Book Review: Sheehan’s Apologetics

Apologetics and Catholic Doctrine, by Archbishop Michael Sheehan, was first published in two volumes in 1918 by M.H. Gill & Son, Dublin. It was a classic high school text in several countries for over forty years, and sold well over 450,000 copies.

Now in its 7th edition, this venerable tome has been ably revised by our own Spiritual Director, Rev Fr Peter Joseph. At their best, ‘Apologetics’ are sophisticated philosophical defences of the claims of their authors. Cardinal Newman’s Apologia pro vita sua , though autobiographical in content, is one of the most celebrated modern examples. Sheehan’s Apologetics  is the classic Apologetics, in English, of the Catholic Church. It is in every sense an outstanding work. The revised edition retains its orthodoxy and conservatism, and will definitely interest those who seek the reasons behind Catholic dogma and teaching. In short, this is a magnificent update of an absolute classic.

For Fr Joseph, this far-reaching revision has been a labour of love. For several years, he lived with Archbishop Sheehan's originals and, chapter by chapter, tried where necessary to present the same treasures of wisdom and grace in language and with illustrations more relevant and accessible to modern readership. Fr Joseph has accomplished a tremendous and impressive task. The arguments are presented in a clear, succinct and very readable fashion. He has dispensed with anachronisms, taken into account the documents of the Second Vatican Council and post- Conciliar Papal teaching, and related the work to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It will interest anyone who is interested in the ‘why’s’ of Catholic teaching.

To give but one of many examples, Part 11 is styled, “The Church’s Teaching and Governing Authority”. Under Objections against Papal Infallibility, the treatment of Galileo is dealt with. Whatever view one takes of the Church’s actions in that era, the thinking of the time is important in understanding church history, and indeed the history of Catholic Europe. To appreciate the work fully, it is important to understand something of the background of its author, and of its reviser.

Archbishop Sheehan

Born on 17 December 1870 at Waterford in Ireland, Michael Sheehan was educated at St John's College Waterford before going on to tertiary studies at Oxford, the University of Greifswald and the University of Bonn. His studies for the priesthood were undertaken at Maynooth College in Ireland - mother of so many of the priests who built up the Church in Australia. [One of its nineteenth century Rectors, Monsignor Renehan, was related to our President. Ed] Sheehan was ordained on 16 June 1895. Great scholar that he was, he joined the professional staff of Maynooth and became vice-president of the seminary in 1919. He was a leading activist in the restoration of the Gaelic language, as well as being a Latin and Greek scholar. At 51 years of age he was appointed Co-adjutor Archbishop of Sydney and was consecrated on 28 May 1922, with right of succession to Archbishop Kelly. He was involved in developing The Australasian Catholic Record, the Catholic Evidence Guild and the great 1928 International Eucharistic Congress  in Sydney. His work in education was constant, energetic and thorough. He organised and addressed annual conferences for Catholic school teachers. But his magnum opus was Apologetics and Catholic Doctrine, which became a standard work throughout much of the Englishspeaking world in upper secondary religious education, adult education and the instruction of converts as well as general readership.

Alas for Sheehan, in 1937 it was decided that the next Archbishop of Sydney should be Australian-born. Our saintly scholar and energetic faith educator found his right of succession at odds with the times. He resigned with effect from 1 July 1937 and retired to Ireland, where he died on 1 March 1945, aged 74.

Fr Peter Joseph

Fr Peter Joseph was born in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, the seventh of 12 children. He was educated there at St Maria Goretti Primary School, Bishop Henschke Boys Primary School, and then at St Ignatius College, Riverview, Sydney, where he first met and befriended Bishop Fisher and former St Thomas More Society President, Richard Perrignon. In 1985, as a seminarian for the Diocese of Wagga Wagga, he was sent by Bishop Brennan to Corpus Christi College in Melbourne. In that time he was formally enrolled as a student of the Catholic Theological College. He continued his seminary training in Rome for the next six years at the Pontifical Urban College of Propaganda Fide, gaining his S.T.B, and S.T.L. in Dogma, at the Pontifical Urban University.

From 1996-1998 he studied in Rome at the Pontifical Gregorian University, attaining his doctorate in theology in 2003. His thesis was entitled, "The Risen Body in St Thomas Aquinas' Scriptum super Sententiis and Summa contra Gentiles".

From 1999-2002 he was Vice -rector, Dean of Studies, and lecturer in theology at Vianney College.

In 2001, he published a revised and expanded version of Apologetics and Catholic Doctrine, which was launched in Sydney by Archbishop Pell. Fr Joseph has been a regular contributor to AD 2000, and has also had articles and book reviews printed in The Annals, Faith Magazine (UK), The Catholic Answer (USA) and Sursum Corda (USA).

A member of the Maronite Church, Peter was sent in 2003 to Sydney to take up his appointment as Chancellor of the Maronite Diocese of Australia. He has since been engaged by the Archdiocese of Sydney, and amongst other appointments, has been made chaplain to the St Thomas More Society.

With an author and reviser of the character of these men, the book can hardly fail to be a classic, and well worth reading. In this reviewer’s eyes, it lives up to that expectation in spades, and is an enjoyable read to boot.

Why not try it?

Robert Colquhoun is a barrister, philosopher and author. He is studying for his Masters Degree in Theology. The Revised edition of Sheehan’s Apologetics is available for purchase from the Secretary. Ed