National Legion of Decency

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The National Legion of Decency was an organization dedicated to identifying and combating objectionable content, from the point of view of the Catholic Church in the United States, in motion pictures. For the first quarter-century or so of its existence, the legion wielded great power in the American motion picture industry.

The Legion was founded in 1933 by Archbishop of Cincinnati John T. McNicholas as the Catholic Legion of Decency (CLOD) in response to an address given by apostolic delegate Archbishop Amleto Giovanni Cicognani at the Catholic Charities Convention in New York City. Cicognani warned against the "massacre of innocence of youth" and urged a campaign for "the purification of the cinema."

Though established by Roman Catholic bishops, the Legion originally included Protestant and Jewish clerics. It was renamed in April 1934, substituting National for Catholic.


Joseph Burstyn, Inc v Wilson (1952)

The Legion suffered a setback in 1952, when the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case Joseph Burstyn, Inc v. Wilson, 343 US 495 (1952) and ruled that sacrilege is not a valid ground for censorship in the United States.

The case centred on Roberto Rossellini's neorealist short film Il Miracolo (The Miracle), which had originally been filmed as a segment of L'Amore (Love) in Italy in 1948. The film depicted a villainous "Saint Joseph" taking advantage of the hallucinations of "Nanni," a young peasant woman who suffered from schizophrenia, to have sexual intercourse with her.

The film outraged the Legion and kindred Catholic organizations when it was shown in the United States, and was initially banned by the New York State Board of Regents. Joseph Burstyn appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, eventually proving victorious.

Subsequent history of the Legion of Decency and successors: 1966–2001

By the 1960s, however, the organization had become an exclusively Catholic concern. In 1966 it was renamed the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures. Eventually, the entity was subsumed into the United States Catholic Conference, which in 2001 was incorporated into the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Responsibilities for reviewing and rating films were transferred to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Office for Film and Broadcasting. During the 1990s, there were several academic studies of the history of this organization, listed in the bibliography section below.

In 1995 the Parents Television Council was founded using the National Legion of Decency as a model, and continues to promote programming censorship in a similar manner.

Rating system

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.


In 1933, Archbishop John McNicholas 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.

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.

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).

See also


Further reading

  • 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 links