Great Sin of our Day –
In our contemporary culture, we can see the great evil of what Pope Benedict referred to as the dictatorship of relativism. Not only is every culture seen as purely relative in terms of its particular cultural values and cultural expressions as compared with the values and cultural expressions of every other culture, but good and evil as such has become purely relative, if not at times quite interchangeable. What is good for some people is evil for others, not just subjectively but objectively. Isaiah the Prophet long ago condemned this kind of religious and cultural degradation: “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness.” One important hallmark of this modern cultural and moral relativism, I believe, is the readiness of intelligent people to easily excuse Christian apostasy and to do so by using words in way that loses their connection to objective truth, including the way that words should express the profound connection between body and soul in religious and moral matters.
Shūsaku Endō wrote a fascinating novel back in 1866 called Silence which today is generally recognized as a masterpiece in the novel genre. Endo, as a Roman Catholic, was an anomaly in Japanese culture, and he struggled throughout his life with this personal conundrum of being a religious believer, let alone being a Catholic, while being a true son of Japan. His critics debate whether he was in fact a totally committed Catholic convert, that is, a Catholic who happened to be Japanese rather than simply a Japanese who happened to be a Catholic. Of course, only God knows the truth of such things, but it is unquestionable that Endo struggled with his faith in relation to his national heritage and culture, and he was openly convinced that in some way Christianity would have to be changed, at least in its presentation, if it were ever to take firm root in Japan.
Endo saw Japanese culture as deeply resistant to any kind of religion, and he once wrote
about what he referred to as the “mud swamp” in his native country due to what he called “the threefold insensitivity of the Japanese.” He said this anti-religion troika – though not necessarily anti-religious – consisted of the Japanese insensitivity to God, to sin, and to death. That cultural troika was the wall of resistance to all religion and especially to theistic religions from outside. It was this cultural attitude that resisted the Christian missionaries and eventually led to the great persecutions in the 17th Century, which are the context for his novel, Silence.
What makes this all so interesting today is not the novel itself, but the recent effort to bring this novel to the screen by Martin Scorsese. In fact, Scorsese managed to do his premier of the movie in the Vatican, though Pope Francis evidently did not attend. But the Jesuits were out in full force, and they were filled with praise for the most part. The story is based on the events and Nagasaki that took place in the late 17th century when 26 Christians, some laity and some clergy, including the Jesuit St. Paul Miki were martyred for their faith. But the story itself centers not of the martyrs but on two Portuguese priests who apostatized. There the central character, in a certain sense, is the Jesuit priest, Sebastião Rodrigues, the true hero of this novel and certainly of the movie just released late last year.
Endo was fascinated by the moral dilemma posed by the tactics of the brutal Japanese executioners who tortured the Christian laity until they apostatized, and then offered to spare their
lives if only their shepherds would also formally apostatize. These Japanese cultural purists were convinced that religion, especially foreign religion was incompatible with their supreme form of
culture, and they thought that Christianity would die out if only the leaders publicly renounced their faith. Of course, they were wrong and the nascent church survived underground in Japan for centuries, thanks the glorious witness of the majority of priestly shepherds like St. Paul Mike and the Japanese lay Christians who heroically went to their death with words of forgiveness on their lips. But Endo, and obviously Scorsese, were more fascinated by the moral choice of the apostates their spiritual journey, as they described it, flowing from that choice than with the spiritual heroism and the spiritual journey of the martyrs,
Endo may have been a great writer, but he definitely was not such a great theological thinker, and neither is Scorsese. He may be a great film director, but he is not equipped theologically to deal safely with deep spiritual matters of the human soul, i.e., moral dilemmas related to religion. I’m not even sure that Endo would be totally happy with Scorsese’s rendering of his novel. He certainly wasn’t happy with the first attempt by a Japanese director back in the 70’s. Endo himself seems somewhat ambiguous concerning the objective evaluation of apostasy because he simply did not or cannot adequately deal with the moral dilemma of doing evil in order to attain some good. So his solution is save the apostate priest from his moral choice by providing a deus ex machina, a vision of Christ who literally commands Rodrigues to apostatize. “Trample on it, trample on it (the crucifix) says this compassionate Jesus, who is simply dropped into the story in a rather facile attempt to rescue Rodrigues’ conscience.
