Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Spirituality of Advent: What are you waiting for?

Throughout scripture we can discern a theology of waiting. In the Old Testament God waits on his people to return to him. In every age He endures our unfaithfulness. Yet our falleness makes waiting on God unbearable at times. Frequent prayer, mass, and adoration easily become inconveniences to daily living. And, though very often we convince ourselves otherwise, what we are communicating through our actions to our God is that He is not worth our time. We'd rather spend our time otherwise. After all we are important people and we have many important things to accomplish that takes precedence over spending time with God. And when we do spend time with God, sometimes its motivated by selfish reasons. How often do we expect God to answer us immediately when we do call out for him? How quickly do we expect him to solve our problems? How frustrated do we become when he seems silent to our sufferings? "Why do we complain about God, Who has more reason to complain about all of us?" (Salvian). 

Advent is indicative of the spirituality of the Old Testament. The entire Old Testament is an anticipation and foreshadowing of Christ. We are called to reflect on the experience of waiting on God's faithfulness to redeem our falleness. We must always be prepared for the coming of God. Truly Christ has already come (incarnation), and as he continues to come (Eucharist) he will come again (Final Judgment). As our spiritual ancestors waited for God to fulfill the Old Testament covenental promises, we are called to spiritually reflect on their experience that we may be able to recognize, receive, and respond to God's grace when it is manifested. 

Sadly, sometimes we do not really want a God of infinite wisdom, but a divine vending machine whose buttons we can manipulate with our petitions to satisfy our demands. True patience, and thus true hope flows from love. When we love and trust God we realize that His will shall prevail, and that this will be a glorious thing that we should welcome wholeheartedly. We pray, "Lord, not as I will, but as you will." We become much more concerned as to whether our will is conforming to God's. We say, "Holy Spirit, teach me how to pray and guide the desires of my heart." In this way we avoid a relationship of manipulation. By waiting on God we should learn to treat his responses to our prayers (even the silences) as a gift and not with a disposition of entitlement. 

Look towards the children who immediately receive everything they want whenever they want from others. They become very selfish and it becomes very difficult for them to receive anything with a spirit of gratitude. Appeasement is a bad parenting practice for it doesn't teach responsibility. Quite literally such spoiled individuals lack the ability to respond properly to gifts which screws up their ability to love. They are never able to properly receive a gift of love and thus they cannot properly give a gift of love. Bottom line is that God is wiser than us and we should conform to his will rather than trying to get him to conform to ours. 

At pivotal points throughout scripture and all of history, God’s people are met with silence. A prominent example of this is when Israel, after many centuries of being displaced during the Diaspora and subjected to a series of different rulers yearn for God’s answer to their plea for restoration and the fulfillment of his promises. “Israel is living once more in the darkness of divine absence; God is silent, seemingly forgetful of the promises of Abraham and David, the old lament is heard once more: We no longer have any prophets, God seems to have abandoned his people” (Benedict XVI). During this time God’s people were experiencing the spirituality of advent where their waiting constitutes a prayer of great longing and anticipation. In the silence they wait for God.    

We must learn how to put ourselves in God’s time frame rather than expecting him to work on our own. Very often we are not ready for what God wants to accomplish for us and in us.  We must wait and prepare our hearts. To use an analogy of St. Augustine that I've heard via Fr. Robert Barron (the video is below), sometimes God delays the answering of prayer in order that the heart of the person may expand and receive what God wants to give. We ask and God makes us promises but often the heart isn’t big enough to receive, but as we faithfully wait the heart grows larger and more receptive so that when God is ready, we might also be ready. 

The silence of God in the Old Testament foreshadows his plan of salvation when he enters into the silence of the human condition through the Incarnation.The peaceful silence of the nativity contrasts greatly with the violent silence of Calvary. This silence of Christ culminates on the cross when he silently allows himself to be slaughtered and enters into the silence of the grave, into the silence of death so that he may destroy silence through the Resurrection. May all our spiritual advents be a preparation inviting Christ to enter into the silence of our own lives that we may receive what God wants to give us. 

Monday, November 29, 2010

Dorothy Day: Bridging the Gap

Today is the 30th anniversary of the death of (Servant of God) Dorothy Day. There are few figures in American Catholicism who manage simultaneously to balance radicality with orthodoxy, activity with contemplation, or liberality with poverty -- Dorothy Day was such a figure.That Dorothy spent her life -- even before she was a Catholic -- defending the poor, the worker, the homeless, the disenfranchised is well-known; addressing injustice was her life's work. And yet, haven't these activities, in a certain detached sense, become somewhat trite to us? To say she defended the poor, to say she fought for justice, to say she lived voluntary poverty -- how much of these phrases has become, for most of us, a snazzy phrase we use to gild the grit of the saint's life? To apotheosize a life spent in the real world, full of grime and sin?  Not to say her works lose their beauty, but that they begin to mean so little to us being 30-years removed. Certainly Dorothy Day has had many wonderful eulogies -- her work is not, as far as I know, a mystery. But how is she relevant today? In Advent 2010? How can her example bear fruit in our lives, not as a nod to make ourselves feel better, but as a call to conversion?

Perhaps such questions are a bit daunting for this little meditation. With that in mind, I'd like to offer the role Dorothy Day has played in my own conversion. As you, reader, may or may not know, I was confirmed Easter 2007. Upon entering the Church, I was a confused liberal: a vegetarian, pacifist, socialistic, tramping, poor little college student with a new idea every five minutes. I had been confirmed in the Holy Spirit and received our Lord in the Eucharist, and yet the "world was too much" with me -- I could not brook the seething Republican Catholicism with which I was confronted; could not understand why more people hadn't embraced the poverty espoused in Matthew 19:21; couldn't assuage my conscience which told me war was a horrid, heinous defeat for humanity, or that capitalism was a "dirty, rotten system." I was in a difficult spot: I had been entranced by the Beauty, Reason, and Order of the Church, and yet I found much of her milieu to be disheartening. I was as faithful a Catholic as I knew how to be, and still found myself on the fringe. And yet, that is where Dorothy met me: on the fringe.

