt. 24:6). I’ve found myself wondering anxiously whether America will find itself inevitably drawn into a major military confrontation in the not too distant future.
The powerful message of repentance in War and Guilt reverberates strongly eight decades after it was written. Sheen’s solution to the travails of 1940 should be our response to the wars that plague us in the twenty-first century: each of us must make a personal “Declaration of Dependence” on Almighty God. The key to peace begins with repentance. We will begin to be truly free from fear and hopelessness when we repent in humility. For as St. Paul reminds us, “for freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1).
There are many commendable ways we can make acts of reparation and penance for ourselves and the nation: we can pray the Rosary or another holy devotion, we can pray for our country and its leaders, we can make a Holy Hour before the Blessed Sacrament, and of course we should go to Confession and attend Holy Mass. We can praise and thank God for all the blessings that Americans so often take for granted. We can and should give alms to reputable charities, such as the Knights of Columbus, who assist war refugees and civilians caught in conflict zones.
Fulton Sheen rightly notes that such a campaign of penance is not a novel phenomenon in American history: “Has not our country always in times of crisis called upon its citizens not only to pray, but to do penance, to fast, to humiliate themselves before God, and to make themselves worthy instruments of His justice?”
Although he could not possibly have known in 1940 the full scale of the titanic struggles that America would face in the years of war that lay ahead, Fulton Sheen did not lose hope: “I believe in the future of America; but I believe in it only as I believe in Easter—after it has passed through Good Friday.” Such rock-solid trust in God’s saving power should be an inspiration and consolation in the uncertain times we face today. No matter what the future holds for America and the world, the ultimate victory of Christ is assured.