The superficiality of this device can easily be seen if one were to apply it in another similar context. Suppose an author had written a very good piece of historical fiction about the moral dilemma faced by President Truman regarding the decision to drop the bomb on Japan. The argument used to justify this decision is usually that it would save many more lives than it cost – potentially millions of lives saved versus a couple hundred thousand lost. And then suppose that the author decided to provide a solution by a consequentialist deus ex machina, that is, a consequentialist Jesus who appears to Truman and commands, “Nuke them, just nuke them and save all those lives.” How many of those who praise Endo’s solution to the dilemma, would approve of this use of that literary device? Ironically, Endo has supplied a justification for the nuking of his own country.
Not only that, but this rather superficial device solving a moral dilemma and spiritual crisis also empties the decision or choice of its true dramatic character by simply having God declare the act virtuous, an act of obedience, rather than a great sin. The novel’s God is a god of pure will, much like the voluntaristic god of Islam. From a Christian perspective, however, it’s just plain junk theology, and Scorsese obviously doesn’t get it. How can Endo totally ignore the admonition of Jesus, “But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in Heaven.” (Matt. 10:33). There is a real contradiction of Christian theology involved in this deus ex machina that he drops in to rescue his hero from a true act of apostasy. It’s not good theology, and in the end it’s not good drama.
To equate an act of apostasy with an act of martyrdom in terms of an alternate “spiritual journey to God,” as Scorsese understands Endo’s story, is a sign of the moral relativism that dominates many cultures today. And while this may or may not be the thought of Endo, it seems very much to be the thinking of modern artists like Scorsese. So long as Padre Rodrigues is sincere in his choice, so long as he does it for a good motive which is to save lives, the objective act of apostasy is meaningless. In fact the apostate priest makes this very defense, that he really wasn’t apostatizing from Christ, but merely from his religion. He says at one point, “But, Lord, you alone know that I did not renounce my faith,” and then he makes the separation of Christ’s religion from Christ, when he says, “my Lord is different from the God that is preached in the churches.” But that of course is precisely in line with what Endo says about Japan being resistant to religion but not necessarily to Christ, if properly presented. One can understand why Endo is not particularly popular with some orthodox, Japanese Catholics.
Moreover, beyond this bit of theological manipulation, there is also an apparent misunderstanding of what the sin of apostasy really is. Rodrigues seems to think that his words mean nothing and that only the intention of the heart counts as the sin of apostasy. In fact, in the story, the authorities tell Rodrigues that they are only asking for an external sign of renunciation; they do not care what is in his heart. There you have it, the relativistic transformation of apostasy from an external act to an internal motive or intention. That’s the way moral problems are dealt with today in our culture. The death of the unborn child doesn’t matter so much as the motive of the mother for having the child killed.
Endo is said by some critics to resemble one of his favorite authors, Graham Greene, in dealing with these kinds of moral weakness and moral dilemmas. He would’ve been better off to read more of St. Thomas More. The idea of words not mattering, the external act not mattering when it comes to final moral evaluation can be seen in a prison visit of More’s daughter Margaret. She tries to convince her father to say one thing and think another when it comes to taking the oath that would save his life, and perhaps the lives of his relatives who would suffer greatly after his death, a temptation not unlike that presented to Rodrigues. But the great English saint simply responds to his daughter, “But Margaret, what is an oath other than word spoken to God?” It could not be just a matter of the heart, for his false oath would be a lie and the scandal would also affect the lives and spiritual destiny of many more people than just his family. More recognizes the terrible danger of separating the external act from the internal act and motive. It undoes the whole moral order. “All you need to say is a simple “Yes” or “No.” Otherwise you will be condemned” (James 5:12)
The same would be true regarding apostasy. What is apostasy other than a matter of words spoken before God and men. It can never be simply a matter of the heart since man is an historical agent, a unity of body and soul, whose external acts have objective meaning and effects even if they contradict his internal motive. The martyr and the apostate are not on two parallel equal spiritual journeys. In the novel, Rodrigues is somewhat tortured by his betrayal of Christ, which can be nothing else but a betrayal regardless of his internal intention. And so he tries to rationalize it, as most of us would, and he unfortunately never seems to recognize his sin. That’s the real tragedy here, and perhaps that was what was unfortunate about the novel, that it remains ambiguous in this regard.
