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John Timothy McNicholas, Cincinnati’s archbishop from 1925 until 1950, went to a New York convention in 1933 and heard the Apostolic Delegate to the United States, Amleto Cicognani (future Vatican Secretary of State), rail against Hollywood’s “massacre” of American moral innocence and call for the “purification of cinema.” McNicholas took the message to heart and founded the Catholic Legion of Decency (CLOD). As TIME magazine reported in 1934, the organization’s mission was simple: the faithful should stay “away from all motion pictures except those which do not offend decency and Christian morality.” So popular did the Legion’s campaign become that Jews and Protestants joined the crusade, and the organization was quickly rechristened the National Legion of Decency.

The Legion’s descriptions of films were exclusively condemnatory; calling only for protests about and boycotts of films deemed impure. And some of the films CLOD listed have been subsequently delisted by its successor, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Office for Film and Broadcasting. For instance, “Finishing School,” a Thirties production starring Billie Burke, Ginger Rogers, and the too-often ignored Frances Dee, was condemned by CLOD as portraying an “attempted seduction and an accomplished seduction. . . . Protest. . . . Protest. . .” Today, the USCCB rating of the film is A-III, in essence: It’s a quality movie. Go ahead and watch it – you’re grown-ups.

Archbishop McNicholas

Indeed, what the new recommendations do is guide, not command. In the old days, a priest or a bishop might order communicants not to attend a film; today the movies (and some TV shows) listed by USCCB (with ratings and commentary based on “consensus”) are intended to help viewers decide which shows are “likely to offend you . . . regardless of our assessment of . . . artistic qualities” – a far cry from CLOD’s peremptory dicta and a vast improvement.

The ratings assume Catholics decide for themselves what’s suitable and what isn’t. USCCB’s “A” ratings are sensible: A-I for films without objectionable content; A-II for what the Motion Picture Association of American calls PG-13; and A-III for films with “justified violence . . . ‘non-deviant’ [sex] . . . restrained nudity, and valid . . . coarse language. . . .” Sensible. And yet I wonder if some A-III ratings don’t impart acceptability to a few movies that encourage, if I may dust off a word Archbishop McNicholas might have used, concupiscence – the debasement of appetite contrary to faith and reason.

A dilemma is raised, and a good instance of the quandary – one, however, not reviewed at the USCCB site – is the current Showtime series, “The Tudors,” now in its fourth season. Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays King Henry VIII as a vicious, self-serving libertine, and the episodes contain way more simulated sex and real nudity than is necessary or that USCCB would consider either non-deviant or restrained. And yet . . . “The Tudors” may be the most pro-Catholic mini-series ever made.

The portraits of nearly all the Catholic characters (including Thomas More, John Fisher, and Robert Aske) are extremely sympathetic – the more so because many newly minted Protestants are shown as merciless and mendacious. Were USCCB to rate the series I suspect it would be given at least an “L,” meaning it is only for a “limited adult audience.” But again, this isn’t to say one ought to avoid “The Tudors,” since it may be among those “L” entertainments USCCB describes as “quality films that have more challenging material than an A-III in terms of nudity, sex, violence, or language, but are still worthy, if viewed in the appropriate Catholic context.” [Emphasis added.] I hope the series wouldn’t get the dreaded “O,” the new version of what CLOD called “C,” for “condemned.” I don’t consider “The Tudors” to be “morally offensive” – not anyway based on USCCB’s “O” comparison films, such as the torture-porn epic, “Saw,” or . . . Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby,” which dealt with assisted suicide.

And yet the sexuality in “The Tudors” – or in one of my favorite films, Bruce Beresford’s “Black Robe” (another A-III film) – may arguably contribute to the inexorable establishment of lust as normative in modern life, whereas I doubt that Eastwood’s depiction of assisted suicide moved the culture much in the direction of legalized euthanasia.

Jeremy Northam as Thomas More in “The Tudors”

I don’t think sexuality should be verboten in films, but I do think movies have abetted the culture-wide degradation of sex. As Mary Eberstadt wrote in a column here in 2008:

Even believers can’t help but imbibe the signature lies of our age sometimes – including the lie that disordered sexuality, Lust in and of itself, is something we all need to feel fully alive. “I lust, therefore I am” is obviously the cogito ergo sum of our time.

