Decent Films Mail > Mailbag #19

Re: Decent Films

I was wondering if you could clear up something that has been weighing on my mind heavily for some time now. In an online discussion a while back, a woman stated that if we want to go to Heaven, we listen to the saints, and if we want to go to hell, we listen to anyone else. She went on to say that since saints didn’t watch movies, neither should we, because we will go to hell. This is the same woman who said no one under the age of thirty should be allowed to read the Song of Songs, but I can’t get her words out of my head.

Here is what to say when you hear her words in your head. First of all, the correct dictum is not “If we want to go to Heaven, we listen to the saints.” The saints themselves are the first to tell us that the correct dictum is: “If we want to go to Heaven, we listen to the Church.”

For nearly a century the Church has proclaimed that cinema, like all forms of art and communication, is a gift: one that can be used properly to great advantage, or improperly to great harm. Popes Pius XI and Pius XII, the Vatican II decree Inter Mirifica and the pastoral instruction Communio et Progressio have all addressed the relevant moral issues.

Pope Pius XII’s addresses on the Ideal Film begins with open admiration for the technical and artistic achievements of just a few decades, highlighting the cinema’s capacity to bring viewers to imaginary worlds and distant realities. “Most noble” in itself, the Holy Father declared, cinema is at once “so apt to uplift or degrade men, and so quick to produce good or spread evil.”

While there is certainly a clear element of caution in the Church’s teaching, absolutely nothing justifies the conclusion that the Church wishes Catholics to abstain entirely from movies, and that if we do not we will go to hell. Catholic moral theology absolutely will not sustain this thesis.

The idea that the saints did not attend movies is just silly. Of course cinema didn’t exist for the first 18-plus centuries of the Church’s life, but certainly saints have always been involved in the arts. Has this person gone through the lives of all 20th-century saints and verified that none of them patronized the cinema? Does she even have quotations from any of them condemning the cinema and all who patronize it?

What will she do if Pope John Paul II is canonized? He held and attended screenings at the Vatican, including Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful, which he screened with the director. John Paul II also attended a private screening of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. The Vatican has also screened a pair of movies about John Paul II as well as The Nativity Story.

The 1995 Vatican film list would certainly be an odd document if Catholics were to abstain from the cinema. Also inexplicable would be the Vatican’s co-sponsorship of the Tertio Millennio International Festival of Spiritual Cinema, which awards the annual Bresson Prize (named for French filmmaker Robert Bresson) for special achievement in spiritual filmmaking.

You might also find my essays “What Are the Decent Films?” and “Faith and Film Criticism: The Challenge of the Catholic Critic” helpful.

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