Joseph Pearce

Joseph Pearce is Senior Editor at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review and the author of books on Shakespeare, Tolkien, Chesterton and other Christian literary figures.

Writing for Faith & Culture

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The Orthodoxy of Sheed and Ward

The Orthodoxy of Sheed and Ward

First impressions can be deceptive. On first perusal this new selection of the spiritual writings of the great husband and wife team, Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward, seemed to suggest not merely a selection of their work but also a selective reading of it from a suspiciously modernist perspective. Suspicions were roused initially by the epigraph that serves as an appetizer for what is to follow. It is taken from Sheed’s Christ in Eclipse:

Christ is the whole point of the [Church’s] functioning. We are not baptized into the hierarchy, do not receive the cardinals sacramentally, will not spend eternity in the beatific vision of the pope … Christ is the point…

There is, of course, nothing wrong with this statement. Indeed, and as one would expect from the pen of a consummate master of apologetics, the statement is resplendent in its orthodoxy. The problem is not the words themselves; it is their being plucked, out of context, from Sheed’s gargantuan corpus to serve as the volume’s epigraph, the curtain raiser for all that follows. Although strictly orthodox, the words convey, at least to those whose theological antennae are attuned to the manipulations of modernism, an implicit attack on the Church’s hierarchy. Such suspicions are reinforced when the epigraph is read in connection with the list of other writers and thinkers who have previously had selections of their work published in the “Modern Spiritual Masters” series of which this volume is a part. These include a dazzling array of figures from across the religious spectrum, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Anthony de Mello, Mohandas Gandhi, Karl Rahner, Sadhu Sundar Singh, Albert Schweitzer, Brother Roger of Taizé, Leo Tolstoy, Swami Abhishiktananda, and the Dalai Lama. Clearly the series is not merely ecumenical in the Christian sense of the word, intending to bring together Catholics and Protestants, but in the trans-religious and fundamentalist sense that seeks to bring together all religions, irrespective of the self-evident contradictions that each presents in relation to the others. To be fair, there were also genuine giants of orthodoxy amongst those considered “modern spiritual masters”, including Mother Teresa, Edith Stein, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Flannery O’Connor, and G. K. Chesterton; and there were other luminaries on the list deserving their place in such a series, such as Simone Weil, Caryll Houselander, and Jean Vanier. On the other hand, it was odd, to say the least, that the only modern Pope included in the series was John XXIII. The significant absence of the wonderful triumvirate of Piuses who have graced the twentieth century, and the exclusion of Paul VI, the Pope who outraged modernists with his promulgation of Humanae vitae, speaks volumes. 

At this juncture, the present reviewer’s first impressions were leading him to the seemingly inescapable conclusion that this volume would be another attempt by modernists to claim the Sheed and Ward legacy as their own. In The Living of Maisie Ward by Dana Greene (University of Notre Dame Press, 1997), the author succumbed to the temptation to paint her subject in the colours of her own choosing with little regard for Ward’s true colours as a staunch and resolute defender of Catholic orthodoxy against modernism. Later, with the publication of Dom Paschal Scotti’s Out of Due Time: Wilfrid Ward and the Dublin Review, 1906-1916 (Catholic University of America Press, 2006), the sin against the daughter was revisited upon her father. This crass revisionism needs to be rooted out and rectified whenever it raises its confused and confusing head. Clearly this latest volume in what would seem to constitute a Sheed and Ward revival needed to be judged in the light of these earlier abuses.
And yet, as we have said, first impressions can be deceptive.

The first indication that the anti-modernist antennae were twitching unnecessarily was the reassuring fact that the selection from Sheed’s and Ward’s writings had been made by Father David Meconi, one of that rare and precious breed of resolutely and courageously orthodox Jesuits who continue to rekindle hope in the venerable Society that bequeathed such martyrs to posterity as Saints Edmund Campion and Robert Southwell. In this respect, Meconi belongs in the illustrious company of his contemporary confreres, Fessio, Pacwa, Schall and Spitzer. His name on the cover served as confirmation that the selection was in safe and trustworthy hands.

