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Laetare Medal brings controversy

John Tierney | Wednesday, March 19, 2008

On March 2, Laetare Sunday, the Laetare Medal committee announced that human rights activist and actor Martin Sheen will receive the prestigious award during this year’s Commencement weekend for embracing the Catholic faith throughout his life.

This announcement has brought controversy over whether Sheen, best known for his work in film and the NBC drama “West Wing,” deserves the award for his positions on the war in Iraq, abortion and homosexual rights.

Father James McDonald the University Associate Vice President, Counselor to the President and Chairman of the Laetare Medal committee said the goal of awarding the medal is not to find someone who will not generate controversy even though this year’s choice is unpopular with some.

“[Sheen] is an incredible man of deep faith,” McDonald said. “What most struck me was his genuine humility about himself as a believer in God. He’s a man who’s integrated faith in his public life in a very deep way.”

He said specific stances on controversial issues were not the focus of the Laetare selection committee, rather, the committee focused on Sheen’s body of work as a whole.

“We review all that can be reasonably attained by searching public records,” McDonald said. “But when you take his lifetime of service, what most stands out is his commitment to his faith as a Catholic. No one phrase on a given day disqualifies him.”

McDonald said Sheen did not earn the Laetare Medal for any particular action or position, but was instead awarded with it “in view of all of what he’s done integrating his life of faith with his professional life.”

The Laetare Medal is given each year to an American Catholic “whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the Church, and enriched the heritage of humanity,” according to the Laetare Medal citation presented to General William Starke Rosecrans in 1896.

McDonald also said Sheen’s views on abortion are not “pro-choice.” He said while Sheen may have made a comment that could be interpreted as being pro-choice, that does not mean Sheen is pro-choice.

“If you look at the whole thing, I don’t think you can conclude that,” McDonald said. “When people do research, they have to be very careful about when a statement was said. The judgment of importance has to depend on the context.”

McDonald said his office received many letters expressing gratitude for selecting Sheen for the medal. He said one such letter discussed Sheen’s charitable work on behalf of fighting mental illnesses and addiction.

He said he is not surprised people are disputing Sheen’s selection for the Laetare Medal, but he stands by the University’s decision.

“Men and women of good faith can differ in good faith on different choices,” McDonald said.

Sheen is the 130th recipient of the Laetare Medal, which has been awarded for 125 years since 1883. The medal was designed to serve as a counterpart to the Golden Rose, which has awarded by the pope for service to the Church since before the 11th Century.

The recipient of the Laetare Medal is announced each year on Laetare Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Lent.

Past winners of the medal include President John F. Kenney, diplomat Sargent Shriver, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement Dorothy Day and former University President Father Theodore Hesburgh. The 2007 Laetare Medal was awarded to Patrick F. McCartan, chairman emeritus of the University’s Board of Trustees.

Sheen will be on campus all Commencement weekend, and is eager to spend time with the Notre Dame family, McDonald said.

“He’s one of us. He will fit in very well here that weekend,” McDonald said.