Tuesday, July 24, 2012

"Dark Knight" and the soul
The Catholic Church's prophetic warnings about the toxic effects of cinematic violence

Looking at a news-analysis piece on the Aurora tragedy, a quote from modern British philosopher Colin McGinn jumped out at me. "We are all familiar with that sense of entrancement that accompanies sitting quietly in the pierced darkness of the movie theater. The mind seems to step into another sphere of engagement as the images on the screen flood into our receptive consciousness."

It read like an augmented version of an observation made by an Italian scholar in 1936: "The motion picture is viewed by people who are seated in a dark theater and whose faculties, mental, physical, and often spiritual, are relaxed."

That Italian scholar was none other than Pope Pius XI, the first pope to devote an encyclical to the motion picture. In the wake of the tragic shooting, and the questions it raises—including how society could come to a point where many parents routinely take their children to films filled with potentially traumatizing violence—now is as good a time as any to review the Church's teachings on Catholics' moral responsibility when it comes to media choices. These teachings are remarkable for their depth and consistency over the past eight decades.

The Magisterium has always recognized film as an art that is good not only inasmuch as it is morally good, but also inasmuch as it is artistically good. Pope Pius XI (left) wrote in his encyclical on the motion picture, Vigilanti Cura (1936):
It is, in fact, urgently necessary to make provision that in this field also the progress of the arts, of the sciences, and of human technique and industry, since they are all true gifts of God, may be ordained to His glory and to the salvation of souls and may be made to serve in a practical way to promote the extension of the Kingdom of God upon earth. Thus, as the Church bids us pray, we may all profit by them but in such a manner as not to lose the goods eternal: "sic transeamus per bona temporalia ut non admittamus aeterna."
Note that the Latin quote, which comes from a Sunday collect, recognizes films as bona temporalia—temporal goods, which is to say that they are potentially valuable things of this world. The basis of the Church's position on the motion picture, as with other forms of art, has always been that it is not evil by nature, but it must be created and marketed in a manner that points the consumer to what is truly good.

The Church's greatest influence on the film industry during its early years was not that of promoting government censorship, but, rather, preventing government censorship. Father Daniel A. Lord S.J. (who is reported to have been the ghostwriter for Vigilanti Cura) wrote the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 at the film industry's behest. Hollywood sought guidelines for self-censorship so it might avoid the looming threat of government interference. Only after the movie industry failed to live up to its own code did Catholic bishops, clergy, and laity created the Legion of Decency to enable organized boycotts of morally offensive films.

Film historian Richard Maltby, in his article "The Genesis of the Production Code," highlights the difference between movie producer Irving Thalberg's understanding of the moral responsibilities of filmmakers and that of Father Lord (right):
Thalberg justified the adaptation of Ursula Parrot's best-selling novel "Ex-Wife" as a response to public demand for treatment of the subject: it "presents divorce in the light of the growing evil it is looked upon to be, but ... with less suspicion than it was looked upon before."

Lord cast the producers as much more influential social agents: they "set the pattern and pace for all entertainment in general; you set standards; you inculcate an idea of customs; you create fashions in dress, and you even go so far as to create fashions in automobiles." For Lord, it was the audience that was passive: "people go to the theatres; sit there passively—ACCEPT and RECEIVE; with the result that they go out from that entertainment either very much improved or very much deteriorated; and that depends almost entirely upon the character of the entertainment which is presented." According to Lord, the morality of art was inscribed in the intentions of its creator and emanated outwards: "... all art has a decided tendency to be either immoral or moral, dependent upon whether it comes from a human mind which is either good or bad, and in the same way, of course, it reaches human minds and affects them either for good or for evil." Divergent understandings of audience behavior thus underlay the disagreements over the presentation of "immoral incidents" and "compensating moral values," and the distribution of responsibility for movies' effects.
Although Father Lord's simple contrast of "immoral" versus "moral" reflects the language of the theology manuals of his time, his underlying point regarding the intentionality of art is not so much different than what John Paul II said in more nuanced fashion in his "Catecheses on Human Love":
It is well known that through all these elements the fundamental intentionality of the work of art or of the product of the respective media becomes, in a way, accessible to the viewer, as to the listener or the reader. If our personal sensitivity reacts with objection and disapproval, it is because in that fundamental intentionality, together with the concretizing of man and his body, we discover as indispensable for the work of art or its reproduction, his simultaneous reduction to the level of an object. He becomes an object of "enjoyment," intended for the satisfaction of concupiscence itself. This is contrary to the dignity of man also in the intentional order of art and reproduction. By analogy, the same thing must be applied to the various fields of artistic activity—according to the respective specific character—as also to the various audiovisual media.
Father Lord's concern that audiences took in motion pictures "passively," and so were at greater risk of negative influence, presages Marshall McLuhan's placing cinema among the "hot" media and highlighting the audience's "passive consumer role in the presence of film." (McLuhan, incidentally, was a Catholic convert via Chesterton.)
On this same point, returning to Vigilanti Cura, one can hear Father Lord's voice very clearly:
These considerations [on the morality of motion pictures] take on greater seriousness from the fact that the cinema speaks not to individuals but to multitudes, and that it does so in circumstances of time and place and surroundings which are most apt to arouse unusual enthusiasm for the good as well as for the bad and to conduce to that collective exaltation which, as experience teaches us, may assume the most morbid forms.

