On December 23rd, Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Silence by Japanese author Shusaku Endo came to theaters across the US, after its initial release at the Vatican on November 29th. Since then, it has received high praise from within the Hollywood community as well as from various individuals within the Church.
What I fail to understand is why.
Shusaku’s novel features the story of a Jesuit missionary, Sebastião Rodrigues, who travels to Japan in search of his former spiritual director who has recently gone missing. In the course of his journey, he is subjected to a variety of hardships and persecutions from the Japanese authorities. He is eventually betrayed into captivity by one of his cowardly converts, Kichijiro, and faced with a choice.
Either he tramples upon an image of Christ; a fumie board set before him, or the Japanese authorities will torture and execute a large number of the missionary’s converts. The Japanese authorities make it clear that they don’t care if Rodrigues renounces his Faith privately; they only want to see a public repudiation of it so that further spread of Catholicism in Japan will cease.
In the end, the missionary tramples on the fumie, publically repudiating his Catholic Faith in order to save the lives of his own converts.
Instrumental to the missionary’s downfall was the influence of his own spiritual director, Father Ferreira, who had also apostatized when faced with a similar test, believing that it was impossible for Christianity to truly take root within the hearts of the Japanese people as they easily confused the tenants of the Christian Faith with elements of their original pagan beliefs.
In the novel itself, the Rodrigues hears what he thinks is the voice of Christ, telling him something that flagrantly contradicts the belief of every Christian martyr in the history of the Church, when it says quote, “You may trample. You may trample. I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. You may trample. It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.” Immediately after this trampling occurs, Rodrigues hears a cock crowing in the distance, a sound that is reminiscent of St. Peter’s triple denial of Christ prior to the Passion.
On a basic theological level, it is true that Christ came to be trampled upon as a means of atoning for our sins, but the reason that He allowed this was to save us from eternal death. He sacrificed His earthy life in order to bring us eternal life. Thus, when the missionary trampled on the Bringer of eternal life as a means of preserving earthly life, he did the exact opposite of what Christ did.
Some theologians in the Church would argue that the apostasy of the missionary was justified because it proceeded from a good intention. What these theologians forget is the principle that we may never commit evil for the sake of good. Thus, publically repudiating one’s Faith, even to save the lives of other people is not morally acceptable. Regardless of what the missionary’s intention was, at the end of day, apostasy is apostasy.
The situation of Rodrigues bears a striking similarity to that of Christians during the early Roman persecutions, as they would often be allowed to remain Christian privately if only they would offer a public pinch of incense to the Roman gods.
St. Alphonsus Ligouri, Bishop and Doctor of the Church relates a similar story with a much different outcome. Where a young woman must choose between apostasy and watching all of her children burn at the hands of the Roman persecutors. By Western standards, she should have apostatized for the sake of her children, or at least given the pretense of apostasy while remaining Christian in her heart. But she didn’t. Unlike the missionary in Shusaku’s novel, this woman allowed her loved ones to die rather than forsake her Christian Faith.
It’s not because she’s mean or sadistic or emotionally disconnected from her children. It’s because she recognizes that there is something far more important at stake here than the earthly lives of her children; namely, their eternal salvation as well as hers. She knew that if she apostatized she would become like Judas, and if she gave the pretense of apostasy, she would become like Peter when he denied Christ publically yet still believed in Him privately. The Gospel informs us pretty clearly that both of those approaches are dead wrong. True discipleship is an all or nothing proposition.
As a rule of thumb, eternal life is infinitely more important than earthly life. And that simple fact is what every Christian martyr in Middle East is holding onto in the final moments of his life. That is what gives hope to a family that is being ripped apart because of the Faith that they all cherish.
But the Western world doesn’t comprehend that, because it worships at the altar of emotion. And that is what makes a movie like Silence so popular in the eyes of the secular community. A community which prefers to deal only with a privatized, ineffective form of Christianity. A Christianity that doesn’t challenge the public secular order to be anything greater than what it is. While the film’s many positive reviews suggest that it presents a real-life story of faith which is difficult and full of grey areas, the truth is that this film is so popular because it lowers the bar. It brings Christianity down to the level of the secular culture, which excuses its own sins and failures under the pretext of “being human” or “being open to God’s mercy.”
While mercy is certainly accessible even to apostates, it nonetheless requires repentance and restitution; something that Rodrigues never shows.
Ultimately, what Silence offers is not a masterful expression of the difficulties of faith, but a story of failure and acquiescence to the secular order. The problem with such acquiescence is that a Catholic missionary is called to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). Evangelization is the common mission of all Catholics, especially members of the clergy. It’s about sharing the truth and love of the Gospel in a way that will bring them into the One True Church outside of which there is no salvation. Thus, an apostate cannot evangelize effectively for the simple reason that he cannot share what he does not have.
In this case, Silence would indeed appear to be quite toxic to the souls of those who are not well-grounded in their Catholic identity.