Dorothy, for me, was an anomalous figure -- a Catholic pacifist and anarchist, who derided capitalism, but was not a communist; an outspoken woman who faithfully adhered to all the creed while vociferously rampaging against the cruelties of her time. When I began to read about her and Peter Maurin (who, I must sheepishly admit, remains more of a hero in my heart than even Dorothy), I was inspired, I was filled with hope, I was vivified. Her Personalist Ethic, Pacifism, Voluntary Poverty and Love of the Poor -- all spoke to my heart that I need not despair; that there was, despite many voices to the contrary, a place for guys like me in the Church. Dorothy and Peter thus became not only my inspiration but my guiding light -- in them, I saw the "bleeding heart" of a liberal, not destroyed by grace, but perfected. Because the heart full of compassion for the lost and indignation for the abused is not to be smothered out -- but the fire needs the fireplace, the wild vine needs tending. The Church thus molded Dorothy, and Dorothy thus molded me.

This perfection of the liberal's heart is what I think Dorothy has most to contribute today. Not as though her contribution to American Pacifism isn't enormous, or that her example of true love and solidarity with the poor isn't astounding; but rather, that Dorothy's gift, as I see it, is to be the saint that stands in the gap between the Church and the liberal. The world is positively brimming with well-intentioned people, crunchy-cons and bleeding heart liberals alike, who have a desire for justice and equality, not merely as it relates to performing works of mercy, but as it relates to the structures of society itself. But they, like their estranged conservative cousins (without whose stability we would be lost, I'd wager), need the guiding hand of the Church, to shape them, prune them, and teach them true justice, true equality free from the errors of modernism. And so for me, and for many other liberals who have found their way into the Holy Catholic Church, Dorothy is a bridge and a friend. She is an image of the machinations of grace upon the liberal heart, showing us that there is indeed, as Peter Maurin said, more "dynamite" within the Church than without.

By her life, Dorothy reflects, in a particular way, for a particular time, the work of Christ throughout history: to bring the outskirts of mankind into the work of his Incarnation; to embody "grace and truth" in a period which needs certain graces and certain truths; an "antidote," as Chesterton phrases it. And thus was Dorothy Day for the 20th century and its liberals: a word of grace and truth to those who, in perhaps the world's darkest hour, desired the light of economic justice, freedom from the brutal obliteration of war, and liberation from the oppression of the State.

May Servant of God Dorothy Day pray for us, liberals and conservatives alike! And may her canonization come quickly!

Thursday, November 04, 2010

"Far and Away" and Here Today

Since we have just had political elections here in the United States, I thought it might be a suitable time to make a post regarding some political topics; however, just to make it interesting I'm putting this discussion within the framework of a work of artistic criticism. Specifically, I'm going to attempt to draw out the themes of Distributism which I see reflected in the 1992 film Far and Away, directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. (That being said, this article contains spoilers for the movie, so if you want to see it, you should probably avoid reading on until you do.) I think this approach is useful because it expresses both the fact that artistic expression can passively give birth to a bubbling forth of truths of the human condition in a wide variety of areas and can also, actively, demonstrate how artistic media can be useful as a vehicle for the propagation of the Catholic faith and teachings if you in an appropriate manner.

The film itself opens, finding us in Ireland in the late 19th century with a title card which reads: "The tenant farmers, after generations of oppression and poverty, have begun to rebel against the unfair rents and cruel evictions imposed upon them by their wealthy landlords." And it is this concept the brings us specifically to Joseph Donnelly (Cruise), a young man working on the farm which he shares with his father (who is fatally wounded in the opening scene) and brothers, rented from a landlord who lives far off. Joseph is immediately characterised by the opening action in which he struggles to work his rented fields while his brothers taunt him and, speaking of his "grand ambitions" his brother says to him: “Ambition is it? To break your back on land that isn’t your own?”

With such a thought in mind we can turn our attention to the words of Pope Leo XII in his encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891):

If working people can be encouraged to look forward to obtaining a share in the land, the consequence will be that the gulf between vast wealth and sheer poverty will be bridged over, and the respective classes will be brought nearer to one another. A further consequence will result in the great abundance of the fruits of the earth. Men always work harder and more readily when they work on that which belongs to them; nay, they learn to love the very soil that yields in response to the labor of their hands, not only food to eat, but an abundance of good things for themselves and those that are dear to them. That such a spirit of willing labor would add to the produce of the earth and to the wealth of the community is self evident. And a third advantage would spring from this: men would cling to the country in which they were born, for no one would exchange his country for a foreign land if his own afforded him the means of living a decent and happy life.

In this particular instance, of course, the focus is placed on the second aspect described here, namely that men will work diligently and joyfully on their own property to a greater extent than the land of another. This concept is shown quite clearly in the case of Joseph's brothers, who would rather drink and fight than bother working the land, with specific reference to their lack of ownership.

