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

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | 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.

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 fogiveness 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.

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  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Dec. 08, 2017 6:25 PM ET USA

    Courage, faith and devotion to God's law are not transferable. This is ridiculous. Ok, that's it - please stop praying for the souls in Purgatory and others on earth. By all means, please do not offer up any sacrifice for the aid of another through the greater honor and glory of Our Lord. Be it God's favor that none of us writing or reading these essays ever has to face that ultimate test; and if we do may Our Lord provide the saving Grace to stand for Him in the face of certain death.

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Dec. 08, 2017 6:18 PM ET USA

    The fact is every time we sin, we deny Christ. Just not all of those times are in dramatic test with a knife to a throat. Why do all these "great" writers and film-makers want to portray human weakness as a moral limit - as though no one can rise above weakness. Well, we can't on our own. But what about Anne Frank, Viktor Frankl, Max Kolbe, Maria Goretti, Edith Stein, Martin Luther King Jr, Karol Wojtyla, Peter, I just cannot help but wonder would they agree denial of Christ is prudent?

  • Posted by: cchapman3385 - Dec. 04, 2017 4:06 PM ET USA

    The key is believing in the Resurrection. This life will end, but the new life will not. What does one gain by losing one's soul? "They loved their lives not even unto death" and in Hebrews 4:12 we are exhorted to resist sin even to the point of death. Thank you for your clarity on this issue!

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Dec. 03, 2017 9:19 AM ET USA

    Leopardi: I certainly never meant to give the impression that we could guarantee the reception of sanctifying grace by others. But the distinction is irrelevant here. The point is that we cannot do more for those in question by breaking with God in order, in effect, to use our own powers on their behalf, than we can by being faithful to God and trusting in his immeasurably greater ability to do good for those we mistakenly think we could help more. This includes, of course, a possible grace of conversion which, in their decisive moment of suffering, could lead them to accept or use the graces (in this case already received in baptism) that will bring them decisively into union with God.

  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - Dec. 02, 2017 2:32 PM ET USA

    Thanks for this excellent article.

  • Posted by: Leopardi - Dec. 02, 2017 1:55 PM ET USA

    Your elegantly made points on the wrongness of apostasy are partially convincing. The glaring exception is the suffering of another (or thousands of others) by one's courageous resistance to forced apostasy. Certainly there can be no 'flood of sanctifying grace' for those whose persecution was not the result of their own free will. Courage, faith and devotion to God' law are not transferable.

  • Posted by: claude-ccc2991 - Dec. 02, 2017 12:46 PM ET USA

    I've read Silence. U hit the core of your essay in 2 statements, that Christ answered the question 4us by words directed @us in Scripture (Mt 10:28-33) &the Father answered the question by allowing Jesus 2go thru His Passion - both of which R related 2your statement that God can do so much more 4us than we or anyone else can do 4ourselves. 2 put your statements another way, the wrong answer is reached when people allow their affective faculty 2overwhelm reason, a rampant error in our time.