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Catholicism and Culture

“Christians are called to be separate from the world.”

“You can’t compromise with sin.”

“There are much better ways to spend one’s time.”

“You wouldn’t eat something that had a bit of arsenic mixed in it, would you?”

As a Catholic film critic, I hear remarks such as these put forward in defense of the view that Christians should avoid movies in general, movies made after 1960, all but the most innocuous family fare, or all movies except those that have an uplifting moral or spiritual message.

For some, a single profane or even coarse expression may be enough to condemn an entire movie, however uplifting or wholesome it might be as a whole. Others draw the line at attire that falls short of their standards of modesty, to say nothing of actual nudity. Still others, displaying almost religious faith in the authority of the Motion Picture Association of America, seem to consider an MPAA rating of “R” a virtually infallible form of reverse imprimatur (with a unique exception clause for one recent R-rated movie, The Passion of the Christ).

This rigorist approach to film appears to be more prevalent among non-Catholic Christians than among Catholics. A number of Protestants working in the film industry have confided to me that in their experience Catholics tend to “get” film better than Christians of other stripes. Still, it’s not hard to find this kind of rigorist attitude among Catholics, too. One also meets Catholics who admit to enjoying the very films condemned by their more scrupulous neighbors and are worried if they are as good Catholics as they ought to be.

A More Nuanced View

As with most errors, there are elements of truth in the rigorist approach to film. Movies can—and too often do—contain objectionable content, and this has a harmful influence on individuals and on society. The Vatican II decree Inter Mirifica (Decree on the Media of Social Communications) warns men of the dangers of employing media such as film “contrary to the plan of the Creator and to their own loss” (IM 1).

Inter Mirifica goes on to affirm “the absolute primacy of the objective moral order,” meaning that the moral order “surpasses and fittingly coordinates all other spheres of human affairs—the arts not excepted—even though they be endowed with notable dignity” (IM 6). The decree also exhorts men to avoid presentations that “may be a cause or occasion of spiritual harm to themselves, or that can lead others into danger through base example, or that hinder desirable presentations and promote those that are evil” (IM 9).

At the same time, Inter Mirifica outlines principles of a Catholic approach to entertainment media that is much more positive and nuanced than the rigorist view. Where the rigorist often regards entertainment as well as art and culture as indifferent at best, if not frivolous or even a temptation, the Vatican Fathers affirm these things as positive goods. These are not the only goods that the media can and should serve, but they remain good in themselves, not merely as a means to some other end.

Specifically, Inter Mirifica states that the media, “if properly utilized, can be of great service to mankind, since they greatly contribute to men’s entertainment and instruction as well as to the spread and support of the kingdom of God” (IM 1), and that young people especially “need a press and entertainment that offer them decent amusement and cultural uplift” (IM 11). Later, it declares:

“The production and showing of films that have value as decent entertainment, humane culture or art, especially when they are designed for young people, ought to be encouraged and assured by every effective means. This can be done particularly by supporting and joining in projects and enterprises for the production and distribution of decent films, by encouraging worthwhile films through critical approval and awards, by patronizing or jointly sponsoring theaters operated by Catholic and responsible managers” (IM 14).

The decree does not state that entertainment is of value only as a tool for instruction or for spreading and supporting the kingdom of God. Rather, it states that entertainment and culture in themselves are things that people “need”—that they are part of a “great service to mankind.”

Unfortunately, many Christians and even some Catholics are suspicious of entertainment for its own sake, and even of art and culture. “There are better ways to spend one’s time” is a common refrain for those who take this view. Why watch a movie when you could be praying the rosary, reading Scripture or the lives of the saints, or volunteering at church or at a soup kitchen?

Certainly God doesn’t want us spending all our free time seeking entertainment and amusement. But neither does he require or wish all Catholics to spend all their spare time in the pursuit of expressly religious and charitable works. Play, recreation, and amusement are also pleasing to him. He created us to enjoy them. Sloth may incline us to inordinate attachment to diversion, just as concupiscence may attach us inordinately to any finite good (food, alcohol, comfort, work, sleep, sex, etc.). But the thing itself, and its proper enjoyment, remains per se good.

God created us for play and amusement, just as he created us for work, prayer, and community. In particular he created us for art and culture—to create and look at images, to make stories and music and to perform them, to explore imaginative scenarios of good and evil, of conflict and resolution. It is in our nature to engage in and enjoy these things, as it is the nature of stars to shine and plants to grow, and God is pleased and glorified when we do so.

Because man has free will, he pleases God in a special way when he freely participates in the goods proper to his nature. If he does so with a will to glorify God, it is even meritorious.

