Print this page
Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Searching the Sheep’s Clothing of Frank Sheed to Find the Reformer’s Playbook

Written by 
Rate this item
(15 votes)
Searching the Sheep’s Clothing of Frank Sheed to Find the Reformer’s Playbook

Along with Archbishop Fulton Sheen, Frank Sheed was one of the most prominent Catholic writers whose work spanned the years before and after Vatican II. We still find his works in the catalogs of several publishers of traditional Catholic books. What, though, did he think of the changes flowing from Vatican II? Would we consider him a traditional Catholic, or rather a hidden enemy of the Catholic Church?

In his 1969 book Is It the Same Church?, Sheed provided a striking description of the changes that had taken place in the wake of Vatican II:

“Consider how things would strike a Catholic wrecked in 1957 on a desert island and only just now brought home. His Catholic friends have him in their houses. In all of them he finds the conversation beyond him. It circles, sometimes heatedly, around two words which mean nothing to him — Ecumenism and the Pill. . . . The weeks that follow are full of shocks. The priest facing the congregation takes some getting used to. And the Mass in English even more.”

We might expect to find a condemnation of the anti-Catholic spirit and a strong defense of orthodoxy. Stunningly, though, he does not condemn the changes and indeed approves of their general trajectory.

Sheed wrote this before Paul VI had promulgated the Novus Ordo, but already the changes in the Church were dramatic. He continued:

“Whichever way he looks, the Catholic world he knew seems to have turned upside down — and so quickly: after all he was away only ten years. He hears of priests getting married, with other priests performing the ceremony. He hears of nuns in picket-lines . . . of seminarians picketing Cardinals, refusing daily Mass, declaring the Pope unfitted for his primacy.”

Given this introduction to his book, we might expect to find a condemnation of the anti-Catholic spirit and a strong defense of orthodoxy. Stunningly, though, he does not condemn the changes and indeed approves of their general trajectory. He even suggests other radical changes he would like to see, including new rules on the reception of Communion:

“[I]t looks as if we may see a wider admission to Communion than we now know — unbelievers welcomed, perhaps even sinners who are at present barred. The question is being seriously asked whether we have been too protective of the dignity of the Sacred Host. Our Lord redeemed the world by submitting His body to publicans and sinners, even to those who hated Him or slew Him. Need the Church be more protective of it in its sacramental presence in which it still works for the redeeming of the world?”

“Too protective of the dignity of the Sacred Host”? How can it be that Sheed — whose works have been recommended by traditional Catholic leaders for decades — welcomed the most tragic changes inspired by Vatican II and even hoped for ones that go beyond what today’s enemies of the Church have proposed? Did he wear the sheep’s clothing so well in all his other works that nobody noticed that he was opposed to traditional Catholic teaching?

We can consider the way in which Is It the Same Church? reveals the playbook of those who wished to undermine traditional Catholic teaching.

Before exploring the extent to which one of his most popular works — Theology for Beginners — betrays his anti-Catholic leanings, we can consider the way in which Is It the Same Church? reveals the playbook of those who wished to undermine traditional Catholic teaching.

What Cannot Change, What Should. After enumerating the many changes that would have stunned “a Catholic wrecked in 1957 on a desert island,” he described the reason why he thought that many Catholics had overreacted to such changes:

“In all the excitement he does not realize how much agreement there is between conservatives and liberals upon the great mass of Catholic doctrine which the Council did not feel called upon to treat: Trinity, Incarnation, Redemption, Sanctifying Grace, and the World to Come.”

Sheed did not endorse dramatic alterations to the Church’s “Deposit of Faith,” but he considered most other aspects of the Catholic Faith to be fair game for change:

“The structure planned for the Church by Christ needed mending; it is being mended. All sorts of apparent theological dead-ends have turned out to be invitingly open.”

With this condescending dismissal of “medieval theology” (i.e., Catholicism), Sheed welcomed innovations to the Church’s teachings to keep up with changes in how people viewed the world.

Sheed welcomed Vatican II’s opening of the “theological dead-ends,” which he viewed as a product of a medieval mindset that lacked the understanding of modern science:

“And now the Council has issued the Declaration on Religious Liberty, ending the whole subjection of religious belief to compulsion. As we have noted before, no one blames the medieval theologian for not knowing modern physics: neither must he be blamed for not knowing modern psychology.”

With this condescending dismissal of “medieval theology” (i.e., Catholicism), Sheed welcomed innovations to the Church’s teachings to keep up with changes in how people viewed the world.

Ecumenism and Conscience. Frank Sheed’s description of his childhood helps us appreciate his beliefs about Ecumenism:

“My mother was a Catholic, a Maloney from County Limerick. My father was a Marxist. Whether he believed in God I never discovered, but he was against Churches. . . . Every meal meant a monologue by my father on Karl Marx. So far the case is routine; but when I was eight — having already made my first Confession and Communion — my father decided to send my young brother and me three times every Sunday to the Methodist Church in the next block. And so for six years it happened: Marxism at every meal, Methodism on Sundays, daily Mass during the two weeks of my father’s annual absence from home on vacation.”

