“In the past century, advancing technical skill in the field of business frequently had this result: machines, which ought to serve men, when brought into use, rather reduced them to a state of slavery and caused grievous harm. Likewise today, unless the mounting development of technical skill, applied to the diffusion of pictures, sounds and ideas, is subjected to the sweet yoke of the law of Christ, it can be the source of countless evils, which appear to be all the more serious, because not only material forces but also the mind are unhappily enslaved, and man’s inventions are, to that extent, deprived of those advantages which, in the design of God’s Providence, ought to be their primary purpose.”
— Miranda Prorsus
The above papal encyclical could have easily come from the pen of John Paul II or Benedict XVI or Francis as it relates to something not usually associated with the more historical letters that have emanated from the See of Peter — namely, motion pictures, television and radio.
Despite its somewhat antiquated syntax, this encyclical retains its timelessness as it cautions about the electronic consumption of art and information. I’ll keep you in suspense no longer: The writer of this profound teaching was Pope Pius XII and it was written in 1957.
More than a half century later, cable’s Turner Classic Movies keeps the home fires burning for the Golden Age of Hollywood filmmaking, providing its audience with a steady diet of glorious black-and-white classics for those of us who just never seem to ever get enough Bogey, Cagney and Jimmy Stewart.
At times TCM produces its own programming related to the history of the motion picture industry. Recently they presented a documentary about the “pre-code” era of Hollywood.
For the uninitiated, before there were ever G or PG-13 or R ratings for movies, the motion picture studio system was a collection of self-reporters. To keep the government off its back, it imposed a “code” on itself as to what movies could and could not contain.
There were a couple of things that were kind of shocking about this documentary. First, that some of the films depicted in it — and I’m talking about movies made in the 1920s and 1930s — were, well, shocking.
They showed a lot of skin as they explored less than savory aspects of human behavior and were generally voyeuristic in nature. Even by today’s somewhat elastic standards, these 80- and 90-year-old representations of early cinema were pretty daring.
The film historians presented in this documentary were, to a person, sophisticates who scoffed at the “religious” zealotry of some of the code makers and code enforcers. To be honest, those who were charged in “protecting” America from the inappropriate advances of celluloid were easy targets with many looking like they were plucked right out of central casting.
There was the bespectacled overweight middle-aged man who is seen on grainy decaying black-and-white film, declaring how the code was dedicated to the purpose of protecting and defending the purity of the American public. Of course this was almost immediately followed by identifying these types as “devout Catholics,” and as the documentary got deeper into the controversial topic, nearly every example of religious objection to film content seemed to come directly from the Catholic Church.
In a way, the fact that the Church was singled out for particular ridicule and condemnation seemed almost like a badge of honor. (Disclaimer: I am Irish and the Irish love nothing more than a lost cause — and the attempt by the Church and the decency code enforcement army was nothing if not a lost cause.)
But even today, with the only memory of standards and codes coming from documentaries designed to mock it, if some late night talk show host or blue working comic wants to launch a salvo of anti-religious “art,” he or she almost never ever chooses Episcopalians.
And people like those in the TCM documentary, who seem to have only the most rudimentary understanding or empathy for matters religious, have the Catholic Church in their internal computer default setting.
As the TCM documentary makes very clear, the Church’s rolling up her sleeves attempt at cleaning things up was an abject disaster. This modern day documentary obviously views this historical attempt at codifying movie studio product as a quixotic attempt at best but more assuredly an effort worthy of laughable disdain.
Yet, I humbly proffer that standards and codes, even if only internal ones, still matter. The overwhelming truth in Pius XII’s Miranda Prorsus remains relevant, as motion pictures that today brandish a PG-13 rating would be deemed far too offensive just a few short decades ago and never be made, let alone released upon an unsuspecting public.
We need to be our own code enforcers now but we can use the guidance of a good pope to help. For movies that is easy, especially since attendance at movies has become a line item budget consideration to many family financial realities.
But television, which Miranda Prorsus also singles out, is another story.
The fact I used to earn my living in the television industry gives me some first-hand experience as to how that industry also changed in regard to its own code. And in the tradition of the late great format of the television mini-series, all I can say is…to be continued.
Robert Brennan has been a professional writer for more than 30 years, including many years in the television industry. He has been a contributing writer for the National Catholic Register for many years and has also been published in Our Sunday Visitor and This Rock.