Martin Sheen is a better actor than theologian

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?