The Catholic perspective on film

Published: Friday, Sept. 24 2010 11:30 a.m. MDT

Clint Eastwood and Hilary Swank in "Million Dollar Baby." - CNS rating: O

Merie W. Wallace

The Roman Catholic Church has been reviewing movies in the United States since 1936.

Almost three-quarters of a century later, the Catholics' perspective on film still stands apart — even in a media landscape well-populated with Rotten Tomatoes, Roger Ebert and a staggering variety of opinions.

It began 74 years ago with the formation of the National Legion of Decency, which addressed increasingly "morally dubious content" creeping onto movie screens. Today, the Media Reviewing Office of Catholic News Service provides weekly reviews of new releases, an archived database of thousands of films and annual top 10 lists — all evaluated on spiritual, moral and artistic concerns.

Those who have shared values with the Catholic Church, regardless of religion, may find these reviews to be a unique voice in a noisy lobby.

"Ideally, the main value of these reviews is two-fold: to provide parents with detailed information about what their children will see if they attend a given film and to guide adults, be they Catholics, believers of another stripe or simply people of good will, in their movie-going decisions," said John Mulderig of the Media Reviewing Office.

It's one of many unique perspectives on media the Deseret News is eager to share with its readers.

"The Deseret News intends to be a voice for values that connect with good people of diverse faiths and backgrounds," said Clark Gilbert, Deseret News president and chief executive officer. "As we explored who was doing thoughtful work in this area, we repeatedly received recommendations to look at the Catholic News Service. Not only do they share values with our readers on topics such as the family, decency and quality, they are doing thoughtful work in this area and we felt they would be a good partner."

History and mission

For three decades, the National Legion of Decency "gave classifications to thousands of films based exclusively on their moral substance and on their suitability for various age groups and categories within the movie-going public," Mulderig said.

The effort continued under different designations, such as the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Office for Film and Broadcasting. Since in May 2010, the reviews have been produced under the name of the Media Reviewing Office.

Its stated mission is to provide the public with an evaluation of mass media "based on the standards of faith and morals preserved and transmitted by the church's teaching authority.

"Thus, the most basic principle used to calculate a film's worth is the extent to which it affirms, challenges or rejects Judeo-Christian values," the organization's website reads.

Beginning in 1965, the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures began adding full movie reviews to the classifications that "took into account not only moral and spiritual criteria, but a film's aesthetic excellence or weakness as well," Mulderig said.

Moral considerations are paramount in evaluating a film, though not exclusive.

"We try to take a holistic approach, recognizing that any given subject may be treated either in an artistically valid way or, at the other extreme, in a gratuitous and exploitative manner," Mulderig said.

The CNS reviews concentrate particularly on how a character's negative behavior and ethical choices, such as crime and abortion, are presented; and depictions of human sexuality, including premarital sexual encounters, nonmarital cohabitation and adulterous relationships.

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