Monday, February 01, 2010

Sin in the Movies

To what degree are actors in films responsible for the sins they sometimes depict in their characters? This is a question that I have mulled over for a long time and which I am finally going to attempt to answer here. The occasion of this topic is that over this weekened my wife and I were watching the Back to the Future trilogy, which we thoroughly enjoyed save for a few regrettable instances in Part I where Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) blasphemed. It is so awful when you are watching an otherwise good movie and a blasphemy is thrown in - it's a terrible feeling, probably akin to finding a finger in your Wendy's chili. At any rate, the question I propose to deal with is whether or not actors and actresses are morally culpable for sins they depicit on screen?

Please note, I am not attempting to answer to what degree (or if at all) the viewer sins by watching a depiction of sin in the movies, only whether or not the actors themselves are guilty of sin.

The first thing I want to get out of the way is the standard excuse, that "they're just acting" and therefore the actors in a movie have no accountability for anything they act out. This has never been a satisfactory answer as far as I am concerned - the same excuse could be made for actors in pornographic films. Of course, most would say there is a difference between a porno movie and the types of sinful behavior depicted in your standard R-rated film, though perhaps not by much. This brings up a good question - what is the difference between the actual sex performed in a pornographic film and the soft-core sex of an R-rated film that might contain "respectable" actors doing everything other than actual penetration? If the latter is alright because they are just "acting", it is difficult to see on what grounds the former is unacceptable.

But before we get into that, I think it is helpful to classify what types of sins can be depicted on film.

In the first place, we have sins that can be innocently simulated, that is, sins that can be imitated without actual commission. This is when an actor appears to be doing something sinful in the film that would indeed be sinful in real life, but which because of the situation, circumstances, etc. is not an actual sin. An example would be a bank robbery depicted in a movies. Were a person to do what is simulated in the movies in real life, it would be a serious sin; but because the actor is not holding up a bank but acting out a script, because the people he is robbing are not real employees of a bank but other actors who are "in on it," because the money he is stealing is not real money but fake, because the bank is not even a bank but a set and everything has been pre-determined, because nothing has really been stolen since everything is returned to its place when the shoot is over, we would be hard pressed to say the actor is guilty of committing an actual bank robbery. The same could be said for scenes when somebody is "killed" on screen - nobody is actually killed, nor is their anger or malice involved; these sorts of sins can be simulated without being actually committed. I think it would be easy to say then that actors can simulate these sorts of behaviors without being guilty of sin.

But this pertains only to the act itself - what about things relating to how the act is portrayed? Films can depict a bank robbery innocently enough, but is the bank robbery glamorized? Is it portrayed just matter-of-factly, or is it depicted negatively? The culpability of the actors in these cases depends on the degree to which the evil action they depict makes the viewer want to imitate it. But now we are talking about the effects of the actor on the viewer; I am more interested in looking at whether the actor sins by virtue of the act itself.

Besides sins that can be innocently simulated, we have another class: sins that cannot be simulated without commission. These are sins that you either commit or you don't, and if you attempt to simulate them, you commit them. The only way to not commit them is to not simulate them, or in other words, there is no difference between simulation and commission.

Let's take blasphemy. If the script calls for the actor to blaspheme, the actor must actually say the blasphemous words. If he says something different, he may laudably have avoided blasphemy, but he has not simulated it either. You either blaspheme or you don't. In what does the blasphemy consist? In the words spoken. Therefore, the actor, by the very fact that he reads the blasphemous lines in the script does actually commit blasphemy. If he wants to not commit blasphemy, he needs to not say those lines but alter them.

Isn't the culpability reduced because he is only playing a role? I would say it is increased rather than decreased. A man who blasphemes after hitting his thumb with a hammer is less culpable than one who readas a blasphemy from a script, for several reasons:

1) The scripted blasphemy is premeditated, rehearsed and done with absolute intentionality, unlike the latter case where the man simply blurts it out because of pain.

2) The scripted blasphemy is intended for an audience - not only this, but by the fact that the director/cast hopes the film will do well, they intention that their blasphemy have as large an audience as possible. Contrast this with the man who hits his hand, whose spontaneous blasphemy is meant for no one else and who would be embarassed to have his angry outburst published abroad.

