Decent Films Mail > Mailbag #9

Re: The Legion of Decency

Going back to 1936, a Jesuit priest named Father Daniel Lord SJ founded the Legion of Decency. It was very successful in keeping the film industry making decent films. Every year on the feast of Christ the King every Catholic church had its parishioners take the pledge to avoid going to indecent movies. Why donít we bring back the Legion of Decency?

The Legion of Decency was founded in 1933. Fr. Lord did not found it, although he supported its work, as did Pius XI. Fr. Lord did cowrite the 1930 Production Code, which governed Hollywood morality from 1934 until its eventual demise in 1967, when it was replaced by the MPAA age-based ratings system.

Prior to the Legion, American Catholic film criticism operated on a “white list” basis, meaning that approved films were positively reviewed, but problematic films were simply ignored rather than “black listed.” The Legion changed this by classifying movies for moral and age appropriateness including condemning movies considered unacceptable. Countless Catholics vowed to avoid films classified as condemned, and sympathetic non-Catholics including Protestants, Jews and even atheists supported the work.

Fearing organized Catholic boycotts, Hollywood finally agreed to a system of strictly enforced moral self-censorship, and in 1934 the major studios established the Production Code Administration, which worked with studios as films were being developed and issued a seal of approval to finished films that were judged to meet the moral standards of the Production Code. The PCA was headed from 1934 to 1954 by Hollywood insider and Jesuit-trained Catholic Joseph I. Breen.

Cracks in the system began to appear from the post-war years onward. The rise of foreign film and independent theaters showed that it was possible to make and distribute movies without the PCA seal — and such films might have considerable artistic or even moral substance while treating subject matter in ways not permitted by the Code. With changing social mores, the line between violations of morality and violations of decorum became harder to find.

The effort to apply moral concerns in an objective, codifiable way, whether by the PCA or the Legion, was always problematic. Breen had strong ideas about what was and wasn’t acceptable, and while I think there’s a lot to be said for his approach, there were also flaws.

In the 1960s the Legion of Decency was absorbed into the US bishops conference, and eventually became the Office for Film and Broadcasting as we know it today. It still carries on the work of classifying movies for moral and age-based appropriateness, including classifying some films as morally offensive. The fundamental difference is that these decisions are no longer considered binding on individual Catholics, as they once were at least for those Catholics who took an annual vow to avoid offensive films — meaning, of course, films condemned by the Legion.

Nor do I think that responsible adult Catholics today should consider themselves bound by any one verdict on movies. In 1960, for example, the Legion condemned Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. I have no quarrel with anyone who mounts a moral critique of Psycho. But I don’t think that putting Psycho on a list of films that Catholics are expected to vow not to see is the best way to serve Catholic or public moral standards.

In the past I’ve done some writing for the OFB myself, including classifying at least two films as morally offensive for the bishops. I can thus confidently say that the classifications of the OFB, like its predecessor the Legion of Decency and like my own ratings here at Decent Films, are a matter of individual judgment and opinion. Particular OFB classifications can, have and sometimes should be questioned by individual Catholics.

Likewise, here at Decent Films I want and expect my readers to think critically about my reviews, opinions and arguments. The critic’s task, as I see it, is to offer an informed and responsible construal of a film, one that provides readers with information and perspective that may be helpful in selecting movies to watch and evaluating movies they’ve seen.

Of course I’m pleased when readers find my work on-target, but I neither want nor expect anyone to agree with everything I write. I certainly don’t want even individuals, let alone groups, taking vows not to see movies that I — or frankly anyone else — has classified as offensive. The only people on the planet bound by any decisions of mine live under my own roof.

Immorality in movies and other entertainment is certainly an individual and social problem that the Church ought to address. However, the idea of renewing an annual pledge not to see indecent films doesn’t strike me as a workable or advisable idea. Among other things, it presupposes a commonly agreed-upon, workable standard of which movies are or aren’t decent, which we aren’t going to get. Whatever moral consensus may have existed in the first half of the twentieth century about decency and indecency is long since gone. Organized controversy over a film today arguably helps rather than harms it at the box office. Finally, not only movie production but also distribution — including DVD and the Internet — is far too decentralized for studios or exhibitors to feel intimidated by boycotts.

The moral battlegrounds have shifted. The problem of immorality in movies and other entertainment is dwarfed by the corrosion of pornography, especially Internet porn, that ought to get more attention than it does. Society is increasingly threatened at its roots by the collapse of marriage, including no-fault divorce and serial remarriage, contraception, rising cohabitation and same-sex “marriage.” The dignity of the human person is degraded by abortion, embryonic stem-cell research and euthanasia. The demands of charity to the poor, the imprisoned and the stranger cry out to be addressed. The Church is faced by serious challenges of catechesis, leadership and praxis. Our pastors have their work cut out for them, as do we, the laity. God’s mercy and grace be on us all.

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