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Martin Sheen is a better actor than theologian

The actor, like so many liberal Catholics, seems to have lost his Way

By on Monday, 9 April 2012

You probably shouldn’t be watching a film on the evening of Good Friday, but if you do – as I confess I did – viewing Martin Sheen’s film The Way is not a wholly impious activity. For those who haven’t seen it, it is about a paunchy 60ish American eye specialist called Tom Avery, played by Sheen obviously, who decides on the spur of the moment to make the well-known pilgrimage called “El Camino” (“The Way”) in memory of his son, Daniel, who died in a freak accident in the Pyrenees at the start of his own attempt to walk to the shrine of St James at Santiago de Compostella.

Emilio Estevez, Sheen’s son, who plays the character of Daniel and who pops up from time to time in the film to encourage his Dad in his enterprise, directed the film so it was a collaborative effort in real life between father and son. Estevez did not want the film to have a narrow religious focus, describing “The Way” as “pro-people, pro-life, not anti-anything.” It’s a good-enough description of this feel-good movie which somehow avoids falling into the clichéd story of lonely and lost individuals finding themselves on a shared journey. Tom falls in reluctantly with an irritatingly extrovert Dutchman, Joost, whose wife won’t sleep with him any more as he is too fat; Sarah, a prickly, chain-smoking Canadian in an abusive marriage and in mourning for an abortion; and Jack, an Irishman, a literary poseur who had dreamed in his youth of becoming another Yeats.

Like the characters in The Wizard of Oz they all stumble along the pilgrim way, fighting, arguing – and finally bonding, as they reach the great cathedral in Compostella and recognise that a kind of healing process has taken place in all of them. Having blogged about cremation recently, and the Church in Italy’s ruling that the ashes of the dead must be placed in an urn and left in a hallowed place, I was interested to see Tom, who had collected his son’s remains from the gendarmerie in the French Pyrenees, gently place small deposits of ash at various wayside shrines along the route to Compostella. Strictly speaking, this is unlawful from an ecclesiastical point of view, but I have to say I had a sneaking sympathy with the aging doctor – played in the rugged, macho American fashion by Sheen – who is desperate to make amends to his dead son for the failures in their relationship when he was alive.

The character, Tom, played by Sheen, is a lapsed Catholic. In real life the actor is himself a Catholic – of a slightly quirky kind. Recently carried a story about Sheen with the headlines: “Catholic actor Martin Sheen: ‘The Church is not God’ in ‘gay marriage’ issue.” It seems that Sheen goes along with the attempts to redefine marriage, defending his views thus: “My religion’s highest standard is conscience. Nothing can get between your conscience and God, not even the Church… The Church is a conduit, and it is a spiritual journey, but it is not the end of the journey. The Church is an institution, primarily of men… and so they are flawed, obviously. And so they are not authorised from preventing any member from following their conscience no matter what that is. You can’t get between a person’s conscience and their God. Nobody can do that.”

Sheen, who once traversed the whole of The Way with his grandson, Taylor (also part of the team that made the film) seems to have lost his own way here as a Catholic. “Conscience” as we know, has to be “informed”; i.e. we can’t make up our own rules and then describe this as “following our conscience”. Whenever I have met people whose “conscience” has led them away from Church teaching, it has been apparent, to me at least, that it has been used as an excuse to evade hard issues. I know theoretically that conscience is primary, but in practice I have not come across a case where it has actually been virtuous to diverge from the authority of the Church. It is one thing to admit to being a sinner; it is another to flatly state that the Church is wrong.

I read once that Sheen changed his own name from “Estevez” in order to honour the famous American prelate whose Cause is at present being promoted in Rome, Archbishop Fulton J Sheen. I have not been able to discover the source of this information, so would be glad if a reader of this blog could do so. If the story is indeed true, it seems a great pity that the actor has not immersed himself a little more in the writings and broadcasts of Archbishop Sheen, which would have clearly explained to him the nature and function of conscience – as well as the nature and function of marriage.

And perhaps he should stick to acting and keep his theological musings to himself?

  • parepidemos

    This is such a judgemental article.

  • Catholic Youth Work

    I found it to be  fantastic and uplifting movie. I also have to say that whenever I have heard Martin Sheen and seen him be interviewed on many occasions and he is always uplifting. He really seems to be full of love and goodness.

    Jonathan Ross once said to Sheen at the end of an interview, ‘You make me want to be a better man!’

  • Jeannine

    The latest source of the story of Sheen’s name change from Estevez was an interview conducted by Raymond Arroyo of EWTN’s The World Over with Sheen during the American promotion tour of The Way last year.  

