The Silence question is apostasy. Too many get the answer wrong.

By Dr. Jeff Mirus

Catholic Culture

Nov 30, 2017


Shusakū Endō’s 1966 novel Silence raised haunting questions about apostasy in the minds of many readers, troubling questions which have been called to our attention repeatedly by the various film adaptations of the work: Silence directed by Masahiro Shinoda (1971), The Eyes of Asia readapted by João Mária Grilo (1996), and of course Martin Scorsese’s Silence last year, which premiered at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome.

{Apostasy for a layman is the voluntary giving up the faith; Apostasy for someone ordained to sacred orders (priesthood) is the voluntary giving up the exercise of their clerical state; Apostasy for a vowed person in religious life is the voluntary giving up of the observance of their vows.}

Endo himself had written a stage version under the title of The Golden Country. A libretto and music for an opera based on the novel were written by Teizo Matsumura, and the Scottish composer James MacMillan apparently wrote his third symphony, “Silence”, in honor of the book. For further evidence of what Wikipedia can do for you in the matter of basic information, see Silence (novel).

As most readers know, Silence is a work of fiction centered on the persecution of Christians and the brutal eradication of the Church in Japan in the seventeenth century. The key issue in the story is the apostasy of its main character, a Jesuit priest, ostensibly in order to save his flock from almost unimaginable suffering. This character believes Our Lord has told Him the right thing to do is to trample on His image to satisfy the persecutors. The theory is that Our Lord wants to suffer again for his people, rather than to see them suffer.

The theology, of course, is totally bogus, and I will come to that in a moment. First, as a matter of full disclosure, let me say the following: I have not read Silence. I have not viewed Silence. I have not listened to Silence. Nor do I intend to. Such bleakness may have to be faced in real life, but it does not attract me in the form of stories or entertainment.

Also in the interest of full disclosure, please note that Endō’s novel is most emphatically not historically accurate on the critical point at issue. There is no evidence that those who apostatized did so to help others. To the best of our knowledge, no such opportunity existed, and the later actions of the persons in question gave the lie to what has become, in effect, a self-serving myth for those who do not take their Faith as seriously as they should. For an important corrective, read (among other possibilities) Patricia Snow’s fine article in the October issue of First Things, Empathy is not Charity.

Regardless of the details, Snow refuses to justify apostasy. Therefore, in a recent letter to the editor criticizing her article, one correspondent wrote: “If it is an error of dogma that I should deny Christ to alleviate the torture and death of the innocent, then, like Kirchijiro, I must trust in the forgiveness of Jesus.” But since the critic clearly believes denial of Christ to be the moral choice in these circumstances, he must also envision an unrepentant forgiveness from a confused savior. Thus does one more soul, thinking faith a shallow thing, float off to where so many have drifted—far beyond his depth.

The central question

My own reflection on the questions raised by the book and movies comes through family and faith. My wife has read and spoken with me about the novel and a son who also writes for CatholicCulture.org has written perceptively about the recent movie (see Thomas V. Mirus’ Scorsese’s Silence is a contemplative masterpiece). More importantly, there is the Faith: While the question of whether it is morally good to deny Christ in order to help or save others may be very hard to answer through our own actions, it is not at all difficult to answer in theory.

In other words, while we may be forgiven, if we seek forgiveness, for apostatizing (or perhaps pretending to apostatize) for apparently noble reasons, apostasy is always and everywhere seriously wrong. The right thing to do, the thing that God wants us to do, is always—always—to remain publicly faithful to Him. Moreover, He has very directly revealed this to us.

Was it not Our Lord who said, point blank:

[D]o not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father’s will. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. So every one who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven; but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven. [Mt 10:28-33]

And was it not St. Paul who wrote to Timothy:

The saying is sure: If we have died with him, we shall also live with him; if we endure, we shall also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself. [2 Tim 11:13]

To understand more fully what God asks of us in unpleasant circumstances, read chapter 7 of the Second Book of Maccabees. Reflect on the widow portrayed there, and on her seven sons.

What does faith mean?

All of this was brought home to me again in a discussion with family members over Thanksgiving. A question was raised about whether it could be morally justifiable for a mother to deny Christ in order to save the life of her infant child, who would otherwise be brutally murdered. But the answer remains simple even when it is not easy: It is objectively seriously wrong to do so. Culpability is reduced by compulsion which limits full consent of the will. Forgiveness, if sought, is freely available—as forgiveness always is. But no rationalizations can be accepted.

Now, the real question—the only question that matters—is simply this: How and why can this answer be always and everywhere the correct answer?