3) The scripted blasphemy is worse because the actor takes money for his role. This is evident by the fact that, had someone not come along and offered him money for the role, he would not be in the studio reading the blasphemy. This (in my opinion) is even worse if the actor is a Catholic ("I would never blaspheme in real life, but if I get paid to do it in a movie, then sure.")

In this particular instance (blasphemy), we can see that there is no difference between simulating blasphemy and committing blasphemy. In my opinion, actors should refuse to read blasphemous lines. There are so many easy ways to substitute other, less offensive things for a blasphemy. Besides, blasphemies are never really needed in films - there is no good reason why a blasphemy should ever be included in a movie. What does it really add to a film to have an actor say "GD"? Why couldn't they just say, "Dammit" without the Lord's name appended to the front?

Everything I said above with regards to blasphemy is also true of certain sexual depictions. I am not speaking here of pornographic acts, which we all know are wrong, but of other romantic actions - for example, laying in bed together semi-clothed, simulating sex acts, passionately kissing, etc. An actor cannot "pretend" to passionately kiss an actress without actually doing it. He can peck her on the cheek or do the kinds of fake kisses that they do in plays, which would be acceptable. But if they actually passionately kiss each other, then they are actually doing what they are simulating.

Does lust cease to burn because they are acting? More importantly, what are these actors and actresses guilty of if they are married in real life? It is my opinion that these actors are actually guilty of adultery. Take an example from Mel Gibson, whom we know to be married in real life (at least until recently). In the film Braveheart, if I remember correctly, Gibson does two romantic scenes with two different actresses, one in which both he and the actress appear nude. We know Gibson had a wife while he was filming these scenes. Does this cease to be infidelity because cameras are rolling? Ladies, would you feel comfortable if your husband did such things for money in front of a camera? The same is also true for Jim Caviezel in The Count of Monte Cristo.

We must ask ourselves - in what does adultery or adulterous actions consist? Do they not consist in doing romantic physical gestures with other persons while being married? Is there any definition of adultery that anybody can find that makes execptions for actors and actresses? If we are going to make exceptions, perhaps saying that Gibson's nude romance scene in Braveheart is acceptable because they are "only acting", then what of the porno actors who are in the same boat, albeit in a little bit deeper water? It seems to me that you must affirm both or esle acknowledge that both are sinful.

I'm sure there are other of these types of sins besides blasphemy and sexuality, but I mention these two because they are the two that most frequently sour movies I attempt to watch (which is not often). The key to which sins can be "safely" simulated and which cannot seems to be in whether the action is intrinsically evil or not - it is not always intrinsically evil to point a gun at somebody and shoot it - in this case, like if it is a pretend gun and a faked killing for part of a theatrical production. But it is always sinful to blaspheme; there is never a time or condition that can make blasphemy meritorious or even morally neutral. The same can be said about adulterous actions.

The saddest thing is that, from a strictly thematic viewpoint, sexuality and blasphemy never add to the plot of a film (unless the film itself is about blasphemy or sexuality, in which case it should have never been made). Think about it - was it necessary in order to move the plot of Braveheart along to see Mel Gibson nude with another woman? It the storyline of Back to the Future benefitted or deepend by having Marty say "GD"? How does it add to the themes of revenge and justice in the The Count of Monte Cristo to see a half-clothed Jim Caviezel two times simulating sex with another woman? In all of these cases, the films would have lost nothing by simply omitting these scenes; in fact, they would have gained much. Depicting sins like this add nothing to the plot and only make the film more difficult to watch for Christians who are embarassed and scandalized by this behavior.

These actions are even worse if the actors are Catholics.

These are just my opinions, but I think they are pretty well-thought out and synonymous with what we know about the culpability of our actions. If anybody has anything to add, I'd love to hear it. The really absurd thing is that, despite all this, there are plenty of perfectly good films that are getting a PG-13 rating for "Depicitons of Smoking"...


Ben G said...

