The Forgotten Modesty

The Forgotten Modesty

Back in my glory days at Benedictine College, I would often peruse the ‘for sale’ shelf at the school library for the next 5 cent masterpiece that would change my life.  The shelf would have more appropriately named ‘pre-combustion row’ and though I rarely found anything worth taking the time to read, the occasional jewel would shine through.

One such book was called The Moral Law by Bishop John Swint, in which he discusses culture through a meditation on the 10 Commandments.  Addressing the sixth and ninth commandmentsAgainst adultery and coveting your neighbor's wife, respectively., he writes:

This is not an easy matter to deal with in a public discourse.  Much must be left to the privacy and secrecy of the confessional.  However, sexual matters are now so openly discussed, especially in newspapers, magazines, and novels, that no one is any longer shocked; and hardly anyone can be ignorant.  The time has come when the Church must speak – and speak very plainly.

Be careful of the movies you attend.  Undoubtedly, one of the most corrupting and demoralizing influences in the world today are the movies.  Seventy-five percent of them are absolutely unfit to be seen by anybody… Why the very advertising of these shows is an abomination.  Your child cannot go around two city blocks in the business section of a modern city without coming back with mind and heart corrupted.  It is bad enough for these things to be shown on the big screen, but to shove them right out on the street where everyone, even children, must see them is an abomination.

Most Rev. John J. Swint, D.D.Abomination, indeed.  Yessiree, with all the trash coming out of Hollywood nowadays, it’s no wonder Bishops are taking a stand.  What’s that you say – you’ve never heard of Bishop Swint?  That’s most likely because he died in 1962, 28 years after The Moral Law‘s publishing date of 1934 (I changed some of the wording [‘picture show’ to ‘movie’] so as not to give away the time period).

What are these movies to which he refers?  Blockbusters of 1934 included: Cleopatra; It Happened One Night; Tarzan and His Mate.  While, by today’s standards, these movies are hardly scandalous, it was the beginning of openness to sexuality within movies.  In Bishop Swint’s writing, we see the outrage many of us have felt at the depravity or morals displayed in the movies.

This is the sort of thing that makes me wonder how ‘low’ even a good Catholic’s ‘high’ entertainment standards actually are.  I don’t mean to fault anyone who scrutinizes the movies or TV shows, though I do wish to raise the question of what we consider ‘scrutiny’ to be.

It’s had to imagine that any more than a few modern movies would pass Bishop Swint’s moral standard.  There are ways to morally and honorably illustrate beauty and relationships through entertainment, but in what way has this been regularly done in the last 80 years?  How could the wholesome .01% of relationships portrayed in movies even come close to justifying opposition to Bishop Swint’s standards?  Some might look back and call him puritanical; since he was not raised with sexual entertainment, I see him as having a clearer understanding than the rest of us.

Have we grown numb to much of the trash out there and are, thus, less affected by it?  Perhaps, but human nature is meant to be sensitive to sexuality, not numb to it.  If a blind man awakes one morning to numbness in his left hand, he might immediately wonder if his hand is simply numb or if he even has his hand at all.  Likewise,we have to ask if our soul’s sensitivity to suggestive (or explicit) content is numb or if we even had that sensitivity in the first place.  Bishop Swint is an example of one possessing this sensitivity and so it seems that numbness is, indeed, the issue at hand.  The DNA of modern humans has not changed in order to become more numb, rather, the numbness is something that develops within us do to harmful exposure.  Bishop Swint comments on preventing this exposure:

Do not attend a picture show, or any
Photo by o5comother show, until you know beforehand that it is clean.  This thing of going to picture shows indiscriminately, or of allowing your children to go indiscriminately, is all wrong.  You have no right to attend a picture show till you know beforehand that it is clean, and you have no right to allow your  children to attend
till you know beforehand that it is clean.

We have the moral responsibility to guard ourselves and our children from the filth out there and to realize that we are numb rather than saying that the sensitivity isn’t there in the first place.  What profits a man if he gives his soul for the whole world… but for Hollywood?


  1. Devil’s advocate: is it possible the good bishop was overly sensitive? It is possible to see evil where there is none. Let’s not forget, for instance, what Pope Gregory XVI thought of railroads. Bring on the discussion!

    • And Pope Pius X calling the piano a profane instrument.

      Railroads don’t objectify the human person.

      • Devil’s advocate: That’s beside the point. The point is that it’s easy to see something as evil that isn’t actually evil. Trust me, I know.

        Oh, and the piano is a profane instrument, inasmuch as it isn’t sacred.

        • I didn’t say Pius X was wrong…
          It’s in tra le sollecitudini

  2. “And Pope Pius X calling the piano a profane instrument. ”

    It is profane in the context of the liturgy.


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