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The National Legion of Decency, also known as the Catholic Legion of Decency, was a Catholic group founded in 1933 as an organization dedicated to identifying and combating objectionable content in motion pictures from the point of view of the American Catholic Church.:4 After receiving a stamp of approval from the secular offices behind Hollywood's Production Code, films during this time period were then submitted to the National Legion of Decency to be reviewed prior to their official duplication and distribution to the general public.:5 Condemnation by the Legion would shake a film's core for success because it meant the population of Catholics, some twenty million strong at the time, were forbidden from attending any screening of the film under pain of mortal sin. The efforts to help parishioners avoid films with objectional content backfired when it was found that it helped promote those films in heavily Catholic neighborhoods among Catholics who may have seen the listing as a suggestion. Although the Legion was often envisioned as a bureaucratic arm of the Catholic Church, it instead was little more than a loose confederation of local organizations, with each diocese appointing a local Legion director, usually a parish priest, who was responsible for Legion activities in that diocese.:27
In 1965, The National Legion of Decency was reorganized as the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures (NCOMP). The C rating was issued from 1933 until 1978. The rating system was revised in 1978, merging designations C (condemned) and B (partly objectionable) into O, which meant "morally offensive". NCOMP reassigned ratings to old films based on its new system, making it impossible to determine from their own database whether a film classified O was originally B or C. In 1980, NCOMP ceased operations, along with the biweekly Review, which by then had published ratings for 16,251 feature films.
History of censorship in early American cinema
In 1915, the Supreme Court heard a case regarding censorship in motion pictures called Mutual Film Corp. v. Industrial Commission of Ohio; the Supreme Court held that states could censor films before they were released.  In 1948, the Supreme Court reversed the Mutual decision in the case United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc.. This is the case that established the Supreme Court's position on censoring films: that they are protected under the First Amendment as part of freedom of the press.:63 Just four years later, in 1952, the Supreme Court heard Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, the first case where the holding was that movies were protected under the free speech section of the First Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment. This case, also known as 'The Miracle Case', was based on the New York state ban on the Italian film The Miracle because it was deemed sacrilegious by many Catholic groups, including the Legion of Decency.:64 The court's decision that a film could not be banned because it was sacrilegious was challenged a year later in the case of Gelling v. Texas, in which a city in Texas had banned a film before its release. The court upheld its previous ruling in the case of The Miracle, explaining that the American people could decide for themselves what they should and should not see. Later, in 1957, the Supreme Court gave the film industry even more freedom in Roth v. United States, which held that movies could not be banned for being unsuitable for children if the movie was made for general audiences. The Supreme Court has consistently been against state censorship of film ever since it revoked its initial approval of the practice in 1948.
The Legion of Decency had a strict set of rules and regulations that Hollywood had to adhere to in order to have their movies viewed by the Catholic public in good light. If there were suggestive scenes or dialogue that was frowned upon in the Catholic Church there would be speculation to the morality of the film and its makers. This was a time when Hollywood not only had to worry about its reception by moviegoers, but also its reception by the church. The idea of censorship appealed to the people who thought that the overall good was more important than individual liberties.:54 The Catholic Church brought its authority to the moviegoing process in attempts to purify it for the greater good of the people who watch film. They harshly critiqued film and its morality. A priest from Buffalo, New York, went so far as to give a sermon regarding the film industry by spelling out the word "movies" with new meanings attached, "M – means moral menace, O – obscenity, V – vulgarity, I – immorality, E – exposure, S – sex.":55
With the introduction of sound in film, there was worry within the church that this would bring more subjective material to audiences. "Sound unlocked a vast amount of dramatic material which for the first time could be effectively presented on the screen." This code was meant to "amplify and add to those principles in the light of responsible opinion, so that all engaged in the making of sound pictures might have a commonly understandable and commonly acceptable guide in the maintenance of social and community values in pictures." In 1930, a Jesuit priest named Father Daniel A. Lord drafted a code of standards which was accepted by studio heads and put into use as a production code (also known as the Hays Code). Studio heads hoped that self-regulation would reduce government interference and censorship.
The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America created a section of general principles that mostly fell in the realm of moral standards, correct standards of life, and standards of human law not be violated whatsoever. Movies were stated as to be for entertainment use, and were frowned upon when extending beyond that definition. After the general principles were stated there were subsections of more specific rules that covered topics of murder, sex, vulgar language, profanity in dialogue, what the actors wore, how they danced, how they practiced religion in film, and even the titles that were used for the film. Because the movies were seen as speaking to the morality of the viewer, the church believed that they needed to reflect that morality and not question it or lead them to sin.
