The Catholic Church – A Powerhouse for Film Censorship

Did you know that priests used to be responsible for movie ratings?

Currently, the Motion Picture Association of American (MPAA) states that the “film rating system provides parents with the information needed to determine if a film is appropriate for their children.”  It is run by the Classification and Ratings Administration, which is an independent board of parents who helps determines ratings. The list of classifications ranges from G for General Audiences (or C for Children), to NC-17 for No Admittance for 17 and Under, but this wasn’t always the case.

Catholic Outrage 

The practice of rating movies began in 1919, when the National Association of Motion Picture Industry was established in the United States. This first attempt at moderating films used guidelines called the “13 Points,” and gave each state it’s own censorship board. Then, in 1922, the Motion Picture Producers and Directors of America was formed to help directors advance their own business interests. This trade organization, directed by Joseph Breen— a devout Catholic —forced directors to remove objectionable material from their projects for the first time.  Their method of censorship was the Motion Picture Production Code, which reigned from 1930 to 1968. 

The Catholic Church – A Powerhouse for Film Censorship

Catholic Protesters lead a march (Image Source: Shutterstock

The Production Code forbade things such as cruelty to animals and children, the representation of surgical operations (especially childbirth), any display of brutality against police or authority figures, and stipulated that all criminal activity had to  be severely punished onscreen. It also stated that no film could be distributed without the Production Code seal in the United States. 

Gerald Kelly and John Ford, (two Jesuits)  stated “producers needed an organized public call for moral standards so that they would overcome their fear that following a code of moral standards would make their films financial failures.” 

This risk of financial failure came about due to widespread protests by Catholics at theaters across the nation, calling for Catholic leaders to step in and regulate films. These boycotts threatened the economy of the film industry, especially given the exacerbating effects of the Great Depression. Studios were forced to comply with the protesters or else fall bankrupt. 

The Legion of Decency is Formed 

The United States bishops took action and appointed the Episcopal Committee on Motion Pictures to force the film industry to follow the Production Code. Their campaign was called the Legion of Decency. Now, movie producers worked closely with Breen – backed by Quigley and their Catholic Foundations— to understand and enforce the Production Code. Approximately 25,000 films were censored by Breen, who became a Knight Commander of the Order of St. Gregory by Pope Pius XI.  

 Their rating system, was as follows:

A-I – Contains no morally objectionable material. 

A-II – Adults and adolescents only; contains content children may find confusing without parental guidance.  

A-III – Adults need a mature perspective to view this film. 

A-IV – Adults with reservations; not for casual entertainment. 

O – Morally offensive; theme seriously attacks moral values with content that is explicit in sex, violence, or language. 

Additionally, it was decreed that every Catholic would recite an annual pledge on December 31 during mass.  Catholics had to vow to “not attend immoral films and protest any protest any movies that offend[ed] public decency.” Common people and priests were selected to write reviews of movies and write lists of condemned titles that advised the public on what to view.

Changing Times

It wasn’t until 1968 that the MPAA was released from Catholic control and became a non-biased entity. The ratings of this new MPAA system were similar to the Legion of Decency. However, it did result in more controversies, as sometimes the public felt that films were not rated appropriately. For example, the release of Indiana Jones: Temple of Doom contained a  scene where a heart torn from a human chest while the living man is submerged in lava, slowly burning to death with other human remains. Audiences called for the MPAA to give Indiana Jones a higher rating for more mature viewers so that children would not be exposed to that kind of horrific imagery.

The Catholic Church – A Powerhouse for Film Censorship

A movie poster for Indiana Jones (Image Source: Live Auction Group

Paramount Pictures had ads that warned that the film may be too intense for young viewers, though this did not do enough to reassure parents. 

In 1968, an X rating was used to define respectable, serious films for adults (unlike today, where it is used to mark pornography). Some notable titles that received an old X rating included Stanley Kubrik’s A Clockwork Orange and Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris. Now, these films might have garnered an R rating, or the more recently created, intermediate rating of PG-13.

The PG-13 rating suggests a new level of autonomy that was unforeseen. Times have dramatically changed since the reign of the Legion of Decency – younger generations are exposed to more technology with less immediate guidance with content. People now don’t want censorship by a religious entity in which they may not believe in. The current ratings of G, PG, PG-13 and R are have a more secular attitude, with G and PG movies intended for children, PG-13 using more complex and explicit content, and R movies signifying the transition into adulthood with provocative themes. People still want prior warnings of unfamiliar content in the safest manner possible—and the current rating system achieves just that. 

In the future, we may see more kinds of warnings as to the specific content of films. The evolution of film ratings show us that we want to be aware of the media we are going to consume, but that we don’t want the morality of the content to be dictated to us by a religious body whose values we may or may not share.


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