The Sanity of Frank Sheed

Frank Sheed (1897-1982) was born in Australia to a Presbyterian father and a Catholic mother. Reared a Protestant, at the age of 16 he was received into the Catholic Church. He practiced law but turned to writing Catholic apologetics and publishing Catholic authors. Much of his skill as an apologist was acquired by encountering passersby atop his soap box in London’s Hyde Park. In later years he became the most prominent lay Catholic theologian of his day. He married a Catholic writer, Masie Ward, author of the first biography of G.K. Chesterton. Together they established the publishing house of Sheed & Ward, famous for publishing Catholic writers of Europe and North America. Sheed was also very active in the Catholic Evidence Guild, an apologetics society dedicated to educating the laity in the art of defending and explaining the faith to non-Catholics.

Sheed’s writing style is relaxed, eloquent, and penetrating, as the following aphorisms demonstrate. “We can never attain a maximum love of God with only a minimum knowledge of God.” “We are made from nothing, but we are not made for nothing, and will never return to nothing.” “One way to prevent conversation from being boring is to say the wrong thing.” “The man who knows of the universe of spirit walks upright, the materialist hugs the earth.” “Sanity, remember, does not mean living in the same world as everyone else; it means living in the real world.”

Sheed’s Theology and Sanity (1946) is among the most highly regarded of his books. Its thesis is stated in the first sentence. “My concern in this book is not with the Will, but with the Intellect, not with sanctity but with sanity. The difference is too often overlooked in the practice of religion.” Sheed does not dispute the primacy of will over intellect so far as our salvation goes, but he rightly recognizes that not seeing things as they really are is the path to losing our salvation. Because the Catholic Church is the authentic presence of God in the world, it is through its lens that we see things as they truly are. How do we know this is so? Sheed asserts an ultimately sensible truth: it would have been insane for God to have given us the gift of truth and made no provision for its preservation. The Catholic Church, since its founding by Jesus Christ, has been the creator, dispenser, and preserver of a sane theology, in spite of lapses in good conduct and sanity by some of its members (even some of its popes) from time to time. This is why at every Mass all Catholics pray for their pope, their bishop, and their consecrated religious, since it is by the conniving malice of Satan that every temptation will be offered to loosen their grip on reality.

How Theological Insanity Began

Sheed points out that all angels and men were intended by God to experience the Beatific Vision of God. However, that vision must be earned by angels and men being tested as worthy of it. The angels led by Lucifer were evidently given a choice to make (what that choice was remains theological speculation), but clearly they had the free will to choose between obedience and disobedience, submission to God’s will or defiance of His will. It was madness to defy God’s will, but madness was the Devil’s guiding principle. He was not connected with the reality that God had offered him, the reality of the Beatific Vision. In the Gospel of John, Jesus reminds us of the Devil’s disconnect from reality. To the Jews who would not believe in him, Jesus said: “You belong to your father the devil and you willingly carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in truth, because there is no truth in him. When he tells a lie, he speaks in character, because he is a liar and the father of lies.” Lucifer’s original sin, the lie he told himself that it was better to rule in hell than serve in heaven, was the true beginning of theological insanity, which is the choice not to live in the real world of truth and love God had created for the angels.

It should be no surprise for us to realize that the same inanity is repeated by the choice of Adam and Eve to accept the Serpent’s lie that the forbidden fruit would make them equal to God, when the Serpent knew in truth that the fruit (of disobedience) could bring damnation to them as it had to Lucifer and his angels. (The Book of Wisdom 2:4 gives us a hint as to why the Devil was set on destroying Adam and Eve.) And all this proves, as if proof were needed, that the Will rules the Intellect. We can know what we ought to do, and yet will what we ought not to do. The will is free. It is not coerced by the object of its attraction to choose one path over another. We are not dolls in a puppet show, our strings irresistibly yanked by God or by the Devil this way and that. Sheed concludes: “God has said it. He has told us of the alternatives of right and wrong, urged us to do right, warned us against doing wrong, promised reward for the one, threatened punishment for the other: told us in a hundred ways that we are responsible for our choices. He who made us makes clear that He made us free to choose.” The sanity is to choose his will. The madness is to defy it. But the testing did not end with the angels and Adam and Eve. Each of us in turn must be tested. Each of us in turn will have the added grace, that sanctifying gift of Jesus Christ, the supernatural fuel that fires our spiritual engines toward eternal life … if we but will it!

