National Legion of Decency

The National Legion of Decency, also known as the Catholic Legion of Decency,[1] was a Catholic group founded in 1933 as an organization dedicated to identifying and combating objectionable content in motion pictures from the point of view of the American Catholic Church.[2]:4 After receiving a stamp of approval from the secular offices behind Hollywood's Production Code, films during this time period were then submitted to the National Legion of Decency to be reviewed prior to their official duplication and distribution to the general public.[2]:5 Condemnation by the Legion would shake a film's core for success because it meant the population of Catholics, some twenty million strong at the time, were forbidden from attending any screening of the film under pain of mortal sin.[2][page needed] The efforts to help parishioners avoid films with objectional content backfired when it was found that it helped promote those films in heavily Catholic neighborhoods among Catholics who may have seen the listing as a suggestion.[1] Although the Legion was often envisioned as a bureaucratic arm of the Catholic Church, it instead was little more than a loose confederation of local organizations, with each diocese appointing a local Legion director, usually a parish priest, who was responsible for Legion activities in that diocese.[2]:27

In 1965, The National Legion of Decency was reorganized as the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures (NCOMP). The C rating was issued from 1933 until 1978. The rating system was revised in 1978, merging designations C (condemned) and B (partly objectionable) into O, which meant "morally offensive". NCOMP reassigned ratings to old films based on its new system. In 1980, NCOMP ceased operations, along with the biweekly Review, which by then had published ratings for 16,251 feature films.[citation needed]


From the early days of cinema, the motion picture industry made a number of attempts to self-regulate content of films in order to avoid the creation of numerous state and municipal censorship boards. Most of these efforts were relatively ineffectual.[3]

National Board of ReviewEdit

On December 24, 1908 New York City Mayor George B. McClellan Jr. revoked all moving-picture exhibition licenses in the city pending inspection of the premises due to fire safety concerns in regard to the highly flammable celluloid film. He stated that due to complaints from the city's clergy and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, that upon re-issuance, the licensees were prohibited from operating on Sunday. He further indicated his intention to revoke the license of any motion picture show "...on evidence that pictures have been exhibited by the licensees which tend to degrade or injure the morals of the community."[4]

In 1909, Charles Sprague Smith and about a dozen prominent individuals from the fields of social work, religion, and education, formed a committee, under the auspices of the People's Institute at Cooper Union, to make recommendations to the Mayor's office concerning controversial films. Initially called the New York Board of Motion Picture Censorship it soon became known as the National Board of Motion Picture Censorship. In an effort to avoid government censorship of films, the National Board became the unofficial clearinghouse for new movies.[5] The Board's stated purpose was to endorse films of merit and champion the new "art of the people". In March 1916 the Board changed its name to the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures to avoid the controversial word "censorship".[6] Thousands of films carried the legend "Passed by the National Board of Review" in their main titles from 1916 into the 1950s, when the board began to decline due to loss of revenue.[7]

National Association of the Motion Picture Industry (NAMPI)Edit

The National Association of the Motion Picture Industry was an industry self-regulatory body created by the Hollywood studios in 1916 to answer demands for film censorship by states and municipalities.[3] The Association devised "Thirteen Points", a list of subjects and storylines they promised to avoid. However, there was no method of enforcement if a studio film violated the Thirteen Points content restrictions,[8] and NAMPI proved ineffective.[9]

Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA)Edit

After several risqué films and a series of notorious off-screen scandals involving Hollywood stars, political pressure was increasing, with legislators in 37 states introducing almost one hundred movie censorship bills in 1921. Faced with the prospect of having to comply with hundreds, and potentially thousands, of inconsistent and easily changed decency laws in order to show their movies, the studios chose self-regulation as the preferable option. In 1922, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) was formed. Will H. Hays was named the association's first president.[10] The goal of the organization was to rehabilitate the image of the movie industry in the wake of the Arbuckle scandal and amid growing calls by primarily Protestant groups for federal censorship of the movies.[11] "Hiring Hays to “clean up the pictures” was, at least in part, a public relations ploy and much was made of his conservative credentials, including his roles as a Presbyterian deacon and past chairman of the Republican Party."[11]

In 1924, Hays instituted "The Formula", a loose set of guidelines for filmmakers, in an effort to get the movie industry to self-regulate the issues that the censorship boards had been created to address. "The Formula" requested that studios send synopses of films being considered to the MPPDA for review.[12] This effort largely failed, however, as studios were under no obligation to send their scripts to Hays's office, nor to follow his recommendations.

