Frank Sheed; Love of Enemies; the Death Penalty

A sword lays buried within the mandate to love our enemies. Paul nodded to it in his letter to the Christian community in Rome. He quoted a passage from the wisdom literature familiar among Jews: “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you” (Prov. 25: 21-22). There is a compelling paradox here, a tension between kindly acts and anticipation of eventual punitive outcome for the recipient of the kindness—those burning coals! In a disconcerting way, this is a contradiction that even Don Corleone might assent to.


the punishment of Caiaphas
Emile Foubert. The Punishment of Caiaphas (1910-11). After Canto 18, Hell, in Dante’s Divine Comedy.


Frank Sheed, a luminous apologist, took stock of the tragic aspect of our inherited paradox in Society & Sanity (1953):

If a man tries to kill me, I have a right to resist him; if a man tries to kill some other person, I have a duty to resist him. Willing good to all men does not mean leaving some men free to do evil to others . . . . We have to stop him if he violated the laws of God to the harm of other people. We may even have to kill him—on the gallows or in the electric chair . . . [or] in battle if he is in the army of an aggressor. But we must not cease to love him.

With characteristic respect for traditional readings, Sheed did not mistake Jesus’ order to love all men as an emotional demand. That summons was never a matter of tender feeling or of being nice. It went deeper. Sheed illustrates its depth by situating it within extreme circumstances: waging war against an aggressor or levying the death penalty on a vicious criminal:

By his own act he [the felon] has made it necessary for us to hurt him, to prevent his attaining something he wants but is not not entitled to have [or do]. Yet we still will him all the good he has left it in our power to will him. And it is no pious platitude, but the plainest reality, that the eternal good we can still will him is more important to him than this earthly life that he forces us to cut short.

Eternal good? Such a concept is intelligible only within a religious intuition of the ultimate destiny of man. It depends wholly on the Christian conviction that death does not have the last word. Man, a frail cluster of cells poised for dispersion, draws dignity solely from his ordained capacity for infinity. Phrased variously over the centuries, trust in man’s eschatological potential has been at the heart of Christian belief for two millennia. It is the Easter promise. It alone is the root of true hope, and the wellspring of Christian joy.


sculpture of Christ rredeeming Adam and Eve
Christ redeems Adam and Eve from the jaws of hell. Altarpiece of the Virgin of the Stars, Cathedral of St. Mary, Catalunia (14th C).


Pope Francis, an ally to secular humanists, has displaced that ancient confidence. His taffy-pull on the Catechism tells us so.  His absolute censure of the death penalty plus rejection of life sentences, including even lengthy ones, revokes traditional trust that human dignity is measured in relation to man’s endmost destination, not his circumstances or the raw material of his temporal existence.

[See Edward Feser’s indispensable discussion of Francis’ delegitimization of capital punishment. Written for Catholic World Report, it earned reprinting in The Traditionalist (Issue 1, 2020). Equally valuable is Michael Pakaluk’s 2018 response in First Things to Francis’ insistence that the death penalty is inadmissible.]

Francis denounced both long term and life imprisonment as “hidden death sentences” that render prisoners “insidiously deprived of hope.” Hope of what? The Church has never denied hope of forgiveness, of final redemption, to any guilty party no matter how heinous the crime. In the classic theology of the Church, redemption is the crowning hope of each life. No criminal justice system can take it away. By elevating hope of freedom from incarceration over theological hope, Francis negates the ground of the hope that matters most to religious people: trust in man’s ultimate meaning.


harrowing of hell
Christ leads Adam out of hell. Vaux Passionale manuscript (c. 1504).


What is that negation if not a radical dismissal of ancestral judgement? Were it not piously intoned and installed in the Catechism, it would be recognized as a backdoor statement of pragmatic despair. Modern nihilism presents itself to us in the guise of compassion and human rights. Just so, the immensity of Francis’ initiative becomes clearer if it is understood in terms of materialist philosophy cloaked in traditional Christian idiom. Viewed through the prism of his ambition to share dominion on the world stage side by side with such poohbahs as Ban Ki-moon, Jeffrey Sachs, et alia, Francis looks increasingly like a secularist (not to say nihilist) in ecclesiastical motley.

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Please understand. These three consecutive posts circling the command to love are not meant to skirt or diminish the divine mandate. It is just that, in applying it, it helps to remember that the Gospels voice a counterpoint: “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?” (Matt 5:44); “And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades” (Matt 11:23). Jesus cursed the barren fig tree; he quoted from the imprecatory psalms, and was not shy in pronouncing maledictions. In the rhetorical currency of Jesus’ milieu, a cry of woe was as as good a curse as any. Jesus did not hesitate to make use of it: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!” “Woe to you, Chorazin.” “Woe to you Bethsaida.”


Illustration for Dante's Divine Comedy.
Dante and Virgil Meet the Blasphemers. Illuminated manuscript (14th C).


Jesus was a charismatic speaker, gifted in the rhetorical style of his era. Public diction was figurative, exaggerated, even hyperbolic. Stark contrasts—a device for oratorical effect—lent passion to eloquence. There is a harsh poetry to his insistence on an all-or-nothing aspect to the anchoring of our hearts in response to him : “Leave the dead to bury their own dead” (Luke 9: 59-60). We moderns cannot choose, as it suits us, to read some verses literally yet exempt others from their emphatic severity: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, and wife and children, and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:16).

We wear love your enemy around our shoulders like a warm shawl; we tuck hate father and mother into a dark corner of the attic. The former warms our vanity. It showcases our virtue. (Mon semblable, mon frère, see how I love!) The latter? That is a tough one for homilies designed to accompany folk guitar and ditties from Weston Priory.

The divine word was bitter to the prophets. We sweeten it in peril to ourselves.