“R-Rated Movies Are Better Than PG-13”: Sister Rose Pacatte on the Catholic Church’s “Condemned” Films and TCM’s New Series

The Pauline Center for Media Studies, part of the larger apostolic mission of the Daughters of St. Paul, has hosted a “movie bible night” every month for almost ten years. And it isn’t a strict G-rated affair. Last year, the sisters in Culver City, California watched Man of Steel, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and The Fault in Our Stars.

“To engage with movies does not mean to accommodate them. It means to make informed choices; to watch what we choose mindfully; and to reflect and enter into dialogue, prayer, and action about the cinematic experience,” writes Sister Rose Pacatte. She’s the Pauline Center’s founding director, a prolific film critic, and has been a Daughter of St. Paul since 1967. Sister Rose is also the host of TCM’s 27-film program Condemned, which begins tonight at 8PM and airs every Thursday throughout March. The slate will explore movies that were condemned or found objectionable by the influential Catholic Legion of Decency, which had a major impact on the American motion picture industry for more than half a century.

The series arrives just after the Vatican newspaper publicly expressed its support for the Oscar-winning Spotlight, about the Boston Globe’s investigation of a widespread sex abuse scandal by Catholic priests. It’s a dramatic reversal from the newspaper’s previous stance about films like Federico Fellini’s La dolce vita, which they condemned in the 1960s as an “incitement to evil crime and vice.”

Flavorwire spoke with Sister Rose about her views on these difficult and heady subjects in cinema, the films that really got under the skin of the Catholic Legion of Decency, and more.

Sister Rose Pacatte
Sister Rose Pacatte

Flavorwire: One criticism of organized religion is that church leaders are woefully out of touch with our cultural climate — in this case, about discussions taking place in our media and how we relate to the world around us through such media. But the Pauline Center for Media Studies, which you founded, strives to make people more mindful about the media we consume, encouraging questions, while also relating media to the catechesis. What are the goals for this, beyond evangelization?

Sister Rose Pacatte: We provide an advanced course in media literacy education training to anybody who is involved in catechesis or faith formation. They can be Catholic or non-Catholic. The overall goal is to really train people in how to be mindful viewers. We are all born with critical skills, but we try to enhance those skills.

Media literacy education is an educational imperative for this century, because we’re swimming in a media culture. When you’re in the ocean, fish don’t notice the water. I think that we’re like fish in an ocean. It’s everywhere, and we don’t even pay attention. It’s just what we expect, especially if we’re born into it. It’s just about being mindful, seeing, listening, and asking questions: “What’s this about? What’s going on?” We’re a country that’s really dedicated to profit. If it’s not making a profit, it’s got to go. That’s an ideology that really drives most of our media and why we make it. It’s important to ask, “Does it make a difference in our culture?” It depends so much on what age you are, what your background is, what your life experience is, and your education. Also, “How can I make a difference?” Sometimes we need to write a letter. Sometimes we need to post something on Facebook to discuss things with our friends.

Our goal is to build a bridge between culture and faith, and keep the conversation going. In the last 50 years, that has also been the church’s goal, since Vatican II. This year, it’s an interesting anniversary for World Communication Day that’s coming up in May. The whole theme is communication and mercy. How do we communicate in a merciful way with each other? With our neighbor? With our family? And how does the church communicate mercifully? That’s a big question, too. On every level and every dimension, it’s about media communication and human relations. It’s a call to examine communication around us, whether it’s mediated by technology or not. Now that we’re content providers, we need to be mindful of that.

What drew you to study film? Was there a particular movie that spoke to you during your discovery of cinema?

It was an accident. The goal of my religious community, the Daughters of St. Paul, is to spread the word of God using the means of communication. We were founded that way 100 years ago. We used the press for decades, and now we’re into just about everything. In the early ‘90s, I was living in New York. I’d lived in New York before, but this time I got addicted to the New York Times. People may laugh at that, but if you look mindfully at the New York Times, every single section, no matter what it is, has something to do with communication and technology and media. I have this collection of articles I used to clip out. And then I became interested in media literacy education. I met a nun who specialized in it. From there I went to England and got a Master’s degree at the University of London, Institute of Education. I came back and started our media studies center — sharing critical thinking skills together and looking at media.

