Oscar mania is in the air.  TCM has been showcasing the “The 31 Days of Oscar” featuring those films which, in the past eighty-five years, have merited Hollywood acclaim.

Power of Social Media  

Today the motion picture, television, and the Internet are the most powerful of all social media, powerful for influencing masses of people at any one given moment.  They have become the chief means of entertainment after the day’s work.  Quick and attractive ways of delivering experiential knowledge, they reach all continents and draw in the viewer both consciously and subconsciously.  

With a decline in reading, there are fewer consumers of fine literature, biographies, popular books, newspapers and magazines.  Radio focuses on breaking news, religious topics, politics, foreign languages, and last but not least, classical music.  But it is the visual media that claim the attention.  On weekends, young adults worship in the temple of the movie theater rather than in churches.  

Social media can have a good or bad moral effect on its consumers.  They can inform, entertain, and elevate the mind and affections.  Or, they can debase by presenting immoral or objectionable material painting the human person as un-graced.

The motion picture is popular entertainment and considers itself an expression of art.  Over the years, it has molded customs, promoted culture, and has exported propaganda.  It can be an educational aid.  Compared to opera or the theater, the motion picture remains relatively inexpensive, escapist entertainment.

The Church and the Motion Picture

The Church is always solicitous about the well-being of the human person, the family, and the culture; cinema deals with the human condition.  Thus, the first observation by the Church is a positive one: acknowledging the gift of the cinema for society.  The question follows: What is the relationship between the rights of the artistic world and the norms of morality?

From the pontificate of Leo XIII (1878-1903) to the present day, the Church has shown a keen interest in motion pictures. In 1896 when cinematography was still young, it was brought to the Vatican by the Lumières’ Italian agents to photograph the elderly Leo XIII.  The first actual showing of motion picture in the Vatican took place in 1913 during the pontificate of Pius X (1903-14) with a documentary on the reconstructed bell tower of the Piazza San Marco in Venice.  

From the pontificate of Pius X (1903-14) to Vatican II (1961-63), at least 130 documents have been issued by the Holy See on the motion picture and other media of social communication. Statements from bishops number more than 1,000. Since the papacy of Pius XI (1914-39), the Church has pressed more insistently on the motion picture industry to espouse moral standards in the realm of natural ethics and revealed morality.
Two Codes Are Born: the Production Code and the Legion of Decency

From the 1920s to the 1970s, the Catholic Church exercised enormous influence over the quality of motion pictures.

By the 1920s, the National Association of the Motion Picture Industry (NAMPI) pursued a code of self-censoring. In 1929, Martin Quigley, a prominent Catholic, and Father Daniel A. Lord, S.J., Jesuit editor of “The Queen’s Work,” created a code of standards which was divided into two parts: “general principles” about morality and “particular applications,” an exacting list of “don’ts” and “be carefuls” regarding films.  The captions dealt with sex (“The sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld.  Pictures shall not infer that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing.”), treatment of crimes against the law, vulgarity, obscenity, profanity, costume, dance, repellent subjects requiring good taste, and religion (“No film or episode may throw ridicule on any religious faith.”)

The Productions Code asserted that film, as an art form, can be helpful or harmful to the human race; hence, its moral importance and obligations to the public. It also noted that art forms appeal primarily to the mature audience.

The Productions Code was clearly Catholic in sensibility.  It was being presented to a largely Jewish group of Hollywood producers and directors, for a predominantly Protestant America.  In 1930, enforcing the Code fell to the individual studios. The NAMPI worked within the constraints of the Productions Code until the late 1950s when home entertainment, i.e., television, offered stiff competition to Hollywood and the Code.  Moreover, the foreign film began to compete with American films.  By the late 1960s, enforcing the Productions Code became impossible and was abandoned entirely.

Around the same time, in the 1930s, the Catholic-sponsored National Legion of Decency was formed to combat those films which the Church deemed immoral.  Spearheaded by the American hierarchy and advanced by Daniel A. Lord, S.J, the Legion of Decency boycotted brazen indecency in films. The American Church became a powerful protest group, Hollywood’s bête noire. Other faith-traditions joined in a concerted protest against morally objectionable movies and those theaters that showed these films.  

The “Pledge,” as it was known, succeeded in giving notice to Hollywood that religious groups were closely monitoring the moral quality of its output. The Church’s guidance had a marked effect in discouraging Hollywood from making movies that would earn the disapproval of the Legion of Decency, for obvious reasons.  In many cases, film directors cut several minutes of a movie to win the approval of the Legion, or to avoid earning its disapproval.  

The pledge reads in part:  “I condemn all indecent and immoral motion pictures and those which glorify crime or criminals.  I promise to do all that I can to strengthen public opinion against the production of indecent and immoral films . . . .  I acknowledge my obligation to form a right conscience about pictures that are dangerous to my moral life.  I pledge myself to remain away from them . . . and to stay away altogether from places of amusement which show them as a matter of policy.”  The American bishops requested that the Pledge of the Legion of Decency be taken by the faithful each year on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8th.