How can a Catholic not be worried about the eternal future of Protestants who are deprived of the Church’s sacraments?

Given such difficult circumstances, we might sympathize with the instinct to see all Christian religions as leading to salvation. Thus his description of his pre-Vatican II views on Methodists eschews the Church’s traditional teaching on “no salvation outside the Church":

“I go back to my own attitude to the Methodists. As I have said, I regarded ourselves as inside and them as outside. It never occurred to me that they were in peril of damnation — the suggestion that only Catholics could be saved never reached my ears. I was not worried about their eternal future, but I was sorry for them here and now, because they had not the Mass or the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, because they had not the companionship with our Lady and St. Joseph and some of the other saints which meant so much to me.”

How can a Catholic not be worried about the eternal future of Protestants who are deprived of the Church’s sacraments? Regardless, he saw in Pope John XXIII’s 1958 Christmas message an ever greater reason to view non-Catholic religions in a favorable light:

“I thought — and I fancy most of us thought like that until Pope John opened so many windows — that individual Protestants were good people, but not that the Church they belonged to might be a good thing. It did not occur to us of the Catholic rank and file to think that Protestant Churches were doing work which, in the present condition of the world, God wanted done, and that God would be pleased with them for doing it and give them grace to do it better. I do not think that we denied these things. They simply never occurred to us. But in a single address at Christmas, 1958, Pope John changed all that. Of these various Christian bodies he said, ‘They bear the name of Christ on their forehead.’ Nothing could be the same after those words were spoken.”

Sheed knew that these words of John XXIII contradicted the idea that only Catholics are within the Mystical Body of Christ: “It would seem like bigotry’s last stand to say that they are not members of the Mystical Body.”

Surely Sheed would rejoice to see Francis’s Synod on Synodality, which is designed to allow sinners to “charitably” change the Church’s “unjust” attempts to keep them from sinning.

But with this (completely false) change in Catholic thinking came challenges, including Protestant opposition to the Catholic love for the Blessed Virgin Mary. To his credit, Sheed argued that Protestants need to have higher regard for Mary.

Conversely, in matters of conscience Sheed saw room for the Church to move toward Protestant positions. Writing before the release of Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae, Sheed considered the Church’s historical position on contraception to be both a stumbling block to reunion with Protestants and a contradiction with Vatican II’s embrace of other religions:

“The effect of all this is to make the old unquestioning acceptance a great deal harder, especially in a matter like Contraception which can affect people continually, immediately, sometimes agonizingly, as doctrinal teachings do not. Any who are not convinced by the Pope’s utterance on it may feel that their personal decision is for their own conscience to make. And while the Second Vatican Council speaks most lucidly upon the rights of men outside the Church to follow their conscience, I have not found that it discusses the relation of the Catholic conscience to her own teachings or commands if it feels them contrary to it.”

This contradiction is a natural byproduct of the ecumenical movement: why would anyone follow the Church’s restrictive teachings if the less restrictive teachings of Protestant religions were sufficient to lead souls to heaven? As Sheed saw clearly, Vatican II’s teachings on Ecumenism naturally lead to the conclusion that Catholics can please God and save their souls simply by loving Jesus and following their consciences.

As a cofounder (along with his wife, Masie Ward) of the Sheed & Ward publishing house, Sheed was in a powerful position to facilitate change within the Church.

The Mechanisms of Change. Sheed believed that individual Catholics played a vital role in pushing for changes within the Church:

“We should be able to express our views on the desirability of change; people who do not tell bishops the truth as they see it upon matters of real importance — ‘conduct’ and ‘Church discipline’ — are sinning not only against charity but against justice.”

Surely Sheed would rejoice to see Francis’s Synod on Synodality, which is designed to allow sinners to “charitably” change the Church’s “unjust” attempts to keep them from sinning. Sheed saw that the Council had paved the way for this type of intervention to change teachings:

“The Council has laid down the principle that ‘if the influence of events or of the times has led to deficiencies in conduct, in Church discipline, or even the formulation of doctrines (which must be carefully distinguished from the deposit of Faith itself) these should be appropriately rectified at the proper time.’”

This passage from the Council’s Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, does not mandate any changes but opens the door for all changes that do not directly alter the Deposit of Faith. As such, Sheed was simply a faithful follower of Vatican II.

