All the Chatter About Silence

Silence is all the talk. And it should be. It is a stellar work of cinematography. That should come as no surprise with Scorsese as director.

Then too the film touches on themes of perennial relevance. There is the drama of living the faith in unbearable circumstance, its total censure, as in the case of the seventeenth-century Jesuit missionaries to Japan, Cristóvão Ferreira and Sebastião Rodrigues. There is the reality of the ever-available divine mercy, just as it was for the pusillanimous convert, Kichijiro who lapses repeatedly and is confessed by the very priest he betrays. Finally, there is the fact that God pursues us, and can bring us back with a “twitch at the end of a thread,” even after a public disavowal of the faith, something we suspect when we see, at the very end, the crucifix hidden in Rodrigues’ dead hand. We may be pondering these things after a viewing of Silence, as may well the director, behind the scenes, who may be feeling the “twitch.”

But the talk is not about all this standard (powerful) Catholic stuff. Because it is not clear that Silence is simply about the weakness of a sinner in the face of unbearable circumstances and the mercy he or she encounters at the other end of the “thread.” And this is because Silence, following Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel of the same name, doesn’t tell us that after the famous apostasy of the first Portuguese priest, delegations of priests offered to go to Japan to suffer martyrdom to do penance for him. Instead, it concentrates our attention on those who apostatized, suggesting that Jesus himself may have given them the “thumbs up.” “Trample!” Jesus seems to say from the little icon of Christ, placed on the ground (the fumi-e). “It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world.”

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Let us leave aside the question of the director’s original intent. As far as Scorsese is concerned, the matter seems ambiguous. Was it really Jesus who spoke from the image if a cock crows just after Rodrigues steps on it? Then too, doesn’t all of the pressure to apostatize coming from the first fallen priest—“If Jesus were here He would have become apostate”—look like the last temptation of Christ (the one in the desert, not the one in Scorsese’s other film)? Finally, don’t the lives of both priests, following their apostasy—married men in Buddhist households, with positions in society—look unhappy?

Things are less ambiguous—or more, depending on how you look at it—in the commentary of the film, by those who ought to know more about the God of the Christian martyrs. These, it appears, offer a whole new theory of martyrdom, of apostasy and of mission itself, even while they excoriate cautious observers of the movie for engaging in “pathetic and grotesque petty clerical polemics … to take advantage of Scorsese’s film.” This is the view of Gianni Valente (of the Vatican Insider). As it happens, the new theory has to do with the recent polemic over “complex situations,” in which one is faced not with a clear-cut choice, and must, therefore, “discern,” with his conscience what God wants him to do. This is the view of Fr. James Martin, SJ, editor of America, and consultant to the film, who says in his commentary, “Understanding Silence,” when he notes that the Jesuit fathers come from a world of black-and-white and are both forced to make painful decisions in a world of gray.” Here “the normal rules seem inadequate to the reality of the situation.” And in case it is unclear as to which “situation” is in view, Valente, ties the central message of Silence to a point that is true enough, but often applied imprecisely to the question about communion for the civilly remarried: “the sacraments are not a prize for those who merit it, but a treasure to put in the hands of those who are not worthy.” We suspect that perhaps the movie—according to the commentary, at least—is not about the seventeenth century Jesuits after all.

What exactly are the features of the new theory? The first is that apostasy could be an act of humility. This is suggested by Ferreira when he suggests to Rodrigues that his resistance to apostasy is a “sin of pride.” But, again, if the movie leaves room for ambiguity—is this a temptation?—the commentators do not. Says Valente: “The very fact of giving in … becomes the most intimate moment of his encounter with Christ, giving him a taste of how His salvation works.” Through humility, that is, giving up his “bold determination as a generous young missionary, ready to give his life for Christ.” For his part, Fr. Martin proposes that we understand the gesture of public renouncement as an instance of the “third degree of humility” laid out in the Spiritual Exercises when “a person is able to choose something dishonorable because it brings him or her closer to Christ.” This is Martin’s paraphrase of the actual text of the Exercises: “I desire to be regarded as a useless fool for Christ, who before me was regarded as such.”