In 1927, Hays oversaw the creation of a code of "Don'ts and Be Carefuls" for the industry. This list outlined the issues that movies could encounter in different localities. Again, despite Hays' efforts, studios largely ignored the "Don'ts and Be Carefuls," and by the end of 1929, the MPPDA received only about 20 percent of Hollywood scripts prior to production,[10] and the number of regional and local censorship boards continued to increase. However, a number of the items listed would become part of the later Code.[13]

The Production CodeEdit

Catholic bishops and lay people tended to be leery of federal censorship and favored the Hays approach of self-censorship; these included the outspoken Catholic layman Martin J. Quigley, publisher of Exhibitors Herald-World (a trade magazine for independent exhibitors). For several months in 1929, Martin Quigley, Joseph Breen, Father Daniel A. Lord S.J., Father FitzGeorge Dinneen S.J., and Father Wilfred Parsons (editor of Catholic publication America) discussed the desirability of a new and more stringent code of behavior for the movies. With the blessing of Cardinal George W. Mundelein of Chicago, Father Lord authored the code, which later became known as "The Production Code", "The Code", and "The Hays Code". It was presented to Will Hays in 1930 who said, "My eyes nearly popped out when I read it. This was the very thing I had been looking for".[citation needed]

The studio heads were less enthusiastic but they agreed to make The Code the rule of the industry, albeit with many loopholes that allowed studio producers to override the Hays Office's application of it. From 1930 to 1934, the Production Code was only slightly effective in fighting back calls for federal censorship.


The National Legion of Decency was a Catholic organization founded in 1933 [14] and publicly announced in 1934.[15]  The Legion was established during a time when Hollywood films were becoming increasingly popular in American life. [15]  When establishing the Legion, bishops pointed to the prevalence of morally offensive films depicting sexual activity that is frowned upon within the Catholic Church. [15]  Bishops also based their decisions on their belief that films were the “greatest menace” to American society [15] and controversial social science studies that claimed films were responsible for crime and other societal challenges in 1930s America. [14]

During the Legion’s early years, it established a rating system that assessed films based on their moral content. [16]  The films were graded on a scale from A to C with “A” being morally permissible and “C” being morally unacceptable. [16]  The Legion also published and distributed pamphlets and fliers encouraging Catholics to not view certain films it viewed as immoral. [17] Films were targeted for including content such as premarital sex, portrayals of marriage that fell outside of Catholic norms at the time, LGBTQ+ content, and abortion. [17]  The Legion also targeted films that were seen as being critical of the Church’s activities. [17]  Some notable examples of films that received a “C” rating are Some Like it Hot and From Russia with Love. [17] From the 1930s through the 1960s, Catholic parishes in dioceses across the country administered yearly pledges in which millions of Catholics throughout the US vowed to refuse to watch films that were condemned by the Legion. [14]

Although the US was not a majority-Catholic country at the time of the Legion’s existence, the Legion had a significant influence on the entertainment industry as a whole. [17]  The Legion was able to lobby for Joseph Breen, a conservative Catholic, to become head of the Production Code Administration (PCA), a group that acted as the internal censorship agency for many of Hollywood’s largest production companies. [14] While in charge, Breen required all films desiring to receive the PCA’s approval to be personally approved by him. [18]  Because it was considered to be a grave sin for Catholics to view films condemned by the Legion, it was often difficult for films with a rating of “C” to be successful at the box office. [19]

In his book about the Catholic Church’s censorship activities in the United States from 1933-1970, scholar James Skinner wrote that by the late 1950s and early to mid-1960s, the Legion was beginning to lose its influence both within Hollywood and within the Catholic Church.[20]  Skinner noted that in some cases, young Catholics throughout the country saw a “C” rating as a reason to see a particular film. [20]  He argued that as a result of the Church’s liberalization after the Second Vatican Council, a growing number of First-Amendment lawsuits, and the loss of the initial enthusiasm for the Legion, the Legion ceased to exist by the mid 1960s. [20]  In 1965, the Legion was restructured as the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures (NCOMP), but scholars such as Skinner argue that the NCOMP failed to exert as much influence over Hollywood as the Legion. [20]

In 1952, the Supreme Court heard Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, the first case where the holding was that movies were protected under the free speech section of the First Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment.[21] This case, also known as 'The Miracle Case', was based on the New York state ban on the Italian film The Miracle because it was deemed sacrilegious by many Catholic groups, including the Legion of Decency.[22]:64

