"Christians are called to be separate from the world."
"You can’t compromise with sin."
"There are much better ways to spend one’s time."
"You wouldn’t eat something that had a bit of arsenic mixed in it, would you?"
As a Catholic film critic, I hear remarks like these from time to time put forward in defense of the view that Christians should avoid (a) movies in general, (b) movies made after 1960, (c) all but the most innocuous family fare, (d) all movies except those that have an uplifting moral or spiritual message, and so on.
Precisely what constitutes unacceptable "worldliness" or "compromise" differs from one objector to another. For one, a single profane or even merely coarse expression may be enough to condemn an entire movie, however uplifting or wholesome it might be on balance. Others draw the line at attire that falls short of their standards of modesty, to say nothing of actual nudity. Still others, displaying almost religious faith in the authority of the MPAA, seem to consider an "R" rating a virtually infallible form of reverse imprimatur (though recently with a unique exception clause for one R-rated movie, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ).
This rigorous approach to film appears to be more prevalent among non-Catholic Christians than among Catholics. A number of Protestants working in the film industry have confided to me that in their experience Catholics tend to "get" film better than Christians of other stripes. I also know Protestant film writers who face frequent assaults for daring even to devote time and attention to Hollywood that could be better spent on more edifying subjects.
Still, it’s not hard to find this kind of rigorist approach among Catholics, too. One also meets Catholics who admit, perhaps sheepishly, to enjoying the very films condemned by their more scrupulous neighbors, and are worried if they are as good Catholics as they ought to be.
As with all errors, there are elements of truth in the rigorist approach to film. Movies can — and too often do — contain morally objectionable content, and this can have a harmful influence on individuals and on society. The Second Vatican Council decree Inter Mirifica, "Decree on the Media of Social Communications," warns men of the dangers of employing media like film "contrary to the plan of the Creator and to their own loss" (IM 1).
Inter Mirifica goes on to affirm "the absolute primacy of the objective moral order," meaning that the moral order "surpasses and fittingly coordinates all other spheres of human affairs — the arts not excepted — even though they be endowed with notable dignity" (IM 6). The decree also exhorts men to avoid presentations that "may be a cause or occasion of spiritual harm to themselves, or that can lead others into danger through base example, or that hinder desirable presentations and promote those that are evil" (IM 9).
At the same time, Inter Mirifica outlines principles of a Catholic approach to film and other media that is much more positive and nuanced than the rigorist view. Where the rigorist view often regards entertainment as well as art and culture as indifferent at best if not frivolous, or even as a distraction or temptation, the Vatican II decree affirms entertainment, culture and art as positive goods. These are not the only goods that the media can and should serve, but they remain good in themselves, not merely as a means to some other end.
Specifically, Inter Mirifica states that the media, "if properly utilized, can be of great service to mankind, since they greatly contribute to men’s entertainment and instruction as well as to the spread and support of the Kingdom of God" (IM 1), and that young people especially "need a press and entertainment that offer them decent amusement and cultural uplift" (IM 11). Later, it declares,
The production and showing of films that have value as decent entertainment, humane culture or art, especially when they are designed for young people, ought to be encouraged and assured by every effective means. This can be done particularly by supporting and joining in projects and enterprises for the production and distribution of decent films, by encouraging worthwhile films through critical approval and awards, by patronizing or jointly sponsoring theaters operated by Catholic and responsible managers. (IM 14)
Certainly we must not overlook the qualifiers that entertainment and culture must be "decent" and "humane," nor the other goods (i.e., "instruction" and even "the spread and support of the Kingdom of God") that the media can and should serve.
The decree does not state, however, that entertainment is of value only as a tool for instruction or for spreading and supporting the Kingdom of God. Nor does it state only that people need only be shielded from indecent entertainment and culture, or that decent entertainment and culture are needed only in order to combat indecent entertainment and culture. Rather, it declares entertainment and culture in themselves to be things that people "need" — part of a "great service to mankind."
Unfortunately, many Christians and even some Catholics are suspicious of entertainment for its own sake, and even of art and culture. "There are better ways to spend one’s time" is a common refrain for those who take this view. Why watch a movie when one could be praying the rosary, reading scripture or the lives of the saints, volunteering at church or in a soup kitchen?