As the film progresses, the agents of the landlord arrive and burn down the Donnellys' farm due to a failure to pay their rent. As a result, Joseph sets out to exact revenge by murdering the landlord. To make a long story short, it doesn't go according to plan and Joseph ends up a prisoner in the landlord's house awaiting a duel the next morning against the man who burned down his farm. However, in the night, the daughter of the landlord, Shannon (Kidman), enters the room and offers him the prospect of coming with her to America where, she informs him, they give away land for free. Incredulous, Joseph informs her: "I'm of Ireland and I'll stay in Ireland til I die!" This brings us to the third of the statement of Leo XIII, that a man would not abandon his own country if it could give him sufficient support. However, it seems that Joseph violates this principle, desiring to stay in is country despite the fact that he has no property of means of his own. However, the next morning shows the reality of Pope Leo's words, as Joseph ultimately relents and heads to America with Shannon, realising he has nothing left for him in Ireland save for fear of death.

Ultimately, the pair end up in Boston and become affiliated with dangerous criminals who provide them with a place to live and jobs. Ultimately, Joseph begins to engage in boxing matches for them and comes into a number of material luxuries as a result of his success. However, when he loses an important fight (notably as a result of being distracted by inappropriate advances of one of his employers against Shannon, whom he seeks to defend), all this material prosperity is proven to have been an illusion--immediately they are ejected from their boarding house, driven away from employment and shunned by their former patrons.

This is ultimately the untenable situation of the vast majority of wage labourers under the system of capitalism who live their lives at the whim of those wealthy patrons who provide their salaries. This should be regarded as especially relevant to people in the United States, a country in which in 2001 a mere 1% of the population owned 38% of the wealth (if we look at the top 20% we find that they control over 80% of the wealth) and the bottom 40% owned less than 1%--a situation which has only grown more extreme in the intervening years. Furthermore, we have to bear in mind that a significant number of the people in that bottom 40% own literally nothing--their net worth is below zero, in that they owe more than they possess. The situation of individuals in this position is literally no different from that of Joseph and Shannon in the movie. How is this equitable? How is this just? What is the solution?

Well, Far and Away has a solution. And that solution is a wider distribution of productive property. This is envisioned in the idea of the free land grab in the Oklahoma territory--where everyone, the rich and the poor alike, theoretically have an equal chance to attain possession of land. This is particularly emphasised by the fact that we see Shannon's family--the wealthy landlords from Ireland--come to the United States to participate in the same land grab race with Joseph after revolting peasants destroy their manor in Ireland. And what does that bring us to but Pope Leo XIII's last remaining point: if the poor have a chance to gain possession of land, a bridge will be built between the social classes who will grown nearer to each other.

This is exemplified in two ways in the film: first, the relative equality of Shannon's wealthy family and the poor Joseph in their attempt to claim land in the Oklahoma territory where they will be, essentially, neighbors in possession of an equal amount of productive property. And finally, in Shannon's decision to be with Joseph rather than the more wealthy man to whom she was originally paired. The union of these individuals exemplifies the union of classes brought together by the appropriate distribution of land, as emphasised in their jointly driving in the stake which declares their ownership of the land they have chosen together.

Now, I have a couple of other points to make which I think really drive this movie over the top in this respect. The first is when Joseph attempts to defend Shannon against the advances of his corrupt employer during his great boxing match, which ultimately results in the lose of his material prosperity. I greatly enjoyed this scene because it emphasises a point which I think is largely lost in politics and economics today--that is, that they are not natural sciences. Rather, politics and economics are branches of moral science and they should, at their foundation, be regarded as dealing with people and not with objects. Is great material wealth worth the manipulation and exploitation of even a single individual? I think that if we are morally honest with ourselves, we must say no. So, even though winning the boxing match would be enough to secure for Joseph the wealth with which he could attain his dream of property ownership, if the price of attaining that economic vision were to sacrifice of Shannon, a human person, then the price is regarded as simply too steep. Humans are not means to an end, we are ends in ourselves!

The second scene which gave me great delight is the final scene. In a struggle with the other man seeking Shannon's romantic affections, Joseph is thrown to the ground and injures his head on a rock. As Shannon hovers over his body, begging him to live, the camera gives the impression that Joseph's soul is leaving his body and he is dead. However, at a few simple words, Joseph's soul rushes back and he is instantly revived and their dream is ultimately realised as they claim their land together as one. And what are those words which call him back? "I loved you." And this is the essence of the entire political, social and economic vision of the film, in my opinion: without love, not only is the entire process of social reform completely worthless, it is also fruitless. In fact, I limit too much, I think by saying social reform. No form of politics or economics--existing or reformed--is worthy of preservation if it is not founded on this simply fact.

So let us take this message away from this little movie of Ron Howard: let us love one another, not in a vague and sentimental way, but in way which finds its expression in sacrifice and self-gift to one another; where instead of trying to cheat one another and outdo one another, we embrace life of charity for our fellow men; and ultimately let us follow that path of love to the social, economic and political structures that are most congruent with that fundamental truth, like the natural fruit of a great and giving tree. Let us live lives based entirely in love.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Catholic Creation of Hollywood's Golden Age, or How the Church Saved the Movies, Part Three

Part One is available here.

Part Two is available here.

The beginning of the American Catholic church's interest in cinema dates back to the beginning of the art form itself. However, the Catholic Church's leadership in America was fractured, divided between different dioceses. There was no national body to speak with a unified voice for the American Church until 1917, with the founding of the National War Council, the first national Catholic body in America. American bishops formed it to respond to the nation's request for chaplains needed for the Great War (World War I) and to preserve the faith and morality of Catholics in the military and those women living near bases. Pretty soon this organization became involved in the movies. This group's first exposure to film involved issues with hygiene films produced by the government for service personnel. After organizing opposition from within the Church, the National War Council was successful in pulling certain films it found objectionable from distribution. Following the war, the group changed its name to the National Catholic Welfare Council in 1919 and then the National Catholic Welfare Conference (NCWC) in 1922.