Rating systemEdit

The Legion of Decency had a strict set of rules and regulations that Hollywood had to adhere to in order to have their movies viewed by the Catholic public in good light. If there were suggestive scenes or dialogue that was frowned upon in the Catholic Church there would be speculation to the morality of the film and its makers. This was a time when Hollywood not only had to worry about its reception by moviegoers, but also its reception by the Church. The idea of censorship appealed to the people who thought that the overall good was more important than individual liberties.[23]:54 The Catholic Church brought its authority to the moviegoing process in attempts to purify it for the greater good of the people who watch film. They harshly critiqued film and its morality. A priest from Buffalo, New York, went so far as to give a sermon regarding the film industry by spelling out the word "movies" with new meanings attached, "M – means moral menace, O – obscenity, V – vulgarity, I – immorality, E – exposure, S – sex."[23]:55

With the introduction of sound in film, there was worry within the Church that this would bring more subjective material to audiences. "Sound unlocked a vast amount of dramatic material which for the first time could be effectively presented on the screen."[24] This code was meant to "amplify and add to those principles in the light of responsible opinion, so that all engaged in the making of sound pictures might have a commonly understandable and commonly acceptable guide in the maintenance of social and community values in pictures."[25] In 1930, a Jesuit priest named Father Daniel A. Lord drafted a code of standards which was accepted by studio heads and put into use as a production code (also known as the Hays Code). Studio heads hoped that self-regulation would reduce government interference and censorship.

The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America created a section of general principles that mostly fell in the realm of moral standards, correct standards of life, and standards of human law not be violated whatsoever.[26] Movies were stated as to be for entertainment use, and were frowned upon when extending beyond that definition. After the general principles were stated there were subsections of more specific rules that covered topics of murder, sex, vulgar language, profanity in dialogue, what the actors wore, how they danced, how they practiced religion in film, and even the titles that were used for the film.[26] Because the movies were seen as speaking to the morality of the viewer, the Church believed that they needed to reflect that morality and not question it or lead them to sin.

The Legion distributed a list of ratings for films in order to provide "a moral estimate of current entertainment feature motion pictures". The Legion was often more conservative in its views on films than the Motion Picture Association of America's Production Code. Films were rated according to the following schema:

  • A: Morally unobjectionable
  • B: Morally objectionable in part
  • C: Condemned by the Legion of Decency

The A rating was subsequently divided:

  • A-I: Suitable for all audiences
  • A-II: Suitable for adults; later – after the introduction of A-III – suitable for adults and adolescents
  • A-III: Suitable for adults only
  • A-IV: For adults with reservations

In 1978, the B and C ratings were combined into a new O rating for "morally offensive" films.

The Legion of Decency blacklisted many films for morally offensive content. "The condemnation came in the form of a 'C' rating."[27] Practicing Catholics were directed to refrain from viewing such films. More explicitly, they were directed to "remain away from all motion pictures except those which do not offend decency and Christian morality."[28] Officially, the terminology for a Legion of Decency blacklisted film was a C-rating, which stood for "condemned". The general breakdown of their rating system goes as follows: "A-I, general approval; A-II, approved for adults; B, unsatisfactory in part, neither recommended nor condemned; and C, condemned".[29]


In 1933, Archbishop John T. McNicholas, OP, composed a membership pledge for the Legion, which read in part:

I wish to join the Legion of Decency, which condemns vile and unwholesome moving pictures. I unite with all who protest against them as a grave menace to youth, to home life, to country and to religion. I condemn absolutely those salacious motion pictures which, with other degrading agencies, are corrupting public morals and promoting a sex mania in our land. ... Considering these evils, I hereby promise to remain away from all motion pictures except those which do not offend decency and Christian morality.

[citation needed]

The pledge was revised in 1934:

I condemn all indecent and immoral motion pictures, and those which glorify crime or criminals. I promise to do all that I can to strengthen public opinion against the production of indecent and immoral films, and to unite with all who protest against them. I acknowledge my obligation to form a right conscience about pictures that are dangerous to my moral life. I pledge myself to remain away from them. I promise, further, to stay away altogether from places of amusement which show them as a matter of policy.

