A Brief History of the Legion of Decency

By Rick Kephart

The Legion of Decency was formed in the 1930's to combat immoral movies. People took a pledge, in church, against bad movies. They pledged not only never to go to any morally objectionable movie, but never even to go to any movie theater that had ever shown a morally objectionable film!

This was very effective in discouraging Hollywood from making movies which would earn the disapproval of the Legion of Decency. And the Legion of Decency's ratings were very strict, much more strict than the modern Catholic Bishops' movie rating system (which has been sadly ineffective in influencing the making of movies).
Catholics used to be united, strong and strict, and then they were a powerful force to be reckoned with by the movie industry!

Around the end of the 1950's, things began to change. The emphasis was taken off condemning bad movies, and a deliberate effort was made to make The Legion of Decency more `positive'. The pledge gradually faded out of use, until it was finally completely forgotten.

By 1975, the Legion of Decency had ceased to exist. It was replaced by the Bishops' new Catholic rating system. That ended the Church's influence on the movie industry. Movie standards continue to drop.

In researching the history of the Legion of Decency, this disturbing bit of information came up:

I called the library at St. Charles' Seminary for information about the Legion of Decency. Whomever I spoke to had heard of it, but knew nothing about the pledge. He looked it up in the New Catholic Encyclopedia, and told me what it had to say about the Legion of Decency.

In 1957, Pope Pius XII issued an encyclical called Miranda prorsus. The Encyclopedia claimed that the encyclical called for the Legion of Decency to be more positive, to put its emphasis on promoting good movies rather than condemning bad movies, and have more respect for people's consciences. In response to that encyclical (so claims this Encyclopedia) the Legion of Decency changed, very gradually (with no definite date). Eventually, it went completely out of existence, to be replaced by the rating system we now have.

I asked the person on the phone if he knew where I could get a copy of that encyclical, so I could read it myself. He said he thought it was most likely out of print.

But I found one, and read it.

There is nothing in the encyclical that could lead anyone to think he was calling for the Legion of Decency to change what they were doing! It not only vigorously condemns bad movies, but also immoral TV shows and radio programs. It would form a good defense for exactly what the Legion of Decency was doing, if it were considered honestly.

I doubt the author of that article in the Encyclopedia expected anyone to actually read that out-of-print encyclical to see if what he wrote was true.

People do tend to claim that Pope Pius XII said things which he in fact never said.

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