An Unhappy Generation

St. Augustine said our hearts are restless until we rest in Him. This means that any degree of real happiness cannot be within our reach until we reach for Him, and even then we are short of supreme rest in the Beatific Vision. All the unhappiness we get in this life (especially the kind that verges on madness) will be in proportion to our rejecting the Father’s invitation to know Him through his Son. As Sheed puts it: “… there is a radical insufficiency in us flowing altogether from our being. Man is insufficient without God because without God he would not even be. It is easy for man to think himself autonomous, if he does not think very much: for God does not jerk his elbow, so to speak, but only solicits his mind…. There is an abyss of nothingness at the very heart of our being, and we had better counter it by the fullest possible use of our kinship with the Infinite who is also at the very heart of our being. To be ignorant of this is to live in unreality, and there can be no satisfaction for ourselves or any adequate coping with anything.”

This dependence we have upon God, if one truly believes there is a God, must be accompanied by not only recognition but daily affirmation. Our whole being is wrapped up in the obligation and the natural desire planted in us by God to know Him and love Him. If one does not believe in God, or only nods slightly to the possibility of God, then one has denied the very purpose for which he was created. This cannot end well. Sheed then notes the case of the expert on butterflies, or on women, or on stamps, or on beer, who has all the time and labour he can muster to study them and enjoy them, but neglects summoning the time and labor to think about, and do something about, the very reason for his being alive. Such a life is dedicated to meaningless diversions if it is not directed to the one thing that matters most in life. “The thing is farcical but terrifying. One can make no sense of a man who gives so much attention to butterflies that he has none left for his own meaning. The little creatures should be flattered. But the man is hardly sane. And he is the perfect type of our world.”

The person who lives without a sense of purpose toward which his life and death are directed is the person who lives in the last analysis without hope. It could well be for this reason that suicide has been documented worldwide to be so much more common among atheists than among believers. For many reasons this lesson about despair and death may be long in coming; it may be regularly ignored and delayed by this diversion or that; but come it will. As Sheed reflects, “Men are dying from lack of hope who do not even know that they are hopeless. The hold upon life is pretty precarious when men are living only for lack of any specific reason for dying.” The reasons for dying, and for dying sooner rather than later, are surfacing rapidly in the West as abortion, euthanasia, and assisted suicide become the great medical controversies of our time, controversies that would never have plagued us just a hundred years ago when the religious affirmation of life’s meaning was more firmly and pervasively seated in authority than it is today.

A moral code must exist among humans, and it must exist by some reliable and infallible authority. It is too easy (and it is the devil’s own work) to insist that we cannot know for a certainty the difference between right and wrong. It is too easy for the person who asks first “Why shouldn’t I?” and to say in the next sentence, “I don’t see why I shouldn’t.” But this is the moral equivalent to asking why you should not open the lid to Pandora’s trunk so that all the evils contained therein may fly out to attack humanity. It is rampant moral lethargy and flabbiness to give in to every urge on the ground that we think, “I don’t see why I shouldn’t.” Of course we will not see, because we have chosen to abandon the Light, to dwell in moral darkness, and to wallow in a chaos of immoral choices. Sheed reasons, “Men thus devitalized, by their own softness, by the lack of a goal for their hope, by a sense of futility, can still respond to a major stimulation like war, but under the quieter stimulations of peace they are in danger of complete collapse.” Sheed could see what we have come to see ever more clearly today: that the abandonment of religion has led to a riot of drugs, sex, and savagery. An unhappy generation, to be sure.

