Martin Sheen and other dinosaurs of Catholic liberalism

Eager not to miss any detail about the flaming ball of crazy that is Charlie Sheen, I recently spent a little time reading about his father, actor and TV-world president emeritus Martin Sheen. In some circles, you may know, Martin is recognized as one of Hollywood’s stalwart Catholics, having famously chosen his stage name after Fulton Sheen and palled around with Dorothy Day, and perhaps more extraordinarily, going to Mass every week and speaking unapologetically and unironically about his faith.

Sheen is also a left-coast activist of the first water, lending himself over the years to the full menu of liberal causes—environmentalism, worker and immigrant rights, anti-nukes—and vocally supporting liberal politicians. He campaigned for Howard Dean, for God’s sake.

On the other hand, Sheen adheres to a pro-life stance of the seamless-garment variety, supporting left-wing pro-life groups and, if the stories are to be believed, intervening to rescue from abortion the products of his sons’ youthful indiscretions.

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Sheen credits his Catholic formation for his liberal social views. It occurs to me that in this he is a product of his time. Like others of his generation—I think of the pugnaciously liberal “Kennedy Catholics” native to my New England home—for Sheen being Catholic meant (even before factoring in the impact of liberalizing trends in theology, liturgy, biblical criticism, and psychology that so colored the Vatican II era) being on the left. It was the left that supported Catholic immigrants and working poor, the unions they joined, and the programs and policies that helped them get a leg up. It was the left that pursued civil rights efforts consonant with Catholic social teaching. It was the left (albeit not exclusively) that advocated a tough and active response to godless Communism.

Yes, maybe it was La-La Land and not the Church that influenced Martin Sheen’s decision to stand against Canadian sealing, but by and large you can see how his religion and his politics have sprung from a common stump.

But are there more Sheens to come?

By that I mean: are the Catholics being formed in our day likely to identify with political liberalism; more, to identify their faith with it?

With all due stipulations about the dangers of making one’s own sliver of experience generally normative, virtually all my good friends and casual acquaintances who are practicing, orthodox Catholics also line up on the political right. The larger friend-circles and increased flow of ideas fostered by Facebook, blogging, email, and other technologies have only magnified this impression. There are always exceptions, of course (some of them are fellow bloggers at InsideCatholic), and not everyone fits into a tidy political box, but it remains the case that the great majority of orthodox Catholics I know are also political conservatives, and the Catholics I know who subscribe to or even dabble in liberalism tend, in equally overwhelming numbers, also to dissent from Church teaching on certain matters of faith or morals.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: our friendships are self-selected and thus our friends will reflect ourselves. I’m a conservative and so it makes sense that my friends should be as well. All of us, wherever we fall on the political spectrum, tend to live in echo chambers.

Fair enough. But even recognizing that likelihood and controlling for it, I can’t help but sense a substantial re-alignment of faith and politics: a future trend in which the past affinity between Catholicism and left-wing politics is being replaced by an equally strong affinity—a presumption of affinity—between Catholicism and the political right.

Here are some reasons, most of which I imagine are obvious enough:

  • The left’s increasing preference for secularism and moral liberalism (abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, etc) over traditional religion and moral conservatism.
  • Conversely, what has become the nearly unilateral (if still hardly perfect) representation of social-conservative and traditional-religious interests by the political right.
  • The diminishment of organized labor as a binding force. The American manufacturing sector itself is greatly diminished overall, of course, and the sons and grandsons of factory workers are lawyers and I.T. specialists now.
  • The influence of Evangelical Protestantism, whose predominantly Southern adherents have just completed their own migration from Left to Right.
  • The success, or final bankruptcy, of liberal ideas and activism. There’s a growing sense that the civil rights movement has largely accomplished its aims, for example. And children (American children, anyway) don’t work 14-hour days at the old mill anymore. Meanwhile there seems to be a burgeoning public epiphany—hard economic times have helped, as they’re learning in Wisconsin—about the excesses or negative outcomes of Big Labor, the welfare state, environmentalism, political correctness, radical feminism, and other ideological components of the liberal coalition.
  • The ongoing work of conservative and libertarian think tanks, researchers, theologians, politicians, and bloggers to harmonize Catholicism with conservative ideas: the free market, national security, self-determination, smaller government. Moreover, their efforts to present these ideas as of one cloth with those that Catholicism and conservatism already clearly share: subsidiarity, respect for tradition, family, and moral codes, a belief in personal responsibility and accountability.
  • Finally, and probably the hardest to quantify or defend, what I call a revolutionary sensibility among younger (under, ahem, 45 or so) orthodox Catholics. This can be observed, for example, in families that homeschool (or start their own independent schools) rather than send their kids to the local parish or Catholic high school. It’s a sense of disdain, or at least suspicion, towards the creaking machinery of the institutional Church. These same Catholics who got tired of being poorly served by a generation of fuzzy-headed or indifferent bishops, priests, and lay collaborators—in catechesis, in liturgy, in ministry, in pastoral guidance, in higher education, in youth formation—and so turned instead to EWTN, Catholic Answers, Franciscan University, and the Couple to Couple League to “get fed,” may also instinctively be rejecting the residual political liberalism that persists in many chanceries and Catholic colleges.

So I’ll end with questions: is this really happening? What do you think of my reasons, and are there others? If you’re a faithful Catholic who still identifies with the political left, do you think that on the contrary yours is a flourishing breed? I thank you.


  • Todd M. Aglialoro

    Todd M. Aglialoro is the acquisitions editor for Catholic Answers.

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