True. Yet not every artistic depiction of nudity, sexuality, or even of lust induces sin. And besides, you simply can’t portray some truths in art except explicitly. This may be hard to accept in the context of contemporary movies, but change the context: consider instead one of the greatest works of art in Christendom, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes. Were a modern movie director to tackle the Biblical story of Creation and the Garden of Eden and be as explicit as Michelangelo was in painting the ceiling of the place where cardinals meet to choose our popes, I’m afraid the filmmaker’s work might be condemned.

It has never been easy to know where and how to draw the line. Yet I doubt that even Archbishop McNicholas ever thought the full-frontal nudity of Michelangelo’s Adam should be covered up.

Brad Miner

Brad Miner

Brad Miner is senior editor of The Catholic Thing, senior fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute, and Board Secretary of Aid to the Church In Need USA. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His new book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. The Compleat Gentleman, is available on audio.

  • Willie

    Tempus dolorem lenit!
    Great piece. I do agree lust and full body nudity do not necessarily lead people to sin. With respect to The Tudors, although in a few instances historically inaccurate, does probably tell it the way it was. No doubt those beautiful females at court were there to serve Henry’s pleasures. It often comes to mind the irony of the fact that 500 years ago as the New Religion was being vigorously assailed by Paul III, It is on the fast tract back to Rome via Benedict. Yes, It is a very Catholic!

  • Lauri Friesen

    Just too much
    Being something of an Anglophile, owing to British contributions to literature and human freedom, I’ve tried watching The Tudors. Sadly, I find the nudity and sex scenes just too much. They are, for me, an insurmountable obstacle to any enjoyment of the stories being told.

  • Joseph

    Sex on film
    I can’t speak to the series mentioned, but agree there are times when explicitly displayed sexuality in movies can be illuminating. Such was the case in The Reader, a remarkable film that begins with an affair between a teen and a woman twice his age and evolves into a moral and ethical dilemma that has nothing to do with sex. Nonetheless, without the carnal preamble, much of the rest of the film would not have resonated so profoundly on a different plane.

  • Austin Ruse

    I watched the first three episodes of The Tudors and found it to be almost hard core porn and stopped watching. I am told the sex settled down in subsequent episodes and years so i may give it another try, but those first few, wow, a bit much.

  • Brad Miner

    To Lauri & Austin
    Can’t disagree, really. The sexual content in “The Tudors” is far beyond what’s necessary to demonstrate Henry was lecherous. This is why I added a postscript to the author bio at the end of the column: He wishes it to be known that he is not recommending “The Tudors,” although he is a fan.

  • Austin Ruse

    Does it get better, less hard core, than the first few episodes?

  • Brad Miner

    To Austin
    Simple answer to the question about the sexual content of later episodes of “The Tudors”: No, it doesn’t diminish. I’m afraid the producers have decided that the right approach to their series is to attract the widest audience possible. Catholics? Got stuff for them. History buffs: Got that too. Folks who like naked ladies: No problem. It’s a shame, because the artistic values are quite high.

  • Give me a break already!

    Tired of History Shows
    I have never seen the tudors, but it cant be as bad or as riducolous as “Rome” or “Spartacus: Blood and Sand”. Both shows, besides the often ahistorical content, were awash in sex, to absurd levels. I mean “Rome” advirtisement should have been, ‘who will have sex next episode on Rome?!’ I know the Romans were decadent, but there is a big difference between portraying something, and indulging in something. Not to mention that for shows taking place B.C., there sure was alot of foul language.

  • Michael

    There is a difference
    Isn’t there a significant difference between a painting such as the ceiling of the Sistine chapel and having an actor expose him or her self in front of others and a camera? Placing a naked human body in a sexual context for the purpose of presenting a story is putting an actor in an occasion of sin. Its clearly not modest! I believe we need to think beyond its impact on us. In addition, the harm to our selves may be very subtle and we should be hesitant to assume that its not affecting us.

  • dannyboy

    You are what you eat/see?
    I agree with Michael.

    Painting nude bodies in respectful ways is in no way aesthetically or morally comparable to the soft-core porn that one finds in The Tudors. I generally appreciate Mr. Miner’s writings, but this article seems too timid in its approach to the abuse of sexual imagery in movies and television.

    I’m neither a psychologist nor a puritan, but I can’t help thinking that deliberate repeated viewing of such things is likely to lead to coarsening of our own sexual sensibilities.