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 Today's Take:  NCR's daily Web column
Each weekday over the course of a week, a member of the NCR staff offers a commentary on one or more topics in the news.  It's our way of introducing you to some of the people carrying out the NCR mission of faith and justice based journalism.

February 27, 2004
Vol. 1, No. 208




Pat Morrison It's Lent, go to a movie!

Pat Morrison, NCR managing editor

In the supposed Golden Age of American Catholicism, the 1940s through '60s, Lent was the time that tried men's (and women's and children's) souls. And it was supposed to. The prime purpose of Lent, from my perspective as a Catholic kid, was to make you miserable, for as long as possible (40 days was forever!) so that you could prove to Jesus that you loved him. And we entered into it with gusto.

The martyrs were hanged, drawn and quartered out of love for God. We, the nuns told us, could at least give up gum and candy for Lent. And, of course, movies. How could any Christian worthy of the name go to a movie while Jesus was out there in the desert being battered about by the Devil?

Other Today's Takes by Pat Morrison
Feb. 26, 04 Kerry has limited vision on Israel issue
Feb. 25, 04 Lenten lessons on the down escalator
Feb. 24, 04 When faith takes over the friendly skies
Feb. 23, 04 Applause for Mel's passion
Dec. 19, 03 Altering the face of Christ
Dec. 17, 03 Go ahead, get Uncle Edgar's goat!
Dec. 15, 03 Finding Saddam, losing Mazen
Oct. 3, 03 (Un)happy anniversary, intifada
Oct. 1, 03 An ordinary life sparks an unlikely revolution
Aug. 14, 03 Women's realities, Mary's feast
For a long time, the Catholic church has had a nervous relationship with the media. It has been somewhat like the church's attitude toward sex -- wary and prohibiting at best -- though perhaps not as extreme. After all, there's no procreation involved in seeing a movie, although more than a few drive-ins and movie theaters have been the setting in which it took place (and where whatever was on the screen was largely forgotten in the process!). Growing up, most Catholics over 40 will recall the old Legion of Decency pledge and parents checking Legion ratings in the diocesan newspaper before you were allowed to go off to a movie. But chances are they won't recall ever hearing much that was positive about the media.

And most Catholics don't have a clue about what the church has to say about the media - other than "don't!" Last winter, as major Catholic publications worldwide recalled the 40th anniversary of Vatican II's pivotal document on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, I wondered when they'd remember that document's twin sibling, Inter Mirifica, the council's degree on the means of social communication. These very first products of the Second Vatican Council were both released the same day: Dec. 4, 1963. As someone whose life has been wrapped in the world of media for over 30 years, I find it exhilarating that the council decided there were some major things it needed to address if Catholic life was to be renewed and re-energized, and that primary among them were its approach to liturgy - and to the means of communication, the media.

What was even more surprising than that the church should devote her energies to producing a whole document on the media alone was the fact that its message was eminently positive. Inter Mirifica begins: "[Human] genius has with God's help produced marvelous technical inventions from creation, especially in our times." In fact, like most church documents published in Latin, the title is taken from the text's opening words, in this case: "Among the marvels." (When was the last time recently you heard of a Vatican document opening with such a "wow" expression, acknowledging that the topic at hand is marvelous?!) And although Inter Mirifica pointed out the dangers inherent in the misuse of the media, it noted that "the church… knows that if these media are properly used they can be of considerable benefit to [humankind]."

Far from being the blanket condemnation that some Catholics expected (and a minority hoped for), Inter Mirifica broke new ground by noting that the depiction of evil in the media can even be beneficial: "With the help of the means of social communication and with suitable dramatization, the chronicling, the description or the representation of moral evil can lead to a deeper knowledge and analysis of man and to a manifestation of the true and good in all their splendor" (n. 6).

That awareness is one of the reasons that the list of the Vatican's 100 top movie picks includes a few that might raise eyebrows. There are, of course, the predictable religious films - "Ben-Hur," "A Man for All Seasons," and "Thérèse" among them. And there are the positive-messaged and innocently entertaining, from "Gandhi" and "Chariots of Fire" to "The Wizard of Oz" and Disney's classic "Fantasia." But how many Catholics would expect the Vatican's flicks picks to include "Schindler's List," "On the Waterfront," "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Babette's Feast" -- and Fellini's "La Strada"?

Certainly the top film millions of Americans will be seeing this Lent is Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" (see Today's Take, Feb. 23). But Christians shouldn't feel guilty about going to another movie or renting a video during this season dedicated to reflection and spiritual self-renewal. Currently, there are several excellent films showing, including "In America" (NCR Dec. 26, 2003) and "Osama" (NCR Feb. 13, 2004).

Lent's a good time to remember the message of Inter Mirifica: The media are among God's marvels. So go ahead, watch a movie. Just skip the buttered popcorn.

Pat Morrison is NCR managing editor. Her e-mail address is

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