Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Today on the Almanac, we remember the time the Pope took on Hollywood.

*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***

It is the 29th of June 2022. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at; I’m Dan van Voorhis.

Let’s talk about a Papal Encyclical that changed popular culture in America and beyond in the 20th century.

But first, let’s define “papal encyclical.” It is literally a “circular letter”- a message from the pope sent out to certain circles of readers- usually Bishops and other authorities. It does not have the force of a Papal Bull, but if the Pope makes a theological declaration, it has the force of the church behind it.

And it was on this day, the 29th of June in 1936, that Pope Pius XI released an encyclical entitled “Vigilanti Cura,” which was a condemnation of the motion picture industry’s immorality. It sided with an American Catholic group called the “Legion of Decency” that would allow singlehandedly censor all major studio films until the 1960s. Let’s tell the story of Hollywood, the church, and censorship.

As far back as 1898, Pope Leo XIII assented to be the first Pope filmed on camera, and he claimed that film could be welcomed by society as a healthy means of education.

The early studio system was keen on staying on the good side of religious authorities- predominantly Christian authorities as there was a perception that Hollywood was predominantly Jewish. By 1909 states began to censor certain films, and the issue went to the Supreme Court. The court ruled in 1915 that free speech did not extend to motion pictures. In the same year, a national censorship board was put together to establish an acceptable Christian standard for motion pictures.

The early 20s saw a spate of scandals popularized by William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers, leading to the creation of a federal board called the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America. They were led by a man named William Hayes- the one-time campaign manager for Warren Harding and a man called the “Billy Sunday of the Republican Party.”

The Hays code had the famous “Eleven Don’ts, and 26 Be Carefuls” for films… but were not always taken seriously as they were not binding. In fact, between 1930 and 1934, significant studios began releasing more risqué films to try and lure back moviegoers during the Great Depression.

Hearst and his newspapers, as well as congress, began calling for censorship. This spooked the Studios, who started looking for the right self-censoring channel. The problem with Protestants, especially amidst the Modernist/Fundamentalist debate, was that there was no central authority- a problem that didn’t exist with the Roman Catholics.

But the Roman Catholics in America were divided. The National Catholic Welfare Conference was considered centrist by Will Hayes and others, but most Bishops were not. The conservative Bishops created the Legion of Decency. And with division in the Catholic Church, Pope Pius was asked to advise church leadership with an encyclical. This is the context of that letter published on this day in 1936.

With the encyclical taking the hardline, the motion picture industry looked to Joseph Breen, a Catholic, to beef up the film code and its implementation. The Production Code Administration under his authority would receive the script for every movie made by the big five studios (this would be almost all movies). They could excise lines and whole scenes. As it was known, the PCA gave ratings of A, B, or C. C was the dreaded condemned rating that would tank any movie. These ratings were regularly mailed out to Catholics- this was a strong enough incentive for the Hollywood studio system to censor itself through them up through the 1960s. And why was there such a clear dependence on Catholics? The Pope wrote a whole encyclical on the matter- backing the Legion of Decency and changing American film history.

The last word for today comes from the daily lectionary- from Matthew 10:

6 “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. 17 Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues. 18 On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. 19 But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, 20 for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.

This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 29th of June 2022, brought to you by 1517 at

The show is produced by a man somewhere on the spectrum between Legion of Decency and Legion of Doom; he is Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man who may have heard a talk at a youth group that sounded like "Eleven Don’ts and 26 Be Carefuls” I’m Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

Subscribe to the Christian History Almanac

Subscribe to the Christian History Almanac

Subscribe (it’s free!) in your favorite podcast app.