The Church and the Post-Vatican II Attitude toward the Motion Picture

With the advent of Vatican II and the Church’s decision to note the positive rather the negative aspects of the media, two documents were issued, Inter mirifica (1963) and Communio et progressio (1971) were issued.  Both acknowledge the gift that social media offer for the advancing the culture with little said about their ill-effects even as Hollywood took license with sex and violence. The Legion of Decency was replaced by a new rating system.  

The following schema provides the current ratings of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) together with those of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which gives a more lenient evaluation. The Catholic News Service, an arm of the USCCB, provides the movie reviews.

The USCCB and MPAA Ratings

1.    USCCB  A-I       General Patronage    
       MPAA  G            General Audiences, all ages admitted  

2.    USCCB  A-II       Adults and adolescence  
       MPAA  PG           Parental guidance suggested; some material may not be suitable for children

3.    USCCB  A-III      Adults     
       MPAA  PG-13      Parents are strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13

4.    USCCB  A-IV      Adults, with reservations. While not morally offensive in themselves, these films are not for casual viewing because they require some analysis and explanation in order to avoid false impression and interpretations.
       MPAA  R             Restricted, under 17 requires accompanying adult

5.    USCCB L            Limited adult audiences; replaced A-1V

6.    USCCB  O           Morally offensive
       MPAA  NC-17     No one 17 and under admitted (age limit may vary in certain areas)

7.    MPAA  NR          Not rated.

The rating system of the USCCB avoids the harsh category of “Condemned” (C).  Instead, it moderates its critique with the rating, “Objectionable” (O).  It is entirely up to the individual and the family whether or not to follow the guide.  

The elimination of the strict but effective code of the Legion of Decency marked the split between the Church and the motion picture industry.  Thus, the Church’s influence on the industry has been diminished, and the industry, extricated from overt meddling by the Church.  Pope Paul VI lamented that “the split between the Gospel and culture is undoubtedly the tragedy of our time.”  John Paul II agrees: “And the field of communication fully confirms this judgment.”   

Motions Pictures Nominated for Oscars in 2014

This year, several films have been nominated for Oscar awards: “12 Years a Slave,”  (L) “American Hustle,” (O), “August Osage County,” (O), “Blue Jasmine,” (L), “Captain Phillips,” (A-III), “Dallas Buyers Club,” (O), “Gravity,” (A-III), “Her,” (L), “Nebraska,” (L), “Philomena,” (L), “Robocop,” (A-III), “Winter’s Tale,” (A-III), “The Wolf of Wall Street,” (O).

Of the acclaimed films, not one has received a G, A-I, or A-II rating.  Four have received an O rating and five an L rating.  Readers of this column, who are interested in the reasons for these ratings, may consult http://www.catholicnews.com/movies.htmatholic. An alternate website to consult is a subset of Focus on the Family, a nonprofit organization that supports socially conservative policies: http://www.pluggedin.com/movies.aspx.  On both these links, one can find information about sexual content, the presence of violence, gratuitous profanity and blasphemy, spiritual content, objectionable ideologies such as hostility toward a religion, and overall artistic value.

Kinds of Films

There are many genres of films: instructional and documentary films, action and suspense films, biblical films, films dealing with history, literature, biographies, comedy, and dramas depicting evil and how it is treated by the writers and directors.

The Ideal Film

Ideal films have beauty, integrity, and goodness of form. Woven within their fabric are values that respect, rather than debase, the human person.  Through plots and characters, they uplift and refresh. To this end, they inspire self-discipline, compassion, responsibility, friendship, courage, perseverance, honesty, loyalty and yes, faith.  In the long run, the motion picture should convey the truth that men and women are sinners but redeemed sinners—good at heart.  God’s grace is at work always and everywhere, available for the asking.  And God’s grace bears another name:  Providence at work in history.  The world has meaning with a destiny beyond the present. The divine is in present, and the temporal points to the transcendent. In a nihilistic world, the present and the future have no meaning.  Nihilism is an ideology in which life has no meaning. The present is all we have, and this too has no meaning.  Suffering has no meaning. Life is absurd because we are condemned to be free.  

Some Ideal Films: Non-Religious, Religious, Christian, and Catholic   

Of the hundreds acclaimed motion pictures, several deserve mention: “Adam’s Rib,” “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “All about Eve” “Around the World in Eighty Days,” “The Assisi Underground,” “Auntie Mame,” “Au Revoir, Les Enfants,” “Babette’s Feast,” “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” ”Ben-Hur,” “Blossoms in the Dust,” “Boys’ Town,” “Casablanca,” “Chariots of Fire,” “Dead Men Walking,” “The Exodus,” “Forest Gump,”  “The Four Feathers,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Gandhi,” “Going My Way,”  “Goodbye, Mr. Chips,”  “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” “Holiday Inn,” “In the Good Old Summertime,” “It Happened One Night,” It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Ivanhoe,”  “Life with Father,” “The Keys of the Kingdom,”  “Les Misérables,”  “A Man for All Seasons,” “The House on Ninety-Second Street,” “Lincoln,” “The Little Shop around the Corner,” “Madame Curie,” “The Mission,”  “The Miracle Worker,” “My Fair Lady,” “National Velvet,” “North by Northwest,” “Notorious,” “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” “Pride and Prejudice,” “Pride of the Yankees,” “Random Harvest,” “The Scarlet and the Black,” “The  Shoes of the Fisherman,” “The Sound of Music,” “Spellbound,” “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Top Hat,” “The Trouble with Angels,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy” “1776,” “Watch on the Rhine.”

