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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 [1]. 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.” That’s 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 is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.