Causes of saints: The legal battle over Fulton Sheen’s remains is damaging the Church

Before he died, Archbishop Fulton Sheen – the master of that uniquely American medium, televangelism – had requested that he be buried in the Archdiocese of New York’s Calvary cemetery. The archdiocese had other plans. Archbishop Terence Cooke asked his niece, Joan Sheen Cunningham, if Sheen could be interred in the crypt beneath St Patrick’s Cathedral. She said yes.

In 2002 Sheen’s home diocese of Peoria, Illinois, took up his Cause. In 2012 the Congregation for the Causes of Saints concluded that he had lived a life of heroic virtue. Benedict XVI agreed, and Sheen was declared Venerable. Then, in 2010, there was a miracle: the parents of a stillborn child prayed to Sheen and, to the bafflement of medical experts, the baby returned to life after being legally dead for 61 minutes.

The Diocese of Peoria asked Cunningham if they could transfer Sheen’s remains to its own St Mary’s Cathedral while they pursued his Cause. Again, she consented. But the trustees of St Patrick’s Cathedral refused to disinter his body, arguing that Sheen clearly wished to be buried in New York. They agreed to send Sheen to Peoria, but only with the promise that he would return to St Patrick’s after he was canonised.

In 2014 the Bishop of Peoria suspended the Cause: “The Holy See expected that the remains of Venerable Sheen would be moved to Peoria.” New York still refused to permanently relocate his body, and so Cunningham took the trustees to court.

In 2016 a New York state court ruled in favour of Cunningham, but the decision was overturned in an appellate court this past February. Then, last week, New York’s superior court yet again reversed the ruling. “The location of Archbishop Sheen’s final resting place would not have been his primary concern,” said Judge Arlene Bluth. “It makes no sense, given his lifelong devotion to the Catholic Church, that he would choose a location over the chance to become a saint.” St Patrick’s quickly announced that they would launch yet another appeal.

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