  • Christopher

    You are so right. The author of this article needs to read up on what the Church teaches about the primacy of the conscience – even when a person disagrees with Church teaching. What she quotes from Sheen indicates that he knows more theology than Francis Phillips.

  • Mhairi

    So Martin Sheen is a liberal Catholic (whatever Philips means by that) but what does being a liberal Catholic have to do with losing the way? The SSPX bunch are far from being liberal and they’ve well and truly lost the way.

  • theroadmaster

    William Oddie has hit the nail on the head, when he stated that one’s conscience has to be “properly informed”.  Martin Sheen has put conscience as the final arbiter in the determination of one’s views on moral issues, rather than the collective wisdom of 2000 years of Church history regarding them.  A properly educated conscience, is one which transcends the narrow, egotistical bounds of private opinion and defers to the timeless teachings of Mother Church.  One can recognize the human weaknesses of those who constitute the Body of Christ , both clerical and lay, without using that as a lame excuse to refuse to conform one’s will to the challenging but liberating doctrines and teachings of the Church. Sheen is perceived as being firmly on the left/liberal side of Catholicism and deeply involved in areas like Social Justice.   He is very laudably committed to fighting global injustices which oppress so many populations but seems to have a blind spot when it comes to specific teachings like the definition of marriage as it is commonly understood.  Mr Oddie is not judging Sheen, but rather commenting on the import of his words, regarding his views in favor of legislative moves by governments in the West to change it’s whole character and significance.

  • Brian B. Cook

    But of course you are being “judgmental” in the same way by declaring that the author is guilty of falling into the sin of rash judgment.  You might read the New Testament and see what Peter, Paul, John, Jude and James (I exclude Christ’s harsh judgments) have to say–sounds awfully judgmental! BTW, if the comments to this piece are an indication of the faith in England, then turn off the lights already.  

  • Fr_Levi

    CCC 1782 Man has the right to act in conscience ,,,
    CCC 1783 Conscience must be informed …

  • Honeybadger

    Martin Sheen also supports Obama.

    ’nuff said.

  • Mary C Donahue

    Thanks for your article.

    He has not shown the humility of being obedient to Holy Mother Church.

    I also see a lack in the right-to-life areas.
    Being Catholic in the public life is demanding.

  • Recusant

    Yes, excellent! We need more judgement. Not of souls, of course (judge not least ye be judged and all that), but of people’s pronouncements. You can learn from a bad judgement, but from no judgement one can take nothing. Nothing will come of nothing. 

    I think Sheen needs to reflect on whether conscience is a crutch for disobedience, that makes one feel heroic at the same time as being scandalous. I think he also needs to reflect that the Church – including the Church Triumphant – is NOT a human institution, but instituted by God and is the Bride of Christ. Yes it is full of oafs, fools, people with bad judgement, dimwits, liars, cheats and bums (I am most of the above). But when its doctrine is settled and has reflected enough, it is infallible, and departing from its doctrine is very foolish indeed.(I have to say that I enjoyed the file The Way immensely – it is beautifully photographed and very true to the Camino, which I have walked on a few occasions. It’s a bit corny, but very enjoyable)

  • fair player

    Francis  …..please show some charity and informed  research in your journalism.

    Martin Sheen doesn’t claim to be a theologian …he is a professional actor  who found his peace finally after a difficult  personal journey …in the Catholic Church we love…  ‘ slightly quirky’ …in your words. I refer you and readers to an interview of April 11 2011

    Tuesday, April 19, 2011

    Martin Sheen talks about his Catholic faith, opposition to abortion

    Posted by Mary DeTurris Poust

    In an interview with Irish Central,
    Hollywood veteran Martin Sheen talked in a surprisingly open way about
    his deep Catholic faith and his strong opposition to abortion. It’s rare
    but refreshing to hear this kind of honesty from a celebrity,
    especially when it may not win him many fans and may cost him quite a

    From the story:

    During the interview Sheen opened up on how he practices the Rosary, his
    belief in trans-substantiation and the communion of saints. The actor,
    who recently re-ignited his popularity with his role as President
    Bartlet in “The West Wing,” spoke on his Catholic devotion and how his
    pro-life views stopped him from backing President Obama in the 2008

    Francis…..Why not commend Martin Sheen in some way rather than denigrate him in a one sided manner ? He seems to have overstated his point about the primacy of conscience in the passing interview he gave. He was not speaking ex cathedra or so I believe…..