As a cofounder (along with his wife, Masie Ward) of the Sheed & Ward publishing house, Sheed was in a powerful position to facilitate change within the Church. In one of the more disturbing passages from Is It the Same Church?, Sheed describes the way in which Catholic publishers had great freedom in the years leading up to Vatican II:

“In Hagiography, in History, in Theology, in Psychology, there was work of high originality — it was a wonderful time to be a publisher. You never knew what the morning’s mail would bring in. And authority was benevolent. One heard of occasional unpleasant interventions, but they were not frequent. I remember saying, after one long period of untroubled tranquility, that if you happened to want to get a book on the Index, you’d have to bribe a Cardinal.”

Sheed was so valuable to the revolutionaries who infiltrated the Church — he shared their designs and yet wore thoroughly convincing sheep’s clothing.

Would a genuinely Catholic publisher rejoice at the fact that lax oversight from the Church allowed “work of high originality” that would have been blocked by “unpleasant interventions” in earlier times? And given this mentality, we have to wonder what dangerous works Sheed & Ward foisted on its unsuspecting Catholic readers. Indeed, although they published some good Catholic books they also published the works of Hans Kung, Karl Rahner, Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Helder Camara, John Courtney Murray, and Edward Schillebeeckx.

Sheed related the following example of the way in which novel ideas became accepted over the decades through the work of Sheed & Ward:

“In the mid-twenties of this century a priest wrote an article in a theological review about the Priesthood of the Laity. By the command of the hierarchy of his country the whole issue was called in and destroyed. Ten years later we published a book by the same writer and were thought dangerously avant garde. And now the Priesthood of the Laity is seen by the Ecumenical Council as a dynamic principle of renewal.”

Sheed boasted of the way in which Sheed & Ward’s efforts contributed to the radical changes in the Church. Likewise, Wilfrid Sheed (son of Frank Sheed and Masie Ward) had this to say about his father in a April 2, 1972 New York Times article:

“His brand of theology seems to be out of fashion at the moment, a situation that he views serenely; but in the forties and fifties he was considered a flaming radical, if only for daring to poach this clerical game preserve and assert a layman's right to think. (Rome grudgingly made him a Doctor of Theology for his pains, which is like a civilian making five‐star general.) It's no business of mine to evaluate his theology, even if I knew how; but I do know that many of the more swinging Catholics of the day have acknowledged a profound debt to him for his writing as well as his publishing.”

Certainly we can see why Sheed was so valuable to the revolutionaries who infiltrated the Church — he shared their designs and yet wore thoroughly convincing sheep’s clothing which, for some odd reason, he decided to temporarily set aside when he wrote Is It the Same Church?

Men like Sheed — many of them ostensibly sincere in their aberrant beliefs — thought they were serving the Church by trying to convince as many Catholics as possible to embrace ideas that had long been rejected by the Church.

Crisis of Faith. Paradoxically, after praising the dramatic changes in the Church and clamoring for even more, Sheed recognized a real crisis in the Church caused by a questioning of the Church’s teachings:

“There is a crisis of Faith now, a crisis of obedience too — how widespread, there are no statistics to tell, but wide enough to be frightening. It has two main roots — disillusion with the Church’s leaders and a questioning of the Church’s teachings.”

Sheed also wrote: “The young grew up and found that at least some of the beliefs and practices they had been taught with such conviction were wrong: which cast doubt over all the rest.”

Was he simply blind to the fact that all of the changes in the Church that he applauded (and even facilitated) were precisely the changes that led faithful Catholics to have doubts?

Putting together the pieces, we can see how so many Catholics either accepted the changes of Vatican II or abandoned the Faith. Men like Sheed — many of them ostensibly sincere in their aberrant beliefs — thought they were serving the Church by trying to convince as many Catholics as possible to embrace ideas that had long been rejected by the Church. They introduced doubts in the minds of Catholics; and once doubt entered, souls were no longer content to trust the Church. Like Protestants, they would yearn for a religion that suited their appetites and intellects. Once John XXIII and Vatican II told us that the Protestant religions were pleasing to God, what reason did Catholics have to maintain a set of faith and morals that impinged on their desires?

Sheed’s Theology for Beginners

With the benefit of Sheed’s transparently anti-Catholic Is It the Same Church?, we can consider whether any of his earlier works were tainted with the revolutionary spirit. As it turns out, we can see various subtle errors and doubt-inspiring passages in one of his most popular works, Theology for Beginners:

False Ecumenism. Consistent with the view he articulated in Is It the Same Church?, in Theology for Beginners Sheed wrote of a world in which souls could become great saints through the practice of the Protestant religions:

“It may seem at once ungracious and merely silly to tell other Christian religions their business. I can simply utter my own wonder at how they get on without something equivalent to the canonization of saints. It would, I should think, be a help to a Methodist or Presbyterian, tempted as he feels beyond his strength, to read of a Methodist storekeeper of the eighteenth century, a Presbyterian farmer’s daughter of the nineteenth, who overcame the same difficulties as his or hers and became a great saint.

