The morality of movies with objectionable content

Many faithful Catholics try to be somewhat conscious of the media that they consume, but with so much immoral content filling up movie theatres, television, radio and the internet, it’s hard to know where to draw the line. What sort of content is morally acceptable to watch, and which is not? Fr. Matthew Spencer devoted some time to unpack this topic on a recent episode of St. Joseph’s Workshop.

“I think, clearly, we can look at certain depictions of ‘art’ that it’s just objectionable, maybe it just denies human dignity, maybe its blasphemous, maybe it just goes against God’s plan for humanity and that’s the intent of it. So certainly I think we have to look at the intent of the authors of art and say, ‘Well, what’s the purpose of this artwork?’” questioned Fr. Spencer.

What makes the movie immoral?

“Since we can’t read the minds of people who are creating movies and scary movies and movies that depict violence of many different types, how are we supposed to discern whether it’s okay to see these things or not? First of all, I think we need to step back also and say violence, for example, just taking that particular theme, isn’t intrinsically evil to depict on the movie screen. If you watch a movie about say, war, and it’s maybe representing the atrocities of war maybe as a cautionary tale, I think most people would recognize that this is not an exaltation of violence but instead maybe a reminder about how violence can bring so much sadness and desperation into people’s lives. So there can be movies that have rather objectionable content and yet serve as warnings, serve as reminders of what we need to seek out.”

Is it leading you into sin?

“There’s artwork—you could call it artwork, I guess—television programs which border on pornography, maybe, which are just meant to provoke in people lustful desires. And that, of course, is not going to lead you to live the life God wants you to and would be objectionable to watch because it’s in fact leading you into sin. Which is one of the major criteria here: that if a piece of artwork—a television program, a song for that matter that you listen to—if it ends up leading you into sin and … there was temptation there, you better get to the confessional. You better recognize what you’ve opened yourself up to and allowed yourself to experience. So those are a clear, well-defined category of movie that we need to be careful of avoiding,” said Fr. Spencer.

Need art be religious to be moral?

“Even when art explores the darkest depths of the soul and or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption,” said Saint John Paul II in his letter to artists.

“If there is a trajectory towards redemption and if it draws out from us—even if it contains some very dark imagery, some ‘unsettling aspects of evil’ in his words—there can be a redemptive quality to that artwork,” explains Fr. Spencer. “I think a good example of this is the movie The Exorcist … which is widely regarded by exorcists themselves as possibly the best depiction of an exorcism and of the battle that’s being waged between principalities and demons and all the spiritual warfare that is around us.”

Fr. Spencer says that most horror films with a religious or spiritual theme are highly inaccurate depictions of what actually happens in spiritual warfare or possessions with demonic forces. He also notes that they often depict aspects of witchcraft, new age practices, and the occult in a positive light. “That is very problematic because it’s placing into people’s minds that this doesn’t really matter, it isn’t that big of a deal. Or maybe, if you’re having trouble you just need to find the right crystal; the right spell and you’ll be okay. They depict things in such a way that distorts the truth and doesn’t lead people to understand that spiritual battle well.”

So, are scary or violent movies okay?

“If they have a redemptive quality to it or maybe a cautionary aspect to it, that can be good for us. If we’re watching it for the simple fact of entertainment, if it’s not leading us to sin, if it’s not leading us to think less of the human person or distracting us from the authentic spiritual battle that’s around us, then it can be acceptable. I think we have to be careful about our intention in watching them, though. Do I watch things because I want to see people suffer? Do I watch things because I want to see blood and things that are violent? Am I allowing my pursuit of an adrenaline rush to eclipse my own appreciation of what’s good to place into my mind? Am I weakening my conscience by watching these things; not to mention is it mixed up with other content that is not good for my soul?”

Bottom line—it’s not a simple yes or no answer. We need to discern our intention for watching the movie, the overall content and themes of the movie, and whether or not it is leading us to sin. “Be careful what you place into your mind,” warns Fr. Spencer. “Realize that what is depicted on screen can have broad effects in your life.”