Obviously, prayer, devotional reading, and service are very necessary and worthwhile acts, and certainly God doesn’t want us spending all our free time seeking entertainment and amusement. But neither does he require or wish all Christians to spend all their spare time in the pursuit of expressly religious and charitable works. Play, recreation, and amusement are also pleasing to him. He created us to enjoy them, and it is not only concupiscent sloth that attaches us to them. Of course sloth may incline us to inordinate attachment to diversion, just as concupiscence may inordinately attach us to any finite good (food, alcohol, comfort, work, sleep, sex, and so on). But the thing itself, and its proper enjoyment, remains per se good.
God created us for play and amusement just as he created us for work, prayer, and community. In particular he created us for art and culture: to create and look at images; to fashion stories and music and dance, and to perform and enjoy them; to explore imaginative scenarios of good and evil, of conflict and resolution.
It is in our nature to engage in and to enjoy these things, as it is the nature of stars to shine and plants to grow. And, just as the sun glorifies God by shining and plants by growing, so we please and glorify him when we participate in wholesome aesthetic activities and amusements. In fact, because man has free will, he pleases God in a special way when he freely participates in the goods proper to his nature. If he does so with a will to glorify God, it can even be meritorious.
But what is "decent" entertainment or "humane" culture? Must a decent film deal only with uplifting or wholesome subjects, or may dark or disturbing themes also be dealt with? Can a film include nudity or profanity and still be "decent"? Can "humane culture" include popular films or genres like action films and romantic comedies, or do only highbrow "art films" count as true culture?
On the subject of disturbing and immoral themes and subjects in art, Pope John Paul II expressed a profound insight in his "Letter to Artists": "Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption" (10). True art, humane art, can be profoundly difficult and unpleasant, and still represent a humane response to the fallenness of the world and of mankind and to the necessity of redemption.
Likewise, Inter Mirifica declares that "the narration, description or portrayal of moral evil" can "serve to bring about a deeper knowledge and study of humanity" — though it adds that such depictions must always be "subject to moral restraint, lest they work to the harm rather than the benefit of souls, particularly when there is question of treating matters which deserve reverent handling or which, given the baneful effect of original sin in men, could quite readily arouse base desires in them" (IM 7).
Artists must, then, have the restraint to avoid presenting audiences with likely occasions of sin. Obviously this does not mean that they must avoid anything that could possibly be an occasion of sin for anyone. The concupiscent disordering of our desires varies so widely in nature and severity from one person to another that even the most innocent imagery or narrative imaginable could conceivably arouse base desires in at least some people. For example, because there are foot-fetishists in the world does not mean that a film must never show the actors’ feet.
A good rule of thumb would be to avoid what is likely to be an occasion of sin for reasonably healthy viewers. Also, what is appropriate for adults may not be appropriate for the young, and there is a duty to "safeguard" the young from what "may be harmful at their age" (IM 12). Some rigorists argue that adults should be held to the same standards of acceptability as children, and that whatever is inappropriate for children should also be considered inappropriate for adults ("If it’s sinful for them, it’s sinful for me"). In speaking of shielding children from what "may be harmful at their age," however, Inter Mirifica clearly implies that such content need not be harmful to those of another age.
One might think that the fact that sacred scripture itself includes accounts of evils from adultery and murder to idolatry and blasphemy would suffice to establish, in principle, the legitimacy of treating such subjects in narrative form. Many rigorists, though, seem to regard the sacredness of scripture as grounds for an exception rather than a precedent. Try to extend the example of scripture to merely human literature or artwork, and you may be met with the response, "Are you equating human art with God’s word?"
Of course the inspiration or non-inspiration of a given story of adultery or rape doesn’t necessarily directly affect the likelihood of its being an occasion of sin for the audience. If 2 Samuel 11’s account of David watching Bathsheba bathe can be morally safe reading, so in principle could an equally restrained story of a comparable event in a work of fiction.