Personal unhappiness without God is inevitable. We were created to have a relationship with our Creator, to discharge certain of our spiritual energies for that purpose. Lacking the relationship, we are empty within, and must discharge those energies in directions that have nothing to do with God. It is the indifference of souls to their ultimate destiny that makes them unhappy. The soul that does not hunger for God in too many cases does not even know that it has this hunger, and therefore will not make the effort to feed itself. The world, the flesh, and the devil are constant companions to such a soul. It is amazing, Sheed reflects, how much science and technology have together served the purpose of distracting us from the pursuit of our ultimate destiny. “The soul of man is crying for hope or purpose or meaning; and the inventor says ‘Here is a telephone,’ or ‘Look, television!’ – exactly as one tries to distract a baby crying for its mother by offering it sugar sticks and making funny faces at it. The leaping stream of invention has served extraordinarily well to keep man from remembering that which is troubling him. He is only troubled. His sense of futility he has never got round to analyzing. But he is half strangled by it.”

Sufficiency in the Church

Sheed allows that we live in a post-Christian world. The secular world has no authority without reference to God (who, it hastens to assure us, does not exist) to assert any moral code that can give hope to a person; nor can secularism provide solidarity to society. Not only does secular authority fail to assure us of surviving death, it cannot assure civilizations of surviving themselves (some would go so far as to say the days of the universe itself are numbered). Secular ethics without God are futile if they do not explain the need to address the fate of our souls when we die; nor can they prove there is no next life that need concern us; nor can they explain why universally men are driven to hope in a next life that will explain all the riddles of this one. There is no secular moral philosopher in the history of the world who has been able to offer us the guarantee of his hold upon the ultimate truths, and many of them are too cynical to even believe that such truths exist. They are authors of books, and nothing more.

Only from the Church do we get infallibly righteous guidance for the knowledge of our final destiny and how to reach it. All that spiritual energy (which without God we turn against ourselves and others) could and should be rightly used in the service of God and others. The Church knows its mission and knows it well; it knows the great gifts it has to offer us, because it truly is, as it describes itself, the Body of Christ in the world. But its gifts are not received, because the Giver is not recognized as bearing gifts. He is not recognized at all. And people generally find at least two ways not to recognize the Giver. The first way is to attack the clergy and lay Catholics as sinners; many are of course, and some are spectacular sinners, and two thousand years of sinners on so vast a scale cannot be overlooked. This, of course, is not the right way to judge. We would never judge the standards of some of the best bakeries in town as bad because some of the bakers using that standard for two thousand years have not lived up to the standard.

The second reason that many will give for recoiling from the gifts of the Church is that the Church concerns itself too much with the soul and not enough with the ills of the world. The reason they give is that the Church has its head in the clouds but does not have its feet on earth. But this is patently false. The Church has always led in the creation of institutions of learning (whereby the ignorant are brought to knowledge) and in the building of hospitals and orphanages and feeding the hungry and clothing and sheltering the poor and comforting the afflicted. But even this is secondary to her more excellent purpose, which is to bring souls into a right relation with their Creator and prepare them for eternity. There is no secular authority that even pretends to accomplish this mission, for it has neither authority, nor intelligence, nor will, nor methods for doing so. The Church follows the admonition of Christ: “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world if he loses his own soul?”

The Life of Grace

In Catholic theology there is a thing called grace. Sheed describes grace as the indwelling of God in us by our invitation and consent. God’s presence in us is a gift that we may freely accept or freely reject. God does not force himself upon us. It is the great mistake of those who refuse God’s presence in them that they believe they have dismissed an unwanted Autocrat who will not be allowed to tell them what to be, what to think, or what to do with their lives. God does not diminish us by his presence in us; rather, grace strengthens us and sustains the strength we need to fulfill our eternal destiny that he invites us to share with him. Think of grace this way. We live in darkness. There is a light bulb near us, which will shed light (grace) upon us that we may see. The light is powered by a central dynamo (God). There is a switch that turns the light on (the Church). There is the person who may freely choose to turn the switch on, or choose to continue living in darkness.

