Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Church and the Cinema: What used to be

Reposting for new Sky View readers. This is the most read Sky View post to date.

A people who, in time of repose, give themselves to diversions which violate decency, honor, or morality, to recreations which, especially to the young, constitute occasions of sin, are in grave danger of losing their greatness and even their national power…

…there does not exist today a means of influencing the masses more potent than the cinema…[it] teaches the majority of men more effectively than abstract reasoning…

Pope Pius XI, On the Cinema 1936

But we may ask ourselves- do people go to the cinema or to church? Does not the cinema take the place that was formerly occupied by church and chapel? Has not Hollywood got a distinct ethic of its own which influences the minds of its audiences? Is this ethic in any sense Christian?

Christopher Dawson, Religion and Modern State 1935

Legion of Decency:

The historic role the Catholic Church has played over the centuries in favor of freedom was that she mediated between the State and the citizen. By her moral influence, she restrained the overreaching power of civil authority from encroaching on the rights of citizens and those who could not defend themselves. With the same moral authority, the Church exercised a commanding influence on Hollywood during the twentieth century. The Legion of Decency, founded in 1933 by Archbishop of Cincinnati John T. McNicholas, was an organization behind this influence by opposing immoral or irreverent content.

Pius XI: On the Cinema:

In fact, Pope Pius XI in 1936, in his encyclical On the Cinema, commended the U.S. Bishops for holding, not only Hollywood, but Catholics to account with regard to watching objectionable movies. He wrote, “Your leadership called forth the prompt and devoted loyalty of your faithful people, and millions of American Catholics signed the pledge of the ‘Legion of Decency’ binding themselves not to attend any motion picture which was offensive to Catholic moral principles or proper standards of living.” It was even requested by the U.S. Bishops on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in 1938 that the pledge be taken by the faithful. The pledge was administered on an annual basis for several years.

The Pledge of Catholics:

It reads as follows: “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen. 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, and to unite with all who protest against them. 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. I promise, further, to stay away altogether from places of amusement which show them as a matter of policy.”

A Sign of Contradiction:

Pope Pius XI went on to say in his encyclical that it is the duty of the Bishops of the entire Catholic world “to unite in vigilance over this universal and potent form of entertainment and instruction…combating whatever contributes to the lessening of the people's sense of decency and of honor.” Standing as a “sign of contradiction,” the Church was instrumental in tempering the lewd and violent content which would characterize movies in the latter part of the twentieth century. The leaders of the Church, including the pope, found it necessary to take Hollywood to task when circumstances required it.

The hierarchy of the Church understood well the powerful influence of the cinema. As Pius XI said, “There does not exist today a means of influencing the masses more potent than the cinema…[it] teaches the majority of men more effectively than abstract reasoning…” In other words, more than education itself, movies and eventually television could, with great success, form minds and hearts; as such, it played a decisive role in shaping a nation’s character.

Pius XI argued why this was the case. He said, “The power of the motion picture consists in this, that it speaks by means of vivid and concrete imagery which the mind takes in with enjoyment and without fatigue. In place of the effort which reading or listening demands, there is the continued pleasure of a succession of concrete and, so to speak, living pictures.” Indeed, the pope probably understood what many in Hollywood had yet to discover: Like universal education, the cinema, and later television, had the potential to inspire virtue and noble ideals among the people or it could promote sin and immorality. It's influence would be profound!

It Worked:

What might surprise many today is that this vigilance exercised by the Legion of Decency and their willingness to hold film makers to account actually worked! From the late 1930’s to the mid 1960’s, Hollywood produced many films favorable to the Catholic Faith. What is more, the glorification of sexual promiscuity, alternative families and violence were kept to a minimum. But with the dissolution of the Legion in the mid-sixties (officially ending in the 1970’s), and without the check and balance it provided, Hollywood’s departure from Christian values was rapid and decisive. Movies began to promote, like never before, the values of the Sexual Revolution. To make a long story short, it followed that the culture of Hollywood helped advance, to a great extent, the Culture of Death. In the meantime, the Church’s influence over society had begun decline.

Rethinking Pastoral Practices:

No doubt, the Catholic approach to modern day problems needs to involve a positive and affirmative approach when warranted. But to rely exclusively on a positive and affirmative approach not only has failed to produce favorable results, but more importantly, it is a significant departure from the example set by Christ, the Apostles, the Church Fathers and the Saints. The effective proclamation of the Gospel for centuries affirmed the good and opposed evil. As for the latter, St. Simeon prophesied that Jesus would be a “Sign of Contradiction,” causing many to rise and many to fall. Our Lord would later say that his disciples are not above their Master. Indeed, if the world hated him for opposing its ways then they would hate his disciples for doing the same.

Just when Hollywood needed the guidance and reproof the most (beginning in the late 1960’s), Catholics deemed it necessary to drop their traditional safeguards against the forces of evil; two of which were the vigilance and scrutiny the U.S. Bishops exercised with film-making and the pledge against immoral movies recited by Catholics. There is an important lesson in this for the Church: The preaching of the Gospel and saving souls involves a kind of exorcism of evil. We cannot bring about the former without the latter. As St. Paul said to the Christians in Corinth, we are an aroma of Christ for those who are being saved and an odor of death for those who are perishing.