Following its success during World War I in preventing troops and the general public from viewing objectionable content, in 1919, the NCWC formed a specific committee to deal with the growing film industry: the Motion Picture Committee. While still focusing on hygiene films, it worked with film producers behind the scenes to fund pro-Catholic movies like the unsuccessful effort, “American Catholics in War and Reconstruction.” By 1923, led by Charles McMahon, it began issuing monthly lists of positive films in the NCWC Bulletin, believing that the best way to promote quality films was to educate the public about what were the quality films. At the same time emerged a similar program under the leadership of the Motion Picture Bureau of the International Federation of Catholic Alumnae, directed by Rita McGoldrick, a graduate of Rosary College in Illinois. While the NCWC could only evaluate 400 films a year, the International Federation of Catholic Alumnae (IFCA), which was staffed by volunteers who graduated from Catholic high schools and colleges), could review up to 11,000. The volunteers would rate the films either “good,” “very good,” or “excellent.”

While there were attempts by some dioceses to create “black lists” for immoral films, the NCWC and the IFCA, which supported the efforts of William Hays, stated it was not necessary, especially following the establishment of the Catholic-written Motion Picture Code in 1930 (as discussed in the last part of this series). However, while the Motion Picture Code was in effect, it was ineffective, with some commentators stating that the films produced during this period were less moral than the ones produced even prior to the institution of the code. As Father Daniel Lord wrote, “Crime, lust, the triangle situation, seductions, remained the normal plot of films. I could see not the slightest improvement.” Even Protestants felt betrayed by Hays and the moral code for motion pictures. Pete Harrison, editor of Harrison's Reports, wrote, “Hays made promises to the church people that he would allow no dirt in pictures and failed to keep his promises—and failed miserably.”

This era, extending from 1930 to 1934, is commonly referred to as the “pre-code era.” This is a misnomer. The Motion Picture Code was in effect. However, it just was not enforced.

Two film genres were prevalent during this period: the “gangster” and the “vamp” pictures. Films like Little Caesar, Scarface: the Shame of a Nation, and Public Enemy represent the gangster films of this time. Movies like Blonde Woman, My Sin, Tarnished Lady, Hot Stuff, Baby Face, Hot Stuff, She Done Him Wrong, and I'm No Angel fell into the category of “vamp” or “fallen women” films. (the last two starring the always provocative Mae West). Even noted crime expert, Al Capone, lamented the immorality of films during this period, saying “[T]hey are making a lot of kids want to be tough guys, and they don't serve any useful purpose.”

Trailer for the "Pre-Code" picture "Baby Face" starring
Barbara Stanwyck

Social scientists also looked into the effects of motion pictures upon children. A group called the “Payne Fund” conducted an investigation into the influence of film upon children, publishing a twelve volume work stating, scientifically (with graphs and such), how the movies were impacting the nation's youth. A summary of the study, called “Our Movie Made Children,” by Henry James Forman, published in 1933, stated that if the industry continued to be unregulated it “is extremely likely to create a haphazard, promiscuous, and undesirable national conscience.”

By 1932, individuals in the Catholic Church such as Father Lord and Martin Quigley were fed up with the non-enforcement of the Code. Father Lord began looking into films produced since the code went into effect and wrote a pamphlet called “The Motion Pictures Betray America.” In it, he wrote, “It is no longer a matter of single scenes being bad, of occasional 'hells' and 'damns,' or girls in scantly costumes,” but “a whole philosophy of evil... depicted with an explicitness that [has] excited the curriosity of children and the emulation of morons and criminals.” After this pamphlet's publication, Hays threatened Lord with a defamation suit, but it came to naught. Lord continued speaking up against the growing sinfulness of film, with this issue coming to a head when Father Lord spoke in front of five thousand young people in Buffalo. As he states in his autobiography:

“...I threw the outline for my speech away.... I reminded them what they were seeing when they went to the theater, and what effect it was bound to have upon adolescents like themselves.

Then I think my tone rose slightly for I was, without preparation, on the verge of a challenge:

'Nobody else seems to be willing to tackle this job,” I said. “How would you like to clean up the movies?'

There was a moment of surprised silence, then somebody cried out, 'Yes!' then the place thundered with applause, and then we worked out our plan.”

The plan was to create a black list of films to be published in Lord's own “The Queen's Work,” a paper that went out to nearly all the Catholic high schools and colleges in the nation in addition to thousands of other Catholic groups. The list would be published every month, with two or three of the worst offenders, demanding protests and boycotts.

“Stay away from the ones we list,' said Lord. “Write indigent letters of protest to the companies responsible. Make it so hot for the offenders that they'll stop in sheer self-defense.”

Martin Quigley did not approve of these new, more aggressive actions by Father Lord. He felt that the Catholics would have more success maintaining a close working relationship with Hollywood, continuing the white lists of approved motion pictures produced by the NCWC and the IFCA. However, some individuals, like Cardinal Mundelein and Bishop Bernard J. Sheil, saw that Lord's work was proving effective. They saw how successful Father Lord was with the nation's youth and decided a national group of Catholics from all age groups (and Protestants and Jews) organized to protect film morality would be even more effective. Thus, the Catholic (soon to be National) Legion of Decency was formed in Fall 1933. As spoken by Archbishop Amleto Giovanni Cicognani, “Catholics are called by God, the Pope, the bishops, and the priests to a united front and vigorous campaign for the purification of the cinema, which has become a deadly menace to morals.”

