Legion of Decency

National Legion of Decency

The National Legion of Decency, also known as the Catholic Legion of Decency, was an organization dedicated to identifying and combating objectionable content 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 Amleto 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".

1952: Joseph Burstyn, Inc v Wilson

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

It suffered a setback in 1952, after the US Supreme Court heard the case Joseph Burstyn, Inc v. Wilson (343 US 495 (1952). This 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 organisations when it was shown in the United States, and was initially banned by the New York Board of Regents. Joseph Burstyn appealed the case to the US Supreme Court, eventually proving victorious, which proved a setback for religious-based film censorship in the United States.

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 organisation, listed in the bibliography section below.

Mae West, an early target of the Legion, may have had the Legion in mind as the model of the fictional Bainbridge Foundation in her satire on censorship, The Heat's On (1943).

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 — then, with 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 Pledge

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



  • Greg Black: Hollywood Censored: Morality Codes, Catholics and Movies: Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 1994: ISBN 0521452996
  • Greg Black: Catholic Crusade Against the Movies: 1940–1975: Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 1998: ISBN 0521629055
  • Paul Facey: The Legion of Decency: A Sociological Analysis of the Emergence and Development of a Pressure Group: New York: Arno Press: 1974: ISBN 0405048718
  • Laura Wittern-Keller and Raymond Haberski: The Miracle Case: Film Censorship and the Supreme Court: Kansas: University Press of Kansas: 2008: ISBN 9780700616190
  • James Skinner: The Cross and the Cinema: The Legion of Decency and the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures: 1933–1970: Westport, Conn: Praegar 1993: ISBN 0275941930
  • Frank Walsh: Sin and Censorship: The Catholic Church and the Motion Picture Industry: New Haven: Yale University Press: 1996: ISBN 0300063733

External links

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