True, it’s one thing to read a typically bare-bones account of such an event in scripture, and another to see nudity or gore graphically represented before one’s eyes. But then in addition to sacred scripture there is also the history of Christian art to consider, especially in the West. Realistic depictions of male and female nudity, as well as grisly depictions of violent and gory imagery, can be found in Christian churches all over Europe, even in the Vatican itself. (Many critics of Gibson’s Passion who complained about the contrast between the terse gospel passion narratives and the explicit violence of the film seemed strangely unaware that Gibson’s film is hardly the first work of art in 2000 years to emphasize the physical horror of the passion and crucifixion.)
Some rigorists, especially non-Catholics, go so far as to condemn Western art along with the movies. Catholic rigorists are unlikely to go so far, but may instead argue that the documentary power of film, with its ability to capture movement and sound as well as photographic detail, makes explicit nudity and violence in that medium more problematic than in the most realistic paintings or sculptures. (This is in a way analogous to the Eastern Orthodox argument that two-dimensional iconography and even relief sculpture are legitimate forms of sacred art, but fully three-dimensional sculpture in the round is too much like an idol.)
It is true that among the arts film poses special issues - that it is especially liable to abuse by the unscrupulous, and can be exceptionally insidious when so abused. "Moral restraint" in its production and consumption is certainly necessary to avoid either presenting or being confronted with likely occasions of sin. But reasonable Catholic opinion will not insist on equating "restraint" with an absolute ban on nudity, violence, profanity, and so forth.
A concrete example of the standards of Inter Mirifica applied to particular films is available in another Vatican document: the 1995 Vatican film list. This list, published by the Pontifical Council for Social Communications in commemoration of the centenary of cinema, enumerates 45 "important films," each noted for exceptional value in one of the three areas of "Religion," "Values," and "Art" (fifteen films in each area).
Titled simply "Some Important Films," this document is not meant to offer a set of definitive or magisterial "top fifteen" lists, nor to establish these particular films as definitely more worthwhile than any film that was not included. "Not all that deserve mention are included," the pontifical council acknowledged in releasing the list.
For those who insist on a rigorist approach to film, though, it’s hard to see how some of these films could be deemed "deserving" of special note at all, except as films to avoid. Nudity, sexual content, obscene or profane language, and explicit violence can all be found in films on this list. Some of the films also examine faith or religion with a questioning or even skeptical eye, or depict Church authorities in a negative light. Yet all demonstrate a level of restraint that distinguishes them from morally unworthy productions that pose a likely occasion of sin for viewers.
Take nudity and sexual content. In some of these films, nudity is depicted in a nonsexual way, as when Schindler’s List depicts concentration-camp inmates forced to cower naked in the courtyard or in shower rooms. Some of the prisoners are old and decrepit; some are shapeless and dumpy; all are terrified and milling about. These scenes are not the least bit erotic or prurient — quite the contrary. They elicit pity and horror, not lust. Although they contain full frontal nudity, they cannot remotely be considered likely occasions of sin.
Another example of nonsexual nudity can be found in The Mission, which depicts the native Guaraní of South America with what the U.S. bishops Office of Film and Broadcasting has helpfully termed "ethnographic nudity" — that is, the sort of nudity required to depict certain cultures, such as one finds in National Geographic. Specifically, the Guaraní women wear no tops, and Guaraní of both sexes wear loincloths that display their buttocks.
By its nature, the everyday nudity in The Mission is
both more pervasive and less distressing than that in
Schindler’s List. Yet The Mission is no more
prurient or exploitative than Schindler’s List. A typical
viewer will no more be incited to lust by this film than by
National Geographic. In fact, The Mission received
a tame PG rating (not even
This is not to say that that The Mission couldn’t possibly present anyone with an occasion of sin. Certain people may be more vulnerable on this point than others — for example, adolescent boys, who can be so combustible that they might find prurient interest even in National Geographic, or in the Renaissance wing of an art museum. But for most viewers, the nudity in The Mission shouldn’t present any particular moral obstacle to viewing the film.
Not all the nudity in the films of the Vatican list is nonsexual. Sexual nudity, sexually explicit dialogue, and depictions of sexual activity can also be found in Schindler’s List, The Decalogue, Andrei Rublev, and others.
