If the movie offend thee

You all surprise me.  You really do.  As I write, there are seven comments on The Jerk’s first movie review, and not a single one expressing moderate to quivering righteous indignation at the implicit endorsement of a trashy piece of work like Roadhouse.   I was expecting a nice loud chorus of, “AND YOU CALL THIS A CATHOLIC BLOG?”   Boy, if this were Inside Catholic, I’d have been excommunicated at least twice by now (although the second time wouldn’t count, because Pope Michael of Kansas has had his excommunication privileges temporarily taken away by his parents, who do, after all, own the garage apartment he lives in).

My flexible friend.

I guess I’ll just chalk your laxity up to the heat, and go ahead and write what I was planning to write anyway, because I think it’s an interesting topic.

I mean, we have to have some standards, yes?  You really can’t call yourself a good Catholic and then just go ahead and do whatever you want.   Seriously, no matter how many college courses we took, there must be some movies that Catholics shouldn’t watch, some music we shouldn’t listen to, some clothes we shouldn’t wear, words we shouldn’t use, quantities we shouldn’t drink, and so on.  That’s the whole catch in that “Love God, and do what you will” thing:  if you actually do love God, then you’re not going to want to move away from Him; and certain activities certainly do make that gap wider.

Well, I don’t know about you, but I am fairly susceptible to the “It’s okay because I’m edgy” trap.  It’s not conscious, but I tend to feel that I’m sooo smart and ironic and a anyway a good mother and all, so it’s probably really okay for me to do . . . well, just about anything, as long as I have lots of babies and pray most days.

In fact, it’s more than okay:  why, I’m rendering a valuable service to the reputation of the modern Church. By indulging in various seemingly unholy activities (and I’m talking about medium-bad stuff like drinking too much, showing a little too much skin, swearing, speeding, telling dirty jokes, etc.), I’m  not only not a bad Catholic, but it makes me an extra-good Catholic, because I’m not one of those fearful, novena-haunted zealots who can’t see past their own mantillas to the rich and burgeoning sensual world of culture and art.  No water in the wine!  We’re Catholics, not Puritans — we can handle it!  After all, how are we going to share the Good News if we’re too timid to step out of our crisis bunkers?  How will secular folks take us seriously if we look like weirdos?

Tell me they don't look like weirdos.

Actually, despite the above picture which I couldn’t resist posting, the matter of how we dress is a whole other kettle of fish, which I definitely want to talk about later.  But for right now, in light of yesterday’s post, let’s just consider the movies we watch. We watch a lot of movies at our house.   Fairly often, my husband and I discuss whether or not it would be a good idea for us (just us, not the kids) to watch something–usually because it has too much graphic sexual stuff in it, but sometimes because it just has too much of a nasty feel.  We talk it over, based on what we know of the reputation of the director, the trailers we’ve seen, etc., and then decide together whether or not to see it (and if only one of us says, “Let’s not,” then we both don’t).

Sometimes it’s pretty obvious that a movie is not for us (or for anyone).  We discussed  Sin City (this link is to the parents’ guide, which, in describing why the movie is inappropriate, is itself fairly inappropriate!) for about two seconds before we nixed it.   It looked like it might have some artistic merit, and yet it didn’t seem worth going to Hell for.  On the other hand, we did watch Eastern Promises, which was sexually explicit and violent and grim as all get out.  But it was a good movie, maybe great.  I cautiously recommend it.

We don’t want to miss out on good movies.  But I guess the best possible thing to do would be to err on the side of caution, and always always skip movies that we’re afraid might have a bad influence on us.

Or is that the best possible thing?  We love movies so much, and have such good conversations about them, that I have a very hard time believing that Catholics should confine themselves to G movies (do they even make those anymore?), although I do have some respect for people who have that much will power.  After all, approximately 94%* of western culture was made possible by the Church in one way or another, and not all of it is paintings of fat cherubim.