In his acknowledgments, Meconi dedicates the volume to Walter Hooper, the Catholic convert and indefatigable defender of C. S. Lewis, whom Meconi describes as his “friend and erstwhile mentor”. The connection with Lewis is significant because Meconi describes Frank Sheed as “perhaps the one twentieth-century apologist who was worthy to complement Lewis”. Such a statement would appear to be sheer effrontery, affronting the sensibilities of those who claim Chesterton as the only modern Christian apologist to rival Lewis. Yet there is reason behind Meconi’s apparent madness. Chesterton’s work is not merely animated by his joie de vivre but by his joie de mots, a sheer love of language that leads him to take tantalizing tangents of paradoxical and pyrotechnic brilliance. Whilst these never fail to dazzle the reader, they do not always illuminate the subject with the pure and simple succinctness that many readers desire. Lewis’ great gift, or, more correctly, one of his many great gifts, was his astonishing ability to elucidate difficult theological and philosophical concepts in plain and simple language that the ordinary man on the street could understand. Frank Sheed, whose work with the Catholic Evidence Guild meant that he quite literally preached to the man on the street from a soapbox at Speakers’ Corner in London and at other places, shares Lewis’ gift for succinctness and clarity. As such, Meconi’s judgment, in this respect at least, would seem to be validated.

Although Meconi’s thirty page introduction to the life and work of Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward is one of the highlights of the book, encapsulating their life stories, their love for each other, and their shared evangelical zeal, it is marred by the occasional factual error. Hilaire Belloc died in 1953, not 1954, and, most egregious of errors, the young Maisie Ward could not have helped those injured “from the Blitzkrieg over British cities” during World War One because the blitz didn’t hit British cities until World War Two. The creeping of such mistakes into the book will no doubt make Meconi wince (the present reviewer still cringes at the thought of a rudimentary error in the rendering of a common Latin phrase in one of his own books) and it must be said that the fault lies at least as much with his editors, who have served him badly in their failure to eradicate such errors before publication. Nonetheless, and in spite of the onerous responsibility of a reviewer to bring factual faux pas to light, Meconi’s introductory essay remains a fine piece of work, setting the scene for the selection of quotes from the works of Frank and Maisie that follow. His short commentary, interspersed between the quotes, is also valuable and illuminating, particularly in his crucial contextualizing distinction between the authentic teaching of the Second Vatican Council and the so-called “spirit of Vatican II”, the latter of which was not an incarnation of the Council itself but manifestations of anarchy committed in its name.

There does not seem much of a need in a review of a volume of selected writings to quote from the writings themselves. Such an exercise would constitute a selection of the selection, in which the reviewer plucks his favourite passages from the editor’s own selection. Suffice it to say that Meconi’s selection is superb. The congruence of Frank’s and Maisie’s writing on the subject of mystery in general and the mystery of the Trinity in particular serves as ample evidence that their marriage was one of minds and not merely of bodies. Frank’s thought-provoking assertion that books of theology cannot elucidate the faith as much as the truths contained in the Missal illustrates his devotion to the Church’s central and defining act of worship. There is much else besides. Maisie’s affinity with the ideas of Tolkien and Lewis makes for joyful reading, and her discussion of the tortured presence of Christ in the works of Graham Greene and the dreadful consequence of His Real Absence in the work of Joyce are truly incisive. On the other hand, Frank seems to be guilty of bad ecclesiology in his lament, following the Second Vatican Council, that “vast numbers are not drawn to him, and other vast numbers seem to be moving away if not from Christ, certainly from his Body”. How, one might ask, can one move away from Christ’s Body without moving away from Christ? Such an error reminds us that Frank and Maisie do not speak infallibly. Like so many others, they were swept up by the delusional optimism that intoxicated so many Catholics in the wake of Vatican II, suffering from a glib and naïve optimism that was the Church’s equivalent of the “summer of love” and “flower power” of the hippies. Ultimately, however, Frank and Maisie are not defined by these temporary delusions but by a lifelong attachment to orthodoxy. Let’s end with some words of Maisie’s that will serve as an appropriate counterpoint to Frank’s lines about hierarchy with which we began this review:

After Newman and Browning came Chesterton – in the long run the greatest influence of them all, especially because I could watch over the years his vision of the Church as it grew clearer… He had seen that the saint grows only in the Church and draws his strength from that divine source. And he expressed it perfectly… when he wrote ubi Petrus, ibi Franciscus. The chief religion of authority is also the chief religion of the spirit...

Where St. Peter is found, there is St. Francis. Where there is hierarchy, there is sanctity.             

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