    Of course as you say he has lost his WAY…..thank you for your infallible statement

  • Parasum

    “My religion’s highest standard is conscience. Nothing can get between your conscience and God, not even the Church… The Church is a conduit, and it is a spiritual journey, but it is not the end of the journey. The Church is an institution, primarily of men… and so they are flawed, obviously. And so they are not authorised from preventing any member from following their conscience no matter what that is. You can’t get between a person’s conscience and their God. Nobody can do that.”

    ## He’s – largely – right thus far.

    The Beatific Vision is the face to face vision of God – not of the Church. God is the Creator of all things, visible and invisible – the Church is not, nor can it be. The Church was not crucified for us. The Church was not raised in glory upon the third day. It is not the Church that is appointed to be the Judge of the living and the dead. It is dependent on Christ – but it is not He, not comparable with Him. An overly high view of the Church does not take account  of its capacity for evil – but we need salvation as much from Churchly evil as from any other. To adapt some words quoted by C. S. Lewis, “The Church stops being a devil, only when it stops being a god”. There is one God alone – & the Church is not it. 

    A corrective to over-exaltation of the Church – from Philippians 2.5-11:

    The Church is fine in its place – but it is not greater than God, not greater than Christ, not greater than the Holy Spirit, nor equal to any of them. God is Lord of our consciences: not the self, not the Church, not the Pope, not the Magisterium, not Tradition, not even the Bible – but God and God alone.

    That is one reason Christ is Our Mediator with His Father. For God is greater than our hearts, so that even when we deceive ourselves, & others, however innocently, we cannot deceive Him. Given our sinfulness and fallibility & frailty, this is good news indeed. But the Church does not have this universal and perfect knowledge of our hearts. Far from it – the Church is so utterly in need of God’s grace that it would cease to exist if it were not at every instant upheld by Him. The standards of the Gospel are far higher than those the Church too often allows itself to live by.

    It is a messenger, therefore it bears of the authority of its Sender – & the extent of its authority is delimited by its commission. So if it is unfaithful to, or oversteps, that commission, it can & should be criticised in the Name of its Sender. We are slaves of God & of Christ – not of His messenger the Church.

  • maryp

    Having walked some of the Camino, I really did enjoy this film. However, it was a shame that the ashes of Sheen’s son were spread along the journey. This is absolutely not something Catholics should do. 

  • Adiutricem

    In America, in 2012, Mr. Sheen is more orthodox than 80% of Catholics, and more devoted to Jesus than 98%; the other 2% are those who speak only in Latin and won’t read this anyway.

    He’s wrong about a few things, perhaps a few big things. Many are. He will come around before the Apocalypse, now!

  • srdc

    I don’t disagree but let’s try logic 101.

     Conscience is not based on feelings, but on being informed by external reality or natural law.  Relying only on yourself can lead to self-worship,
    I really don’t understand this liberal fascination with escaping the physical world. There is no such thing as gay marriage.Denying the essence of things does not make you progressive, but afraid of reality, and crazy.

  • Akkord4

    Good topic of discussion for those who are well aware & of strong faith…bad for those whose only source of information about the Catholic faith is Hollywood or mainstream media.

  • paulsays

    None of the Presidential candidates can be said to be following Catholic teach. Of course some, like Gingrinch and Santorum might think they are – but that is not the same thing.

    Martin Sheen has obviously thrown his lot in with the candidate he beleives has made the least comprimises from a Catholic perspective.

  • Rocco Quadrolini

     A carefully knit reason to deny the authority of the Church and justify practicing one’s personal religion. Christ identified the Church with himself when he said to Paul, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Acts 26:14. He did not say, “Saul, Saul why do you persecute my followers?”
    There have been many evil men in the world who followed their “Unformed” consciences!

  • Susan

    As Francis says, in theory conscience is primary, but people seem to take that at face value, forgetting that the first thing a Catholic should learn from his conscience is that the voice of the Church is the voice of Christ (or perhaps he’s never been taught that fact). The consequence is that people tend to follow their own fancy and call it ‘conscience’. How do they know it’s the voice of their conscience and not the voice of their own self-deception?
    No one can be, or should be forced to accept this or that. And no one is forced to be a Catholic. However, anyone who rejects any solemn teaching of the Church should stop calling himself a Catholic. It is a contradiction in terms to claim to be a Catholic whilst rejecting the doctrines of Catholicism.

  • James

    Surely the very concept of conscience implies that, after careful and prayerful consideration of the Church’s teaching properly understood, and provided one is sure that one is acting honestly and in good faith, one may in certain circumstances legitimately act in a way which is not completely in line with that teaching. If one always blindly follows the Chuch’s teaching then it is difficult to see where conscience comes into it.