Defining Decency

But what is “decent” entertainment or “humane” culture? Should a decent film be only uplifting and wholesome, or may dark or disturbing themes also be dealt with? Can a film include nudity or profanity and still be “decent”? Can “humane culture” include popular films or genres such as action films and romantic comedies, or do only highbrow “art films” count as true culture?

On the subject of disturbing and immoral themes and subjects in art, Pope John Paul II expressed a profound insight: “Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption” (Letter to Artists 10). True art, humane art, can be profoundly difficult and unpleasant and still represent a humane response to the fallenness of the world and mankind.

Likewise, Inter Mirifica declares that “the narration, description, or portrayal of moral evil” can “serve to bring about a deeper knowledge and study of humanity”—though it adds that such depictions must be “subject to moral restraint, lest they work to the harm rather than the benefit of souls, particularly when there is question of treating matters that deserve reverent handling or that, given the baneful effect of original sin in men, could quite readily arouse base desires in them” (IM 7).

Artists must, then, have the restraint to avoid presenting audiences with likely occasions of sin. Obviously, this does not mean that they must avoid anything that could be an occasion of sin for anyone. The concupiscent disordering of human desires varies so widely from one person to another that even the most innocent imagery or narrative imaginable could arouse base desires in at least some people. For instance, just because there may be foot-fetishists in the world does not mean that filmmakers must make sure that they never show the actors’ feet.

What must be avoided is that which is likely to be an occasion of sin for reasonably healthy viewers. Also, what is appropriate for adults may not be appropriate for the young; there is a duty to “safeguard” the young from what “may be harmful at their age” (IM 12).

Some rigorists argue that adults should be held to the same standards of acceptability as children, and that whatever is inappropriate for children should be considered inappropriate for adults as well. But in speaking of shielding children from what “may be harmful at their age,” Inter Mirifica clearly implies that such content need not be harmful to those of another age.

One might think that accounts of evils in Scripture would suffice to establish, in principle, the legitimacy of treating such subjects in narrative form. Many rigorists, though, seem to regard the sacredness of Scripture as grounds for an exception rather than a precedent. Try to extend the example of Scripture to merely human literature or artwork and you may be met with “Are you equating human art with God’s word?”

Of course the inspiration or non-inspiration of a given story doesn’t necessarily make it an occasion of sin for the audience. Just as biblical accounts of sins can be morally safe reading, so in principle could an equally restrained story of a comparable event in a work of fiction.

Of course, it is one thing to read an account of such an event in Scripture and another to see nudity or gore represented in a film. So consider also the history of Christian art, especially in the West: Realistic depictions of male and female nudity, as well as grisly depictions of violent and gory imagery, can be found in Christian churches all over Europe, including the Vatican.

Because of this, some rigorists, especially non-Catholics, simply condemn Western art along with the movies. Catholics are unlikely to go so far but may argue that the documentary power of film, with its ability to capture movement and sound as well as photographic detail, makes explicit nudity and violence more problematic than in the most realistic paintings or sculptures.

It is true that film poses a special case among the arts that is especially liable to abuse by the unscrupulous and can be exceptionally insidious when so abused. “Moral restraint” in its production and consumption is necessary to avoid either presenting or being confronted with likely occasions of sin. But reasonable Catholic opinion will not insist on equating “restraint” with an absolute ban on nudity, violence, profanity, and so forth.

The Vatican Film List

A concrete example of the standards of Inter Mirifica applied to particular films is available in another Vatican document: the 1995 Vatican film list. This list, published by the Pontifical Council for Social Communications in commemoration of the centenary of cinema, enumerates forty-five important films, each noted for exceptional value in religion, values, and art (fifteen films in each area). For a list and capsule descriptions of the films, go to

Entitled “Some Important Films,” this document is not meant to offer a set of definitive or magisterial “top fifteen” lists nor to establish these particular films as more worthwhile than any film that was not included. In releasing the list, the council acknowledged that “not all that deserve mention are included.”

For those who insist on a rigorist approach to culture, it’s hard to see how some of these films could be deemed “deserving” of special note at all, except as films to avoid. Nudity, sexual content, obscene or profane language, and explicit violence all can be found in films on this list. Some of the films also examine faith or religion with a questioning or even skeptical eye or depict Church authorities in a negative light. Yet all demonstrate a level of restraint that distinguishes them from morally unworthy productions that pose a likely occasion of sin for viewers.

In some of these films, nudity is depicted in a nonsexual way, as when Schindler’s List depicts concentration camp inmates forced to cower naked in the courtyard or in shower rooms. Some of the prisoners are old and decrepit; some are shapeless and dumpy; all are terrified and milling about. These scenes are not the least bit erotic or prurient—quite the contrary. They elicit pity and horror, not lust.

