With this [year’s] big Oscar win for Spotlight, an unsparing look at the Catholic Church’s cover-up of clerical sex abuse, it’s hard to fathom that Hollywood once lived in fear of the Catholic Church and its movie watchdog, the National Legion of Decency.
The Legion of Decency was founded in 1934 as part of a campaign for the “purification of the cinema,” the church’s response to the growing popularity of movies—especially gangster pictures that glorified violence and the widespread portrayal of the free-and-easy sexual attitudes of the Roaring 20s. Catholics were urged to pledge to “remain away from all motion pictures except those which do not offend decency and Christian morality.”
At the same time, a handful of influential Catholics—including Joseph Breen of the National Catholic Welfare Conference, Fathers Daniel Lord and FitzGeorge Dinneen (both Jesuit priests), Father Wilfrid Parsons, the editor of America, and Martin Quigley, editor of the Motion Picture Herald—created a code for motion picture standards. It was designed to self-police the industry and turn popular entertainment into an “ally” of “basic teachings of the church,” according to Gregory Black in his 1996 book, Hollywood Censored.
The code they designed became the Motion Picture Conduct Code, popularly know as the Hays Code after it was adopted by William Hays, a Presbyterian elder who was hired by the major studios to help clean up the industry’s image after it was rocked by a series of scandals. The code, says Black, “was a fascinating combination of Catholic theology, conservative politics and pop psychology—an amalgam that would control the content of Hollywood films for three decades.”