The motion picture is viewed by people who are seated in a dark theatre and whose faculties, mental, physical, and often spiritual, are relaxed.
In John Paul II's magisterium, with the Congregation for Catholic Education's "Guide to the Training of Future Priests Concerning the Instruments of Social Communication" (1986), we see the same acknowledgment that the danger of film and television media lies in the way they are passively received. By that point, however, the Church's concern has moved beyond merely trying to steer people from morally bad films to morally good ones. She still advises custody of the eyes, but now—perhaps recognizing that, since the demise of the Production Code, the media's moral messages are no longer so black-and-white—she is additionally trying to educate consumers in viewing media critically.

Where it comes to the exaltation of violence in media, however, there is no mushy middle. The Catholic Church hold media that glorify violence to be on the same level as pornography. In John Paul II's pontificate, the Pontifical Council for Social Communications spoke of violence and pornography in the same breath as "violations of human dignity and rights and of Christian values and ideals":
As reflections of the dark side of a human nature marred by sin, pornography and the exaltation of violence are age-old realities of the human condition. In the past quarter century, however, they have taken on new dimensions and have become serious social problems. At a time of widespread and unfortunate confusion about moral norms, the communications media have made pornography and violence accessible to a vastly expanded audience, including young people and even children, and a problem which at one time was confined mainly to wealthy countries has now begun, via the communications media, to corrupt moral values in developing nations.
Those words are from the 1989 document "Pornography and Violence in the Communications Media: A Pastoral Response." With words that sound eerily prophetic in light of the Aurora shooting suspect's use of an "adult" website, the pontifical council goes on to speak of the potential that people who are obsessed with media pornography and violence will seek to imitate what they consume:
Frequent exposure to violence in the media can be confusing to children, who may not be able to distinguish readily between fantasy and reality. At a later stage, violence in the media can condition impressionable persons, especially those who are young, to regard this as normal and acceptable behaviour, suitable for imitation.

It has even been said that there can be a psychological link between pornography and sadistic violence, and some pornography is itself overtly violent in theme and content. Those who view or read such material run the risk of carrying over such attitudes and behaviour into their own relationships and can come to lack reverence and respect for others as precious children of God and as brothers and sisters in the same human family. Such a link between pornography and sadistic violence has particular implications for those suffering from certain forms of mental illness.
Finally, we have the words of Pope Benedict XVI in his Message for the 41st World Communications Day. Speaking of those who would expose children to media violence, he calls out such exposure for what it is—abuse:
Any trend to produce programmes and products—including animated films and video games—which in the name of entertainment exalt violence and portray anti-social behaviour or the trivialization of human sexuality is a perversion, all the more repulsive when these programmes are directed at children and adolescents. How could one explain this 'entertainment' to the countless innocent young people who actually suffer violence, exploitation and abuse? In this regard, all would do well to reflect on the contrast between Christ who "put his arms around [the children] laid his hands on them and gave them his blessing" (Mk 10:16) and the one who "leads astray ... these little ones" for whom "it would be better ... if a millstone were hung round his neck" (Lk 17:2).
It would seem that, where the intersection of mass media, violence, and sexual exploitation is concerned, the Church saw our present dark night rising a long time ago.

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Learn about my new book of Catholic spirituality for adult victims of childhood sexual abuse, My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints, at the Patheos Book Club.