Some films on the list are practically catalogues of disturbing, immoral, or otherwise problematic behavior necessary to their theme or purpose. Andrei Rublev, set in medieval Russia, is full of poetic imagery, moral and existential questions, and religious themes. But its imagery can be disturbing: There is a restrained depiction of a ritual pagan sex orgy, with nude pagans running through the forest and coupling on the ground; a naked witch sensuously kissing an Orthodox priest bound cruciform; a horrifying scene of pillaging and warfare that includes footage of a live cow on fire; a bawdy jester who displays an upside-down human face drawn on his buttocks while walking on his hands; and an instance of an extremely strong and offensive four-syllable obscenity. Another "Religion" honoree from the same director, The Sacrifice, includes a poetic, non-explicit sequence depicting a man having sex with a witch (levitating in midair above the bed) in order to avert the end of the world.
Another Vatican list honoree, The Decalogue, consists of ten unsettling one-hour films loosely themed around the Ten Commandments. One episode deals with incestuous attraction between a widowed father and the teenaged daughter who may or not be his. Another includes explicit dialogue regarding female sexuality in a scene in which a promiscuous woman seduces a young voyeur who has been watching her through a telescope. Still another involves a drawn-out, grisly murder. It should be noted that The Decalogue is not a collection of morality tales, not an apologia for the commandments. The work is concerned with provoking moral thought in the viewer, but not with upholding a specific moral code.
Not all of the films on the list are as difficult and challenging as these. Films such as The Wizard of Oz, Little Women (1933), Fantasia, and It’s a Wonderful Life are also honored. This is not a list for expert theologians or professional critics only, and popular films as well as highbrow films are acknowledged as humane art.
In honoring certain difficult and challenging works, however, the Vatican clearly means for viewers to watch these films in a mature and judicious spirit, not passively imbibing everything for entertainment’s sake, but critically evaluating what they see and hear in light of the fullness of Catholic teaching.
This is in keeping with the teaching of Inter Mirifica, which exhorts all who use the media to "endeavor to deepen their understanding of what they see, hear or read" and "learn to pass sound judgements" regarding them (IM 10). While noting that primary moral responsibility for the proper use of the media falls to those who produce and distribute it — as well as to critics who inform the public (IM 11) — the decree also calls for "audiences of different cultural backgrounds and ages" to be instructed in "the proper use of the media" (IM 16).
The rigorist rejection of all films that contain anything in any way offensive often seems to imply that merely watching a film is tantamount to approving of everything in the film. "You wouldn’t eat something that had even a little bit of arsenic mixed in it, would you?" they ask, implying that whatever is in a film gets imbibed along with everything else.
One reply to this objection might be that if it comes to that, people do consume trace amounts of arsenic all the time, and are quite right to do so. Tap water, for example, commonly contains some level of arsenic, but as long as the level is low enough, it does no harm to drink the water — on the contrary, it does great good, since we need water to live, and even slightly arsenic-tainted water can sustain and preserve life. Experts might quibble about exactly how much arsenic in drinking water is acceptable, but none argues that the only acceptable level is zero.
But a better reply might be to change the analogy. One can enjoy a tasty rib dinner at a decent restaurant while leaving inedible bits of gristle on the plate. One can appreciate a pastor’s generally excellent homily while mentally bracketing a dubious speculation or unfortunate phrasing. One can enjoy the company of one’s neighbors while deliberately overlooking or forbearing with their petty faults.
Of course it’s also true that some friends, some churches, and some diets would do you more harm than good. We have to be discriminating. We want wholesome society, a good church, healthy food. But the standard of what is wholesome or good or healthy can never be "absolute perfection." If a man insisted on perfect friends, a perfect church, and perfect food, he would die friendless, unchurched, and quickly.
Like all things human, films and other works of art and culture are subject to limitations, imperfections, and flaws. Some are so flawed that they are unwholesome and should be avoided. But a thing can be basically wholesome without necessarily being perfect.
