I would like to think that the time and energy I’ve devoted over the last ten years to Catholic film criticism—work I’ve always seen as an apostolate to families and individual moviegoers, especially Catholics but also non-Catholics and non-Christians—has contributed in a small way to the kingdom of God. I’m still a little taken aback at how some Catholics seem to feel in effect that the whole endeavor is basically pointless, since movies are such a complete wasteland that there is little or no value in trying to discern good from bad and it would be better simply to wash our hands of the whole business.
Here’s a comment from a combox awhile back on a post mentioning, among other films, Pixar’s Up, WALL-E and Ratatouille:
None of it is worth my or my children’s time. It has been a long, long time since I have found an acceptable movie for my children’s viewing, one that doesn’t make me wince and wish my kids hadn’t seen that … Actually, I’m glad for the demise of family TV and movie entertainment because it has led us to allow very little TV and movie watching in our home. We never go to the movie theater.
Suffice to say, reports of “the demise of family TV and movie entertainment” are greatly exaggerated. But if it were true, would it be a matter of celebration?
The Vatican II decree Inter Mirifica states that “young people” especially need “entertainment that offer them decent amusement and cultural uplift.” While “entertainment” doesn’t necessarily mean movies, the decree specifically says that “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”—including “critical approval and awards.”
Does that sound like encouragement to celebrate the demise of family movies? Some, though, wonder whether it’s possible to find decent entertainment in movies today. From a more recent combox:
I have stopped going to theatres to see what used to [be] called family [e]ntertainment … Just don’t go the movies.
I just do not go to films. Our youngest is 17 and it is hard to find a movie that is good to watch, even at that age.
Are there any movies being produced that are really worth going to a theater to watch? If Hollywood cannot make decent movies, stop supporting the immorality and questionable actions. Why fill you mind and your children’s mind with garbage? Stop supporting by simply not going to the movies. Find friends for your children who are not exposed to improper and/or immoral themes. (Sadly, such families are easier found in evangelical churches or home school groups than in the Catholic Church in the USA.)
I sympathize with the complaint that it’s hard to find a good movie (that’s part of the reason I started doing what I do). And I respect the choice of those who prefer to “opt out” of any particular level of media consumption, whether it’s going to the movies or using the Internet, as long as it doesn’t lead to judging others who seek to discern what is worthwhile in those media forms as “filling their minds with garbage.”
It’s ironic that one commentator seemed to lament that families “unstained” by movies were more common in Evangelicalism than Catholicism. The fact is, Catholic culture and teaching has always found more room for art and entertainment than many forms of Protestant practice, where the temptation to throw out the baby with the bathwater is an institutional hazard.
From the dawn of cinema, the Catholic Church has consistently expressed concern about the potential moral pitfalls of motion pictures—but also appreciation for cinema’s positive potential and achievements. A few highlights:
Pius XI acknowledged motion pictures as part of “the great gift of art” and a praiseworthy form of diversion and recreation, and Pius XII expressed admiration for the cinema’s power to transport viewers to imaginary worlds and make distant realities present.
John Paul II mentioned cinema in dozens of speeches, with nearly a dozen addresses specifically relating to film. During his pontificate he screened a number of movies, from Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.
The 1995 Vatican film list, published by the Pontifical Commission for Social Communications, cites 45 films notable for outstanding religious, moral or artistic value. Honorees range from deeply religious and moral films to crime comedy, horror and philosophically and morally complex art-house fare.
The Church’s stance is one of balance, rejecting what is harmful but embracing what is good—“good” being broadly understood to include not only morally edifying works but also wholesome entertainment and diversion as well as artistically significant fare.
Part of this balance includes accepting that discerning between good and bad in cinema, as in other art forms, is a matter where sincere Catholics may disagree. In the wise words of a priest of the Oblates of the Virgin Mary, “The Catholic Church teaches authoritatively, has always taught authoritatively, and will always teach authoritatively, that the visual arts … are a grey area.”
So are a lot of things in this world. Not everything—pornography, for instance, or the Bible. But after a short list of black and whites, there’s an awful lot of greys out there.
Some people are suspicious of all “grey areas,” but that’s a mistake. “Grey areas” range from Shakespeare to Dan Brown, Thomas Aquinas to Hans Küng, Benedict XVI to Christopher Hitchens—not to mention this website and every article in it, including this one.
“Grey area” doesn’t mean that everything is equally worthy of suspicion, or that it makes no difference what we embrace or reject. It does mean that there’s no getting around the need to exercise prudential judgment, and that embracing or rejecting anything should be a qualified and critical act.
We speak of the “canon of Western literature,” but unlike the biblical canon, even classics of Western literature, from Aquinas to Shakespeare, aren’t above criticism. (That’s not to say that all criticisms are equally valid!) Conversely, even Küng or Hitchens may have a valid point now and then. (I don’t know if Dan Brown has ever had a valid point, but I wouldn’t dogmatically write off the possibility that he might.)
Pope Benedict isn’t beyond criticism, but I do have great confidence in most of what he writes. I belong to a parish church that is wonderful but not perfect, with a holy and orthodox pastor and a community that includes many good Catholics, some of whom I count as friends. They aren’t perfect, nor am I. If only perfection would do—if I insisted on a perfect church, perfect friends, perfect food and so on—I would die friendless, unchurched and quickly.
The same goes for culture and entertainment, including movies. What movie is so artistically or morally impeccable that it is beyond criticism? That’s not an argument against anyone watching movies, it’s a call to prudential judgment. What is not beyond criticism may be wholesome or not, valuable or not.
Consider the following, from the pastoral instruction Communio et Progressio. Note that, according to Progressio, “artistic and cultural achievements” are among the marks of “progress,” and that “entertainment” is also credited with “cultural validity.”
The Cinema is part of contemporary life. It exerts a strong influence on education, knowledge, culture and leisure. The artist finds in film a very effective means for expressing his interpretation of life and one that well suits his times. … Because of all this, it is possible to derive a deeper appreciation and a richer cultural dividend from the film and filming. …
Many films have compellingly treated subjects that concern human progress or spiritual values. Such works deserve everyone’s praise and support.
Further reading: Faith and Film Criticism: The Challenge of the Catholic Critic; What Are the Decent Films?