A question often asked is whether Catholics should watch or listen to popular media messages. Here are some ideas that may help to answer this question.

Some say there are two types of media: those that bring us closer to God and those that take us further away.  Media that bring us closer to God are exactly what you might expect: spiritual readings, prayer, Mass, non-fiction that is consistent with revealed truth, and fiction that takes place in a world where God exists. Other media (the heretical, the agnostic, the atheist, and the overtly evil or Satanic) will draw us away from Him.

This typology is overwhelmingly accurate and useful.  I propose, however, that one can sometimes experience the second type of media without changing one’s relative position between God and Perdition.  It depends upon the way the person interacts with it. There are ways to interact with non-Christian media that may not damage one’s soul.

Some people can successfully engage in intellectual battle with the evil inherent in the work. This requires extensive preparation, and often, more knowledgeable and spiritually powerful allies.  Picture any of the debates that G.K. Chesterton had during his lifetime. It is probable that he studied for those quite a bit and listened to the other side’s argument. He immersed himself in erroneous and sometimes evil ideas in order to pick apart the arguments and refute them. He was the kind of heroic figure who could face scholarly or popularly attractive errors and prevail against them again and again.

We cannot all be Chesterton. Some of us can, however, carefully and systematically assess parts of the popular culture as they are expressed in a single work of fiction or alleged non-fiction, identify the errors, reject them, and thank God fervently for the gift of His Truth.  We can do this more effectively and with less danger, if we undertake the work in groups with formidable mentors dedicated to and knowledgeable about the Truth.

To be able to interpret media, one has to understand the purpose of that media. I am going to first talk about music, and then about movies and television because they serve separate purposes.

Music serves several purposes. It can be something to drown out the voices in your head, it can be something soothing to fall asleep to, it can be something to jam to, or it can be something to meditate and pray with. That last use for music can and should primarily be religious music.

There is a way of measuring music that I like to use. It is called the 4 Ms. It is the Musical and Moral Merit Method. The first is the musical merit. Is it interesting lyrically or musically? Does it satisfy that need that most of us have? The need for whatever type of music fits us? The second is the moral merit. Does it have a moral side that fits with our own moral code? Does it betray any of the teachings of the Catholic Church?

The musical merit can be somewhat subjective, as people have different tastes in music, but certain artists, such as Eminem and Katy Perry, are objectively terrible at making music.

The moral merit is objective. If you hear a rap song that uses profanity, swear words, and foul language for every other word, that is likely not going to be in line with Church teaching. But most people forget that non-rap music can have damaging messages in it as well. Songs such as Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” which promotes revenge as a reasonable response to infidelity, and Michael Jackson’s “Girlfriend” which shows Michael Jackson having an affair with someone’s girlfriend, also have distinct non-Catholic messages in them. And there is no interpretation that can turn those bad messages good.

Similarly, the Bible condemns drunkenness and what is now generally called “partying” on numerous occasions.  Yet, most of us could name off the top of our heads a dozen songs about how great it is to drink to excess, get stoned, or generally mess around.  No interpretation could make these bad messages good either.

But movies and television shows are somewhat more nuanced, as usually, they do not explicitly state the message of the story unless they are particularly terribly written and were written with the sole intent of shoving a message in the audience’s face. As an example of nuance, take the musical Fiddler on the Roof, which is personally one of my favorite musicals.

Some might say that this musical put Christians into a bad light, as they are some of the bad guys in the story. However, my own interpretation dictates that all people have sinned and will continue to sin. As someone who had been done wrong by more than one Catholic in my life, it does not say anything about the Catholic Church as a whole. Not to mention the fact that the protagonist was friends with a Christian, the man who tried to argue against the expulsion of the Jewish people.

So interpretation is power. This in no way means that we should interpret everything loosely. The Bible is something so complex that it requires a certain frame of mind and frame of reference in order to interpret. But with many stories, what the author intended is of little consequence. It is about what each individual brings to the table when reading or watching a story. It is about what you, the reader, take away from it. If the message you take away from it is distinctly more Catholic than what the writer intended, then that just shows how powerful a muscle the brain is and, consequently, how powerless those in positions of authority within the companies that create that media really are.