The response to this question is not only a test of our own faith but also a lesson in humility. Among other considerations, apostasy is always and everywhere seriously wrong for the very practical reason that God can do far more for anyone than we can do ourselves. The chief problem with our Catholicism is that we so seldom act as if we believe this inescapable pragmatic fact.

Should we be willing to suffer horribly and even die for our fidelity? Well, let us reflect that God can do far more for those who love Him than we can ever do for ourselves even by our own survival.

Should we be willing to allow others to suffer horribly and even die for our fidelity? Let us reflect that God allows us to release oceans of grace through that fidelity, and that He can do far more for those who are to suffer than we can ever do by preventing or reducing any particular suffering.

Should we be willing even to deprive our children of their mother or father by suffering and dying for our fidelity? Again, we must reflect on this question: Is it more likely that I can provide for my children better than God can if I will only be faithful to Him?

This is simply bedrock realism concerning Who God is and who we are. Under duress it can be hard to live in light of this reality. But living in this light is what it means to have faith. The point I wish to make, then, is nothing but this: Not only is it morally wrong under any circumstances to apostatize but also, even with what we might think the best motives in the world, it is an egregiously bad bet. That may not be clear enough to us now, when we see but through a glass darkly. But when we see face to face, we shall have no doubt whatsoever.

Here is the whole book on apostasy: It is not only grave sin. It is gross conceit and gargantuan folly.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.


The sadness of all apostasy—and the modern scandal

By Dr. Jeff Mirus

Dec 01, 2017


I explained yesterday why, regardless of the motives and the naysayers, apostasy is always wrong, even under the circumstances depicted in the novel and film Silence.

As a postscript, I believe the following two observations will be found quite apt:

First, in a certain sense there is relatively little scandal in the formal apostasy of Jesuit priests in eighteenth-century Japan. When ten Jesuits entered Japan in an effort to counter the effects of the apostasy of a previous Jesuit, all of them eventually denied Christ under similar threats of torture.

This renunciation of the Faith would have scandalized the Japanese faithful undergoing similar threats—in the deepest sense of tempting them to commit the same sin, though many of them did not do so. But in the attenuated sense in which we understand “scandal” today—the sense of being outraged by another’s sin—we can hardly be outraged by the failure of these priests to pass the ultimate test, especially insofar as we ourselves can hardly be certain of our own perseverance in similar circumstances.

Perhaps it is this attenuated sense of scandal that the unfortunate James Martin, SJ had in mind when he argued in America magazine that, under the circumstances depicted in the 2016 film Silence (though the fictional circumstances of the novel and the film were not in fact the real circumstances), well-formed and prayerful Jesuits could legitimately deny Christ.

This is false (as I explained yesterday), but clearly the scandal of the denial is significantly mitigated by either the real or the fictional circumstances. Condemnation and millstones may be warranted, but not on our authority. For us, weaklings that we all may be, a more appropriate response would be sadness.

But a parallel dilemma in modern Western culture leads to a second observation. Indeed, Fr. Martin’s comments on the original dilemma lend this fresh observation greater urgency simply because he himself has so often been on the wrong side of the dilemma.

The legitimacy of contempt?

Second, then, there is a very great deal of scandal in the less formal yet material apostasy of so many Jesuit priests today, along with many others, especially in wayward religious communities and universities. These practical apostates harm countless souls and leads them into sin for no better reason than to be recognized as mainstream thinkers. Such men and women apparently fear, above all else, to be marginalized by the larger secular culture. Accordingly, they are driven to employ an unending series of specious arguments to demonstrate why this or that Catholic teaching is really quite compatible with what the world so urgently desires.

Here we have a scandal in both the deeper and the more modern senses. In the deep sense, this progressive denial of Christ leads little ones into sin on a daily basis. Those who apostatize in this way would rather justify the wayward desires of students (and others) than strengthen them against the world, the flesh and the devil. This form of apostasy produces an elite club which those who are misled are all too eager to join.

But in this case our response can be fundamentally different. The vast majority of those reading these comments have experienced all of the same worldly inducements, yet they have consistently said “No”. A great many have, in this case, earned the right to be scandalized in the more modern sense. We have earned the right to be outraged.

The apostasy of Modernism, the apostasy motivated by this itchy desire for cultural approval and intellectual “respectability”, this is sad indeed. But it really does also call for condemnation and millstones. It is just here that Our Lord’s own words apply so exactly. “For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself” (Lk 9:25)?

For the matter of that, what does such a vain and even risible weakness profit anyone else?

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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  1. Schism, heresy, apostasy, idolatry are all over the place. From the modernist Heretics to the Sedevacatist Heretics, and groups like SSPX-MC, all are apostates. Too much worldly gain is going to come at a heavenly price (or lack thereof)

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