10 Takeaways from Silence
For months people have asked me if I was going to see the movie Silence, and I always said no. There is no need for me to entertain the possibility that God might ask me to do something immoral so that a greater good can come from it. St. Paul settled that matter long ago (Romans 3:8). Yet, I finally decided to see it, simply so that I could effectively dialogue with people within and outside of the Church.
First, I should say that, as I expected, there are serious problems with the movie. I would not recommend people to see it unless they were well formed in their Catholic faith and could understand the subtleties of Catholic moral theology. Let me just point to three falsehoods portrayed in the film as examples:
Falsehood #1: The greatest good we can achieve is to be safe and happy in this life. Silence depicts Christ commanding a priest to apostatize in order to save the lives of the persecuted. Scripture has always taught that we were not made for happiness in this world, but in the “age to come.” Our citizenship is in heaven as St. Paul would say (Philippians 3:20). He says elsewhere, if for this life only we have followed Christ, then we are the most pitiable people of all (1 Corinthians 15:19). Even in the Old Testament, we have the example of a mother encouraging her son to face death, reminding him that the Creator of his body is the same God who will restore them in full for his faithfulness (2 Maccabees 7:23).
Falsehood #2: Body-Soul duality. The continuous encouragement of the Christians to place their foot on the icon of Christ comes with a message that they “don’t have to mean it.” It’s the idea that I can still love God in my heart, even though my actions convey otherwise. Many today operate under this false assumption. They plug into the faith – going to Mass, attending youth group, Bible study, etc, while also behaving like the rest of the world – getting drunk and using drugs, fornicating and having abortions. What’s lost is a sense that my actions change my relationship with the Other. Yet no one behaves this way in their human relationships. One does not say to his wife “I love you” while also beating her and committing adultery. Then again, maybe people do. But you see my point.
Falsehood #3: One can have a “fundamental option” to love God and still be judged good while also failing to do the good we ought. The ending of the film makes this message loud and clear (no spoiler, sorry). In John Paul II’s landmark encyclical Veritatis Splendor, the pontiff condemns this popular notion. Quoting from St. Gregory of Nyssa, he reminds us that we become “our own parents” when we act (VS 71). As free rational persons, our acts “give moral definition to the very person who performs them, determining his profound spiritual traits.” One cannot have a “fundamental option” or overall orientation that’s “pro-God” while performing actions directly contrary to His commandments (VS 70).
The movie seems to say: “People often face heavy moral conflicts. When they choose wrongly, we should not pass judgment, since doing the wrong thing doesn’t make them a bad person. God will probably give them a pass because they are conflicted.” Go ahead and have that abortion since you’re morally conflicted. God will forgive you later for your weakness. Go ahead and support that same-sex relationship – it’s complicated and God will understand your predicament and give you a pass. Go ahead and euthanize grandma – this is such a tough choice and no one would expect you to be able to do the hard thing. God alone can judge your decision.
This movie is a minefield of theological errors, and unfortunately most viewers are not equipped to deal with it.
Keep this in mind as I offer some positive take-aways. This does not mean that I am recommending the movie. I don’t. It’s an acknowledgement that in spite of the directors’ best efforts to put a wicked message out, many other good messages come across inadvertently.
#1. Martyrdom is attractive. There are some very moving scenes of the Christians giving up their lives for the faith. All of them are at peace; all of them are joyful. One wants to be like them. Not so for the apostates…
#2. Apostasy is unattractive. The latter part of the film depicts the life of the apostate priests after their betrayal. They live a mundane existence. They eat well, dress well, and live in comfortable places. They even have wives. But they are not at peace and do not smile. Their lives are boring. One never feels the urge to follow after them. This is the sterility of the lukewarm at its best.
#3. One act of betrayal is never the end. As the movie makes clear, the Japanese inquisitors do not let the issue rest after the apostates gently place the foot on the icon. They must renew their betrayal each year in writing and by action. They are even required to turn in Christian contraband and suspected Christian citizens. One sin always leads to more betrayal.
#4. Small acts of selfishness eventually make heroic acts impossible. The villagers who have always practiced modesty, temperance, and charity find it easy to give their lives in the end. Not so for Mr. Garfield’s character. It is clear that the protagonist priest is not ready for such a mission. (By the way, this makes the movie’s story implausible to me, since these guys are just a few decades removed from St. Ignatius and St. Francis Xavier.) The young priest is clearly ill-prepared for the kind of physical and spiritual depravation he meets. He wolfs down the little bit of food that is offered him and has no real visible courage at any point in the show. It’s no surprise when he gives in to apostasy.
#5. Don’t be presumptuous. I asked myself at various points in the film, “if I were in this predicament, how would I fare?” Persecution is portrayed as it really was, and it would surprise many of us, myself included, to learn how helpless we would be.
#6. One needs humility to stay faithful. The persecutor at one point says “they always fail when they lack humility” (paraphrase). So true. The soon-to-be apostate priest reminds you of St. Peter just before his denial of Christ, “I will never deny you!” So much for that. Real martyrs are deeply aware of their inadequacy and weakness. They, like St. Paul realize the great secret that “power reaches perfection in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). It is God who supplies the grace for the miracle of martyrdom; it is not done by one’s own effort.
#7. Priestly example is essential. Each year during the reading of the Passion we read of the prophecy of Zechariah, “strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered” (13:2) The persecutors know this well and so expend all of their energy on getting the priests to apostatize. Everything hangs on the priest, for good or bad. Heroic and holy priests lead to faithfulness for generations. Priestly betrayal does the same in reverse. The villages that stayed faithful in the face of persecution were precisely those places where saintly priests served. We need to pray for our priests and pray for holy priestly vocations. Who knows what we will face one day?
I would further point out that these true aspects of the film appear because it’s the nature of good and evil. Good will always be attractive and evil dull despite what film makers devise. Small acts of good or evil will always produce greater acts; and priests will always mold the flock. So please don’t expect this film to increase your faith. It would be fruitful, in my opinion, only alongside a read of Veritatis Splendor and some decent bourbon.