The horror of the sin of apostasy is clearly not apparent today to unbelievers or to half-believing Christians. They can never fully understand the true glory of the martyrs and the repulsion they had for the sin of apostasy. For them apostasy was truly the worst of choices when faced with persecution, because the One Whom they would deny was really and truly the Son of God. There is no comparison here to denying any other human person, or even angelic. How can one totally desecrate a crucifix, regardless of the circumstances, and remain a true believer in Christ? What is faith anyway if it is not professed in external acts?
Even in this novel, the apostate priest does not become simply a hidden Christian during the remaining 30 years of his life. He totally acquiesces with the Imperial authorities and in fact becomes a government informant, and he even writes a public disavowal of his Christianity. But, of course, in his mind he no longer has an incarnate view of Christ in relation to the world, that is in Christ in relation to his Church, which has become his mystical body. Christ is now returned to his pre-incarnate existence. He is dis-incarnate because he has no objective body on earth.
I’m not sure Endo understood these implications of his work for his own faith, and I am fairly certain that Scorsese doesn’t. Apostasy is not a real problem if you don’t really believe the full implications of Christ being God in the flesh, that this flesh is now incarnated in some sense in the Church. I don’t believe a Catholic man could ever have produced the Last Temptation of Christ if he was fully a Christian believer, someone who truly believes that Christ our God was and remains also truly man. Believing Christians in any age would understood his earlier effort as a form of blasphemy, and so it is no surprise that he ends up seeing apostasy from Christ as an act of virtue.
If someone asked me what the greatest sin of Hitler was, I would answer that it was his apostasy as a young man from Christianity and Christ. Why? First I would argue this because it was a denial of the God made man, which is the very definition of an anti-Christ according to St. John – “For many deceivers are entered into the world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist.” (2 John 1:7) Secondly, I would argue this because in the end it was his apostasy that paved the way for his monstrous crimes of literally causing the murders of six million Jews and tens of millions of other innocent people. Had Hitler not apostatized and remained a true believing Christian, he, like all of us, would’ve remained a sinner, but he could not have become a mass murderer. I would say the same thing about Joseph Stalin. Both of these men were Christians who apostatized, and the consequences for humanity would be devastating. Had they never apostatized, had they remained believing Christians, even if bad Christians, the horrors they perpetrated would never have taken place in history.
It’s very interesting that virtually none of the reviews, that I read, of this movie, or of the original novel itself, picked up on one very logical implication which can possibly be derived from both Endo’s novel and Scorsese’s movie. One can’t logically suggest – as both artists do by their clear empathy for the apostate priests — that the apostate’s choice of apostasy was rational and noble without at least implying that the martyrs’ choice of fidelity might be either stupid or ignoble, or both. If the apostate’s act was noble and virtuous precisely because it saved lives, then surely the martyrs’ choice could be seen as ignoble and even shameful precisely because it needlessly cost the lives of others. Two contradictory choices cannot be so easily reconciled.
Finally, there is no question here of making a final judgment of damnation regarding those who actually, historically apostatized under the horrific conditions and pressures placed upon them by their Japanese torturers. Again, I rather prefer the approach of St. Thomas More who feared that he might himself deny the Lord in the face of torture or death, and thus he chose to pray in anticipation of a possible betrayal, if that sin should occur, that God would give him the special grace to immediately repent, by shedding tears like St. Peter, and then in his shame confessing his Lord before men. But one things seems certain, that St Thomas More would never have rationalized his betrayal so as to suggest his innocence before God and to suggest that one can ever rationally separate the external act of apostasy from the internal act of personal conscience.
Just as there were for centuries hidden Christians in Japan, it seems today that we have hidden apostates in the West. They can’t understand the nature of apostasy and its gravity precisely because they have turned a corner and no longer really believe in the divinity of the man Christ and the absolute duty we have as Christians never to deny him. Is apostasy the worst of sins for an individual? God knows. But certainly apostasy may be seen as the worst of sins historically for our world because it denies the true light and prefers the darkness. It denies a public witness to the only hope for our world, the light and truth of Jesus Christ our Lord.