Here is what we have figured out:  it’s kind of like chastity**.  Say you’re abstaining.  So you’re not going to have sex today.  But, dammit, you are a married couple, and the chaste behavior of a married couple is different from the chaste behavior of a pair of dating teens.  So, yes, you’re allowed to do more, without doing everything.  But you have to be smart about it.  And you have to understand that your standards and limitations might change from month to month, or even day to day, depending on your mood, your attitude, your spiritual state, your current relationship with your spouse, what you did yesterday and the day before, etc.  What could be some good clean married fun one day can be a disaster the next, even if it’s objectively the exact same behavior — it all depends on the context, your motivations, and on what you know will happen to you if you do it, if you can be honest with yourself about your own weaknesses.  (And of course, there are some things which are always off-limits, no matter who you are or how you feel today.)

So, in the same way, a movie that is fine to watch one evening, and gives us food for thought, and provokes rich, marriage-building conversation and camaraderie–this same movie might be an occasion of sin, or even a sin, the next week.  It all depends.

So, what’s a movie viewer to do?  I think this is the point at which many good Catholics throw up their hands and decide to play it safe, and just stick with super-safe fare.  Which means you are going to end up seeing a lot of Doris Day

and then you will have to claw your own eyeballs out, which would be a shame.  There are other approaches, however.  Here is what we do:

  • As I mentioned, we discuss movies ahead of time, and we try and be honest about our mental, spiritual, emotional, and, ahem, physical state.
  • Then we watch the movie.  If someone starts, say, taking their clothes off, we cover our eyes.  To cut the tension, we make spitting noises at each other, or occasionally punch each other.
  • If it gets too bad, we turn it off.

Well, that’s it.  There’s my brilliant three-point strategy for avoiding hellfire without having to watch Calamity Jane.

I once posted a silly review of Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (in which I compared it to the Odyssey; yes, I did), and warned the readers that the movie contained “some tough scenes, including partial nudity and various creepy and depressing conversations.”  Well, someone who signed himself “Scandalized” responded:

I watched this movie based on the author’s recommendation. I’m sorry I did as I believe it’s offensive to God to sit through a movie like this. The nudity, the gay kissing scene, the trashy dressed room mate? What the author describes as ‘tough’ scenes to watch would be more accurately defined as occasions of sin.


There was a time when this kind of entertainment would have been blacklisted by the Catholic Church (under pain of mortal sin we would have watched it)….but now (for the mature viewer, anyway) it’s become entertainment good enough to be praised on a Catholic blog.

So I says to him:

I’m truly sorry you were disappointed. If you never watch movies that have nudity or immorality in them, however, I’m not sure why you decided to watch this one, when I warned you that those scenes were in it! I thought the photo of the shark graffiti would serve as warning, also.

Maybe it will make you feel better if you know that my husband and I cover our eyes and make stupid noises during certain types of scenes in movies. Then we quickly peek at the screen – uh oh, they’re still naked – look away again, bah bah bah bah – and then look again to see if it’s safe yet.

You see, I agree with you that movies can be an occasion of sin. We make an effort not to watch those scenes which are bad for our souls, and we do make the decision to skip certain movies altogether, even if they seem like they would be entertaining.

The Church no longer lists forbidden movies, but she still holds us to the same standards — it’s just that we’re supposed to impose those standards on ourselves.

So, one question: did you watch the whole movie, or did you turn it off when it started offending you?

Durned if he never got back to me on that last question.  But that’s what it boils down to, it seems to me.  If the movie offend thee, then turn it off.


*Shut up, I said “approximately”

**By this hugely misunderstood word, I do not mean “celibacy.”  I mean living in such a way that your sexual behavior is appropriate to your station in life.


  1. Oh we love movies around here. And our kids grew up watching movies. And we discuss movies, especially the 23 y.o. and I. And I though perhaps that I was the only one who just sticks her fingers in her ears, closes her eyes and hums the Battle Hymn of the Republic during certain parts.

    If you don’t watch a movie because of one (or two or three) bad scenes then you miss a lot of good movies. It is sort of like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. A weak metaphor but I haven’t had enough coffee yet today.