[citation needed]

In 1938, the league requested that the Pledge of the Legion of Decency be administered each year on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (December 8).[citation needed]

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Office for Film and BroadcastingEdit

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Office for Film and Broadcasting was an office of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and is best known for the USCCB film rating, a continuation of the National Legion of Decency rating system begun in 1933 by Archbishop of Cincinnati John T. McNicholas, OP.

After the National Catholic Office of Motion Pictures was re-established in 1960, it later became the Office of Film and Broadcasting (OFB).[25] The Office of Film and Broadcasting merged with the National Catholic Office for Radio and Television in 1980.[30] Together they reviewed motion pictures, radio, and television using the same rating scale the original Legion of Decency did in the 1930s and 1940s.[31][25] They shared the same goal, which was to rid the screen of stories that lowered traditional moral standard and persuaded people, especially young people to accept false principles of conduct.[32] By 1990 the National Catholic Office for Radio and Television collapsed leaving the Office of Film and Broadcasting to review strictly motion pictures.[25] The Office of Film and Broadcasting worked to review every movie in the United States still adhering to the original rating system.[25]

The organization had been run by United States Catholic Conference in their Communications Department but was later joined with the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and renamed the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2001. The Office of Film and Broadcasting carried on the same film rating system as the Legion of Decency. The rating "A" meant morally unobjectionable but falling into the subcategories of AI: Suitable for all audiences, AII: Suitable for adults and adolescents, and AIII: Suitable for adults only. The next ratings were "B", which meant morally objectionable in part, and "C", which mean it was condemned by the Legion of Decency. The Office of Motion Pictures began with the intention to rate every motion picture made in the United States and labored for 45 years.[33]