The Legion, with the power of the Catholic press and network of organizations, soon became the most feared institution for film producers in America. Variety claimed that fully half of the nation's 20,000,000 Catholics enlisted in the Legion within a few months. Vowing to not attend immoral films (or even the movie houses in general) Hollywood lost a tremendous amount of revenue. As stated in Chicago's “New World,” “Worn out by promises, tricked by pledges, deceived by codes, and dismayed by filth, the Church has finally decided to take action in the one way left for it-- boycott.”

The Legion of Decency raises its sword against the tentacles of the Hollywood octopus in an editorial cartoon from the Chicago's New World, September 28, 1934.

Scientific studies and the Legion of Decency were not the only pressures upon the motion picture industry in 1933. There was also a new presidential administration in Washington, and one without ties to the former Republican cabinet member, William Hays. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was establishing an alphabet soup of new regulatory agencies to deal with the Great Depression. The administration proposed that the entertainment industry should be regulated by the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA). Film industry representatives began negotiating with the Roosevelt administration, but there seemed to be little hope to avoid the federal regulation the industry had feared for over a decade. The President apparently felt that the motion picture industry needed the “eagle eye” of federal regulation. There was talk of codifying into statute the Motion Picture Code, thus having the force of law behind what was formally an agreement between the studios. Hays and the motion picture industry, surrounded by the government, social scientists, and the Church, needed a solution. He decided to work with the Church, hoping that the other sides would be placated if the Catholics settled down.

Hays turned to one man, Joseph Ignatius Breen, to help him make amends with American Catholics. Joseph I. Breen was not only a Catholic, but he was also from Chicago with close ties to the diocese, In 1925, he was the publicity director for the 28th International Eucharistic Congress. There he worked closely with Quigley and Cardinal Mundelein (as his personal public relations man). In 1929, he attended the meeting with Quigley and Father Dinnen where the Motion Picture Code was first proposed. By 1931, he was working for the MPPDA as Mr. Hays's assistant and Hollywood's ambassador to the Catholic Church. Trusted by both the Catholic Church and by William Hays, he worked at placating both.

On the fifth of February, 1934, Hays appointed Breen to head the Studio Relations Committee, the committee which had the duty to make sure motion pictures conformed with the Code. Still Breen encountered the ineffectiveness of the existing enforcement program when two motion pictures he denied approval of were successful when appealed to an appeals board made up of Hollywood producers. However, as federal pressure kept up and boycotts led by the National Legion of Decency continued, the MPAA finally decided to take action.

Joseph I. Breen

On June 13, 1934, the Board of Directors of the MPAA met in New York and approved the creation of the Production Code Administration. All films would have to approved by this new administration, under the direction of Breen. All films would be required to obtain a “Certificate of Approval,” a kind of imprimatur for motion pictures. Any production company that did not go through the PCA would be fined $25,000.00 which was soon reorganized as the Production Code Administration. The new PCA would have no appeal board made up of fellow producers. A decision made by the PCA could only be appealed to the MPPDA Board of Directors (located in New York, not in Hollywood). In addition, instead of only reviewing films after production had wrapped, there would be review prior to commencement of production, with the PCA flagging anything in proposed scripts violating the code.

Hays gave Breen and Quigley direction to gain the approval of the Catholic bishops (who were to meet on the 21st of June) of this new system. Hays told them that “the Catholic authorities can have anything they want.” After reviewing the framework for this new administration and making sure Breen would be in charge of enforcement, the bishops issued a letter stating, in part, that they were victorious as “the producer's jury in Hollywood, a part of the original machinery for enforcement of the Production Code... has been abandoned and that additional local authority (Breen) has been assigned to the Code administration.” On July 11, 1934, the PCA and its authority over motion pictures were formally approved by the major production companies.

Production Code Seal
And so, a two-tiered system to regulate the content of the movies was established. A production company would submit a film to the PCA (the Breen Office) and it would be reviewed for compliance with the Code. The film would be reviewed once more by the Breen office after it was completed, where it would receive a Seal of Approval. At the same time, the production companies would submit a copy of the film to the Legion of Decency where it would receive a rating of A(Morally unobjectionable), B (Morally objectionable in part), or C (Condemned by the Legion of Decency). If approved by the Breen Office, a film would normally receive at most a “B.”

The Marx Brothers, in the Pre-Code "Horse Feathers" ask "Where's the seal?"

Pope Pius XI even came out in favor of this system in the Encyclical, Vigilanti Cura . As he wrote:

Although in certain quarters it was predicted that the artistic values of the motion picture would be seriously impaired by the reform insisted upon by the "Legion of Decency," it appears that quite the contrary has happened and that the "Legion of Decency" has given no little impetus to the efforts to advance the cinema on the road to noble artistic significance by directing it towards the production of classic masterpieces as well as of original creations of uncommon worth.

The establishment of this system in 1934 ushered in the “Golden Age” of Hollywood. In the next segment of this series, I will look at specific case studies showing how this Catholic system in regulating the content of motion pictures helped create America's movie classics.


The stage is set for a magnificent piece of worthwhile Catholic action and achievement.”

Joseph I. Breen

Black, Gregory D., Hollywood Censored: Morality Codes, Catholics, and the Movies, (Cambridge University Press 1994).

Doherty, Thomas, Hollywood's Censor: Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code Administration, (Columbia University Press 2007).

Lord, Daniel A., Played By Ear: The Autobiography of Daniel A. Lord, S.J., (Loyola University 1956).

Skinner, James, The Cross and the Cinema: The Legion of Decency and the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures, 1933-1970, (Praeger Publishers 1993).

Walsh, Frank, Sin and Censorship: The Catholic Church and the Motion Picture Industry, (Yale University Press 1996).

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Listen - lively colors best proclaim her!