'Straight Outta Compton'
‘Straight Outta Compton’

What criteria do you use when choosing films for review or to present for study at the Pauline Center?

Because I review films for a monthly magazine, St. Anthony Messenger, I try to do current films. I go by what’s available to me. Also, is it a film that a lot of people are watching? Or is it a film that people would be inspired to watch? The Lady in the Van is a perfect example. That’s a small film, but it’s a really interesting and a good film. Also, Room. Not that many people saw it, but the ones who did were really impressed. And it won Best Actress, so that was great.

Sometimes I have to put money down for the films I review. I don’t get into everything for free. I’m going to choose something that looks interesting. I just got to see Eddie the Eagle. I just loved it. It’s a simple film. The new Jennifer Garner film [Miracles From Heaven] is coming out. That’s a three-box-of-Kleenex movie. It was a movie about Christians more than a Christian movie that’s trying to teach people. What a beautiful story.

I reviewed five films about music last year. One of them was The Wrecking Crew, about session musicians in Los Angeles in the late ‘50s to the early ‘70s. What a fantastic movie. I did Love & Mercy, the Brian Wilson film, Straight Outta Compton, and Amy. And then the Janis Joplin movie. There’s really no exact science to how I choose movies.

It seems like you don’t shy away from difficult subjects. How do you view themes of sex and violence in cinema?

I think what people have is a mistaken conception of what an R-rated movie is. “R” means, restricted to mature people who are adults. It’s not material that children can take on easily or understand. “R” does not mean wrong, “R” means for mature people. R-rated movies in general are so much better than PG-13 movies, which are about violence without consequences and body parts and functions. If that’s what you’re happy with, well, then you go for it.

A lot of adults say to me, “I’ve never seen an R-rated movie in my life.” I go, “Shoot me now! What do you mean? You’re just going to watch Disney movies for the rest of your life? Are you kidding me?” It’s a little exasperating to me. People need to be a little real here. But again, they should choose what they want to see. If I really like the movie, I’ll say it. If I didn’t really care for it, I’ll give my reasons why. I think it’s so important to motivate your opinion about a film and not just give it a few thumbs — or tomatoes, vegetables, or whatever else.

'The Moon is Blue'
‘The Moon is Blue’

The TCM series centers on the decisions that the Catholic Legion of Decency made over the years. Who were the people making decisions about movies for the Legion? What constitutes a film that is deemed morally objectionable but suitable for some viewers, versus outright condemned?

The Legion of Decency was formed by a layman and a priest, if I’m not mistaken, in the early 1930s. You have to understand, around the country there were local censorship boards that were very powerful. And then, at the same time that the Hays Production Code office was coming into being, so was the Legion of Decency. There was one priest who was connected with both. Both were very influenced by Catholics. The National Legion of Decency started out as Protestants, Jews, and Catholics. It wasn’t just for Catholics, but the Catholics were the largest unified voice, and they just took it over. It was mostly a layman and a priest doing the initial reviews. They did have other people who contributed their point of view and perspective as well.

By the time the Legion was finished, it became the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures in 1965 or ’66. There was a team of people. It included some women as well by that point. And they would look at a film and come to a consensus and create a review based on the consensus. But early on, it wasn’t like that. Fewer people were involved. They created a film classification list. They created a pledge that everybody had to take every year. There are two difference sources. One says it was on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which is what I think it was. And then, other people say it was on the last Sunday of the year. But every year, Catholics would have to renew that.

It was aimed at adults more than children, because I guess they felt that if adults would do it, kids would do it. But on the other hand, the Legion was really concerned about the erosion of morality in young people. That was really their focus. Their focus was, really, sex. It wasn’t so much about violence. It was about the skirting of authority figures. They didn’t like the promotion of crime in any way. There were code words: the “promiscuousness” or the “seductiveness” of the costumes, or things like that.

Let me read one of them for you about The Moon Is Blue. Boy, they hated that one. Most of us wouldn’t go see it today, but here’s what they said about The Moon Is Blue from 1953: “The subject matter of this picture in its substance and manner of presentation seriously offends and tends to deny or ignore Christian and traditional standards of morality and decency and dwells hardly without variation upon suggestiveness in situations and dialogue.”

