Catholic film censor to re-examine its role

  • September 14, 2013

OTTAWA - A Quebec organization founded by the Canadian bishops more than 50 years ago to censor films will be re-examining its mission under a new CEO.

The Communications et Société board of directors has appointed Msgr. Pierre Murray, a priest of the Montreal archdiocese, to run the organization that has evolved significantly since its early days before the Second Vatican Council.

In 1957, the bishops were concerned about all the movies playing in the theatres, Murray said in an interview. It serves the French-speaking communities in Quebec and across Canada, though Murray said he hopes to improve its reach into the Maritimes and out West

“So they asked a team of priests based in Montreal to look at those films, to tell which ones you should go to and which you should avoid. Little-by-little it expanded.”

Though still linked to the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, Murray is the only priest on staff among the eight paid employees. Among them are three professional movie critics who are trained to recognize the artistic value of movies, Murray said.

“A baptized person with good specialization in that area has as much judgment as a priest would have. There is no need to have a priest everywhere.”

This is where a baptized person has a role in society, he said. When a priest speaks on morality or God “everyone expects that.”

“When a lay person stands up and expresses himself, sometimes that has more effect,” Murray said.

Communications et Société sends representatives to the Toronto International Film Festival, to Berlin and to Cannes to examine the latest releases. They provide reviews to let people know which movies are worth spending your money on, Murray said., one of its divisions, has a searchable database with information on more than 60,000 movies, Murray said.

While in the beginning the focus tended to be on ensuring Catholics would not be led astray, it has since changed to considering the artistic merit of movies. In 1968 a priest invented a rating system to evaluate the artistic content. A “one” would be a masterpiece like Babette’s Feast or Of God’s and Men, a 2011 movie based on Cistercian monks who were massacred in Algeria. A seven would be really bad, or pathetic, Murray said.

Instead of censorship, Communications et Société awards excellence in radio and television programs that through art further the goals of the Church and of the Gospel, he said. It will continue to evaluate movies, but Murray is undertaking a review of the organization’s mission in light of new media and the new evangelization.

“The entire way the Church is present in the media or not present in the media has to be our reflection,” he said.

Last spring, Communications et Société joined with the Association of Roman Catholic Communicators of Canada to organize a Symposium on the New Evangelization and Communications that drew 100 people. In 2010, it organized a conference on the future of Catholic media in French Canada.

Murray, who was ordained in 1991, has been teaching philosophy at Montreal’s Grand Seminary since 1990. He has previous media experience, having provided commentary for Radio Canada, the French-language CBC, for Pope John Paul II’s visit to Toronto in 2002, and other events, including all those surrounding the resignation of Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI and the election of Pope Francis. When the position of CEO opened up at Communications et Société, he applied and got the job.

“One of my tasks will be to make an accurate inventory of all the players in the media, to speak with them, to understand the problems we are facing and to adjust our mission to the needs and the mission of the Church,” he said.

It’s unlikely the new mission will see Communications et Société take an active public position on hot-button issues such as euthanasia or the proposed Charter of Quebec Values expected to be tabled in late September.

“In general the mentality in Quebec towards those questions is not the same as the English-speaking community,” he said. “We are more shy to express ourselves on those issues.”

Murray likes the approach Communications et Société has taken so far in recognizing the artistic value of movies.

“It’s not only the quality of the pictures, but also because of the themes that are expressed.”

A good movie helps us understand what it means to be a human being confronted with death, joy, sorrow, with difficulties, he said. “If a movie succeeds in expressing that with great talent” it will spark a conversation among friends, “an occasion to talk about your values and the way you live your life.”

Movies “have a great influence in a society in a culture, more than if we are just interested in whether they talk about religion or not, talk about religion in positive terms or not, or have too much sexuality or not,” he said. “This will make people look away.

“If we work hard to recognize the real artistic value of the movie, then our influence in society is much greater,” he said.
Babette’s Feast is not expressly religious, but shows many things related to the eucharistic celebration, he said.

“We believe that someone who sees that movie won’t be the same after,” he said. “The same thing after the movie about the monks in Algeria. It’s a fantastic movie. It’s not only about religion.”

Murray believes that even if movie makers do not have a Christian point of view, they have assimilated the Christian culture.

“When they produce their movie they are no strangers to Christianity because it is part of our DNA as a people,” he said. “Even though they don’t knowingly do something Christian, it has great value.

“I believe that the Spirit is not limited to frontiers of the Church. If a woman or man at her or his best can write a novel or a screenplay, produce a movie and reflect on a real human situation, our relation to death, to joy, to life, to commitment, to our faithfulness and lack of faithfulness, I’m sure the Spirit is not very far away.”

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