Listen - lively colors best proclaim her!
The deathly darkening of grays and black
do not defy light but exist as lack.
All shadows recede. They cannot tame her!
So sweetly she calls all creation back
that the blind hear visions of radiance
as she paints deaf ears with yellows and blues,
deep greens and purples and countless kind hues,
passionate reds in bright blazing cadence!
In love we exclaim how good her good news:
clement and loving, the source of sweet bliss!
Singing, shining, souls stir still at calm call
to come find her here where truth and love kiss,
to dance and to play where love conquers all!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Catholic Creation of Hollywood's Golden Age, or How the Church Saved the Movies, Part Two

Part One is available here.

Part Three is available here.

There is no doubt that identities grow and are strengthened by oppression, and that is what occurred in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in American Catholic communities. Out of these communities came men and women knowledgeable and proud in their faith, especially in the city of Chicago, home of 1,086,209 Catholics by 1936 (the largest diocese in America). Chicago, with the settlement of large numbers of Catholic immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, became known as the City of Catholics. This seat of Catholic strength in America made it an obvious choice to hold the 28th International Eucharistic Congress, from June 20 to 24, 1926, the first Eucharistic Congress in the United States. Fox Film Corporation (run at the time by Winifred “Winnie” Sheehan, an Irish Catholic) filmed this noteworthy event, producing an eight reel, ninety-six minute production entitled, “His Eminence George Cardinal Mundelein Archbishop of Chicago Presents the Pictorial Record of the XXVII International Eucharistic Congress Produced for him by Fox Film Corporation.” All copyright and profits of the production went to the Church. This connection of the Chicago Archdiocese with Hollywood, which began in 1926, to Catholics from the city becoming more familiar with the film industry. Catholic Chicagoans, including Martin J. Quigley, began to leave their mark upon cinema.

(Film of 28th International Eucharistic Congress, courtesy of Chicago History Museum)

Martin Quigley (1890-1964), a graduate of Niagara and Catholic Universities, was the publisher of "Moving Picture World" and "Exhibitor's Harold" (later combined as the the "Motion Picture Harold" in 1931). He was a man of two worlds: the film industry and the Catholic Church, especially the Archdiocese of Chicago. He believed that film and filmmakers should only provide “decent wholesome material.” Such entertainment should be family-friendly and reflect the virtues and values taught by the Catholic Church. These beliefs were recognized in his publications, some of the largest trade rags in the nation. He became familiar with William Hays and others in the industry through his publications and his work producing the film of the 28th International Eucharistic Congress. While Quigley supported morality being reflected in the film industry, he was also an opponent of state censorship to further this goal. By 1929, however, he clearly saw that the local censorship boards were too entrenched to be disbanded. There needed to be another system, not one relying on state censorship, to insure moral cinema.

At the same time, the film industry was having its own troubles. William Hays's "Don'ts and Be Carefuls" system was not working.

(Martin Quigley, Cecil B. DeMille, and Paramount president Barney Balaban, Courtesy of Georgetown University Library)

Senator Smith W. Brookhart of Iowa introduced a bill into Congress in March of 1928 to have the FTC regulate the motion picture industry. There was also a fear that the federal government would ban the practice of “block booking” by which production companies sold a slate of their upcoming attractions, sight unseen, to theaters.

Being involved with the motion picture industry, Martin Quigley knew of the fears of the industry in addition to business woes created by declining profits and film attendance resulting from the Great Depression. The time was ripe, Quigley felt, for him introduce a morals code for the motion picture industry, specifically a Catholic code. Quigley consulted with Father FitzGeorge Dineen, adviser to the Chicago censorship board, who recommended Father Daniel A. Lord, S.J. to help compose this proposed code.

Father Lord grew up with entertainment, and, from an early age, was impressed with movie houses. Throughout his time in the seminary, he followed the new medium, accompanying silent films by playing the piano in the theater with his fellow seminarians. One film left a profound impact upon him. In 1915, he viewed what one can consider the first blockbuster, "The Birth of a Nation" This vile and hate-filled film, based on the novel, The Clansman by Thomas Dixon and directed by D.W. Griffith, is the story of the rise of the first version of the Ku Klux Klan and left such an impact upon its viewers that a second version of the Ku Klux Klan became extremely active in the 1920s.

(Father Daniel A. Lord, S.J., 1944, Courtesy of Georgetown University Library)

As Father Lord states in his autobiography, Played By Ear:

"The deep hatred that Dixon had written into 'The Clansman' had been blown high and hot in the film. Griffith, whether he meant to or not, made many persons hate Negros and dread any emancipation given them. And I knew I was in the presence of a medium so powerful that it might change our whole attitude towards life, civilization, and established customs.... No doubt about it, the horrible bigotry of the KKK which sprang at the throat of the Catholic Church and American liberties not a decade later rode to its brief and ugly triumphs largely on a road down which had dashed Griffith's clansman."

In the years that followed, Father Lord got involved in different activities, focusing upon the theater. He became a theologian and playwright, in addition to being a Professor of English and Drama at St. Louis University, However, that changed when he was called upon to be the Catholic adviser on Cecil B. DeMille's "The King of Kings" in 1926. Joined by Jewish and Protestant advisers (both of whom left a few days into filming), Father Lord gave DeMille suggestions to make this movie about the life of the Christ theologically sound. For example, DeMille originally felt that a love story needed to be added into the film to attract a larger audience, namely a love story between Mary Magdalene and Judas. This romantic relationship between the two would culminate in the betrayal of Christ by Judas.