This is so weird! I was wondering exactly about this about a week ago, and even with the specific example of Mel Gibson (in the movie "What women want"). In that, the self-confessed traditional Catholic plays a notorious womaniser, he cross-dresses, utters various profanities/the usual blasphemies, and tells a girlfriend (with whom we see simulated sex) that he is gay, all to get out of his affair with her and to get into the bed of his boss. An awful movie.

David Larsson said...

Interesting post. If I may suggest it, I would really enjoy a similar exposé over the culpability of watching movies depicting sinful behaviour, since you can't barely watch a movie without seeing some sort of blasphemy uttered or sexualistic behaviour depicted. I'm personally not sure whether a person would be culpable under such circumstances, so a discussion of the topic would be much appreciated.

In Christ,

BONIFACE said...


That would be an interesting discussion, but one I am probably going to stay away from because I have no clear answer on it and I think it is probably too subjective to come up with any sort of categorical rule of thumb. This is also why I oppose those like Fr Basil Nortz and Andrew Pudewa who try and make a case that entire genre's of music of sinful because of the drumbeats they conbtain.

Anonymous said...

I am wondering the culpability of telling my Dept. Chair the words some students were using in class. I had to tell him the blasphemous words. I was thinking in my head the whole time, "Bless and Praise Jesus' Holy name." But I had to tell him due to a complaint since I threatened to kick the guys out of class who blasephemed.

Anonymous said...

I am very disturbed by the general redefining of the hero/good guy as someone who is sexually active, usually with the heroine.

Perhaps it started with James Bond, who was a 'bad boy' but now even Superman has had an affair. :(

Curtis said...

This is an interesting discussion.

There seems to be two factors in play here. One is our culture's adherence to the ethic of intentionalism - that is, only ones intentions make an action right or wrong. The idea is that a lower bad action can be justified by a higher good intention. The second one is the exaltation of art as a moral sui generis, capable of granting absolving sins done for the sake of art.

I'd imagine Catholic actors in agreeing to act out such scenes are thinking 1) my intention is only to create art and 2) art enables, and sometimes requires, artists to sin.

Quaeritur: It would seem that a nude model for a painter/sculptor commits no sin and neither does the artist. Why?

(Probably because nudity per se is not sinful, whereas, say, passionately kissing a woman who is not your wife is sinful.)

Anonymous said...


What makes such a kiss passionate? That it looks passionate, or that the participants experience passion while kissing? Isn't it possible to have the first without the second?

BONIFACE said...


I don't know...that's a little too subjective, and physical expressions are pretty objective. I'd say if they open there mouths, use tongue, etc. then it can be considered a "passionate' kiss, regardless of what the actors may feel subjectively.

Anonymous said...

Then what exactly makes it sinful?

BONIFACE said...

Because the sin is in the completion of the physical action, regardless of how one subjectively feels about it. Doing the act makes it sinful, just like when you kill the sin is in the killing, whether or not you are angry with the person you happen ot kill.

Are you suggesting that as long as I'm not passionately aroused then it is okay for me to kiss other women even though I am married?

Curtis said...

With many sins, a lack of passion increases culpability, cf. premeditated murder versus a crime of passion.

Nick said...

It's been suggested that since Michael J Fox was so fond of blaspheming on movies that God struck him with Parkinsons.

BONIFACE said...


Seriously? I never thought of Michael J. Fox as a blasphemer - he blasphemed a couple of times in Back to the Future I, but there was no blasphemy in part II or part III. I guess it's always possible...but then again, isn't Parkinson's what JP2 had? Nobody would suggest he was a blasphemer.

Nick said...

I'm not suggesting anyone someone suffers it's on account of God punishing, but I don't rule that out either. Further, two people can be suffering the same thing but for two different reasons.

BONIFACE said...


You're right, I think. I'm not contesting that God can punish in various ways...I was just questioning the degree to which it can really be said that Michael J. Fox was "fond" of blasphemy.

I think a more compelling argument could be made from the sad state of Hollywood marriages...

John-Henry said...

I agree about sexual content. I'm not so sure about swearing, you didn't address issues of verisimilitude and whether the intention behind a word (i.e. just acting or really meaning it) has any bearing on its morality. Also, you may be interested in reading Behind the Screen, a book written by Christians inside Hollywood. It deals with many prejudices Christians have against Hollywood.