And actually, the dialogue problem was with the word “virgin.” The state of New Jersey forbade the movie to be shown in the state, because it made New Jersey look bad. If you ask me, it’s because it’s about these two older guys trying to seduce this young, 20-year-old, pretty something. I think it was a little creepy, but nobody mentions that.

What is the current state of the Catholic Legion of Decency? I know you said it changed names, but is it still in existence in some iteration?

The National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures morphed into the Office of Film and Broadcast under the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. And then in 2008, I think, they closed that office — and now the film reviews come out of Catholic News Service. But they use a classification system. It’s still under the Bishop. It’s still using a certain criteria. They want to give information for guidance, but they’re also judging whether or not it’s morally offensive.

"Il miracolo," from Roberto Rossellini's 'Amore'
“Il miracolo,” from Roberto Rossellini’s ‘Amore’

Are there films in the TCM series that the Legion condemned for reasons you find perplexing?

Oh yeah. Definitely. “The Miracle” by [Roberto] Rossellini [a segment in the 1948 film Amore]. Did they even read the script? Because the Vatican passed it. The Vatican didn’t have a problem with it. What’s really interesting about that 40-minute-long film is that it came out as a trilogy [referring to Amore]. The whole trilogy was written off, but it was really that one film. In Italian it’s called “Il miracolo.”

The state of New York censorship board and Cardinal Spellman of the Archdiocese of New York felt this film about a woman who is mentally ill and herding sheep by the wayside, talking to God and the saints, was too much. She was delusional, and she sees a handsome man hiking by and thinks he’s Saint Joseph. He plies her with wine and has his way with her, and then she thinks she’s pregnant with God. She’s confused. But she’s maltreated by the town and ridiculed. That woman deserves our compassion, not our contempt. It does make Catholics look bad, because they have no charity. Anything that makes the church look bad, they were going to react against. And then the fact that this woman was saying she was carrying God just blew the censors out of their minds.

This case ended up in the Supreme Court. Because they called it sacrilegious and blasphemous, the court told them they didn’t know what those words meant: “We don’t judge cases about religious blasphemy or sacrilege.” So they said, “We’re going to give motion pictures First Amendment protection rights.” In 1915, the Supreme Court denied motion pictures First Amendment protection. But then they reinstated it in 1952, I think. That was a huge blow. Television was coming up. The relevancy of the Legion of Decency and Catholic voice in determining what is shown in theaters was greatly diminished.

Publicity photo used for 'The Outlaw'
Publicity photo used for ‘The Outlaw’

Is there an almighty naughty film that the Legion felt was the worst of the bunch?

They didn’t judge like that. They hated The Outlaw with Jane Russell. They really, really didn’t like it. There’s an off-screen “rape” that seems like she might enjoy it. There’s the promotional material that went along with it. It was because of the publicity and the film that the Legion fought with [director] Howard Hughes for over five years to get it to a condition they would accept.

They didn’t like The French Line, another Jane Russell movie. Also, Lolita and Baby Doll, based on the Tennessee Williams play. Baby Doll was reevaluated in the ‘80s and reclassified, and it looked closer at how African Americans were treated in the film, the injustices in the film, not just the sexualization of this young woman who is already married to this Karl Malden character. But she sucks her thumb in bed, and even though she’s married she won’t sleep with her husband. There was a strong pushback.

'A Man For All Seasons'
‘A Man for All Seasons’

What films would you recommend to someone with existential questions?

One of the first movies that just popped into my head was The Mission. That’s got a lot in it. I would see A Man for All Seasons. It’s about Sir Thomas More, who went up against Henry the Eighth. It’s about conscience. Those are two very powerful films. I know they seem kind of random, but sometimes going on the nose doesn’t work as well as trying to figure out somebody’s journey. So, Dead Man Walking, too. It’s about the transcendent meaning of life and the existential quality of life. Then there’s a small film that I just think is wonderful about faith and life, and that’s Henry Poole Is Here with Luke Wilson. It’s really, really good.