This piece contains some plot spoilers for Martin Scorsese’s film “Silence,” out in theaters nationwide on Jan. 6.
Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel ‘Silence’ was destined to ignite controversy. Though Endo was a Japanese Catholic, he was troubled by the difficulties of Christianity in Japan and not without good reason. Nearly 400 years after the persecution of Christians by Japanese authorities detailed in ‘Silence,’ only somewhere around 2 percent of Japan’s population identifies as Christian. “Silence” takes the clash between European-disseminated Christianity and traditional Japanese culture seriously, and, accordingly, several reactions to Martin Scorsese’s 2016 film adaptation have taken issue with its apparent “white savior” complex.
But “Silence” has also proven theologically controversial. The film, which is mostly faithful to the novel, follows the spiritual unraveling of a Portuguese Jesuit priest named Sebastian Rodrigues (portrayed by Andrew Garfield) who, in the 17th century, journeys to Japan to discover the truth about a beloved teacher of his who is rumored to have apostatized during a period of intense religious persecution.
Once in Japan, Rodrigues is separated from his friend and fellow priest, Francisco Garrpe (portrayed by Adam Driver), and is subjected to increasingly harrowing psychological and spiritual torture until he finally gives up the faith himself. His apostasy is brought about when he is presented with the option of either persisting in his faith and enduring the torture of his Christian flock, or renouncing his Christianity and ensuring their release. He is later given a Buddhist burial — albeit with a crucifix secretly tucked into his palm, suggesting that his faith survived even after he lost the strength to publicly proclaim it. Whether that little remnant of faith should be enough to redeem him is left ambiguous — up to God, the film’s closing narration says, but also up to the viewer.
Some Catholic viewers have been disturbed by the film’s conclusion. At the Catholic Thing, author Daniel McInerny writes that “Silence” opens up the “sinister possibility that Christian faith and love are internally conflicted, making a lack of integrity, at least in extreme circumstances, inevitable.” Another review at the same site claims that “Silence is not a Christian film by a Catholic filmmaker, but a justification of faithlessness: apostasy becomes an act of Christian charity when it saves lives, just as martyrdom becomes almost satanic when it increases persecution.” And Rorate Caeli, a traditionalist Catholic blog, claimed that “Silence” represents “renouncement of the Catholic Church by members of the Society of Jesus” due to its protagonist’s decision to apostatize.
Much of the theological agitation over the film seems to arise from viewers’ efforts to reconcile Rodrigues’ apostasy with his lack of guilt. After all, he is the film’s protagonist, and viewers will naturally feel sympathy with him — and he is sympathetic. But he isn’t faultless, and it isn’t necessary to find him innocent to see beauty in “Silence,” even if the film’s own persuasion leans in that direction. In fact, viewers’ anger with Rodrigues over his apostasy provides space for valuable insight into Christianity and Christian history.
As Rodrigues remarks in “Silence,” the assault on Christians in 17th century Japan was not the church’s first experience with persecution. During the third and fourth centuries in Rome, Christians were (with intensity and duration varying at different times and places) similarly persecuted, and as in “Silence,” some were martyred, and some chose instead to apostatize to avoid pain or death.
When the persecution of Christians in Rome came to an end, the church was faced with a dilemma: What to do with those former faithful who had either made offerings to Roman gods and declared themselves pagans under duress, or worse, turned over holy books or fellow Christians to the authorities? Some of these traitors, called traditores by their reproachful coreligionists, were even priests.
One group of Christians wanted nothing to do with these apostate priests. They viewed apostasy as a kind of spiritual death, and from that concluded two things: Those who had apostatized could not return to full communion with the church, and bishops and priests who had done so could no longer offer valid sacraments to their congregations. Many Christians felt torn between their religious commitments to forgive and have mercy and their rightful distaste for the apostates who had abandoned the faith while so many of their brethren had died for it.
This separatist doctrine, known as Donatism, was challenged by none other than Saint Augustine, who took the Donatists to task for sowing disunity and for causing Christians anxiety about whether the sacraments they had received were valid or not. After all, Augustine pointed out, it’s impossible to know the state of a person’s soul, so under the Donatist framework, it’s difficult to know which priests are really capable of offering valid sacraments. In Augustine’s thinking, and that of the Catholic Church, it is God, not any specific priest, who confers sacredness. If God could not work through the blemished and sinful, then he could not work through any of us.
The Donatists, and all those who had survived persecution without apostatizing, had perfectly understandable reasons for being disgusted with those who had turned on Christianity under the same conditions — especially those who were meant to shepherd them. But they had repented, and, per Augustine, the work of forgiveness is beyond humankind, in the hands of God.
In the gospel according to Saint Luke, Christ tells a story: A man has two sons, between whom he divides a share of his wealth. One son leaves home, marauds and womanizes, and eventually turns up penitent and devastated. His father forgives him with joy, but his brother is skeptical. Why should such a person be welcomed back with open arms? “My son,” the father answers, “you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”
Most Christians in the West have never had to choose between martyrdom and apostasy, though the persecution and murder of Christians for their faith still continues in the world today. Among those there may be some who apostatize under pain of death and privately repent. Unlike those commentators noted above, I don’t think the final point of “Silence” is that apostasy is sometimes approved by God. The message is even more difficult to accept: Apostasy is sometimes forgiven by God. That the creator of the universe would love weak and fragile creatures so much as to forgive their direct rejection of him is, indeed, shocking — but it is also the promise of the faith. That it requires so much convincing to get across more than justifies Endo’s novel and Scorsese’s beautiful film.