    Of course, if you could avoid watching “The Piano” then your life will be fine and dandy. Can you tell I hate that movie with a passion. But I watched it.

  2. I wish I could find that Ronald Knox quote, where he says that Catholics *should* act in a way that seems a bit puritanical to non-Catholics and we should not worry about giving people the wrong idea about the Church. He says Catholics are known for putting an emphasis on sexual purity and so we should be, and when we act like the rest of the world about it, we disappoint and even scandalize non-Catholics.

    As a convert at age 35, I can tell you that many non-Catholics secretly admire this Catholic attitude because they know we are in touch with something precious that the world has messed up terribly.

  3. I know, Ima. But if my husband is with a bunch of guys,and a sexy part of the movie comes on the screen and he’s the only one who turns his head away, I think that sends a message about purity — maybe better than it would if he was known as “that religious nut who refuses to watch movies.”

  4. Well, now I’m feeling all guilty and stuff, and I’m not even Catholic! Don’t you think a politically/socially liberal (I’m sorry – progressive) Southern Baptist girl in the buckle of the Bible belt has enough guilt to deal with already? Sheesh.

    Anyway, my husband and I have come to the same conclusion about movies. Sort of. There are some things that he watches (ahem, Sin City) that bother me to the point that I cannot watch. There are some things you wish you could un-watch, and things that make you feel like you need a good brain bleaching to get rid of. BUT, there are other things that are, as you said, “rough” or painful or challenging, but the overall experience is somehow . . . edifying. Or something.

    I tend to hold the belief that all truth is from God, no matter the vehicle it arrives in to you. However, this fallen world can take that truth and pervert it so powerfully that the kernel of truth is unrecognizable. Or maybe the premise was missing true Truth to begin with.

    I don’t know. But good thoughts here. Guilt and all.

  5. Hi Simcha,

    #1: After Hours is a great movie! I always feel an affinity with people who love this film… I think it shows an appreciation for the absurdities in life.

    #2: I’m a recent convert (well, more of a revert) to the faith. I also have my B.A. in Cinema, and I love watching movies. So it’s been a struggle for me to figure out what’s OK for me to watch now that I’m Catholic. I’ve decided to cut out most modern horror movies (no duh, right?), and anything that seems like it’s just an excuse to show tons of skin and sex (also obvious, I guess).

    Everything else I try to think of in the context of how it will affect my relationship with God. Will I feel closer to Him after watching a particular movie, or further away? (Got this ‘litmus test’ from Sr. Rosalind Moss, by the way.)

    This has helped somewhat, although of course I still end up seeing movies I probably shouldn’t have watched. However, I personally can’t bring myself to cut out, say, all Rated R movies, or movies that have sex and/or violence in them, because many of those films also have moments of incredible beauty and insight. Also, in the end, I know I tend to reflect back on those moments, and not, say, the gratuitous scene of the protagonist humping some girl on a couch.

    Anyway, just my two cents. I’m a new reader to your blog (came over from Conversion Diary), and have enjoyed reading your posts.

  6. Monica, you make some excellent points. The question “Will I feel closer to Him after watching a particular movie, or further away?” is a good one.

    I think the misunderstanding that many people have (like the guy I quoted, who was so offended at _After Hours_) don’t realize how important movies can be to people who really love them and think about them a lot. That’s why you get this “Why should you risk your immortal soul over an hour of entertainment?” attitude. I mean, yes, naturally, movies are entertaining, but good ones are so much more than that.

    It’s not even just about “getting a good message” out of a movie — you can be moved to praise the Creator when you get to witness something that is done very well. Same thing with a good song, etc. It doesn’t have to be about God to be moving and enlightening.