  • Patrick_Hadley

    When  Church teaching is an afront to reason, and you knew that, then it would be wrong to follow it. The Church taught that the Sun went round the earth, that it was good to torture religious dissidents, and that keeping slaves was just fine. The Church was wrong then and it is wrong now about issues such as contraception.

  • James

    None of those things ever formed part of Catholic doctrine or dogma.

    In any case, in the 17th Century, it was not an affront to reason to say the Sun went around the Earth. Indeed, it contradicts the evidence of the senses.

    I’m sure a “reasonable” case could also be put forward in support of slavery and torture.

    Don’t you think that the Resurrection, and transubstantiation are an affront to reason? What is your position on those?

  • amfortas

    Sheen can be criticised for may things. But he has been staunchly and publicly pro-life.

  • Ralph_malph

    The least compromises, like supporting someone in favor of killing babies born alive after the abortion fails to do the job.  Yeah right.

  • paulsays

    Obama believes in legal abortion yes. I think what you are refering to in your statement (that you don’t try to substantiate) – is the fact the Obama did not vote for a number of prolife bills in the Illonois Senate, of which he was a member before his Presidency.

    The bills protected fetus’s/babies born alive – with signs of life external to their mothers. The bills pushed forward by prolife senators were very likely seen like the thin edge of a wedge – which might challenge the legality of abortion entirely – something very different you would agree.

    Obama has in fact come out and said that although he supports legal abortion, he is not in favour of late-term and partial birth abortion – of which have lead to horror stories that you might be referencing in your comment.

    I’m not saying I agree with Obama’s stance, but I believe it is a fair opinion to hold on the issue, and one shared by many.

    Lets remember that Obama put through a healthcare bill to try and sort out the US’s lousey system – one that kills around 40,000 people a year simply through lack of care. (Thats over 13 9/11s)

    Of course including perfectly innocent babies and children… Surely that is much more of a moral outrage? and one which only Obama has seeked to fix.

  • Katie C.

    I very much liked the movie, and apparently so did Cardinal Timothy Dolan, since he mentioned it in his talk to Pope Benedict and cardinals at the meeting before the consistory.
    True…there are some theological ambiguities, but they are consistent with the character he plays, who is a fallen away Catholic. The EWTN interview clears them up.

    Paul, as an American, I can say that you have incorrectly presented Pres. Obama’s views. He has put the RCC in the US in a very precarious position due to his permissive views on abortion.

  • Sanaanimer

    Indeed.Famous people are often quoted just because of temp hair celebrity.

  • Mills

    He has been arrested many, many time protesting Pro-Life issues such as war…because to him being Pro-life is anti-abortion, anti-war, anti death penalty, pro environment and animal rights too. He will walk the walk and he is a better example of walking th Catholic life than many of the hierachy.  Pro-Life isn’t just about abortion it is about the lives of the children that are born and die due to war, lack of healthcare, homelessness etc. Many Conservatives do not seem to care about the living as much as the unborn.

  • Mills

    If we had more like him in the leadership, maybe the world will be a better place and the RCC might be fuller too. 

  • Killerk

    Spain and Portugal disagree…And the church doesn’t recognise many heterosexual marriages either due to re-marriage which is cause people to leave either because they choose a chance at love and happiness over dogma or they are children who find that their parents are rejected by the church, therefore they don’t want to know.
    It doesn’t allow priests to marry because they know if they did, they would never again have the power to teach the contraception is sinful or encourage big families, because they will understand what that really means for real people.
    I can’t understand that idea that Catholics are supposed to be nodding dogs, that agree with everything even if it makes no sense and is causing people deep pain.
    I know so many priest to do not think that way either but if the just die out then the RCC deserves to die with it.
    At this rate the church will become so small that the lack of Priest will not matter because unfortunatly not enough people are like Martin Sheen in their faith, they don’t think, they just follow.  They want a elitist club of dogma which cares about nobody.

  • Killerk

    Are you calling Martin Sheen evil? How many times have you been arrested for fighting for social justice? Or don’t people matter to you either?

  • CathedralMan

    Another shallow potboiler from Francis Phillips.

  • Veritas

    It’s pretty full already ; 1 billion+ and growing ; by 15 million alone, last year. Not bad for a Church which is constantly attacked by the establishment.

  • Cowboykendoka

    What is it about blogs that draws nutcases like moths to a flame…

  • Paul Erna

    Yes. Poor Charlie…he is not alone though..17 million admitted to driving drunk and there are 1.5 MILLION arrests per year > many may go to church