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80th anniversary of Vigilanti Cura and OCIC

Tuesday 28 June 2016, by SIGNIS

Brussels, June 28, 2016 (Guido Convents) On June 29, 1936 the first encyclical letter on cinema was published by Pope Pius XI. It was a significant one and it opted also for certain political positions. It had an important influence on Hollywood’s film production for the next three decades. This in a country, the United States, where only about 18% of the population was Catholic. It also showed the Vatican policy towards the International Catholic Office for Cinema (OCIC): openly friendly but at the same time behind the Vatican Walls policies were set up to finish with this kind of a committed lay apostolate in cinema.

Although the Pope had showed in a letter to OCIC president Brohée an interest and even supported his lay apostolate in cinema openly in 1934, he didn’t make almost no references to OCICs work and views on cinema in his Encyclical Vigilanti Cura (1936). The Pope had prefered to ask the American Bishops for advice and he had opted for the vision of the Legion of Decency towards cinema, which meant mainly considering film as a danger and an evil.

At the Milan conference on Cinema and Catholics in Italy which was held early June 2016, the Italian historian Gianluca della Maggiore highlighted in detail how American bishops were involved in the writing of the Encyclical letter. He revealed also for the first time the role of the German Jesuit Friederich Mückermann. Mückermann had strong links with OCIC but his interventions to give OCIC and the Catholic Action in cinema a voice were ostensibly not heard or even not considered. He apparently brought in the element of the danger of authoritarian states like Germany who used the cinema to propagate anti-catholic values. In these years the Vatican didn’t trust OCIC, although this lay organization was headed by two priests. In adopting the American Bishop’s policy on cinema, the Vatican wanted to submit this also as a universal view to the Catholics worldwide.

The American Bishop’s had with the Legion of Decency an influence on Hollywood and Hollywood’s cinema was seen worldwide. OCIC had a different philosophy, which was diversity and using cinema as a positive medium in the evangelisation. In every country, the national office and member of OCIC was embedded in a local culture which determinate also the moral appreciation of films. It considered the Catholic cinemagoer as someone who could make choices, when well informed. This meant it had to develop the work of moral film appreciation, criticism and journalism , WIth the information of the national Catholic film association the cinemagoer had to be able to decide for himself which film he wanted to see. In writing and promoting the “good” films – artistically and morally- in a professional way, OCIC and its national members wanted also to influence the distribution of films.

For the Vatican the policy and philosophy of OCIC was not clear (the moral appreciation for the same film in i.e. Germany could differ with the one in France).It was different from its own policy towards cinema, which was based on a top down policy.. In the Vatican it was Mgr Giuseppe Pizzardo in the secretary of State and linked to the Catholic Action, who did everything in the years 1934-1937 to make an end of OCIC. He almost succeeded but he couldn’t execute his plans because he was appointed in December 1937 Cardinal and got another function in the Vatican.

With Vigilanti Cura, Pope Pius XI was opting for a dual policy: the first was the American one which was for those countries in which Church and state were separated. This meant that the bishops could put pressure on the film industry via their moral codes. In this way they hoped to influence the number of cinemagoers who would go to the films. The second one was more directed to authoritarian fascists countries like Italy - and later Spain where the encyclical letter turned out into a kind of cleric-fascist love story, remarked Michel Lagrée in her article L’Encyclique Vigilanti Cura sur le cinema (1936) published in Rome in 1996.

And OCIC in this story! It had to struggle for the next twenty years (1934-1954) to be appreciated by the Vatican. Although there was the pressure of the Legion of Decency OCIC did continue to believe that education towards film and film literacy was indispensable!

The Belgian researchers Dr Leen Engelen and Lieven Boesen, who are studying these days the OCIC archives at the KADOC, explained that the Vatican wish to finish with OCIC was still present in the beginnings of the 1950s. After the war, Mgr Ferdinando Prosperini was the representative of Italy in OCIC and became even its vice president, He changed his policy completely of supporting OCIC, the moment he was appointed secretary of the newly founded Commissione Pontificia per la Cinematografia Didattica Religiosa! Without the approval of the board of OCIC he did nominate himself as member of this commission representing OCIC.

The Commissione Pontificia per la Cinematografia Didattica Religiosa had an action plan and a mission which was such that it could be seen as the Vatican way to replace or to neutralize OCIC. Only by negotiations with the Vatican in which OCIC members as Andrei Ruszkowski played a role, the attitude of this commission could be changed. At the same time OCIC announced also that it intended to establish a Missionary secretariat in the Vatican so that there would be a presence of OCIC at the Vatican.
From the mid 1950s the Vatican did accept the way OCIC considered its cinema apostolate. It became also for Rome obvious that OCIC was able to respond better to the cultural changes in the Catholic World world wide than the Legion of Deceny.

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