Friday, March 6, 2020

Reflecting on “Silence”

I watched the Martin Scorsese film Silence last night. It was a well made film that makes one think about the ends and means of one’s actions. 

Saying that it’s well made is not an endorsement of its moral quality here. It’s not a film for casual viewing: the USCCB has given it an “L” rating (limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling). It’s a justified rating because the actions of the protagonist are incompatible with the teachings of the Catholic Church. The review rightly warns:

Those lacking such a foundation [of being well grounded in their faith] could be led astray, drawing the conclusion that mercy toward the suffering of others can sometimes justify sin. While Catholics who are blessed with the freedom to practice their faith in peace are hardly in a position to judge those facing martyrdom, the principle that circumstances can mitigate guilt but not transform wrong into right remains universally valid.

This article is not a review of the movie. Rather, it is a reflection on the attitude of the protagonist Fr. Sebastian Rodrigues. The thing that struck me as I watched it was a theme that came up again and again: The temptation to ask, How could God be “silent” in the face of suffering the Japanese Christians endured?

In this movie, Fr. Rodrigues couldn’t answer it and fell into doubt, witnessing the tortures the faithful endured, combined with the duress given by the chief persecutor and the spurious rationalizations made by another apostatizing priest. He ends up apostatizing himself, spending the rest of his life rooting out smuggled religious goods and writing “refutations” of the Catholic Faith. The movie implies that he might have repented in the end by showing, at his cremation, a small crucifix in his hands as his casket is consumed by fire. The book, by 

Shūsaku Endō, reportedly treated the apostasy by Fr. Rodrigues as a morally “good” act§ to save others from torment. Japanese Catholics almost unanimously condemned the book when it was published in 1966.

The thing that struck me, watching the film, was the slow motion train wreck of a trap that Fr. Rodrigues fell into. He couldn’t grasp how God could allow His people to suffer and began to see it as “silence” on the part of God. This weakened him under the torture the inquisitor (the movie’s chosen term) inflicted on Japanese Christians to get him to apostatize, telling him it was his fault and the spurious argument (posited by the apostate Ferreira) that Christianity wasn’t suited for Japan. The final result was “hearing” Jesus telling him to step on the fumi-e (a religious image suspected Christians were forced to step on as an act of apostasy) to be “like” him and save His people would certainly be an insult to the martyrs who died rather than perform a “meaningless” gesture like burn a pinch of incense in Roman times, step on the fumi-e in Japan, or in whatever form we might face the attack.

Persecution, the rise of heresy and schism, corruption in the Church, and other evils are not a sign of God’s “silence.” Nor are they signs of His “weakness” or “nonexistence.” We may not do evil so that good may come of them, and a good intention does not change the fact that an act is evil. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church points out:

1756 It is therefore an error to judge the morality of human acts by considering only the intention that inspires them or the circumstances (environment, social pressure, duress or emergency, etc.) which supply their context. There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may not do evil so that good may result from it. (1789)

We in the West may never face overt persecution (I pray we are never put to that test). Most of what we face comes from unjust lawsuits, and other harassment where we are tempted daily to compromise.

But we should beware of thinking that the flaws of the characters Fr. Rodrigues and Fr. Ferreira were simply that they were “weak” men who failed, but we wouldn’t. Whenever we entertain doubts that something we don’t like is a failure on the part of God, we are falling into the trap that they did. Whenever we’re tempted to think that a good intent “justifies” our evil act, or that the consequences we oppose are an exemption to our moral obligations, we are behaving like these characters. We will always encounter hardships in life. Some will encounter hardships that are worse than ours. But those hardships never exempt us from doing good and opposing evil.

We should keep this in mind when we face our constant mild trials, and if we should face an insurmountable trial, we need to pray to God that we be given the grace to do what we’re called to do, and not try to rely on our own preferences and strength.


(§) As a disclaimer, I have not read the novel. This assessment comes from other sources. But they’re unanimous that the scene with the crucifix did not happen and seemed contrary to the novel.

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