In 2005 controversies grew surrounding the intense rating system and inconsistent reviews. Examples of movies which received the A-IV rating include The Exorcist and Saturday Night Fever, two films whose content was seen by many as being exaggerated by the mainstream press, perhaps leading to the wrong interpretations and false conclusions cited in the rating's full description. In 1995, the description was changed to films "which are not morally offensive in themselves but are not for casual viewing”. Ultimately, the Office of Film and Broadcasting shut down in 2010.[34] The USCCB continues to voluntarily provide information and movie ratings for Catholics through the Catholic News Service.[25] The Catholic News Service also gives access to archived reviews dating from 2011 and prior.[35]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b Lasalle, Mick (March 20, 2016). "Ask Mick Lasalle". San Francisco Chronicle.
  2. ^ a b c d Black, Gregory (1998). The Catholic Crusade Against the Movies, 1940-1975. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  3. ^ a b Butters, Gerard R. Banned in Kansas: Motion Picture Censorship, 1915-1966. University of Missouri Press 2007, p. 149 ISBN 978-0-8262-1749-3
  4. ^ Picture Shows All Out of Business. The New York Times, December 25, 1908.  This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  5. ^ Sklar, Robert (1994). Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies (2nd ed.). New York City: Vintage Books. pp. 31–32. ISBN 0-679-75549-7.
  6. ^ Chris, Cynthia (2012). "Censoring Purity". Camera Obscura 79. Duke University Press. 27 (1): 97–98, 105. doi:10.1215/02705346-1533457. ISSN 0270-5346. Retrieved 13 June 2020.
  7. ^ "Exit: 'Passed by National Board of Review'". Boxoffice. No. January 19, 1952. Associated Publications. January 19, 1952. p. 25.
  8. ^ Butters. p. 151.
  9. ^ Doherty, Thomas Patrick. Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema 1930-1934. New York: Columbia University Press 1999. p. 6 ISBN 0-231-11094-4
  10. ^ a b Leff, Leonard J.; Simmons, Jerold L. (2001). The Dame in the Kimono: Hollywood, Censorship, and the Production Code. University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 0813190118.
  11. ^ a b "Will H. Hays", Hollywood Walk of Fame, Hollywood Chamber of Commerce
  12. ^ Prince, Stephen (2003). Classical Film Violence: Designing and Regulating Brutality in Hollywood Cinema, 1930–1968. Rutgers University Press, p. 20 ISBN 0-8135-3281-7
  13. ^ Lewis, Jon. Hollywood V. Hard Core: How the Struggle Over Censorship Created the Modern Film Industry. NYU Press, 2002 pp. 301–302 ISBN 9780814751435
  14. ^ a b c d Black, Gregory D. (1994). Hollywood censored : morality codes, Catholics, and the movies. Cambridge [England]: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-45299-6. OCLC 29565096.
  15. ^ a b c d Johnson, William Bruce (2010). Miracles & sacrilege : Roberto Rossellini, the church and film censorship in Hollywood. Gibson Library Connections. Toronto [Ont.]: University of Toronto Press. ISBN 978-1-4426-8863-6. OCLC 632170163.
  16. ^ a b Walsh, Frank (1996). Sin and Censorship: The Catholic Church and the Motion Picture Industry. Yale University press. ISBN 0300063733.
  17. ^ a b c d e "C Is For 'Condemned': A Nun Looks Back On 47 Years Of Unholy Filmmaking". Retrieved 2021-05-03.
  18. ^ Ceplair, Larry (December 2008). "The film industry's battle against left-wing influences, from the Russian Revolution to the Blacklist". Film History: An International Journal. 20 (4): 399–411. doi:10.2979/FIL.2008.20.4.399. ISSN 0892-2160.
  19. ^ Malone, Aubrey (2011). Censoring Hollywood : sex and violence in film and on the cutting room floor. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland. ISBN 978-0-7864-6465-4. OCLC 689522322.
  20. ^ a b c d Skinner, James (1993). The Cross and the Cinema: The Legion of Decency and the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures. Praeger. ISBN 0387519181.
  21. ^ Harris, Albert W. (1954). "Movie Censorship and the Supreme Court: What Next?". California Law Review. 42 (1): 122–138. doi:10.2307/3478229. ISSN 0008-1221. JSTOR 3478229.
  22. ^ Secrest, Thales L. (1955). "Constitutional Law – Freedom of the Press – Does Censorship of Motion Pictures Violate Freedom of the Press". North Dakota Law Review. 31 (1).
  23. ^ a b Wittern-Keller, Laura (2008). Freedom of the Screen. University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 978-0813172644.
  24. ^ "The Motion Picture Production Code (as Published 31, March, 1930) Appendix 1" (PDF). Arizona State University. Retrieved April 12, 2016.
  25. ^ a b c d e f University, Catholic. "Finding Aids". The Catholic University of America.
  26. ^ a b Doherty, Thomas (2009). Hollywood's Censor: Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code Administration. Columbia University Press. pp. 352–355. ISBN 978-0231512848.
  27. ^ "C Is for 'Condemned': A Nun Looks Back on 47 Years of Unholy Filmmaking".
  28. ^ "Religion: Legion of Decency". Time. June 11, 1934. Retrieved January 10, 2017.
  29. ^ Walsh, Frank. Sin and Censorship. Yale University Press. p. 130.
  30. ^ Green, Jonathon. The Encyclopedia of Censorship. New York: Facts on File, 1990. Print.
  31. ^ "Legion of Decency | American organization". Encyclopedia Britannica.
  32. ^ Donnelly, Gerald B. "The Motion Picture and the Legion of Decency." The Public Opinion Quarterly 2.1, Special Supplement: Public Opinion in a Democracy (1938): 42–44. JSTOR. Web.
  33. ^ Foerstel, Herbert N. "One A Brief History of Media Censorship." Banned in the Media: A Reference Guide to Censorship in the Press, Motion Pictures, Broadcasting, and the Internet. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1998.[ISBN missing][page needed]
  34. ^ "United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Office for Film and Broadcasting." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 16 Mar. 2016.
  35. ^ "USCCB – Film and Broadcasting –Archived Movie Reviews." n.d. Web. 17 Mar. 2016.

Further readingEdit

  • Black, Greg. Hollywood Censored: Morality Codes, Catholics and Movies: Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 1994: ISBN 0-521-45299-6
  • Black, Greg. Catholic Crusade Against the Movies: 1940–1975: Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 1998: ISBN 0-521-62905-5
  • Facey, Paul. The Legion of Decency: A Sociological Analysis of the Emergence and Development of a Pressure Group: New York: Arno Press: 1974: ISBN 0-405-04871-8
  • Skinner, James. The Cross and the Cinema: The Legion of Decency and the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures: 1933–1970: Westport, Conn: Praegar 1993: ISBN 0-275-94193-0
  • Walsh, Frank. Sin and Censorship: The Catholic Church and the Motion Picture Industry: New Haven: Yale University Press: 1996: ISBN 0-300-06373-3
  • Wittern-Keller, Laure and Haberski, Raymond. The Miracle Case: Film Censorship and the Supreme Court: Kansas: University Press of Kansas: 2008: ISBN 978-0-7006-1619-0

External linksEdit