Keeping in mind that this book is written for “beginners,” how can we reconcile this with the idea that there is no salvation outside the Church? If Protestants can become “great saints” through the practice of their religions that teach that they are saved by faith alone, why would Catholics think they needed to work out their salvation with fear and trembling as St. Paul wrote (Philippians 2:12)?

Holy Scripture. Two different versions of Theology for Beginners in current publication have somewhat different passages related to Biblical studies. The most recent (copyright 1958, 1976, 1981) includes the following passage calling into question the divine authorship of the Bible:

“Reading those earlier written chapters most people, I think, feel the writer’s genius. Clearly he did not think he knew the details of human beginnings on earth. He faced two problems, sin and death — why should the all-pure God create rational beings who seemed incapable of avoiding sin? And why should the God of life place at creation’s summit beings who must die? By direct inspiration or by grace-filled meditation, he had the insight that sin and death were linked. And he cast the essentials of the story into the tale of a man and a woman who disobeyed God in a garden — Everyman, Everywoman, Everysin.”

According to Sheed, the author of Genesis simply thought about the human condition and after some grace-filled mediation wrote a story about what it meant to him.

According to Sheed, the author of Genesis simply thought about the human condition and after some grace-filled mediation wrote a story about what it meant to him. Pius XII warned of this type of interpretation in his 1950 encyclical Humani Generis:

“To return, however, to the new opinions mentioned above, a number of things are proposed or suggested by some even against the divine authorship of Sacred Scripture. For some go so far as to pervert the sense of the Vatican Council's definition that God is the author of Holy Scripture, and they put forward again the opinion, already often condemned, which asserts that immunity from error extends only to those parts of the Bible that treat of God or of moral and religious matters. They even wrongly speak of a human sense of the Scriptures, beneath which a divine sense, which they say is the only infallible meaning, lies hidden.”

As Pius XII observed, such novelties bear “deadly fruit.”

Original Sin. Sheed also called into question the Church’s teaching on Original Sin, both by rejecting the traditional concept of the “stain of original sin” and by raising doubts about why Original Sin would involve the descendants of Adam:

"That is what is meant by being born in original sin, which is not to be thought of as a stain on the soul, but as the absence of that grace without which we cannot, as we have seen, reach the goal for which God destined men.”

“Our souls are the direct creation of God, but by bodily descent we are all children of Adam. And in our father we fell. But why? How could his sin involve us? That is the real problem, and we must be grateful for any lights we can get upon it. Obviously there is something in the solidarity of the whole human race clear to God but not to us, that He could so treat the race as one thing.”

Why did he needlessly cast doubt on Original Sin in this book for “beginners”?

Why did he needlessly cast doubt on Original Sin in this book for “beginners”? As he wrote in Is It the Same Church?, such doubts lead to apostasy: “The young grew up and found that at least some of the beliefs and practices they had been taught with such conviction were wrong: which cast doubt over all the rest.”

Other than in Is It the Same Church?, Sheed left the more dramatic shifts in the Faith to many of the authors he published through Sheed & Ward. In Theology for Beginners, he instead planted little seeds of doubt and contradiction that might eventually lead souls to embrace the far more radical ideas of the authors he was publishing.

Tellingly, Sheed referred glowingly to Karl Rahner in three sections of his Is It the Same Church? but does not mention one Catholic whose work directly opposes almost every substantive idea he expressed in the book: St. Pius X. Sheed and his collaborators doubtlessly applauded Paul VI’s decision to abrogate the requirement for clergy and professors to swear the Oath Against Modernism, which included the following rebuttal of Sheed’s entire program:

“I sincerely hold that the doctrine of faith was handed down to us from the apostles through the orthodox Fathers in exactly the same meaning and always in the same purport. Therefore, I entirely reject the heretical’ misrepresentation that dogmas evolve and change from one meaning to another different from the one which the Church held previously. ”

We have seen where the Spirit of Vatican II leads the Church and the world, and know it is an accursed destination.

We have seen where the Spirit of Vatican II leads the Church and the world, and know it is an accursed destination. It is time to return to what St. Pius X taught, which means we need to redouble our efforts to expose the ravening wolves who think they can improve the Church by reforming it in the world’s image. May the Blessed Virgin Mary, destroyer of all heresies, help us resist all those who seek to attack our immutable Catholic Faith!

Immaculate Heart of Mary, pray for us! Sancte Michael Archangele, defende nos in praelio!

Catch the latest at RTV — THE CURRENT THING: George Soros Loses BIG in Hungary

[Comment Guidelines - Click to view]
Last modified on Tuesday, April 12, 2022
Robert Morrison | Remnant Columnist

Robert Morrison is a Catholic, husband and father. He is the author of A Tale Told Softly: Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale and Hidden Catholic England. 

Latest from Robert Morrison | Remnant Columnist