The Catholic Priest Who Changed Hollywood

COMMENTARY: How Jesuit Father Daniel Lord developed the ‘moral code’ that the American film industry adhered to for decades.

The Hollywood sign is seen, along with a cross, in the hills above Los Angeles.
The Hollywood sign is seen, along with a cross, in the hills above Los Angeles. (photo: David Pecheux/Shutterstock)

In the late 1990s, while working as a film producer in Hollywood, the Producers Guild of America (PGA) asked me to chair their newly established “Social Awareness Committee.” I agreed because the issue of the impact of movie content on viewers and the responsibility of those who distribute content (producer, director, distributor, etc.) was of great interest to me.

I researched the almost-100-year history of Hollywood. I wanted to find out whether any producers, directors, actors or owners of movie studios were aware of the influence and messages of movies and the resulting responsibility toward the audiences.

I came across a quote from film director Frank Capra, who is said to have remarked: “If you want to send a message, then use Western Union.” Western Union was the first telegraph company; in other words, according to Capra, movies have no message.

Finally, I came across the “Production Code,” also known as the “Hays Code.” This code was voluntarily accepted by the film industry in 1930, a self-censorship that served for decades as a guideline for morality and ethics in American films.

As a Catholic who works in the media, I am still interested in this topic today. I recently became aware of the work of American professor Stephen Werner, who has been teaching religion and philosophy in St. Louis for 28 years and is also an expert on the Hays Code. Together, we wrote about how the code, which changed Hollywood, was based on a document written by an American Jesuit priest: Father Daniel Aloysius Lord. — Christian Peschken

The Hays Code

The code was enforced by Will Hays (1879-1954), president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA). Its application changed over time, and it often caused controversy, ranging from complaints about lax application to accusations that it suppressed freedom of speech and freedom of expression.

The code became the law in Hollywood for more than 25 years; no film could be shown in an American movie theater unless it was approved according to this code. Any producer who tried to circumvent it could be expected to be fined $25,000.

A Priest’s Influence on Film

Born in Chicago in 1888, Daniel Lord grew up in a golden age of theater. His mother took him to a wide variety of performances — including dramas, musicals and operas — when he was young. Particularly popular at the time was vaudeville: a variety show with singers, dancers, comedians, acrobats and magicians.

What Lord experienced was entertaining theater that was suitable for the whole family. This strongly influenced his views on cinema. He joined the Jesuit order in St. Louis in 1909 and was ordained in 1923. Since his youth, he had followed the making of films and even accompanied silent films by playing the piano. In 1930, Father Lord believed that Hollywood should remove the inappropriate content from films and produce better films.

The first film featuring sound, The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson in the leading role, marked a significant leap in film history in 1927 and ended the age of silent films. The film industry was booming, and the numerous studios were vying for a larger audience.

Some producers discovered that they could increase the number of viewers by inserting stories about crime, and they crossed social boundaries with a more open attitude toward sexual relationships, raunchy dialogue and sexually suggestive scenes to attract a wider audience. Most of these films were comparable to what you can see in some movies today, but, back then, such content was particularly shocking to many moviegoers.

Father Lord was dismayed by the new content, and he also thought many of these films were of poor quality. He wanted great movies! Movies were extremely popular because there were no alternatives such as television — just live theater and live music as well as radio and phonograph records.

But there was still no rating system for movies, and nothing was done to keep children from movies that were suitable only for adults. Today, there are numerous forms of entertainment aimed at specific audiences, including family-friendly programs, but this distinction did not exist in 1930.

The fact that a Catholic priest wrote a moral code that was accepted by Hollywood film producers is due to a series of strange coincidences, which we cannot go into here. But in 1930, Father Lord traveled to Hollywood to present the code to the film producers, and they agreed to adopt it.

The Code

Father Lord’s original draft contained a preamble, general principles and 12 specific applications: I. Crimes Against the Law; II. Sex; III. Vulgarity; IV. Obscene References; V. Obscenity; VI. Costume; VII. Dances; VIII. Religion; IX. Places; X. National Feeling; XI. Headings; and XII. Repulsive Themes.

Father Lord’s authorship of the code was kept secret for many years. He agreed to this because the moral ideas on which the code is based were meant for believers of many religions and even for nonreligious people who were interested in the influence of film on society. The code contained nothing specifically Catholic. Moreover, the public admission that the code was written by a Catholic Jesuit would have caused unnecessary controversy, as anti-Catholicism was still very strong at the time. Recall that in 1928 an American presidential candidate, Democrat Al Smith, was fiercely attacked by some people because he was a Catholic.

Lasting Legacy

The writing of the code was only a small part of Father Lord’s work. He wrote hundreds of brochures that sold by the millions. He built the sodality movement in North America until there were 13,000 groups in Catholic schools and parishes. He wrote 70 plays and musicals, wrote more than 70 religious books for children — some of which sold millions of copies — made radio broadcasts and penned dozens of books about the Catholic faith and Catholic life. He was a well-known and popular speaker. Father Lord had the vision that Catholics should spread their faith as a positive message for society.

In practice, the code proved to be an imperfect attempt to solve the problem of media content and its effect on the audience. The Production Code was abolished in 1967 and replaced by the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) rating system. Unlike the Production Code, the rating system rates films only after they have been shot. The films are then assigned appropriateness for different age levels (G, PG, PG-13, R, etc.), but the content is not assessed beforehand.

The impressive life’s work of Jesuit Father Lord deserves recognition because he already foresaw the inevitable consequences that would follow if the film industry did not adhere to the Production Code. Today, the relevant mass media flood their viewers with one-sided, ideological messages, often with brutal violence, sex and even blasphemy. Restriction practically no longer exists. For that to happen, a sort of Hays Code 2.0 would need to be put into place.

Christian Peschken is a film and television producer and since 2014 EWTN correspondent in Geneva. He previously lived in Hollywood, producing films, for 25 years.

Stephen Werner is a theologian and historian. He has been 28 years a lecturer in religion and philosophy at Saint Louis University and has also taught in the Department of Religious Studies at Webster University in Missouri. Werner is working on a book project about Father Lord and the Hays Code; Christian Peschken is involved in the German translation and publication.

Cardinal-elect Víctor Manuel Fernández was appointed by Pope Francis on July 1, 2023, to become the next prefect for the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.

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