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Guardians of Democracy or Cultural Storm Troopers?: American Catholics and the Control of Popular Media, 1934–1966

From: The Catholic Historical Review
Volume 87, Number 2, April 2001
pp. 252-282 | 10.1353/cat.2001.0051

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The Catholic Historical Review 87.2 (2001) 252-282

In 1936 the Nation attempted to warn its readers about an insidious infiltration of American culture. "If the New York Times hired a lieutenant of Hitler's to blue-pencil its European news, there would be cries to high heaven; if the Soviet Government should presume to decide that no books criticizing the Russian revolution could be sold in the United States, the air would be filled with thunder." If in 1936 these were not yet quite the fighting words they would be fifteen years later, they were nonetheless strong stuff. What dire threat deserved comparison to the century's worst villains? The Nation was reacting to the 1934 establishment of the Catholic Legion of Decency, which by 1936 had achieved considerable influence over the making of motion pictures. "What the non-Catholic moviegoers are entitled to decide," the editors asserted, ". . . is whether they wish to have their films censored in advance by the Catholic church."

A similar alarm was raised less than a decade later by Drew Pearson in his Washington Post column, this time about another Catholic group, the National Organization for Decent Literature (NODL). "Efficient Postmaster General Frank Walker," Pearson wrote in his "Washington Merry-Go-Round" on March 25, 1943, "has got himself into a situation whereby certain zealots of the church to which he belongs have become unofficial censors of American magazines. And Frank is playing into their hands." The column goes on to detail the requests from the NODL that Walker investigate whether certain publications on its "disapproved" list should be deprived of second-class mailing privileges. "Postmaster General Walker," Pearson notes, ". . . indignantly denied that members of his own religious faith were influencing his policy in barring magazines from the mails. However, the Acolyte [sic], organ of the National Organization for Decent Literature, gives him full credit."

These warnings exhibit already old but persistent American fears that Catholics were intent on infiltrating and controlling crucial social and cultural institutions. In organizing opposition to certain kinds of popular entertainment, Catholics were often accused of stepping over an implicit boundary demarcating the sphere of influence acceptable for a partisan group. At the same time they were eliciting such protest, however, Catholics were also gaining allies in their efforts from among the very Americans whose boundaries they were supposedly transgressing. The existence of both critics and allies suggests what was in fact the case -- on the issues in question, no cultural consensus existed, and the field was open for action. Multiple, often competing, groups contributed to defining attitudes toward censorship and control of media. The differences among these groups, while many, were perhaps never so marked as in their differing beliefs about the nature and function of art.

As a variety of recent work has suggested, the first half of the twentieth century witnessed an unprecedented growth in and differentiation among the institutions of culture and entertainment, and their various stewards and guardians. The emergence of the middlebrow, the persistence of the genteel, the demise of the gentle reader, the disillusion of the avant-garde -- a bewildering interplay of critical narratives attempted to render an account of artistic and cultural phenomena burgeoning beyond the ken or control of any one viewpoint. While modernists asserted a new freedom for art in both form and subject, middle-class reformers sought new mechanisms to implement old values in the perplexing realm of mass media. While left-wing defenders of American democracy sought to maximize American freedom as a safeguard against the growing threat of totalitarianism, conservative defenders of the same system hoped to temper freedom -- or "license," as they would have said -- with moral safeguards against the relativism that they believed permitted totalitarianism to take root.

In this volatile atmosphere, Catholic efforts at controlling motion pictures and magazines, not surprisingly, elicited mixed reactions. Sorting out the varied constituencies and motivations is a complex task, involving as it does the slippery ground on which subcultural self-definition and self-understanding wrestle with the implicit requirements of a dominant culture simultaneously defining and interacting with the subculture. As Francis Couvares has observed about the motion pictures, "An industry largely financed by Protestant bankers...

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