U.S. Bishops Withdraw Controversial Movie Review

Many Catholics — including several bishops — reacted strongly to a positive review the bishops conference’s film office gave to The Golden Compass. The film office withdrew its review.

(photo: CNS Photo)

WASHINGTON — Just days after The Golden Compass opened to less than stellar box office numbers, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops unexpectedly withdrew its review of the film, which had been posted online and published in diocesan newspapers.

This came following an outcry among Catholic faithful and bishops over New Line Cinema’s use of the review as an endorsement for the controversial film.

The review was written by Harry Forbes and John Mulderig, the director and staff reviewer of the Office for Film and Broadcasting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The review had been released and posted on the Catholic News Service (CNS) website Nov. 29. CNS is a news affiliate of the U.S. bishops’ conference.

Their review described the film as “an exciting adventure story with, at its core, a traditional struggle between good and evil, and a generalized rejection of authoritarianism.”

“For now,” the piece read, “this film — altered, as it is, from its source material — rates as intelligent and well-crafted entertainment.”

The review drew considerable criticism from Catholic writers, parents and bloggers.

“I thought the USCCB’s rave review of The Golden Compass was remarkably short-sighted,” wrote award-winning writer Jeffrey Overstreet, author of Through a Screen Darkly, on his blog Looking Closer. “It was especially painful to see that rave gleefully snapped up by New Line’s publicity department and employed in promotions of the film, suggesting that the movie contains nothing that should concern Christian moviegoers.”

“Since CNS is a distributor of media reviews of the Office for Film and Broadcasting, it must respect the office’s withdrawal of its review,” said a Dec. 11 CNS press release about the withdrawal. “Effective Dec. 10, the review of The Golden Compass will not be available on the CNS web site. It will not be included in subsequent listings of USCCB film reviews and classifications.”

Neither Forbes nor the bishops’ conference were willing to comment on the reason for the withdrawal.

The conference’s Communications Office referred the Register to the Office for Film and Broadcasting. That office in turn referred inquiries to the U.S. bishops’ conference.

“I think, on this point, your best bet would be to call our PR head, Sister Mary Ann Walsh, at our D.C. headquarters,” Forbes said via e-mail. “It [the review] was removed without comment, even internally.”

Repeated e-mails and telephone calls to Sister Mary Ann were not returned.

From the Bishops

However, it wasn’t only the blogosphere that criticized the film and its review. Several bishops did so as well.Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput, who saw the movie on Dec. 8, described it as a “bad film.”

“The aggressively anti-religious, anti-Christian undercurrent in The Golden Compass is unmistakable and at times undisguised,” Archbishop Chaput wrote in a column in the Dec. 12 issue of the Denver Catholic Register. “The wicked Mrs. Coulter alludes approvingly to a fictional version of the doctrine of original sin. When a warrior Ice Bear — one of the heroes of the story — breaks into the local Magisterium headquarters to take back the armor stolen from him, the exterior walls of the evil building are covered with Eastern Christian icons. And for Catholics in our own world, of course, ‘Magisterium’ refers to the teaching authority of the Church — hardly a literary coincidence.”

Commenting on the Office for Film and Broadcasting’s review itself, Archbishop Chaput said, “The idea that any Christian film critics could overlook or downplay these negative elements, as some have seemed to do, is simply baffling.”

New Orleans Archbishop Alfred Hughes and Baltimore Archbishop Edwin O’Brien also warned about the film.

“The Archdiocese of Baltimore is grateful that the conference withdrew the review because it caused much confusion in the Catholic community,” said Archbishop O’Brien. “From all reports, the review failed to adequately warn parents about the movie’s widely recognized dark themes and anti-Catholic imagery.”

La Crosse, Wis., Bishop Jerome Listecki instructed priests of his diocese to warn the faithful against the film. Bishop Gregory Aymond of Austin, Texas, said that Catholic schools should not have the books in their libraries.

Need a Film Office?

While it’s uncertain exactly why the review was withdrawn most seem to think it had to do with how New Line Cinema excerpted material from the review to create ads that made it look as if the U.S. bishops’ conference was endorsing the film.

The first ad read: “An exciting adventure story, entirely in harmony with Catholic teaching — U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.” After receiving complaints, New Line changed the ad to read: “An exciting adventure story. Intelligent and well crafted — U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops,” and backed off on their plan to place the ad in diocesan newspapers.

Concerned Catholics said the fiasco is emblematic of the problems inherent in having a film review office financed by the U.S. bishops.

“Does the USCCB really need a film reviewing office?” asked Catholic writer Amy Welborn on her blog Charlotte Was Both. “I’d say no, not at all. As this experience has made clear, the bishops’ operation of a movie office runs the risk of implying Church support for a particular film.”

Many of those who denounced the film seemed pleased that the movie wasn’t performing nearly as well as studio executives had hoped.

Producers were disappointed that on opening weekend the film took in only $26.1 million. That’s low compared with the $47-$72 million grossed by The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the $65 million grossed by The Chronicles of Narnia on their respective opening weekends.

Others have been surprised by the many positive adjustments that have come about as a result of the protests.

“First, New Line pulled their most offensive online advertisements (though they still made it to the newspapers),” wrote Thomas Peters, a Washington, D.C.-based lay Catholic who operates the American Papist blog. “Then they gave up on their efforts to have similar ads run in Catholic publications. Now the USCCB is removing the offensive review (instead of tinkering with it a la the Brokeback Mountain example). Let’s hope we haven’t seen the end of this little chain of victories.”

Tim Drake is based in

St. Joseph, Minnesota.