Upon choosing to switch the light on by the event called Baptism, the room (soul) is flooded with light (the light of Faith, Hope, and Charity). This light then reveals other things in the room (the soul): namely, the Moral Virtues of Prudence, Justice, Temperance and Fortitude; which in turn reveal the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, (again) Fortitude, Knowledge, Piety, and Fear of the Lord. In this way our Supernatural Life, as opposed to our natural life, truly begins. We have been offered the gift, and we receive it. What we are to do with the gift is the whole point of living out our natural lives for the sake of our final supernatural destiny. All of these gifts taken together show that Christ has rightly told us what they are for: “I have come that you may have life, and that you may have it more abundantly.”

The Landscape of Reality

A sane theology must concern itself with the landscape of reality. Without sane theology we inevitably build walls around us that imprison our intellect and our imagination, and most of all our consciousness of how we ought to live our lives and the everlasting Reason why we must live them as we should. There is no theology that stresses more the importance of love than the Christian theology, and for this reason we know that Christian theology is the truly sane theology. No secular philosophies do this, and they tend toward doing just the opposite: putting love on the sideline or reducing it to something barely more than the love animals have for each other and for their love of survival in nature; but not for their love of survival in eternity which the beasts of the earth cannot even begin to imagine.

To any animal but man the notions of God, heaven, and hell would be as unimaginable as a round triangle is to homo sapiens. Any human who asserted the existence of round triangles would not only be judged irrational, but insane. Yet since the dawn of history humans have asserted the existence of one kind of god or another and the hope for afterlife. While some have been duped by the poverty of their intellects or their imaginations, it is a stretch to assert that all have been duped by their common instinct to discover their eternal purpose in the order of things. It is more than a little likely that the decline of religion is the method by which not sanity, but rather insanity, is slowly taking over the world.

There are many ways to oppose the idea of religion as the root of our sanity. The most obvious is to disregard religion altogether, or to oppose its laws under the illusion that this can be done with impunity. But, as Sheed insists, “Reality has laws, and we can know them.” We cannot break the law of gravity. When we do so, it is more likely to break us. The same applies to moral laws. If we try to break them, they will break us. Actions have consequences. If God puts down a law that fidelity to our spouse must prevail, we “break” our vows by infidelity. It is only atheism that says there is no God to put down such a law, and therefore infidelity breaks nothing. But this attitude results in more than a few broken homes, more than a few broken families, more than a few broken communities, and at last a broken civilization rife with the insanity of epidemic divorces that a lawless morality provokes. From all this we can see why God commands fidelity, and why we defy his command at our peril with an epidemic of divorces that prepare the groundwork for the rise of alcoholism, drug abuse, poverty, promiscuity, theft, and madness that rivals even the lawless morality of the ancient world.

Why Do We Suffer?

The chronic complaint of the world is that God should have made us in such a way that we would not have to suffer. This is to presume that if we could be God, we could have done a better job on the sixth day. Always man’s presumptuous brain tends to conclude that this mystery of evil it cannot solve proves the non-existence of any Providence governing Nature. But of course God could prevent suffering. “He could prevent suffering by preventing us, a cure more drastic than we should desire,” Sheed wryly observes. But Sheed’s more thoughtful answer is this: “To suggest that God should intervene every time we come into collision with reality and prevent the causes taking their effects would mean that we should not be living in a universe of law at all.” We would simply be living in a universe of miracles. Miracles have their place, of course. “But if ever miracles ceased to be exceptional and became common, considered action would have to cease. We could not master our environment, grow in our environment, exercise our will by choice, take the consequences of our choice. We should never be sure what the consequences of our choice were. It is hard to see how we could reach maturity.”

