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A ‘disastrous’ message from Notre Dame

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 14, 2020

Since I have never seen a single episode of “The West Wing,” I was unaware of the damage that TV show has done to the cause of American Catholicism. This astute analysis by Elizabeth Lev explains how the series “played a role in evangelizing Catholics to the ‘personally opposed, but it’s a woman’s body’ position.”

The show was influential, Lev tells readers, especially because it was well written, well directed, well crafted: a sophisticated product in the wasteland of television broadcasting. And it appealed to Catholics in particular because the star, Martin Sheen, was—and was well known to be—a practicing Catholic. In 2008, not known after “The West Wing” concluded its successful 7-season run, Sheen was honored by the University of Notre Dame with the Laetare Medal, given each year to someone “whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the Church and enriched the heritage of humanity.”

As it happens I was in South Bend, for my son’s graduation, on the day when Sheen received that Laetare Medal. I distinctly recall that the citation referred repeatedly to his role in “The West Wing.” At the time those references mean nothing to me. But when I read Lev’s column in the Catholic Herald—which is entitled ‘The West Wing’ had a disastrous influence on Catholics—I understood. With the award, Notre Dame was testifying to the world that Sheen, by his participation in a show that advanced the “pro-choice” agenda, had “illustrated the ideas of the Church and enriched the heritage of humanity.”

So now I am also better equipped to understand the significance of the speech that Sheen delivered as he accepted the award. That speech itself was inoffensive; like many another commencement speaker, he urged the new Notre Dame graduates to go out and change the world. Even then, innocent as I was about the “West Wing” influence, I caught the implicit message that the world should be changed in a certain direction: to conform to the liberal secular agenda rather than the Catholic faith.

Maybe Martin Sheen does not understand the damage that he did in “The West Wing.” Maybe he does not recognize the dangers of liberal ideology. He is, after all, an actor, not a philosopher. But his talk helped to prepare the audience for the main speaker at that Notre Dame commencement: a man who should have fully understood both the Catholic faith and the dangers of secular ideology. That main speaker was a prominent Catholic prelate, a former university president, the recipient of 35 honorary doctorates on top of his own PhD. When that main speaker praised Sheen and explicitly praised “The West Wing,” surely he knew what he was doing when he doubled down on Sheen’s message to the graduating class.

The main commencement speaker was Theodore McCarrick. Twelve years later, the “disastrous influence” of Sheen’s television show pales in comparison with the impact of the McCarrick scandal. Notre Dame has subsequently rescinded the honorary degree conferred on McCarrick, but has never corrected the message that he and Sheen sent to their newly minted graduates that day.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Frodo1945 - Dec. 16, 2020 9:25 AM ET USA

    Liz Lev is very late to the dance. In real life, in 1964 Robert Kennedy assembled Fr. Robert Drinan, Fr. Richard McCormick, Fr. Charles Curran, Fr. Fuchs, SJ and others to provide a way forward for "Catholic" politicians to allow and support abortion. The seeds of "I am personally opposed but..." were sown by real politicians and real priests. We have been betrayed by leaders not so much influenced by actors.

  • Posted by: jalsardl5053 - Dec. 15, 2020 5:57 PM ET USA

    No great surprise since the Laetare Medal was awarded to Joe Biden. Notre Dame's perception of what constitutes "in recognition of outstanding service to the Catholic Church and society.' is totally perverted. Pity and pray for the students who are, most probably, innocent victims of an educational institution that has more than lost its way.

  • Posted by: TheJournalist64 - Dec. 15, 2020 5:49 PM ET USA

    Two things: first, let's get the fog around Fulton Sheen's beatification cleared up so that can go forward. Ironically, Martin Sheen chose the venerable bishop's last name for his stage name. Second, check out at least one questionable raising of a Catholic son in offspring Charlie. It's just sad.

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Dec. 15, 2020 11:11 AM ET USA

    Yes the cult of celebrity has done great damage. But this could have been mitigated if our beloved Bishops had a catholic backbone. You wonder what Fulton Sheen would have had to say about his fellow Sheen. I would wager Fulton would have called it as we see it. That is why for a brief time we a celebrity in Fulton Sheen that was worthy of our respect.

  • Posted by: Montserrat - Dec. 14, 2020 2:37 PM ET USA

    "There is nothing hidden that will not be exposed, nothing concealed that will not be known and brought to light (Luke 8: 17)." I also have never watched West Wing. Sheen has always struck me as a phony with his culturally acceptable Catholicism while hobnobbing with the dregs of Hollywood. Now it comes to light. Thank you.