How to Watch Movies Like a Catholic

DIFFICULT MORAL QUESTIONS: How do we know whether we’re doing the right thing when we voluntarily expose ourselves to media that conflicts with the message of the Gospel?

Moviegoers attend a screening Sept. 29, 2022, at Phenomena Cinema in Barcelona, Spain.
Moviegoers attend a screening Sept. 29, 2022, at Phenomena Cinema in Barcelona, Spain. (photo: Xavi Torrent / Getty Images for Paramount)

Q. As I am a Catholic, is it a sin to watch movies such as The Goonies (1985)? I struggle with some films, especially from the ’80s, for example, Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, Indiana Jones films and the like. Can it be a sin to watch them? These are the movies I grew up with, but since I turned to the Catholic faith, I'm concerned I'm making a mistake if I watch them. I do fear God. Maybe you can help with my dilemma. Thanks. God bless you.

A. Dilemma is a good word. Media consumption poses a real dilemma. On the one hand, movies entertain, help us relax, allow pleasurable social interaction and bring enjoyment … all good. But the price we frequently pay is exposing ourselves to harmful content. What should we do?

More generally, how do we know whether we’re doing the right thing when we voluntarily expose ourselves to media that conflicts with the message of the Gospel?

I will reply here with morally conscientious adults in mind. Many good people, even ones who are aware that movies today are a problem, don’t want their privacy invaded. To them, my reply will doubtlessly be unsatisfying. As for directing families and children in this important area, what I say here is most certainly relevant, but a good deal more could be said.

Jesus tells us that the eyes are the lamps of the body and warns us against letting our lamps become “unsound” (Matthew 6:22-23). St. Paul tells us that we should think about whatever is true, honorable, just, pure and worthy of praise (Philippians 4:8). In these passages, seeing rightly and thinking rightly are singled out. Seeing and thinking. The eyes and the mind — the fields, as it were, on which the Christian life is played. 

There’s no denying that what we see, we think about. And what we think about, we desire. And what we desire, we do. The media industry knows this. They know the powerful relationship between what we see, think and do, and so exploit it at every turn. Hence, we need vigilance in our media consumption. 

You ask whether it can be a sin to watch The Goonies or Lethal Weapon or Indiana Jones. I expect you are concerned with instances of violence, profanity and immodesty, among other things, in the movies. Admittedly, these movies are relatively tame, compared to many movies of today. But yes, watching movies, even ones from the ’80s, can be sinful for us. When does it become sinful? Practically speaking, the answer won’t be the same for each person. 

But the moral principle is consistent: I should avoid anything that knowingly makes me sin or constitutes a near occasion of sin for me.

Sometimes applying this to movie watching is straightforward. If sexually explicit content makes us fall into the sin of lust — willingly succumbing to the seeking of sexual pleasure outside of marriage — then we should watch something else, or not watch at all. 

Other times, perhaps in most cases, the impact of a movie is not so direct. Then we must undertake what Alcoholics Anonymous refers to as a “fearless moral inventory” of our movie-watching habits. We ask whether this movie, or this watching, is good for us. We ask whether it leads us closer to God.

These are general questions and can be difficult to answer. How do we get an answer sufficient to move us to take helpful action? We ask ourselves more specific questions and answer them honestly:

  • Do these movie scenes tempt me to sin? 
  • Do they play on my moral weaknesses? 
  • Do they cause me to desire things that I’ve freely given up? 
  • Do they make it harder for me to be faithful to commitments I’ve freely accepted? 
  • Do they make me ungrateful for things in my life that are part of God’s will? 
  • Do they weaken or undermine my faith or trust in God or the Catholic Church? 
  • Do they make me less sensitized to the perils of mortal sin? 
  • Do they undermine my confidence in important truths about sex, gender, truth-telling, justice, human compassion, and so on? 
  • If I already struggle with sexual temptation, do they make the temptation worse? 
  • If I see people having illicit affairs, does it make affairs look attractive to me? 
  • Since “everyone’s doing it” on TV, does fornication begin to look trivial? 
  • If I see men on TV who are handsome and sensitive, does it make me feel ungrateful for my husband? 
  • If I see “perfect” women, do I feel ungrateful for my wife? 
  • If I struggle with anger, does exposure to violence tempt me to get angrier? 
  • If I struggle with greed, with excessive desire for material wealth, does watching this or that movie press on my moral weakness? 
  • If I struggle with alcohol or drug abuse, does watching movies with happy abusers tempt me to partake? 
  • If I struggle with body issues, does seeing thin, sexy women tempt me to starve or otherwise despise myself? 
  • If I watch movies with 46 F-words (standard for a Netflix original), does it make me more inclined to use profanities? 
  • If I see teen dramas like 13 Reasons Why, does it make me think suicide is mysterious, interesting and sexy?

Be thoughtful. Nosce te ipsum. Think of your life. What are your strengths and weaknesses? What are your besetting (recurring) sins? Are these areas strengthened or worsened by watching Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Peacock, etc.?

With the hellish moral state of media today, is it even conceivable that any of us could say, “I’m not affected by movie watching?” 

The solution might be as simple as forming a habit of checking movies before watching them with websites such as Common Sense Media and making informed decisions accordingly. Or using morally sensible screening technology such as VidAngel to remove objectionable scenes from otherwise unobjectionable movies. Or it might mean turning off a movie or stopping a series altogether, including after we’ve gotten attached to the plot and characters.  We all know (or should know) the drill. 

Finally, what about those who suffer from over-scrupulosity? Should we quibble about everything we watch? Should we feel strong guilt and emotional discomfort at all movies with morally ambiguous content?

Surely not. Being crippled by guilt impedes healthy discernment. Those who experience it should seek the counsel of a good spiritual adviser, and if that doesn’t work, they should find a good Catholic psychologist. I say a good spiritual adviser, because there are a heck of a lot of priests whose media habits should not be emulated.

The chief question is not simply whether a movie has morally ambiguous elements, but more to the point, does watching it make me sin or constitute a near occasion of sin?