Catholic News Service
Children play a family-friendly Wii video game at their home in New York.
Catholic News Service
Children play a family-friendly Wii video game at their home in New York.
Decades ago, one of my first newspaper jobs included proofreading the Legion of Decency's list of movie no-nos.

Remember the Legion of Decency? It was the modern version of the church's Middle Ages Index of Forbidden Books expanded to film. The goal, when the Legion of Decency was launched in 1933, was laudable: encourage the motion picture industry to produce wholesome films by rating them. And slapping on the dreaded C rating if they didn't measure up.

Catholics who slipped into a C movie were to be chastened. And darn well better get to confession. Soon. For a while, Legion of Decency ratings discouraged making and distributing offensive films. However, considering the fare on marquees lately, the Legion of Decency's goal hasn't exactly worked out as hoped.

What happened? The culture has shifted dramatically, and not always for the better.

When I was younger, if I'd wanted to check out one of those C flicks, I'd have to sneak into an out-of-the-way theater and feel guilty for weeks. Today, it's different. What was condemned then is now mainstream.

And not just books and films. Music, videos, the Internet are too often offensive. Worse, it's all as close as the computer I'm writing this column on. Or even on my smartphone. Clearly, the battle for good entertainment is lost.

It's a popular joke, though hardly funny, that we are often "entertained" in our living rooms by people we wouldn't want in our homes.

C for Condemned eventually became O for Morally Offensive and the Legion of Decency morphed into the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Office for Film and Broadcasting. The index, designed to protect the morals of the faithful by banning information -- and temptation -- was relaxed before its 1966 abolishment.

Today, the church continues to offer guidance regarding films and some other media, including video games. Ratings are distributed by Catholic News Service and available through diocesan publications and websites. The still-laudable goal remains: identify some of what passes for "entertainment" as potentially damaging to souls.

But that's hardly enough.

As a parent and grandparent and longtime journalist, I've watched the cultural erosion with concern. In response, some may think the church should return to the days of condemning offensive entertainment and media -- and the people who patronize and produce them. But those days are beyond recapture. It's even questionable -- sadly -- whether the church still has the power to influence the media that washes over us daily.

Does this mean that the church and the faithful should surrender to media that threatens to drown morality? Of course not. But it does mean changing tactics. Though the word doesn't get used enough in today's society, morally offensive media is still sinful. And it's still a violation of human dignity.

If a reinvigorated Legion of Decency, or its ilk, isn't the answer, what is? How about teaching more and better personal responsibility? That's a role and a duty that has shifted from the hierarchical church to the laity.

The church hasn't always been big on personal responsibility, preferring top-down direction. Witness both the Index of Forbidden Books and the Legion of Decency. However, today society has moved from an external morality to one in which personal choices and awareness of right and wrong is vitally important. That's a parental job, but it must be supported by good conscience formation, good information, strong homilies and good spiritual guidance.

Should the church critique our entertainment opportunities? Certainly. It must also provide families with the tools, and encouragement, to properly form consciences. On their part, parents must become educated about today's entertainment and what their kids are watching. And they must strengthen their knowledge of faith and morality. The church can't do it without them.

The writer is a former editor of The Catholic New World, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Chicago and a deacon ordained for the Diocese of Joliet, Ill.