Father Lord suggested that this was not an appropriate manner to relate the life of Christ, and one evening, while watching the dailies with Father Lord, DeMille stated “He is great, isn't He?” DeMille was not speaking of the actor portraying Christ, but of Christ Himself. DeMille cut over 1,500 feet of film from the Mary Magdalene scenes, and the love story aspect of the plot was dropped from the finished film save for a bit in the opening minutes, posted below. Father Lord's Hollywood adventure being over, he returned to teaching at St. Louis University, until he was contacted by Martin Quigley about the creation of a Catholic morals code for cinema.

(Trailer for King of Kings, 1927)

(First Part of King of Kings, 1927 in early color)

Together Quigley and Fathers Dinnen and Lord discussed the drafting of such a code. It was decided to not make it explicitly Catholic, but in a way “that the follower of any religion, or any man of decent feeling and conviction, would read it and instantly agree. It must make morally attractive, and the sense of responsibility of the movies to its public and unmistakable.” Hays, to whom Quigley proposed the idea, was receptive to this solution.

Hays and Quigley carried the idea to the member companies of the MPPDA which received the idea of a more effective morals code by which the industry could self-regulate the movies, and, thus, avoid state censorship with enthusiasm. However, this was not Quigley's only selling point. There was also a desire for the producers to appeal to the Catholic audience. While those who owned the production companies were mainly of Jewish decent and the majority of moviegoers were Protestant, there was a desire by the film industry to specifically appeal to Catholics for several reasons:
  1. They were the single largest single religious group in the United States;
  2. There was a clear hierarchy and institutional structure to the Church; and
  3. The strong loyalty the lay people had to the Church and its teachings.
Quigley and Lord began work on this code, with Lord making sure A.M.D.G. and B.V.M.H. were the first letters placed at the top of the page. As Lord later wrote:

"Here was a chance to tie the Ten Commandments in with the newest and most widespread form of entertainment. Here was an opportunity to read morality into mass recreation. Here was an industry that might be persuaded to avoid the police by a sane and honorable policy."

The Motion Picture Production Code drafted by Quigley and Father Lord began with three general principles:
  1. No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.
  2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
  3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.
“Particular Applications,” which was composed of an update of the “Don'ts and Be Carefuls” more carefully arranged by subject, followed this first section. Father Lord added a section entitled “Reasons Supporting the Preamble of the Code,” based upon Scholasticism and Catholic thought, justifying the purpose of upholding the morality of art in general and film in particular. The differences between the limited appeal and reach of other arts compared to film were emphasized. General principles of morality followed with their bearing upon entertainment.

As stated by Joseph I. Breen, future head of the Production Code Administration:

"The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me to be an inspired document that fitted into the then current situation, having to do with motion picture entertainment, like a sharply cut picture puzzle. The code was essentially a moral treatise whose rules and regulations stemmed from the ancient moral law which has been accepted by mankind almost since the dawn of creation. These principles do not arise from timely or geographic considerations. Such principles do not become outmoded."

An additional issue must be addressed about the code. If one explores it, one sees some distinctly un-Catholic parts to it, namely the clause (Particular Applications, II, 6) against miscegenation (sexual relations between the races). This was inserted in the third draft of the code by William Hays himself. Lord and Quigley were very much against this addition. One person familiar with the situation described Quigley as “absolutely infuriated all the time that I knew him with the original Code where it said we could not treat a picture dealing with miscegenation. He thought it was outrageous and un-Christian.” However, Hays included it as a matter of economics. The racial reality of the American South in this period made it necessary to ban this subject matter, at least according to William Hays. Later, in 1942, Hays reconsidered this decision, and Mortimer Adler, Aristotelian and neo-Thomist philosopher, author, and one of the founders of the "Great Books" program (and subsequent Catholic convert), looked into the issue for him. Adler suggested that it be moved from a list of banned subjects to subjects that needed to be carefully dealt with by producers. This was done.

The code was approved by the industry on 31 March 1930, with Hays's name attached, making sure the public, which still looked upon the Catholic Church with distrust, did not know a Catholic priest and layman were the primary authors of this moral code for motion pictures. The Production Code, or what was commonly referred to as the Hays Code, went into effect. Lord and Quigley's role in its creation was not known until 1934.

The problem with this code was that there still was no enforcement mechanism. There was no system to approve scripts prior to filming. This led to the possibility of violations only being discovered after filming was completed, requiring costly reshoots. Second, if a decision regarding the immorality of a film was appealed from the Hays Office, it was appealed to a court made up of fellow producers, which would cost more for their fellow producers. The producers could say they would follow its regulations, but since it was unprofitable for them to do so, they would not. This time period, 1930 to 1934, is what is known by the misnomer, the “Pre-Code era of Hollywood. So-called “gangster” and “vamp” (or “fallen woman”) pictures were extremely popular, glorifying evil and sexual vice. They were also very profitable.

As the age of Republican dominance of the White House came to a close in 1933, the era of the New Deal began. It was not unexpected for a national film regulation board to be included among the alphabet soup of new federal agencies, especially since the industry was not doing the self-regulation it promised in 1930. Father Lord, Martin Quigley, who still had enormous influence through his “Motion Picture Harold,” and the greater Catholic community were also fed up with this lackadaisical enforcement system. Father Lord wrote, “Crime, lust, the triangle situation, seductions, remained the normal plot of the films.... The signatures solemnly affixed by the heads of the companies to the code seemed to bind no one.” Out of these circumstances emerged the Catholic Legion of Decency and the Production Code Administration, the subjects of the next installment of this series.


"In my long and pleasant life the films and Hollywood have been just an incident.... But you asked about it, and here is the record. Some time you may want to check it all in my complete files."

Father Daniel A. Lord, S.J., from Played By Ear.


Black, Gregory D., Hollywood Censored: Morality Codes, Catholics, and the Movies, (Cambridge University Press 1994).