This is as though we were dedicated to demanding the unreality and irrationality of things. As if there were no laws, neither physical nor moral, that we must heed. As if “… we are to ignore God’s laws and God is to treat us as if we had observed them; men are to be selfish and God is to prevent wars; men are to be sinful and God is to prevent evil. All this is as though men were to be forever jumping off cliffs and God forever stopping them in mid-air.” Such a solution to the problem of evil seems to defy sanity. The more sane approach would first of all be to consider whether God might have a hidden reason for allowing our suffering, a reason that will be manifest to us in the course of time, experience, and eternity. One need only read St. Paul’s litany of his sufferings in 2 Corinthians 11: 24-27 and his reflection that they are as nothing compared to the glory to come. In other words, if we cannot be saved from suffering, we can at least by our suffering be saved from total loss. Our suffering need not be wasted, and will not be wasted if we unite our suffering with Christ’s on the cross. Only the unbeliever has to think otherwise. Only the unbeliever has to believe that undue suffering is tragically pointless, and that physical or spiritual agonies must lead to pointless despair … or insanity.

Fancy and Fact

Many, not all, Catholics are a curious breed of Christians. For all the gifts God has given them (supremely exemplified in the Blessed Sacrament) they seem to know little, or care little to know, about the wealth of theological knowledge in the Catechism of their faith. They might be fiercely loyal Catholics, but not know exactly what they are loyal to, or not know what frightful moments their Church has passed through in the two thousand years of its struggle to survive. They might, like untutored Protestant friends, be content to believe that love is more important than knowledge, and in this they are surely right. The untutored Catholic may well be more superstitious than philosophical. He may be more dedicated to fanciful reports of miracles and prophecies, decidedly less so to complex theological tracts. The former are more colorful and inspiring than the latter. More to the point, the former might be less likely to drive one loony than the latter. We know for a fact that heresies have originated in twisted minds, and they have resulted in twisted acts of intolerance and cruelty. Those reported Marian apparitions have no such history.

But heresies, the truth be known, are much more so the result of poorly formed and hardly informed minds. This is why the facts of the faith must not be shunned in favor of the fancies. For this to happen, the mind must be energized and exercised constantly. St. Paul said we should pray constantly. We must also think constantly, or why do we even have Jesus preaching to form and inform our minds as to our destiny, and the Way to find our final goal and work toward it? Jesus spoke simply in parables so that all could understand, for he understood perfectly that a story is more memorable than a lecture. The parable of the Prodigal Son is greatly more memorable than Kant’s essay on the Categorical Imperative. Perhaps St. Paul’s thoughts on grace inspired the profound beauty of the hymn “Amazing Grace.” As St. Paul said, “I live now, not I, but Christ lives in me.” The life of Christ in us is the most amazing grace of all.

If it is the passion for right living that animates the saint, it is also the passion for sanity that animates the saint. Without these twin passions there is only psychological drift into irrational thinking and moral imbecility. To make sense of the world and our place in it and our destiny beyond it is the sanest urge a soul can have. Only Christ offers that sanity, and only Christ is the very model of sanity and sanctity to imitate. The person who does not pray can hardly be said to be on the road to sanity or to sanctity. As Sheed concludes: “Prayer does of itself, even more directly than suffering, tend to correct the disharmony between ourselves and reality. For of itself it asserts every element in the relation that ought to exist between the creature and God, and it brings the soul into that sort of contact with God in which He is closest and clearest… As to sanity, nothing has happened to diminish either my devotion to it or my awareness of its difficulty. For me it is still a distant hope and a striving. It would be wonderful to die sane.”


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Carl Sundell is Emeritus Professor of English and Humanities at Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester, Massachusetts. The author of several books including The Intellectual and the Gunman, Four Presidents, and Shaw versus Chesterton, he has published various articles in New Oxford Review and Catholic Insight. He currently resides in Lubbock, Texas where he is developing a book of short essays for students of Catholic apologetics