By Chaz Muth
NEW YORK — As the film industry grew in the early 20th century, Catholic Church leaders became concerned about some of the content that had become so readily available to their flock.
The U.S. bishops established the National Legion of Decency in 1933 to directly address the morality of films being produced by the motion picture industry.
“The hope was that if the legion were present and were able to say, ‘You’re going to lose a significant portion of your patronage, that is the Catholic population are going to obey their bishops and stay away from not only bad movies but perhaps boycott theaters that show movies that violate the (Motion Picture Production Code), then you’re going to take a hit at the box office,'” said John Mulderig, assistant director for media reviews for Catholic News Service.
“That indeed is exactly what happened,” he said.
In 1934 – under the direction of prominent public relations professional and pious Catholic Joseph I. Breen – the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) established the Production Code Administration, requiring all movies to receive a certificate of approval before release.
Hollywood studios adopted the code to avoid governmental censorship and that code actually led to the disbanding of many local censorship boards.
It gave Breen the power to change scripts before shooting actually began and he’d frequently tell producers what they needed to alter in their films to avoid a “C (Condemned) Rating” by the Legion of Decency, said Bernard F. Dick, a renowned film scholar, author and movie reviewer for the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures, or NCOMP, as the legion was renamed in December 1965.
“No exhibitor would want to release a C-rated movie,” Dick told Catholic News Service.
The Legion of Decency wasn’t just concerned about the depiction of sexually explicit content.
It was also troubled by profanity, violence, criminal activity and how religion was sometimes depicted, said Frank Frost, a movie critic for NCOMP from 1964 to 1971.
Gritty subject matters were not always condemned, as long as the storyline had a redemptive quality or provided a price paid for sinful lifestyles.
A synopsis of the movie and its classification would be distributed in a newsletter to subscribers and to the National Catholic Welfare Council news service (the precursor to Catholic News Service), which would distribute it to its subscribing Catholic newspapers worldwide.
“I grew up really with the Legion of Decency, because on the first Sunday after the feast of the Immaculate Conception, the priest would ask us all to stand and take the Legion of Decency Pledge,” Dick said.
The following is a version of the pledge, which was voluntary and didn’t carry penalties from the Church to violators.
“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.”
Over the decades of its existence, what began as the Legion of Decency has changed its name and its understanding of its mission. Since 2010, it has been the Media Review Office of Catholic News Service.
By the 1980s, the Catholic film office had lost negotiating power with movie producers and eventually discontinued producing its newsletter. But its classifications and movie reviews continue to run in Catholic publications and websites.
“I certainly believe our reviews are relevant today,” Mulderig said.
“I think it’s helpful that we’re engaging with the film in the overall assessment of ‘is this film one that upholds Gospel values or contradicts Gospel values?'”