Fighting the Sins of Cinema

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by Ryan Fitzgerald  •  •  February 28, 2016   

Movies haven't always scorned morality

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Although the modern mind can't help but dismiss it as puritanical, artistically stifling and power-driven, the notion of a society having some religious and ethical authority to guard the public from morally offensive, spiritually dangerous movies is nevertheless a thoroughly Catholic idea.

National Catholic Reporter’s film critic, Sr. Rose Pacatte, may publicly scoff at such supposedly antiquated projects, but the Catholic Legion of Decency was a prime example of just such a thing.

It was launched by Abp. John T. McNicholas of Cincinnati in 1933 with the inspiration of apostolic delegate Amleto Cicognani, who at the time was busy warning the world about bad film's potential to corrupt youth.

Its critics, past and present — regardless of their hostility (and frequently explaining their hostility) to the endeavor —  all agree on at least one thing: The Legion's influence was substantial and not something to scoff at. Unlike today, if a film at the time was rated as morally offensive, that hurt its producers' pockets. As a result, whether they liked it or not, filmmakers felt compelled to appease the Legion of Decency, to abide by its standards of judgment, however begrudgingly.

Naturally, this sanitized the cinematic world and allowed for a wider range of viewers to truly benefit from movies. The basic moral decency that was upheld brought with it a welcome respect from Protestants and Jews as well, thus providing a genuine point of moral unity among the different faiths.

And the Legion of Decency wasn't simply a national phenomenon with no acknowledgement from the universal Church. Pope Pius XI himself officially recognized the Legion in 1936 for its solid service to the film industry in nothing less than an encyclical. The following is a passage from "Vigilanti Cura":

In this crisis, you, Venerable Brethren, were among the first to study the means of safeguarding the souls entrusted to your care, and you launched the "Legion of Decency" as a crusade for public morality designed to revitalize the ideals of natural and Christian rectitude. Far from you was the thought of doing damage to the motion picture industry: Rather indeed did you arm it beforehand against the ruin which menaces every form of recreation which, in the guise of art, degenerates into corruption.

The encyclical documents the positive influence of the Legion, lest anyone insist such a "holy crusade" (or, as Sr. Rose puts it, a "fuss") would be counterproductive.

It is an exceedingly great comfort to Us to note the outstanding success of the crusade. Because of your vigilance and because of the pressure which has been brought to bear by public opinion, the motion picture has shown an improvement from the moral standpoint: Crime and vice are portrayed less frequently; sin is no longer so openly approved and acclaimed; false ideals of life are no longer presented in so flagrant a manner to the impressionable minds of youth.

To be sure, Pope Pius XI wasn't unaware of the familiar critiques that predictably arise from such projects. He actually addressed most of them.

Although in certain quarters it was predicted that the artistic values of the motion picture would be seriously impaired by the reform insisted upon by the "Legion of Decency," it appears that quite the contrary has happened and that the "Legion of Decency" has given no little impetus to the efforts to advance the cinema on the road to noble artistic significance by directing it towards the production of classic masterpieces as well as of original creations of uncommon worth.

Nor have the financial investments of the industry suffered, as was gratuitously foretold, for many of those who stayed away from the motion picture theatre because it outraged morality are patronizing it now that they are able to enjoy clean films which are not offensive to good morals or dangerous to Christian virtue.

When you started your crusade, it was said that your efforts would be of short duration and that the effects would not be lasting because, as the vigilance of Bishops and faithful gradually diminished, the producers would be free to return again to their former methods. It is not difficult to understand why certain of these might be desirous of going back to the sinister themes which pander to base desires and which you had proscribed. While the representation of subjects of real artistic value and the portrayal of the vicissitudes of human virtue require intellectual effort, toil, ability, and at times considerable outlay of money, it is often relatively easy to attract a certain type of person and certain classes of people to a theatre which presents picture plays calculated to inflame the passions and to arouse the lower instincts latent in the human heart.

An unceasing and universal vigilance must, on the contrary, convince the producers that the "Legion of Decency" has not been started as a crusade of short duration, soon to be neglected and forgotten, but that the Bishops of the United States are determined, at all times and at all costs, to safeguard the recreation of the people whatever form that recreation may take.

The legion embodied ethical principles outlined in Pope Pius XII's 1957 "Miranda Prorsus" as well. Unfortunately, after more than 30 years of battle, the cultural revolution proved victorious, and the Legion of Decency lost its pull. Eventually, it was incorporated into other projects and mostly forgotten.

A Catholic should look back at such a turn of events with a sense of loss, and not with dismissive amusement.


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