The Legion distributed a list of ratings for films in order to provide "a moral estimate of current entertainment feature motion pictures". The Legion was often more conservative in its views on films than the Motion Picture Association of America's Production Code. Films were rated according to the following schema:
- A: Morally unobjectionable
- B: Morally objectionable in part
- C: Condemned by the Legion of Decency
The A rating was subsequently divided:
- A-I: Suitable for all audiences
- A-II: Suitable for adults; later – after the introduction of A-III – suitable for adults and adolescents
- A-III: Suitable for adults only
- A-IV: For adults with reservations
In 1978, the B and C ratings were combined into a new O rating for "morally offensive" films.
The Legion of Decency blacklisted many films for morally offensive content. "The condemnation came in the form of a 'C' rating." Practicing Catholics were directed to refrain from viewing such films. More explicitly, they were directed to "remain away from all motion pictures except those which do not offend decency and Christian morality." Officially, the terminology for a Legion of Decency blacklisted film was a C-rating, which stood for "condemned". The general breakdown of their rating system goes as follows: "A-I, general approval; A-II, approved for adults; B, unsatisfactory in part, neither recommended nor condemned; and C, condemned".
I wish to join the Legion of Decency, which condemns vile and unwholesome moving pictures. I unite with all who protest against them as a grave menace to youth, to home life, to country and to religion. I condemn absolutely those salacious motion pictures which, with other degrading agencies, are corrupting public morals and promoting a sex mania in our land. ... Considering these evils, I hereby promise to remain away from all motion pictures except those which do not offend decency and Christian morality.
The pledge was revised in 1934:
I condemn all indecent and immoral motion pictures, and those which glorify crime or criminals. I promise to do all that I can to strengthen public opinion against the production of indecent and immoral films, and to unite with all who protest against them. I acknowledge my obligation to form a right conscience about pictures that are dangerous to my moral life. I pledge myself to remain away from them. I promise, further, to stay away altogether from places of amusement which show them as a matter of policy.
In 1938, the league requested that the Pledge of the Legion of Decency be administered each year on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (December 8).
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Office for Film and Broadcasting
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Office for Film and Broadcasting was an office of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and is best known for the USCCB film rating, a continuation of the National Legion of Decency rating system begun in 1933 by Archbishop of Cincinnati John T. McNicholas, OP.
After the National Catholic Office of Motion Pictures was re-established in 1960, it later became the Office of Film and Broadcasting (OFB). The Office of Film and Broadcasting merged with the National Catholic Office for Radio and Television in 1980. Together they reviewed motion pictures, radio, and television using the same rating scale the original Legion of Decency did in the 1930s and 1940s. They shared the same goal, which was to rid the screen of stories that lowered traditional moral standard and persuaded people, especially young people to accept false principles of conduct. By 1990 the National Catholic Office for Radio and Television collapsed leaving the Office of Film and Broadcasting to review strictly motion pictures. The Office of Film and Broadcasting worked to review every movie in the United States still adhering to the original rating system.
The organization had been run by United States Catholic Conference in their Communications Department but was later joined with the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and renamed the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2001. The Office of Film and Broadcasting carried on the same film rating system as the Legion of Decency. The rating "A" meant morally unobjectionable but falling into the subcategories of AI: Suitable for all audiences, AII: Suitable for adults and adolescents, and AIII: Suitable for adults only. The next ratings were "B", which meant morally objectionable in part, and "C", which mean it was condemned by the Legion of Decency. The Office of Motion Pictures began with the intention to rate every motion picture made in the United States and labored for 45 years.
In 2005 controversies grew surrounding the intense rating system and inconsistent reviews. Examples of movies which received the A-IV rating include The Exorcist and Saturday Night Fever, two films whose content was seen by many as being exaggerated by the mainstream press, perhaps leading to the wrong interpretations and false conclusions cited in the rating's full description. In 1995, the description was changed to films "which are not morally offensive in themselves but are not for casual viewing”. Ultimately, the Office of Film and Broadcasting shut down in 2010. The USCCB continues to voluntarily provide information and movie ratings for Catholics through the Catholic News Service. The Catholic News Service also gives access to archived reviews dating from 2011 and prior.
- List of films condemned by the Legion of Decency
- Hays Code – a secular American censorship code in effect during much of the same period
- Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson
- Religious censorship
- Protestant Film Commission
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