Thinking It Over--Relaxing with a Good Movie
Watching a movie for relaxation is a pleasant pastime, but is it always morally permissible? Movies can be divided into three categories: the clearly good, the obviously bad, and the in-between.
Clearly good movies are ones inspired by Catholic principles. Pope Pius XI had this to say on the subject: “The problem of the production of moral films would be solved radically if it were possible for us to have production wholly inspired by the principles of Christian morality. We can never sufficiently praise all those who have dedicated themselves or who are to dedicate themselves to the noble cause of raising the standard of the motion picture to meet the needs of education and the requirements of the Christian conscience...”1 A Catholic can watch such movies with a tranquil conscience. However, we have to admit that such films are extremely rare today. Movies like Monsieur Vincent or For Greater Glory about the Cristeros, in spite of their faults and historical omissions, can be placed in this category.
Some wonder whether evil and sin may be depicted in a truly Catholic film. Pope Pius XII replied affirmatively to this question.2 He explained that sin can be the main object of a good movie just as it can be the object of a work of literature, provided that the evil not be dissimulated by misleading veils, nor exalted, nor justified, but that it should be enveloped in an atmosphere of decency and purity thanks to which the spectator is unabashedly incited to condemn the evil. Such a film can help people to be more perspicacious and lead them to tell themselves, “Consider yourself, lest you also be tempted.”3
Obviously bad movies are those that contain at least one scene contrary to the virtue of purity or that directly or indirectly incite spectators to vice, as well as movies that ridicule virtue or the true religion. Movies that present sin as normal or acceptable also fall into this category. This classification applies to the majority of movies today shown in theaters and on television. Watching such movies constitutes a sin which, in certain cases, could be mortal. Pope Pius XII said on this subject: “Should we not shudder when we reflect attentively that through television shows all can inhale, even within the home, the poisoned air of those ‘materialistic’ doctrines which diffuse empty pleasures and desires of all kinds, just as was done over and over again in motion-picture theaters?”4
Some films do not fall into either of these two categories. They don’t have any scenes that wound the virtue of purity or incite to vice. But the Christian ideal is absent. It is about such motion pictures as these that Pope Pius XII put people on guard: “Even films morally above reproach can yet be spiritually harmful if they offer the spectator a world in which no sign is given of God or of men who believe in and worship Him, a world in which people live as though God did not exist.”5 We have to be prudent. Such movies can never legitimately be viewed frequently. They habituate the soul to a naturalistic, pagan outlook on life. Besides, the spectator naturally tends to admire the adventure hero he’s watching. And so, equally naturally, he will be inclined to imitate him. But if the hero, even if he is not immoral or anti-Christian, is animated by a misguided ideal, the danger for the spectator is quite real. Nevertheless, if there is a proportionate reason, then in some circumstances one may watch such movies. When the spectator is mature and well-educated, capable of analyzing the film with a critical eye, viewing such a movie may sometimes be a good act.
It may be objected that these criteria are extremely restrictive. Applying them will inevitably lead to tossing out lots of DVDs. The number of good movies can be counted on one’s fingers. It becomes impossible to watch one movie a week and difficult to watch one movie a month! We willingly concede the objection: good movies are rare. But look on the bright side: by respecting the rules given above, you’ll find so much time. It is somewhat paradoxical to hear Christians complain about not having enough time for prayer or their duties when they watch movies twice a week, is it not?
Besides, how many sins would be avoided if films were more carefully selected! A single movie is sometimes enough to wound a soul for life, and sometimes even to condemn it eternally.
Moreover, we often rightly complain that our young people lack a sense of effort and the spirit of sacrifice. But is it by settling our children in a comfortable seat in front of a screen that we will help them progress? Our Lord told us: “The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence and the violent bear it away.”6
We emphatically advise Catholics desirous of becoming saints to spend less of their time in front of screens and to limit their movie-going to the exceptional occasion. We advise Christian parents desirous of helping their children become saints to show discernment and firmness. There are many recreational activities more enriching and less dangerous for souls: playing a musical instrument, sports, arts and crafts, discussions with family and friends, board games, reading, and so forth. Certainly, these activities require more effort than watching movies, but shall we not at least try to make our lives sublime?
May the Blessed Virgin Mary give us the fortitude to make the sacrifices needful if we want to advance every day on the path to heaven.
‑1 Vigilanti Cura, June 29, 1936 [online at www.vatican.va].
2 Speech to the Representatives of the Italian Film Industry, Audience of June 21, 1955.
3 Cf. Galatians, 6:1.
4 Exhortation on Television, AAS 46 (1954), p. 21 [citation quoted by Pius XII in the Encyclical Letter Miranda Prorsus, on the Communications Field: Motion Pictures, Radio, and Television, Sept. 8, 1957].
5 Apostolic Exhortation to Representatives of the Cinema World (Audience of June 21, 1955).
6 Mt. 11:12 (Douai-Rheims version). [The Knox version reads: “...the kingdom of heaven has opened to force; and the forceful are even now making it their prize.”]