As an example, consider the family film Babe, a delightful film with no potential drawbacks other than a few scenes of menace that might frighten the very young and very sensitive, and a single line in which the farm couple’s city-slicker son-in-law ends a sentence with the phrase "for Christ’s sake."
Profanity is always wrong, but of course we make characters in stories do all sorts of bad things without necessarily approving of them, and profanity is no exception. In principle, an actor can recite a line involving profanity without being personally profane, just as a Christian actor playing St. Peter on Holy Thursday might swear that he has never heard of Jesus, or indeed as faithful Catholics all over the world on Good Friday utter the damning line, "We have no king but Caesar." This kind of sin is a matter of intention, not just syllables, and an actor who says "for Christ’s sake" is not necessarily profane.
That’s not to say that profanity in drama is neither here nor there. It can be morally objectionable, especially if used gratuitously or in a way likely to contribute to its casual acceptance in society.
Is the brief profanity in Babe justified or unjustified? It might be argued, on the one hand, that the line underscores a cultural divide between the farm couple and their callow son-in-law. On the other hand, it might be answered that this point doesn’t justify the use of profanity in a family film of this sort.
Let’s assume the latter view, that the line is gratuitous and unjustified. Babe is, then, an imperfect film. It would be better if that objectionable line had been omitted. But does this one line make the difference between a wholesome film and an unacceptable one? Does it neutralize Babe’s positive themes of treating others with courtesy and respect, overcoming prejudices, facing challenges, and so forth? Would the world be better off had this movie never been made?
No. That would be the same kind of thinking that would result in refusal to enjoy the company of imperfect people, to attend an imperfect church, to or eat imperfect food. That’s no way to live.
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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 don’t we bring back the Legion of Decency?
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What do you think of the ClearPlay DVD and membership system?
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I recently stumbled onto your website, and I absolutely love it. Although I come from a slightly different background — I’m a politically liberal Jew — I love your perspective on movies. I especially enjoy the fact that you grade a movie’s morals not on its actual violence/nudity content, but the message that it’s sending out — that’s unusual for a Christian review site, and I think it’s much more honest.
I’m wondering if you could post a couple of reviews of some of my favorite flicks. First order of business is definitely Chinatown, that gorgeously constructed neo-noir that some critics consider to be cinematically flawless (it’s hard to argue with) and is one of my all-time favorites. I’m surprised you haven’t already reviewed it, since you already have a couple of Polanski entries here. I also would love to know what you think of Fargo. It’s my favorite Coen Brothers movie; despite the violence, I think it’s warmly empathetic, very funny, and even morally sound (and Frances McDormand is amazing in it). I’d love to know what you think of these two. Thanks for all the great work. Keep it up!
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I’ve read several reviews and I’d like to say that they are all particularly well written. I’d like to commend you on that. I’m emailing you now, I suppose, with a couple questions about being a Christian and a film buff (much like me).
The past few days, I’ve been sort of re-evaluating what I deem acceptable in movies when it comes to violence, profanity, etc. Normally, I’d jump at the chance to see the recent mindless action movie or, with a few exceptions, the most recent pointless comedy.
I guess my dilemma all started a couple days ago when I saw the movie Brain Dead. It’s an older zombie comedy movie with gratuitous gore by Peter Jackson before LOTR made him famous. I became aware by the end of the movie that something happened that didn’t happen before. The usual enjoyment and sometimes laughter at the over the top gore wasn’t there anymore. Sure, I laughed during the movie, but by the end, I couldn’t laugh about it before.
The problem is, though I know that I take my Catholic faith very seriously, I feel as though I’m doing God a disservice by appreciating and enjoying films that promote these types of materials. I have a fairly large film collection (about 200 movies). Though only about 5–7% of them are considered objectionable, I’m not entirely sure what to do. I mostly own action movies (Die Hard, Terminator, etc.) comedies (Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Blazing Saddles) and a few horror movies (Saw, 28 Days/Weeks Later, zombie movies)
By watching movies that contain these materials, am I offending God in the process? When evaluating movies for you, how do you know when you’ve crossed the line between good entertainment and something that’s negative for the soul?