The parallel Martin draws is between Christ doing “something no one will understand” because the Father asks it and Rodrigues doing something equally incomprehensible because Jesus asks it. For Fr. Martin there is no ambiguity about this complex situation. It is black and white. Rodrigues is supposed to apostatize because Jesus is asking him to. And it doesn’t stop there. Rodrigues, according to Martin, is embracing his cross as an imitation of Christ. The point is that both are “in a relationship” and would do anything for it, out of humility. Even an act of public betrayal. We wonder if Fathers Ferreira’s and Rodrigues’s efforts in helping the authorities rout out Christianity at the border wasn’t also an act of humility (a “cross”) and if, perhaps—looking at things more broadly—it isn’t also an act of humility for Christianity to reconsider its former “proud” view that every territory is soil waiting for its seed of the Gospel. Ferreira, we note, suggests that it is not when he says: “Japan is a swamp …. nothing can take root here.”

Given this new spin on apostasy, and mission, how are we to read the acts of the early martyrs … those about St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Felicity and Perpetua, to name a few? Were they lacking humility? Was it pride that had them muscling through all the variety of savage tortures invented for them? Or, perhaps, in the case of the simple-minded—the three Japanese peasants crucified at the beach, for example—superstition? Did they not, rather, go through with it because they had encountered something worth dying (and living) for, something that was present among them, a grace …. because they were not resting on their own resources?

The second feature of the new theory is the possibility that apostasy is an act of charity. “If Jesus were here he would have become apostate for them!” says Ferreira to Rodrigues referring to “the most painful act of love he had ever made.” This idea is set up by a twist—offered in Endo’s account—on the slow tortures invented by the Japanese especially for the Jesuit priests, which required the priests to watch others being tortured, until they—the priests—apostatized. This “complex situation” puts us in the middle of the aut-aut, of either Rodrigues’s “self-love”—desire for his own salvation—or compassion for the suffering souls being tortured in front of him. We find ourselves, in the territory of altruism—where love of the other is an alternative to the love of self, and ultimately to the love of God (the highest form of self-love). As Nietzsche said, the humanitarian altruistic move to pit the one against the other then, eventually, to re-define Christianity as “love of the other,” was an attempt to “out-christian Christianity” (Daybreak). It begins with a redefinition of salvation. Scorsese says it this way in his interview with the editor of La Civiltà Cattolica, Fr. Spadaro: “accepting yourself, living with yourself.” And now that love is no longer the communication of something received from on high, it ends with a downgraded love of neighbor, a lowering of the bar, turning mercy into humanitarian compassion and grace into an empty “embrace,” as Mattia Ferraresi, of Il Foglio put it.

It makes some difference, of course, if one still keeps the faith in one’s interior life—as Fr. Rodrigues may have done in the movie. But privatized-interior religion chosen on the kind of moral high ground on which it is justified in the commentary of it, is a religion for the elite, and in service of the powers that be, who find it convenient and harmless. Because it is a religion in which God doesn’t say anything to the world, indeed chooses not to.

Those who appear to endorse the new theory of apostasy in their commentary of Silence bring the Pope Emeritus forward to validate it. Benedict XVI, they note, says that “missionary activity can only emerge as a reflection of the attractiveness of grace.” Scorsese himself says, as for the movie, “it all comes down to the question of grace.” This is true. But it all depends on what we mean by “grace.” Assuming it is the real deal we might, then, consider the three Japanese peasants crucified by the sea the real protagonists, because they did what they did in the company of a Presence, of the God who is not silent. As Bishop Barron says: “a full-throated three cheers for them!”


  • Margaret Harper McCarthy

    Margaret Harper McCarthy is Assistant Professor of Theological Anthropology at The John Paul II Institute for Studies in Marriage and the Family at The Catholic University of America and editor of its online review journal Humanum. Prof. McCarthy is the editor of Torn Asunder, a recent book on the topic of divorce.

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