The University of Notre Dame has awarded its Laetare Medal, the oldest and most prestigious honor given to American Catholics, to actor and human rights advocate Martin Sheen. He will be presented the medal at the university’s commencement on May 18.
“As one of our nation’s most recognizable and accomplished screen actors, Martin Sheen has achieved a level of celebrity that few Americans enjoy,” said Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., University president. “He has used that celebrity to draw the attention of his fellow citizens to issues that cry out for redress, such as the plight of immigrant workers and homeless people, the waging of unjust war, the killing of the unborn and capital punishment. We welcome the opportunity to lift up his example for our Church, our country, and our students.”
Sheen’s legal name is Ramon Gerardo Antonio Estevez. He adopted his stage name in honor of Archbishop Fulton Sheen, the pioneering Catholic televangelist.
While acting in New York City in the 1950s, Martin Sheen became fascinated by Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement she founded. He visited and volunteered at Catholic Worker houses on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
He would later play the co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, Peter Maurin, in the 1996 film “Entertaining Angels.”
While he has played numerous television and film roles, including an American soldier in the 1979 film “Apocalypse Now” and a journalist in the 1982 film “Ghandi,” Sheen is also well-known for his role in the NBC television series “The West Wing,” where he played an American president who had graduated from Notre Dame.
A press release from the University of Notre Dame announcing the award noted Sheen’s arrests in non-violent demonstrations against various U.S. military policies and his dedication to alleviating poverty and homelessness. The release said he has also worked to improve the conditions of migrant workers and the environment.
According to the press release, Sheen is “a self-described Catholic peace activist, opponent of abortion and student of Catholic social teaching.”
Some critics have questioned Sheen’s pro-life credentials. In 2004 Sheen was listed as a supporter of “March for Women’s Lives,” an abortion-rights event organized by the National Organization for Women, the American Civil Liberties Union, and NARAL. His name was later removed from the list of supporters.
In an interview with Progressive Magazine, published in July 2003, Sheen outlined his views on abortion:
“I cannot make a choice for a women [sic], particularly a black or brown or poor pregnant woman. I would not make a judgment in the case. As a father and a grandfather, I have had experience with children who don't always come when they are planned, and I have experienced the great joy of God's presence in my children, so I'm inclined to be against abortion of any life. But I am equally against the death penalty or war-- anywhere people are sacrificed for some end justifying a means. I don't think abortion is a good idea. I personally am opposed to abortion, but I will not judge anybody else's right in that regard because I am not a woman and I could never face the actual reality of it.”
The Laetare Medal is named because its recipient is announced each year on the fourth Sunday of Lent, Laetare Sunday. “Laetare,” the Latin word for “rejoice,” is the first word in the entrance antiphon of the Mass that Sunday. The medal bears the Latin inscription, “Magna est veritas et prevalebit,” which in English means “Truth is mighty, and it shall prevail.”
The medal, which was established in 1883, was conceived as an American counterpart to the Golden Rose, a papal honor older than the 11th century. The Laetare Medal is awarded annually to a Catholic “whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the Church and enriched the heritage of humanity.”
Past recipients include Dorothy Day, novelist Walker Percy, President John F. Kennedy, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, and death penalty abolitionist Sister Helen Prejean.