Doherty, Thomas, Hollywood's Censor: Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code Administration, (Columbia University Press 2007).

Lord, Daniel A., Played By Ear: The Autobiography of Daniel A. Lord, S.J., (Loyola University 1956).

Skinner, James, The Cross and the Cinema: The Legion of Decency and the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures, 1933-1970, (Praeger Publishers 1993).

Walsh, Frank, Sin and Censorship: The Catholic Church and the Motion Picture Industry, (Yale University Press 1996).

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Catholic Creation of Hollywood's Golden Age, or How the Church Saved the Movies, Part One

Those with a general understanding of the motion picture industry and its history will already know that Catholics have been extremely influential as directors and actors. A variety of directors like Alfred Hitchcock (Vertigo and North by Northwest), John Ford (Stagecoach and The Searchers), Frank Capra (It's a Wonderful Life and Meet John Doe), Leo McCarey (Duck Soup and The Bells of St. Mary's), Martin Scorsese (Raging Bull and The Departed), and Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather and The Conversation) represent the broad range of the Catholic experience in America, representing those Catholics of Irish, Italian, and English ancestry. Their films cover all the great genres of cinema, from horror and Western to romantic comedy and melodrama. Many commentators have explored the Catholic themes in these men's films, with Catholic understandings of family and community, struggle and redemption, and moral liberty and free will painted on celluloid.

Yet Catholic thought reached the American public beyond these men and their movies, especially during the time period known today as the “Golden Age of Hollywood," a period from roughly 1935 to 1960. The Catholic Church nurtured cinema as an art when it was only considered an industry by the American Government. The Catholic Church helped guide the creation of some of the greatest movies ever made, using subtlety instead of directness; symbols rather than graphic imagery. Lastly, the Catholic Church used the motion picture industry to help integrate Catholics into mainstream American society, going from the Papist "other" to the next-door neighbor. Sadly, apart from several (largely negative) works written over the past two decades, the Church's role nurturing the creation of motion picture industry has been largely forgotten. Over the next few weeks, I will make a series of posts exploring these points and related topics so one can gather a greater understanding and appreciation of the Catholic heritage of American film, why the Church's role should be viewed as a positive influence in the creation of this art form, and the power cinema had and continues to have on our society as a whole.

The Catholic Church has always known the power of art. As Pope Pius XI wrote, "The essential purpose of art... is to assist in the perfection of the moral personality, which is man, and for this reason it must itself be moral." Additionally, nos. 2500 and 2501 of the Catechism state, "The practice of goodness is accompanied by spontaneous joy and moral beauty... To the extent that it is inspired by truth and love of beings, art bears a certain likeness to God's activity in which he has created. Like any other human activity, art is not an absolute end in itself, but is ordered to and ennobled by the ultimate end of man."

Typically though, art has become almost an archaic term, especially in talking about movies. The term "art" instantly conjures up thoughts of museums, classrooms, and, in absence of a more appropriate term, Rastafarian relics of the 1960s. Instead, many people today consider film "entertainment," immediately creating a picture of escape and abandonment. This distinction in modern society leads to a lesser understanding of the power of film as an art form, a truth the Church has known since the advent of moving pictures. Even though the Catholic Church considers film as a form of art, the American government has not always been so enlightened.

(Directors, from top left clockwise, Alfred Hitchcock, Leo McCarey, Frank Capra, Francis Ford Coppola, John Ford, and Martin Scorsese)

Beginning in the first decade of the twentieth century, local censorship boards sprouted up across America, especially in the mid-west, cutting and splicing scenes from the new "moving pictures" in order to protect public morals and decency on the assumption cinema was not covered by the free speech guarantees of the American Bill of Rights. These boards were typically branches of the local police department, made up of individuals with little to no training in art. There was no philosophical underpinning to the methods of these local boards, leading to differing standards in different communities. Moviegoers in New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago could see three different versions of the same film, all of different lengths, depending upon how much the local censorship board objected to in the film. It was a very slow, ineffective, and confusing system.

The film industry fought back. Going all the way to the United States Supreme Court, motion picture producers stated their product was protected as a form of free speech. In this case, Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio, 236 U.S. 230 (1915), the Supreme Court disagreed. As the Court stated in its unanimous decision, "…the exhibition of moving pictures is a business, pure and simple, originated and conducted for profit… not to be regarded, nor intended to be regarded by the Ohio Constitution [and, thus, the United States Constitution], we think, as part of the press of the country, or as organs of public opinion."

This decision led to more state censorship boards being established and the threat of the Federal government censoring movies for public consumption. The film industry tried to deal with this new reality in creating the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), made up of the nation's largest studios. William Hays, a Presbyterian and Postmaster General under President Warren G. Harding, was placed in charge, with the hope that his contacts in the federal government would help relieve its threats of censorship. To help achieve this goal, several codes of self-regulation, the most famous of which was the "don'ts and be carefuls," a random list of what things were and what things were not allowed in the motion pictures, were agreed to by the major studios.

However, while they were agreed to, there was no enforcement mechanism in the studio system to make sure they were following these regulations. The situation only got more pressing with the advent of talking pictures in the late 1920s. At this point, federal regulatory agencies were proposed to deal with immorality in film, similar to how the FDA regulates the quality of meat. The film industry had to do something, and that is when the Catholics were called in, leading to the salvation of the film industry.

In my next post, I will write of three influential Catholics who shaped the film industry in America for two decades: Father Daniel A. Lord, S.J., Joseph I. Breen, and Martin J. Quigley and the creation of the Motion Picture Production Code.


Film is one of the three universal languages, the other two: mathematics and music.
Frank Capra

Part two is available here.