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.
"CNS reviewers always flag such content and, to the extent that any film or program positively endorses such behavior as either normative or acceptable, to that degree will the review and classification reflect the work's divergence from Catholic teaching," the organization's website reads.
Each film is given a classification unique to the CNS and distinct from the Motional Picture Association of America rating.
"These reviews offer insight on both the entertainment or artistic content and the moral values of a wide variety of media," said Chris Lee, general manager ofdeseretnews.com. "In terms of moral values, the reviews provide a unique rating system that gives guidance that supplements the MPAA's general rating system."
The classifications are "A-I" for general patronage, "A-II" for adults and adolescents, "A-III" for adults, "L" for limited adult audiences and "O" for morally offensive.
"While the MPAA's descriptions of content are necessarily brief, we try to be much more extensive in our analysis," Mulderig said.
As such, CNS reviews provide a perspective not found in many forums. For example, the review for "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," named one of CNS's top 10 family films for 2001, takes care to note that the film "clearly delineate(s) between good and evil, but characters present a range of moral shading."
The reviews can also deviate from consensus. The film "Million Dollar Baby," which won an Academy Award for best picture in 2004 and is rated PG-13, was classified as "O" because it featured an "implicit endorsement of euthanasia — about which the MPAA is necessarily silent and which the secular press may treat in a way that diverges from Christian principles in general or specifically Catholic teaching in particular," Mulderig said.
Another example is "The Invention of Lying," which was flagged as O for atheism. Recently released PG-13 movies such as "The Other Guys" and "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" are also classified as morally offensive.
The recently released "Flipped" is reviewed as a "heartwarming coming-of-age-story," but while the movie is rated PG, the CNS gives it an A-III classification for "a handful of profane and crass expressions and scenes of family discord."
Conversely, "Nanny McPhee Returns," which also has a PG rating, is classified as A-I "with only some mildly gross barnyard humor and slapstick violence to give parents pause." Some R-rated films don't earn an "O" but rather the "highly restrictive" classification of "L" based on "the artistic intent of the film's creators," Mulderig said.
In addition to having thousands of movies in its archives, the Catholic News Service website has a list of the Vatican's Top 45 movies that includes everything from "Ben Hur" to "Chariots of Fire," and "Stagecoach" to "2001: A Space Odyssey."
Mulderig believes the reviews have attracted an audience outside Catholic circles, especially among parents.
"While certain issues — the use of contraception, for instance — may not necessarily be of concern to non-Catholic viewers, the far more frequent elements of violence, vigilantism, adulterous, premarital or nonmarital sexual activity, abortion, euthanasia, drug use, etc. are red flags for people of good will approaching films from many belief systems and perspectives," Mulderig said.
Gilbert says families and individuals across the country are looking for "common sense values" from media companies — one reason the Deseret News has chosen to make CNS reviews part of its entertainment offerings.
"Our decision to partner with the Catholic News service reflects an increasing desire to connect with other organizations and voices with whom we share common values," Gilbert said. "This current partnership is hardly a single-source solution, but rather the first in a series of efforts you will see in the coming months to focus on values in the media."
Mulderig realizes that Catholics and Latter-day Saints, who make up a significant percentage of Deseret News readership, share many common beliefs and are united in opposition to the glorification of violence, the demeaning of human sexuality, and the undermining of traditional marriage and family life.
"I trust our analysis of the approach to these subjects in contemporary film would be a welcome source of information," Mulderig said. "While the moral and artistic criteria are, in a sense, inextricable, a secular review may only tell readers whether a film is an aesthetic success. By contrast, we always emphasize the moral and spiritual values underlying a film, values which are linked to, but take precedence over, purely cinematic considerations."
CNS rating system
A look at the system used by the Catholic News Service, which can be used to supplement ratings from the Motion Picture Association of America:
A-I (general patronage) — Any film free from significant objectionable content.
A-II (adults and adolescents) — Can be either films appropriate for anyone over the age of 13, or for "older teens." Do not contain nudity, overt sexual activity, bloody violence or use of foul language.
A-III (adults) — This classification strikes a balance between those with a wide tolerance for edgy subject matter and those who find certain elements less palatable.
L (limited adult audience) — A highly restrictive classification for films with problematic content that many adults would find troubling.
O (morally offensive) — Films that feature excessive violence, gratuitous sexuality and laden, for no artistically valid reason, with non-stop vulgarity. Can also be films that directly contradict Catholic Church teachings.