Legion of Decency Might Sound a Little Corny, but…

In his recent post on “family” films Didymus cautions us to be wary of secular or even anti-Christian elements of some very popular films.  His words give us something important to think about – not necessarily to avoid these films altogether but to at least approach them with due caution.

I was reminded of several of the writings of the American Hierarchy during the early 20th century, wherein a series of Resolutions and Statements warned of the wanton and unfettered state of motion pictures of the time.

“Unemployment has imposed upon millions of men and women more leisure time… The public entertainments are therefore more widely patronized.  Commercialism, which our Holy Father has named as the root of modern evils, practically controls the theater of today, the spoken drama and the screen… Leisure time should be used only for wholesome enjoyment and entertainment, such as one may look back to with a good conscience and a satisfied heart.”  Catholic Action, December 1932, p. 4

Less than a year later bishops within the American Hierarchy led the church to start the Legion of Decency, a parish-level, boycotted-based approach to pressuring the film industry to adopt higher moral standards.  So the Episcopal Committee on Motion Pictures warned,

“And thus it is hoped that the Catholic bishops may be relieved of what otherwise will be the imperative necessity of continuing indefinitely and of extending the campaign of protest.”  Catholic Action, July 1934, pp. 17-18

Sure, the name Legion of Decency sounds a little corny, but I find it attractively antiquated, sort of like incense.

The Legion created a three-tiered rating system that not only wielded considerable influence within the motion picture industry in the early years but is still used today (after a series of fits, starts, and consolidations) by the USCCB’s movie reviews.

Alas, the Hierarchy felt compelled to issue similar condemnations in late 1934 and 1940, urging the faithful to strengthen efforts to support the Legion and to fight “the pernicious influence of films which disregard the moral law and subvert the foundations of Christian society;” however, we have to admit many decades on that the populist fight to bring Hollywood to heel has been lost.

By the mid-1950s the American courts had handed victories to the Church’s secular foes and to our own base libertine tendencies, including diluting the state’s right to protect the common good from explicit material in films.  A 1957 papal encyclical affirmed the dangers of an unfettered media (and an unfettered conscience) but to little avail it seems to me.

The question I wrestle with still is, where to draw the line?  Where does intemperate temptation and action truly erode the will?  I must admit I enjoy all of the movies mentioned in Didymus’ post (yes, even Star Trek: The Motion Picture, as groan-worthy as it might be) even as I admit his points about some of the more hidden moral issues.

Furthermore I’ve enjoyed a few films that I find the Catholic News Service, to which the USCCB has apparently outsourced the job, has recently given the most restrictive rating of O – Morally Offensive, namely Sicario and The November Man.  The rest of CNS’s O movies are either mindless violence-fests or super-raunchy comedies.  I can’t really disagree with them on this, and I tend to tolerate violence more than explicit sex and raunch.  Also I don’t watch straight up horror movies at all.  As for the material I could find about the Legion’s official lists of yesteryear, I haven’t seen the vast majority or problematic films (C – Condemned) but they seem to tend toward subject matter I would agree are not suitable for guarding one’s interior life.  In between there exists the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s – I couldn’t find ratings in this time span but there is sure to be a lot to disavow.

Today I tend to rely on Steven Greydanus’ Decent Films site, although I certainly sense more nuance (read:  acceptance based on implied moral intentions) in his analysis than I gather was present in the Legion’s.  By the way he gave Raiders of the Lost Ark an A+ with a Moral/Spiritual Value of +2, without a lot of attention to the fact that Indy had apparently seduced a mid-teen Marion back in their romantic heyday.  Greydanus would be the first to say, caveat emptor.

There is a lot to guard our Christian souls against in the world of films, both hidden and overt.  Let us operate an interior Legion of Decency so that we might “look back to with a good conscience and a satisfied heart.”

One comment

  1. Thanks for the good read. The problem I have with your conclusion, though, is that most Catholics today don’t have “an interior Legion of Decency” because they don’t have rightly formed consciences. Why else is birth control, abortion, divorce, pre-marital sex generally accepted practices among even some practicing Catholics?

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