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Michael O’BrienDecember 06, 2023
Martin Scorsese and crew filming a scene in “The Irishman” in a Catholic Church in Queens (IMDB)

In a memorable scene from what some consider to be the greatest film of all time, mafioso Michael Corleone stands as godfather at the baptism of his sister’s son as his loyal disciples kill off the heads of other mob families.

This iconic moment from “The Godfather” is a brilliant juxtaposition between the sanctity of baptism and the grisly act of murder. It contrasts the purifying nature of water and the spilled blood staining the streets of New York. The scene also raises the question of whether or not a church would have allowed the filming to take place today.

On Nov. 10, America published a piece exploring the link between religious iconography and sexual themes in pop music. The article came as a response to a controversial music video that singer Sabrina Carpenter filmed in a Brooklyn church. The video drew criticism from many Catholic groups because of Carpenter’s outfit and tombstones with profanities present on the altar, and her presence in the sanctuary resulted in the church’s pastor being relieved of his administrative duties.

Whether it be the work of Mia Barnes, the director of Carpenter’s video, or Francis Ford Coppola, director of “The Godfather,” it seems that there are no universal guidelines for what should or shouldn’t be allowed to be filmed in a parish church.

Whether it be the work of Mia Barnes or Francis Ford Coppola, it seems that there are no universal guidelines for what should or shouldn’t be allowed to be filmed in a parish church.

Speaking about the filming of the baptism scene in “The Godfather,”which took place at the old Saint Patrick’s Cathedral on Mulberry Street in New York, Eddie Seibert, S.J. said, “Looking back, you wonder if the pastor, when he approved, knew if this would create any problems and if he knew what the film was all about.” Father Seibert is a senior lecturer at the School of Film and Television at Loyola Marymount University and the founder and president of Loyola Productions in Los Angeles, with years of experience in the film industry. He said that the question of what can be filmed in churches varies from place to place.

“There's no precedent that I’m aware of, in terms of how you go about this. Depending on how savvy the pastor is, it’s going to be up to them to decide whether something is going to be allowed or not allowed in their particular church.”

This does not mean that some dioceses have not devised their own set of explicit rules, however. Two archdioceses in California have set practices in place when it comes to filming in churches.

The headaches caused by the filming of Carpenter’s video might have been avoided if Brooklyn had a concrete set of directives like the ones used by the Archdiocese of San Jose. “Music videos are typically only considered if the artist is a Catholic musician who has the endorsement of their pastor and/or bishop,” it states.

The guidelines also specify rules for other art forms being filmed in their churches. “Fictional movies, television shows, student films, etc., are typically only considered if the movie contains a Catholic or Christian message in line with the teachings of the Catholic Church. Projects with topics of the occult, ‘monster movies,’ violence, or any project that would be rated higher than PG-13 by the MPAA will not be considered or approved.”

Projects that approach the archdiocese for approval also go through an intensive review period which can last up to three weeks.

Similarly, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles provides an extensive User Agreement for Film, which states that any media shot in a church “shall be done with respect and dignity, fully avoiding any offensive material that is not in accordance with the moral and spiritual principles of the Roman Catholic Church, including but not limited to sexually explicit, brutally violent, sacrilegious or blasphemous imagery or dialogue.”

Historically, the relationship between the Catholic Church and Hollywood has been one both of cooperation and conflict. For example, between 1934-68, the church and moviemakers had an extended, intermingled relationship. This was the period when America’s major motion picture studios adhered to the Hays Code.

Between 1934-68, the church and moviemakers had an extended, intermingled relationship. This was the period when America’s major motion picture studios adhered to the Hays Code.

The code was drafted by renowned Jesuit theater producer and film consultant Daniel A. Lord, S.J. and Martin Quigley, editor of the prominent trade paper Motion Picture Herald. It provided guidelines for the movie industry to assist in self-censoring content that was more appropriate for wide audiences than what was being filmed at the beginning of the 20th century. It was also seen as a way to restore morality to a Hollywood that  was plagued with scandal.

Adopted by William H. Hays, president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, the code contained a very specific set of rules with clear Catholic connections: sex scenes and profanity were prohibited. Notably, the code also forbade “ridicule of the clergy.”

Michael Breault, a Jesuit brother who worked on the Peabody Award-winning ABC/20th Century Fox series “Nothing Sacred,” noted the Catholic influence when it came to the supervision of morals in Hollywood films in the mid-1900s.

“The movies had a powerful effect on assimilating Catholicism in this country,” Brother Breault said.“They rounded out the rough edges of Catholicism for people and made it more sentimental, and the Hays Code is one cause of that.”

When I asked Brother Breault why he thought the number of movies with distinctive Catholic messages has dwindled since the turn of the century, his answer was simple: “Because [moviemaking] is a business about making money. People forget this—Hollywood is not in the business of art, it’s in the business of money. So they’re interested in what will appeal to a very broad spectrum of the market.”

“What parishes don't realize is that crews are extraordinarily hard on wherever they're shooting. You're talking about dozens of people trampling on your floor with heavy-duty material and a lot of equipment."

As far as filming in churches themselves, Father Seibert also brought attention to the fact that this generates unique challenges for filmmakers as compared to other movie sets. He noted the special difficulties when it comes to filmmakers who want to utilize the effects that stained glass provides and the spatial issues that arise due to the number of pews in some church spaces.

“Stained glass may be beautiful and it may look great, but the reality is you're going to need to bring in a lot of light from the outside to pour through the stained glass so that you can really see how beautiful it is,” he said. “Additionally, sometimes you’re going to need to remove pews, which is labor-intensive, in order to make it work.”

And for those parishes that do choose to allow film crews into their churches, Father Seibert also notes that they are often not aware of how much of a challenge it can be to host these large crews. “What parishes don't realize is that crews are extraordinarily hard on wherever they're shooting. You're talking about dozens of people trampling on your floor with heavy-duty material and a lot of equipment,” he said.

To protect churches from damage during filming, the comprehensive handbook for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles stipulates that “User will provide layout board and other protective floor coverings under all equipment used and in areas of heavy foot traffic when photographing interior portions of the Location.”

But for all the challenges that come for both the filmmakers and the parishes, Father Seibert said that the outcome is often one that does a lot of good for communities that allow filming in their churches. “Every community that I’ve been in touch with who has had a scene shot in their church is always kind of proud. I think they always enjoy sort of the perks of being able to say ‘Hey, that's our location.’ So what does it do? It brings the church into the viewers and then in a way it memorializes their space that it is special and unique.”

One classic example: Movie fans still flock to the United Methodist Church in La Verne, Cal., the site of the wedding scene from “The Graduate.” “‘People will be in the office or gardening,” longtime parishioner Alma Roberts was quoted, “and see someone peering into the sanctuary, with a camera around their neck. We know what they’re here for.’”

The practice of filming in churches provides an attractive prospect for pastors to both boost name recognition for their parish and allow Catholic media to permeate more into society at large. But the morality wire may be a tricky one to walk on, as pastors try to find a balance between the promotion of Catholic themes on the one hand and the avoidance of scandal on the other.

For more discussion of the church's relationship with film, check out this bonus episode of Jesuitical on Patreon, featuring two of this year's O'Hare Fellows!

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