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It’s a shame and sad that you have so much knowledge and intelligence that you aren’t entertained by simple movies like the rest of us. I feel sorry for you. Well at least you get paid for what you do, I guess that’s what counts. Your reviews miss the point quite often. But it’s fun reading your reviews. Just like watching movies — it entertaining, that’s all.
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I would like to thank you for your ministry! It has been helpful for me in deciding what to show my children. I have an unrelated question for you that you may or may not know the answer to. My niece told us about a website (Shows4me.com) that offers free videos, have you heard of this site. My concern would be if this is considered pirating, I looked at the site, it has everything imaginable. I thank you in advance for your response. May God continue to bless your ministry.
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Does a moral-spiritual value of +4/-4 mean the moral value is 4 and the spiritual value is 4? I have been thinking of them as separate, e.g. moral/spiritual. I have a hard time rationalizing how a movie can have a moral-spiritual rating of +4/-2 if both numbers relate to the same attribute.
Except for my confusion I like your ratings and use them to help select weekly movies for the Christian retirement community where I live.
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I happen to enjoy your ratings and frequently find my taste agreeing! I would love it if there were some way to sort your ratings by Grade/Moral value so that I can look for movies to see that are recommended, instead of having to read through all the archives.
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The Pope’s address which spoke of violence in movies — does this mean we are not now permitted to watch certain movies that have a certain kind of violence?
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I would like to know a list of movies suitable for kids under five.
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Is it a sin to watch a film with nudity/partial nudity if you’re not watching the film to see the nudity, and the nudity does not cause you to sin?
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I am the Dean of Students at a small Catholic college in Canada. Our students are required to “get permission” to watch movies in order to help with the discernment of wheather or not it is appropriate for viewing in community. We have been hoping to compile a list of movies, mostly modern ones (last 25 years) that are pre-approved, such as the ones recommended on your website. Is there such a list that you wouldn’t mind sharing with us? I would be most grateful for your assistance.
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I appreciate your reviews and hear on Al Kresta and the EWTN programs. I receive a boycott list of companies who give money to Planned Parenthood. One of these is Disney. I understand in your position you have to review these movies and pay to see them. But what about the Catholic viewer? I don’t go to these movies because of this. I also understand we are given little choice. I boycott Chinese goods but have to sometimes buy them because I have no choice. I would like your opinion.
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Where’s your list of the most spiritually significant movies? Loved it.
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My gosh, do you have any idea how amazing I feel finding this site? As a Catholic rediscovering her faith and using the internet to reconnect with many Catholics, I’ve come across many people who are very intolerant of “frivolous” art. As an artist myself, I just love a good piece of fiction, and felt so torn at such comments. I thought for sure my enjoyment of a compelling film was going to send me to hell! But reading through your site has been a wonderful eye-opener!
I’ve been giving extra thought to what I view since coming back to the Church, and have trimmed several unruly branches from my film collection, and your reviews are good to use as a guideline, even if I’m somewhat surprised! (Happy Feet, for example. It makes me overbubbly with cuteness and joy to watch)
My question lies with movies given a minus-4 in morality. If labeled minus-4, does it make the film morally wrong to watch? Does it put it on the list of films that cross the line and shouldn’t be viewed? For example, I greatly enjoy the film V for Vendetta, despite its many flaws, because I found the characters very powerful and moving, and loved trying to get into their heads, find their motivation, feel what they were feeling. And I saw that on artistic merit, you rated it highly. But, does being given such a morally inept show make it morally wrong to have enjoyed it? Such as when the USCCBA gives a film an O rating? (I’ve been told that films rated O shouldn’t be seen because we’d be supporting the making of a corrupt film).
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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.
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I’ve just found out that any form of willed sexual arousal outside of marriage is a grave sin. I have been a Catholic all of my 36 years and counting and I’ve never been informed. I was aghast at first and questioned the truth of it but after a little research it seems it’s true.
So, my question is whether this moves the goalposts regarding what is acceptable to watch in a movie. For example I would have have enjoyed watching a passionate kiss between unmarried men and women but would have averted my eyes at anything more explicit but now the fact that French kissing, snogging et al are acts of grave immorality for non-married Catholics I conclude I will have to avert my eyes there too.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.