Of the many things that might be said of Wilfrid Sheed’s memoir of his parents, Maisie Ward and Frank Sheed, some of them favorable, it is the contrast it affords between the Catholicism of the parents and the outlook of the son that I wish to reflect on here.
I don’t mean to suggest that this is a peripheral theme of the book. It is, or so it seems to me, the heart of the matter, that which makes the otherwise unwelcome intrusion of the relatively undistinguished son into this tale of two giants of the pre-conciliar Catholic revival intelligible. Wilfrid Sheed desperately wants the approval of his parents. In his memoir he comes dangerously close to trying to effect this posthumously by suggesting that his own wooly outlook is the omega toward which his parents strove.
Frank & Maisie, A Memoir with Parents (Simon and Shuster, $17.95), forces our attention on the lens through which the parents are seen. Alas, as he was taught not to write, it is distorting — scratched, murky, fingerprinted. What happened to Wilfrid? Lots of things. Polio. Not really belonging anywhere. A fatal familiarity with such stalwarts as Dorothy Day, Carol Jackson, Ed and Mary Willock, with Friendship House, the Catholic Worker, Integrity, Commonweal and Jubilee. All these he knew and more, and in his memoir he patronizes them all, just as he patronizes his parents.
The clue is given in the description of the arrival of the Sheeds in the U.S. when Wilfrid was ten or so. He was madly pro-American — its music, its comedians, –its crassness and materialism — while his parents linked up with Catholic critics of the land. Wilfrid’s career is one of progressive adoption of the secular world around him. This memoir is the culmination of that assimilation. It is yet another instance of condescension toward Catholicism, of the rueful remembering of a Catholic upbringing, that has been selling well of late, and Wilfrid feeds the expectations of those readers who want to hear that all that religious fervor and excitement was really an amusing madness.
On the basis of this book, it would be difficult to say where Wilfrid stands on matters Catholic. He says he would never have entered a church if raised in a different family. He divorced and remarried and attributes the annulment of his first marriage and the blessing of the second to his father’s efforts, as if he were merely humoring the old man in this. After describing his father’s funeral in St. Patrick’s in a straight and moving way, he ends it with a wink. “That day, at least, I believed every word of it.”
Vatican II, seen by Frank as the work of the Holy Ghost, is described as “frisky” by the son. “What many of us heard was simply surprisingly bright and decent men negotiating over the previously nonnegotiable. It didn’t matter how it came out. These were palpably human decisions, reversible by human vote. (I don’t know what we’d expected: a bird to fly in through the window perhaps.) What finally weakened the old magic may have been simply the sheer sensibleness of it all.” Even the Council is pressed into service as an endorsement of Wilfrid’s outlook.
No more vivid contrast between the world of his parents — the world of Maritain, Dawson, Belloc, Chesterton, Gilson, Claude!, Mauriac, on and on — and the pusillanimous post-conciliar generation, ourselves, can be imagined. Wilfrid dimly realizes this and his portrait of his father’s reactions to the “spirit” of Vatican II — the laicisations, the flight from the convent, the annulments, and the theological hoopla — is deeply moving.
This book is welcome, if only as a proof of the survivability of the giants of that Golden Age of American Catholicism which took place in the 40’s and 50’s of this century. The outlook Wilfrid adopts in this memoir is rendered trivial by its subjects. Frank and Maisie live.