  7. As a teacher, there are several staff members in my Religion/English department who would prefer to show saccharine, Hallmark type films. You know the types that feature Ricky Schroeder wearing a red turtleneck, and it’s Christmas and he remembers to visit an orphanage. Something like that. For liability reasons, the films that feature truly impressive moments of redemption, I must exclude. Sigh. Have you seen “The Addiction”?http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0112288/

  8. I had to cut out “R” rated movies for a while (years) because I couldn’t get violent scenes out of my head, but I notice that other people have no problem with that. I broke my rule to see Passion of the Christ. I’ve watched “R” rated movies by accident — Gran Torino and Slumdog Millionaire. I had no idea they were “R” rated, but both were good movies.

    I turn my head during sex scenes because it’s always been my nature to do so.

    I’ve only seen Roadhouse edited for TV, but I’m sure I would watch it uncut. The movie is so over the top that I don’t take the more objectionable scenes seriously. And Patrick Swayze has made me swoon since The Outsiders. Miss him.

    For me, it was stupid to ever watch horror flicks. I wish I never had.

    I enjoyed your post so much because it’s so difficult to talk about movies among Catholic friends, and it can be such a fun topic as you demonstrate in your post.

  9. This makes a lot of sense to me. I’m thinking the choice of movies we watch is really a prudential one (to a point), like so many other decisions we make by using faith and reason in our particular circumstances.

    Prudence is so edgy.

  10. Two suggestions:

    ClearPlay makes a DVD player that “snips” inappropriate parts of movies, and you can adjust the filter level:

    For TV, which my husband loves, we can’t do without our TVGuardian, which mutes inappropriate language and substitutes words in closed captioning on the screen.

    Now I don’t have to fight with the kids–if they want to watch a DVD, they have to ClearPlay it. And thanks to TVGuardian, we can watch TV shows without cringing or keeping a desperate thumb on the mute button.

  11. Simcha, so glad you are back! We missed you on your break.

    I agree with all your movie watching criteria. We (the husband and I) have much the same thoughts.

    This link is written by a good friend of ours – he is Orthodox, obv. We find his thoughts on movie viewing and his thoughts on so many different movies to be insightful and edifying. (I recommended Lars and the Real Girl – if you haven’t seen it,you should) Enjoy!


  12. well I don’t know about all those standards about moving watching and what not. all I know is after I read the post my day dramatically improved because I got to spend the rest of it feeling smug and spiritually superior toward The Jerk.


  13. I love this post! My husband and Ihave such complete opposite taste in movies that we rarely watch them. We watch alot of Food Network. Heh.

  14. disclaimer: We’re not movie buffs…always get around to movies about 3 yrs after everyone else in the country has seen it.

    That said, we’ve found http://www.piusmedia.com is an easy way for non-moviebuffs who are content with basically Catholic family fare to get good movies sent to them on a monthly basis without a huge hassle.

  15. Well, I think no Catholic should ever watch “The Search for One Eyed Jimmy”. Actually, that’s just good advice for anyone of any faith.

  16. Somethings do fade with time, it’s important to remember. My parents play it like this: first they were worried about us watching the Simpsons, then it was Beavis and Butthead, then Southpark and then Family Guy (which all but one of us was already out of the house by the time Family Guy came out). Tomorrow it will be something else. Some movies that seemed very risque in the 70s seem harmless now to a lot of people.

    Truly terrible (and I mean terrible cinematically, plot-wise and/or for your soul) movies, they never stop being terrible. Might I suggest the Exorcist for your viewing pleasure?

    As my husband pointed out, there was a lot of sex and infidelity on camera for a long while before the 1960s as one of my favorites “From Here To Eternity” proves.

    And I love the lesson Simcha, that you illustrate about turning ones head during an inappropriate scene. You can avoid or you can be the light for others. Only you and God know the right way.

  17. All I know is that I was nearer to an occasion of sin when Gerard Butler was about to choke a man to death in a frenzy of rage wrought by his impotent love for a chanteuse in Phantom of the Opera (which I didn’t even like all that much) than I was when I saw his buttock in 300. I’m very much afraid it’s because I prefer strangulation to buttocks.

