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Requiem for Sheed & Ward

Frank Sheed is an undisputed hero of English-speaking Catholic apologetics. In the years following WWI he was a star player for the fledgling Catholic Evidence Guild, which took the truths of the Faith to the streets (and most famously, to Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park) at a time when Catholics in England, the U.S., and elsewhere were not just part of a minority religion—they were second-class citizens battling centuries of bias engrained into the Protestant establishment. His wrote even better than he spoke, and many of his books remain among the best, most useful works of popular theology ever penned.

In the twenties, along with his wife Maisie Ward—herself an apologist and author of no little note—he also founded Sheed & Ward, which by mid-century boasted an illustrious roster of authors, including Ronald Knox, Jacques Maritain, Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh, Karl Adam, Christopher Dawson, and, of course, Frank and Maisie themselves. If there was a book defending or explaining the teachings of the Catholic Church, odds were it had Sheed & Ward stamped on it; and if Sheed & Ward was stamped on a book, odds were certain that it explained and defended the Church faithfully and well.

Since then, sadly, Sheed & Ward has become a publisher of which, to borrow from Henry V, “so many had the managing.” Its publishing output dwindled in the 1970’s, and in 1985 it was incongruously sold to the National Catholic Reporter, which sat on the copyrights to classic works of apologetics while transforming the venerable house into a publisher of “practical resources for the working, ministering church.” In 1998, Sheed & Ward changed hands again, spending four unremarkable years under the stewardship of the Priests of the Sacred Heart, before finally landing as a line item in the imprint collection of publishing group Rowan and Littlefield in 2002.

Today, the Sheed & Ward list is a motley mix. Maisie Ward’s excellent biography of Chesterton is still in print, but the old glory of its catalogue has either been buried in obscurity or allowed to lapse into public domain. Its vigorous collection of apologetics and theology titles, the former gold standard of English-language popular Catholicism, has been replaced by a soup of modernist spirituality, trendy-tired feminism, and handy guides for singing a new Church into being. 

Sheed & Ward once meant Belloc, Knox, and Theology and Sanity. Today it indicates Andrew Greeley, Joan Chittister, and Zen Contemplations for Christians. Surely this is one of those shames that cry to heaven.


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