My next topic is one of the most important art censorship cases in U.S. history. It began in 1951 with a ban on a short film called The Miracle, by the Italian neorealist master, Roberto Rossellini, and ended in a monumental Supreme Court decision. The case also raised profound questions about the separation of church and state, questions that still bedevil our society today.
Let me give you an overview of the case; afterwards, I'll talk in more detail about the history of film censorship, the pivotal role of the Catholic Church, and some of the lessons of the Miracle case.
Late in December 1950, Rossellini's Il Miracolo opened at the Paris Theater in Manhattan. The film is a religious parable featuring a dim-witted peasant woman, Nanni (played brilliantly by Anna Magnani), who is plied with drink and then seduced by a vagabond whom she mistakes in her stupor for St. Joseph. (St. Joseph is played by the young Federico Fellini, who also wrote the screenplay.)
It's not clear whether Nanni is even awake for the actual sex, but in any event, she soon discovers she is pregnant and decides it is an immaculate conception. Her fellow villagers are not so naive; they mock and torment her, even singing religious hymns as they parade her through the streets with a basin instead of a halo on her head. Nanni escapes to a hilltop church, and experiences a beatific moment of religious ecstasy after giving birth alone on the church floor.
When released in Italy in 1948, The Miracle was harshly criticized by the Catholic Cinematographic Center - an arm of the Vatican devoted to vetting movies for moral propriety. But it was not banned - indeed, it was shown at the Venice Film Festival, where works considered blasphemous by the Vatican would not have been allowed. The Vatican's semi-official newspaper, Osservatore Romano, published a guardedly appreciative review, noting that "objections from a religious viewpoint are very grave," but also pointing to "scenes of undoubted screen value," and concluding that "we still believe in Rossellini's art."
In New York City, public officials were not so broadminded. City License Commissioner Edward McCaffrey, a former state commander of the Catholic War Veterans, announced that he found The Miracle "officially and personally blasphemous," and ordered the manager of the Paris to stop showing it. The next day, the Catholic Church's Legion of Decency called The Miracle a "blasphemous mockery of Christian-religious truth," and McCaffrey suspended the theater's license.
The film's distributor, Joseph Burstyn, filed a lawsuit to challenge McCaffrey. Burstyn was a champion of foreign films; several years earlier, he had introduced Americans to the glories of post-World War II European cinema by exhibiting Rossellini's masterpiece, Open City. Movie star Ingrid Bergman, bored by performing in formulaic Hollywood vehicles, was entranced by Open City when she saw it, and by Rossellini's next feature, Paisan. Whereupon she sent Rossellini one of the more famous letters in cinema history. "I am ready to come and make a film with you," Bergman wrote, even though I know only two words in Italian: "Ti amo." With this introduction, it was probably only a matter of time before Bergman deserted her husband and ran off with Rossellini. The affair was still good tabloid copy when The Miracle opened at the Paris in Manhattan as part of a trilogy of short foreign films called The Ways of Love.
Burstyn's lawsuit came before a judge who, at a preliminary hearing, questioned McCaffrey's power to censor movies. Film censorship was well-entrenched in New York, but it was vested in the state Board of Regents, not the municipal license commissioner. Exhibitors had to apply in advance to the state board before showing any film. McCaffrey backed off and lifted his ban.
But now a more powerful figure, Francis Cardinal Spellman, entered the fray, with a statement attacking The Miracle that he ordered read at every mass in all 400 parishes of the huge New York Archdiocese. Spellman, a right-winger whose political power was such that he was known as the "American Pope," had not seen The Miracle, but he had heard about it. This was enough for him to condemn the film as "a despicable affront to every Christian" and "a vicious insult to Italian womanhood" which should really be named "'Woman Further Defamed,' by Roberto Rossellini" (a reference, of course, to the affair with Bergman). Spellman said it was "a blot upon the escutcheon of the Empire State that no means of appeal to the Board of Regents is available to the people for the correcting of the mistake made by its motion picture division" in giving a license to exhibit The Miracle in the first place.
Picketing began at the Paris the same day, and continued for several weeks. Sometimes numbering more than 1,000, these representatives of the Catholic War Veterans, Knights of Columbus, and Archdiocesan Union of the Holy Name Society carried signs bearing such messages as: "This Picture is an Insult to Every Decent Woman and Her Mother," "This Picture is Blasphemous," and "Don't be a Communist – all the Communists are inside." They yelled similar affronts: "Don't enter that cesspool!", "Buy American!," "Don't look at that filth!
Eight days after Cardinal Spellman's lament that there was no way for the state to rectify its error in licensing The Miracle, a way was found. A three-man committee of the Board of Regents convened, viewed the film, and declared it "sacrilegious." Four days later, the full Board directed Burstyn to "show cause" why the exhibition license should not be withdrawn. And on February 15, 1951, despite briefs supporting artistic freedom from the Authors League, prominent Protestant clergy, the ACLU, and assorted writers and intellectuals, the full Board ruled that the film was sacrilegious and therefore in violation of New York's 30 year-old film censorship law. The Miracle parodied the Immaculate Conception and Virgin Birth, they explained, " - concepts "sacred to [millions of our people]," and inexcusably associated them with "drunkenness, seduction, mockery and lewdness."
Burstyn's attorney, the First Amendment expert Ephraim London, now took an appeal; but the state courts rejected his arguments that not only the sacrilege standard, but the very existence of movie licensing, violated the First Amendment. On the contrary, using a rationale that is often heard today from those advocating state benefits for religion, the New York judges said they were simply accommodating citizens' religious preferences. Not to protect believers against "gratuitous insult" to their religious beliefs, according to the state Court of Appeals' logic, would amount to discrimination against them and hence an infringement of their freedom "to worship and believe as they choose."
The appeals court disposed of arguments by both London and the American Jewish Congress (in a friend-of-the-court brief) that the Church-driven censorship of The Miracle violated the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, which prohibits Congress from making any "law respecting an establishment of religion," and is generally understood to mandate the separation of church and state. The state's obeisance to Cardinal Spellman yielded only an "incidental" benefit to religion, said the court; and in any event, "[w]e are essentially a religious nation, ... of which it is well to be reminded now and then."
London now appealed to the Supreme Court; and in a unanimous decision in May 1952 in the case of Burstyn v. Wilson, the Court declared "sacrilege" far too vague a censorship standard to be permitted under the First Amendment. Weaving an elaborate metaphor, Justice Tom Clark wrote for the Court that trying to decide what qualifies as sacrilege sets the censor "adrift upon a boundless sea amid a myriad of conflicting currents of religious views, with no charts but those provided by the most vocal and powerful orthodoxies." He added that "it is not the business of government ... to suppress real or imagined attacks upon a particular religious doctrine."
Clark noted in passing that banning films because of sacrilege might also "raise substantial questions" under the Establishment Clause; indeed, censorship based on a standard like "sacrilege" inevitably favors vocal and powerful religions over quieter and weaker ones. "Under such a standard, the most careful and tolerant censor would find it virtually impossible to avoid favoring one religion over another."
But Clark stopped short of deciding the case on Establishment Clause grounds - with consequences that reverberate today. With government vouchers funding religious schools, a White House Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, and widespread outrage last summer over a federal court decision recognizing that the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance represent government endorsement of religion, we are still wrestling with the issues in the Miracle case.