  18. Since I went to college and turned 18 I’ve started watching “edgier” movies–off the top of my head: Juno (PG-13?), Schindler’s List (R), A Beautiful Mind (PG-13?), Slumdog Millionaire (apparently R as well, according to someone else’s comment). I felt like I had to make a thousand excuses for Schindler’s List especially–it was the first R-rated movie I ever got for myself, and probably only the second R-rated movie I ever watched. (The Passion being the first.) Thank you for affirming me in my quirk of liking movies that aren’t necessarily squeaky-clean. I mean, seriously. You just can’t make a Hallmark movie about the Holocaust, and you lose something taking the edge out of movies about stuff like mental illness or extreme poverty. (I was more disturbed by the electroshock therapy in ABM than the making out, personally.)

    I also like your point about knowing your limits in particular circumstances. For instance, my boyfriend and I watch movies together sometimes and early on he mentioned as a caution that we should make sure we were okay with watching slightly edgy movies *together*. A movie that I’m okay with sitting in my desk chair at school I might not be okay with while sitting on my boyfriend’s lap. So far we’ve watched Stranger Than Fiction, which is probably PG-13 like everything else and has a scene of male nudity (in a locker room). BF had seen it before so he told me when to close my eyes. (He is a man with 5 brothers so non-sexual male nudity obviously doesn’t faze him.) Then we watched the new Star Trek movie (PG-13) and both just looked at the ceiling. Lalala, okay, Kirk is done messing around with green aliens, let’s look down again…

    In short: Good post.

  19. Films are a challenge, partly because even otherwise really good films nowadays tend to contain questionable scenes. I find that it’s a lot easier for me to watch films with people who are on the same page as me in terms of modesty and chastity. There is a perfectly good fast forward button for DVDs and temporary channel hopping for TV for films that are generally OK with some undesirable scenes. With friends or family who are not, this idea exists that it is horribly unnatural and puritan not to watch what is in a “normal” film, even if that is simulated intimate scenes. That brings the options down to closing one’s eyes and ears for some scenes or walking away during them, which makes film viewing much more hard work. It also makes it harder to recommend films when you know the person is not likely to skip the bad scenes.

    I wonder why people can’t see the unnatural aspect of watching the imitation of things in motion picture that you would never want to be privy to live. At least most people would not and would consider it somewhat creepy and deviant not to avoid such situations. So why do they laugh at us for guarding our eyes and not consenting to denigrate the nature of the marital act as it is supposed to be!

  20. At what point do you accept the fact the these are real people committing sinful acts (because they are being sexually active with someone who is not their spouse) in front of people on a stage and then we all get to watch this. Does anyone think of that at all! This is the main reason I refuse to watch the majority of the movies that are there for the viewing. What will it matter if I have to miss out on some entertainment… Why is watching people fornicate (close my eyes, hum a tune etc.) ok at all…I think it is a better choice not the rent, buy or watch the movie at all. Just sayin’

  21. WOW! You and your husband actually turn away?? Wow really, thanks for bringing this to my attention. I never thought it would be wrong IN. ANY. WAY. for a married couple to watch such scenes! I never even gave much thought to whether a movie is sinful or not! (Don’t worry, I am not talking about porn and such). I do switch channels/turn away/forward sometimes, but not always. Or is it always? I’m not sure anymore, haven’t watched a movie in 4 months. The thing for me was that I was too young and my parents would switch channels, and then when I was old enough to decide on my own (which to me is around 14 years), there was my younger brother who shouldn’t be seeing that, and then there was my father watching the movie too, or one of my brothers, which made it really awkward to sit through this and I, being “in control of the T.V,”, would switch channels…and then I took it as a habit to turn away, because, let’s face it, it doesn’t really help the chastity/abstinence plan…especially for teenagers. But to think that a married couple or adults would do that??? This really gave me something to think about, especially the good vs. bad movie thing, Thank you Simcha.
    Btw, this is Jacob’s Favorite, I just have the habit to write with fake names, although form “Jacob’s Favorite”, you would guess what my real name is… or would you now? hmmm. *eerie music*

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