Another example of nonsexual nudity can be found in The Mission, which depicts the native Guaraní Indians of South America with what the U.S. bishops Office of Film and Broadcasting termed “ethnographic nudity”—that is, the sort of nudity required to depict certain cultures, such as one finds in National Geographic. By its nature, the everyday nudity in The Mission is both more pervasive and less distressing than that in Schindler’s List. Yet a typical viewer will no more be incited to lust by The Mission than by National Geographic. In fact, The Mission received a tame “PG” rating (not even “PG-13”) from the MPAA.

Not all the nudity in the films of the Vatican list is nonsexual. Sexual nudity, sexually explicit dialogue, and depictions of sexual activity also can be found in Schindler’s ListThe DecalogueAndrei Rublev, and others. But these films are the kind of works that, in John Paul II’s words, “explore the darkest depths of the soul” and in so doing give voice “to the universal desire for redemption.”

Not all of the films on the list are as difficult or challenging. Films such as The Wizard of OzLittle WomenFantasia, and It’s a Wonderful Life are also honored. This is not a list for expert theologians or professional critics only. But in honoring certain difficult and challenging works, the Vatican means for viewers to watch these films in a mature and judicious spirit, not passively imbibing everything for entertainment’s sake but evaluating what they see and hear in light of the fullness of Catholic teaching.

This is in keeping with the teaching of Inter Mirifica, which exhorts all who use the media to “endeavor to deepen their understanding of what they see, hear or read” and “learn to pass sound judgments” (IM 10) regarding them. While noting that primary moral responsibility for the proper use of the media falls to those who produce and distribute it—as well as to critics who inform the public (cf. IM 11)—the decree also calls for “audiences of different cultural backgrounds and ages” to be instructed in “the proper use of the media” (IM 16).

An Imperfect World

The rigorist rejection of all films that contain anything in any way offensive seems to imply that watching a film is tantamount to approving of everything in the film. “You wouldn’t eat something that had even a little bit of arsenic mixed in it, would you?” they ask, implying that whatever is in a film gets imbibed along with everything else.

One reply to this objection might be that if it comes to that, people do consume trace amounts of arsenic all the time, and are quite right to do so. Tap water, for example, commonly contains some level of arsenic, but as long as the level is low enough, it does no harm to drink the water. On the contrary, since we must drink water and since completely arsenic-free water is unavailable, drinking such water is needed to sustain and preserve life. Experts might quibble about exactly how much arsenic in drinking water is acceptable, but no one argues that the only acceptable level is zero.

There are other perhaps better analogies. One can enjoy a tasty rib dinner while leaving inedible bits of gristle on the plate. One can appreciate a pastor’s generally excellent homily while mentally bracketing a dubious speculation or unfortunate phrasing. One can enjoy the company of one’s neighbors while deliberately overlooking or forbearing with their petty faults.

Like all things human, films and other works of art and culture are subject to limitations and flaws. Some are so flawed that they are unwholesome and should be avoided. But a thing can be wholesome without being perfect. As an example, consider the family film Babe, a delightful film with no potential drawbacks other than a few scenes of menace that might frighten the very young and very sensitive and a single line in which the farm couple’s city-slicker son-in-law ends a sentence with the phrase “for Christ’s sake.”

Profanity is always wrong, but of course we make characters in stories do all sorts of bad things without necessarily approving of them, and profanity is no exception. Even an actor can recite a line involving profanity without being personally profane, just as a Christian actor playing Peter on Holy Thursday might swear that he is not Jesus’ disciple, or indeed as faithful Catholics all over the world on Good Friday utter the damning line, “We have no king but Caesar.” Sin is a matter of intention, not just syllables, and an actor who says “for Christ’s sake” is not necessarily profane.

That’s not to say that profanity in drama is neither here nor there. It can be morally objectionable, especially if used gratuitously or in a way likely to contribute to its casual acceptance in society. But is the brief profanity in Babe justified or unjustified? It might be argued, on the one hand, that the line underscores a cultural divide between the farm couple and their callow son-in-law. On the other hand, it might be answered that this point doesn’t justify the use of profanity in a family film of this sort.

Let’s assume the latter view, that the line is gratuitous and unjustified. Babe is, then, an imperfect film. It would be better if that objectionable line had been omitted. But does this one line make the difference between a wholesome film and an unacceptable one? Does it neutralize Babe’s positive themes of treating others with courtesy and respect, overcoming prejudices, facing challenges, and so forth? Would the world be better off had this movie never been made?

No. That would be the same kind of thinking that would result in refusal to enjoy the company of imperfect people, to attend an imperfect church, to or eat imperfect food. That is no way to live.

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