The Catholic Film

A film need not be explicitly Catholic to be considered a Catholic film. In fact, those poorly-made films containing bad theology, bloated with sentimentality, make them odious to Hollywood and to an agnostic public. Barbara Nicolosi, a practicing and influential Catholic and founder of Act One, has noted more than once, that Hollywood isn’t anti-Christian as much as it is anti-bad art.  And, there have been too many religious films worthy of being tagged bad art.

In addition to beauty, truth, and goodness of form, a Catholic motion picture is inspired by faith.  It has imbedded within its fabric principles that are specifically Catholic. One is the ironic juxtaposition of joy and sorrow.  Good Friday, though the saddest day in history, leads to the most glorious Resurrection.  Suffering does not have the last word.  

Catholic films proclaim that all life is sacred.  Men and women are created in the image of God and are called to become “works of art.”  Life on earth does not belong to us but to God. Thirdly, the sacraments or sacramentals are often part of a film.  Motion pictures are replete with scenes that depict the celebration of the sacraments.  Finally, the Catholic sensibility is one of inclusiveness, the doctrine of the Church as the Body of Christ.  We all love a good story.  We love harmonious endings, one that has meaning.  As with the parables—all good stories, I am drawn in to the characters and want to imitate them.  

“Going My Way” and “The Bells of St. Mary’s”

Hollywood acclaimed two explicitly Catholic films, “Going My Way” and “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” made in 1944 and 1945. They were heart-warming stories, directed by Leo McCarey, with superb actors.  One portrayed differences between an ‘old school’ priest, Father Fitzgibbon and a younger, progressive priest, Father O’Malley (Barry Fitzgerald and Bing Crosby, respectively). Father Chuck is sent to the parish to stabilize the parish’s finances.  

The other film portrays a good-natured rivalry between the same Father Chuck O’Malley, a priest newly-assigned to St. Mary’s and the principal and Superior of the school, Sr. Benedict (Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman, respectively).  

“Going My Way” was nominated ten times and won seven Oscars.  It grossed $6.5 million in profits.  According to The New York Times, this was Bing Crosby’s finest film:  “It says a lot for a performer who has been one of the steadfast joys of the screen.” After World War II, McCarey and Crosby went to the Vatican and presented a copy of the film to Pope Pius XII.

“The Bells of St. Mary’s” was released in December 1945 just in time for Christmas, earning eight nominations.  Everyone agreed that Ingrid Bergman deserved an Oscar for her portrayal of Sister Benedict, but she had won an Oscar the previous year for best actress in “Gaslight.” Hollywood thought it awkward to award her an Oscar two years in a row. The film grossed almost $4 million in profits.

As Hollywood recalls these two universally-beloved films, one wonders if, with the passing years, we haven’t lost something of their sensibility.

Papal Treatment of the Motion Picture  

Readers interested in papal documents on the motion picture or on the media in general may consult Pius XII’s apostolic exhortations (1955) and the encyclical letter, Miranda prorsus (1957).  Taken together, these documents are a treatise on motion-picture morality “that finds few equals even in secular writings for richness of content with insight that is psychological, aesthetic, and sociological” (F. Baragli, “The Motion Picture,” The New Catholic Encyclopedia: 9:553-56).

Pius XII provided the Church with its most systematic and complete teaching on the motion picture.  His two documents, with their doctrinal richness and precision, made possible the document, Inter mirifica, of Vatican II, and those that have followed in the succeeding years, most of which stress cooperation between the media and the Church.    

In his encyclical, Redemptoris missio (1990) and again in 2005, John Paul II and re-emphasizes the words of Pius XII while adding that it is also necessary to integrate that message into the “new culture” created by modern communications, a complex issue” because the “new culture” originates not just from whatever content is eventually expressed but from the very fact that there exist new ways of communicating, with new languages, new techniques and a new psychology.”

“The problem of art and morals is usually stated in terms such as the following: If a genuine work of art is truly beautiful and attains perfection in its own order, how can it be considered immoral? Or, conversely, if a work of art is immoral, how can it be considered beautiful, and consequently, how can it be perfect in its own order?”  This twofold question is raised by Thomas Merton in his piece, “Art and Morality,” (The New Catholic Encyclopedia 1: 864-67.)  The question continues to be thought-provoking. 

 (To be continued)