Catholic Movie Ratings

A few years ago Cardinal Mahony of California made news by threatening to take action to control violence, profanity, nudity and promiscuity in movies and television. Mohony's complaints about the content of current films indicate that he would like to return to an earlier age, when the Catholic church did exercise considerable influence over movie content. This was done primarily through a rating system conducted by the National League of Decency and the International Federation of Catholic Alumnae. One of the most, or perhaps the only, interesting item in Catholic newspapers of a few decades ago was their listing of these movie ratings. This section was provided to inform readers which movies would be sinful to even watch. According to the thinking of the time, it was possible to, in the mere act of watching a movie, commit a sin so grievous as to condemn one's soul to the eternal fires of Hell. And it was no excuse if you were ignorant of the morally corrosive nature of the movie. That's why God made Catholic newspapers.

This whole system was of course fraught with certain problems. If these movie were, in fact, that damaging to the moral fiber of any who might watch, how did the Church find out? It must be somebody's job to review these threats to civilization, and surely this person must be the most depraved individual on the planet. Her or his soul must have been shot through with the spiritual equivalents of dioxin and radiation, such that they would be easy pickings for Satan or any of the other ghostly ne'er-do-wells that no doubt gathered around the exits of the theaters showing these films. Perhaps there was a blanket pardon from the bishop, or even the pope, so that, if the reviewer was hit by a bus on the way to confession after a particularly sinful viewing, the soul would be spared. Or perhaps they were provided with protective goggles with stained glass lenses, or canteens filled with holy water. On the positive side, whoever did this job must have felt at least a little smug in the knowledge that any moral shortcomings that might arise could be treated as a work-related injury.

This movie rating system was rather complex, with six different categories. The three major categories were, in descending order of moral turpitude, A, B, and C. Within the "A" category there were three sections: Morally unobjectionable for all, morally unobjectionable for adults and adolescents, and morally unobjectionable for adults. "B" category movies were termed "morally objectionable in part for all." These are not to be confused with the term "B movie," referring to low-budget films typically made by the "B" production units of large film companies. The "C" movies were "condemned," which meant Catholics were not to watch these under any conditions. There was also a "separate classification" which was described as "given to certain films which, while not morally offensive, require some analysis and explanation as a protection to the uninformed against wrong interpretations and false conclusions." Presumedly the reader would know whether she or he were uninformed and needed "protection."

The April 22, 1963 St. Louis Review listed about two hundred movies by rating. Predictably the "Class A - Section I" included such fare as "Gigot," "Jumbo," "The Song of Sister Maria," the unforgettable "Son of Flubber," and an animated feature called "Gay Purree" (about cats, unfortunately). It also included the blood-drenched "The Longest Day," "Merrills Marauders," "300 Spartans," and an offering ominously entitled "We'll Bury You." There was seemingly no thought that the spectacle of people killing each other with little or no display of remorse might be injurious to young minds, or require some "protection against wrong interpretation." In the "Class A - Section II" we find "The Birds," "David and Lisa," "40 Pounds of Trouble," "Mutiny on the Bounty," and "Requiem for a Heavyweight." Things really get racy in "Class A - Section III," with movies such as "Hud," "The Hustler," "Spencer's Mountain" and "To Kill a Mockingbird." The "Class B - Morally Objectionable for All" included "Gypsy," "The Misfits," "Waltz of the Toreadors," and "The War Lover." Typical among the "C" movies were "And God Created Woman," "Bocaccio '70," "Breathless," "Love is My Profession," "The Mating Urge," and "Too Young, Too Immoral." Placed into the "separate classification" were "Adam and Eve," "Divorce Italian Style," "King of Kings," "La Dolce Vita," "Lolita," "Martin Luther," and "The Sky Above and the Mud Below," a documentary about pre-technical tribes. Ironically, Italian movies seem to be over-represented in the "C" and "separate classification" categories.

In view if the Catholic church's failure to get its members to comply with even so central a policy as birth control, threats by the likes of Cardinal Mahony are not likely to have any great influence. Even in the 1960's these ratings had an effect somewhat the reverse of what was intended. The popularity of these lists was attributable, in the more youthful circles, to inclusion of the racier movies, some of which had titles that the youthful mind could easily find titillating. Conversely, a movie with a promising title, such as "A Coming Out Party," would be less attractive if it appeared, as that movie did, in "Class A - Section I," right behind "Cinderella." Even assuming an alliance between Catholics and conservative Protestants, in the absence of governmental controls, any effort to deter viewing of controversial movies is only likely to have the opposite effect.

Copyright 1998 by Patrick Inniss.  All rights reserved.

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