Anonymous said...

Fr. Chad Ripperger addresses this issue in his homily about movies available at his website

In his sermon he says that films that contain such things as nudity and taking of the Lord's name in vain are sins that cannot be simulated and the film is therefore evil. This confused me because I note that even the Vatican's list of the 50 greatest movies of all time contains some films that contain these sins. Schlinder's list has a scene that depicts a Nazi soldier standing at a window shooting at nude hapless victims while at the same time we are shown his topless lover sprawled on the bed in the background. To me the scene of the lover was completely gratuitous. Another film that made it to the Vatican's list was "The Scarlet and the Black" which has the protagonist Msgr. Hugh O'Flaherty taking the Lord's name in vain at least one time. I note that even the USCCB movie reviews contains some movies that have objectionable elements such as nudity, profanity and taking the Lord's name in vain that are deemed acceptable for adults. What if a film has some flawed elements but the overall message is morally good and even spiritually uplifting does that mean we are to reject it altogether?

I was so confused by Fr. Ripperger's homily that I sent him an email asking for clarification. This is the response I received.

"The degree of the sin by cooperation by watching the particular movie that contains something offensive to God is directly proportionate to the particular sin that the person commits that cannot be simulated. So in the case of the Scarlet and the Black, because the sins are venial, then watching it would be venially sinful. If the movie was to contain some kind of mortal sin like some type of nudity or something like that, then obviously those would be mortally sinful. I hope this helps. God bless.

Fr. R."

As regards Fathers comment about nudity, I think that would depend on the individual whether would be mortally or venially sinful to watch. Not all people are incited to lust just because they happen to see a fleeting image of nudity. Only those who struggle with lust would be sinning mortally if they were to watch such a film. This would extend to all art that has nudity I would imagine. For the rest of us it would be venially sinful. I think that is was Father is trying to say. In any event he is trying to exhort us to practice heroic virtue.

I just wanted to point out that listening to these sermons is not free. We are given the option of donating a $1.00 or saying a decade of the rosary for Fr. Ripperger.

Anonymous said...

Because, when watching a movie, we cannot always know ahead of time the content to which we will be exposed, then the following may be helpful in evaluating our personal culpability.

No intention, no consent: No Sin

No intention, some consent: Venial Sin

No intention, full consent: Mortal Sin

Direct intention: Mortal Sin

So, if you a watching a PG film, and they throw in blasphemy or nudity, you are probably ok, as long as you don't rewind it to see it again. If it is rated R, you are likely to incur venial sin and perhaps mortal sin. If you are watching something that you know will have gratuitous sex or blasphemy, then that is direct intention, and so objectively you are guilty of mortal sin.

It is unfortunate that you can incur mortal sin just by watching commercials. "Hey, look at the girl eating the hamburger! She's Hot!" Mortal Sin!

Turn off your TV.


TNPapist said...

I know that you wanted to avoid discussing the sin committed by the viewer, but I think it should get an article after your vacation. Maybe you could get a priest you know to discuss his thoughts on the matter. The issue is that I have heard wildly contradictory views on the subject even from Catholics with otherwise similar views.

In the meantime I hope your long term vacation goes well and isn't too long.

God bless.
(I don't remember if I told you before, but I read War against the Papacy and came to agree with it's arguments. Thank you for suggesting it)

TNPapist said...

The only issue with the above comment is that one may argue that watching is implicitly giving at least some amount of consent (this seems to be the crux of Fr. Ripperger's argument). I think that this topic will warrant an article.

Boniface said...

Definitely, TN. Don't know when that will be, but hopefully this spring.

Thanks for the comment on "War Against the Papacy." A lot of people gave me flak for publishing Jim Larson's work, but I (pretty much) stand by it.

TNPapist said...

Thanks for the reply. Part of the reason I got interested in the question is that some movies like Becket have inappropriate content in them (a very awkward scene when Becket meets with the King in France before he is made biahop). I tried to start a thread on Fish Eaters about the topic (because Becket is a recommended movie on the site) but it fizzled out relatively quickly.