Re-reading Silence, Part 2– Apostasy and Despair

Re-reading Silence, Part 2– Apostasy and Despair

In which I address some theological concerns, including the problem of the unforgivable sin.

In my first post about Silence I mentioned that I have been very frustrated as I’ve read reviews of the novel and the movie because so many reviewers fail to grasp basic principles of literary analysis like the distinction between the author and the narrator, between history and literature, and the device of the unreliable narrator (I realized too late that I should probably have thrown into that mix the question of what literature is for.—i.e. it’s not a catechism or a model for how to live one’s life.) 

Likewise, there are also some basic principles of Catholic theology that we must address to clear the way to reading Silence clearly and coherently. Among these are: apostasy, mercy, and the sacramental priesthood.

Now that I’ve written this section, I’ve found that I’ve gone on at great length about apostasy but have not yet said everything I want to say about mercy. And nothing at all about priesthood. Still, I’d rather post my thoughts in small manageable chunks. (And I know this is already not a very short blog post.) So I’ll probably have more to say about mercy and suffering.


First, apostasy is a grave sin. A mortal sin. The Catechism teaches that there are three conditions for sin to be mortal.

For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: “Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.”

So apostasy, the total repudiation of the Christian faith, is certainly grave matter. But in order for a person who has apostatized to be in mortal sin, he also must have apostatized with full knowledge and deliberate consent. There is certainly a question as to whether an individual who has apostatized under torture has truly committed that sin with full consent. His culpability for the grave matter might be lesser and in fact he may have committed a venial sin. Likewise for a person who has not been well formed in the faith and who does not truly understand the gravity of what he does.

And yet while apostasy is indeed a grave sin, it is not an unforgivable sin, though the priest Rodrigues— and many critics of the novel— treats apostasy as if it were necessarily permanent and unforgivable in the Church’s eyes. I repeat, this is not the case. Apostasy is not unforgivable. The third century debates over the re-baptism of repentant apostates hinged not on whether apostasy was forgivable—that was considered a given by both sides— but on whether it was necessary to baptize apostates again when they repented of their apostasy. And this is rooted in the Gospel of St John that Endo himself refers to. Peter repudiated Christ, denied knowing him at all, three times. And not only was Peter forgiven, he was called the Rock, the foundation of the Church, he was given the place of first among the apostles, and he was given a mission: to feed Christ’s sheep.

One of the historical realities that the novel wrestles with is that in Japan all the priests were killed or expelled. The authorities systematically did their best to suppress Christianity. And yet it thrived underground for almost two hundred years without priests, without benefit of the sacraments other than baptism and matrimony. And, as the appendix makes clear, all the Christians who remained and who passed on the faith were forced to participate in the yearly ritual of trampling on the fumie, the representations of Jesus and Mary, in the formal repudiation of the faith. How were those who trampled able to keep the faith alive? How was Christianity able to survive and to be transmitted with no books, almost no material culture, and no priests, passed on by those who publicly denied their Lord? This is a mystery and a problem that Japanese Christians must wrestle with. Do the Japanese who hold to the faith believe in the Christian God or in a distortion? And even if it is a distortion, is there yet some measure of grace in their holding on to the faith and the sacraments?

Indeed, it seems that holding the faith under such constant duress and danger could only succeed if the grace of the Holy Spirit, received in baptism, did actually remain with them despite yearly apostasy. Yes, when the priests returned they found that the faith had been distorted somewhat, syncretism had crept in. Housekeeping was in order after 200 years with no shepherds, no Bibles, no catechism books. And yet… their faith and repentant hearts had admitted Christ into their souls. His life lived within them.

The Blasphemy against the Spirit

Rodrigues is wrong and the unforgivable sin is not apostasy, then what is the unforgivable sin? It is despair and complete rejection of God’s mercy and forgiveness. Understanding this is important to the novel as well.

About the unforgivable sin the Catechism says:

“Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.”There are no limits to the mercy of God, but anyone who deliberately refuses to accept his mercy by repenting, rejects the forgiveness of his sins and the salvation offered by the Holy Spirit. Such hardness of heart can lead to final impenitence and eternal loss. (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1864)

God does not reject us. Not ever. There are no limits to his mercy. Only to our willingness to accept that mercy. It is we who reject him. This is what Rodrigues gets so very wrong in his imagining about Christ and Judas. He fixates on the idea that Christ rejects Judas, sends him away without any hope for forgiveness. But it is Rodrigues who is rejecting Christ’s mercy, who has withheld love and compassion from the penitent Kichijiro.

Again he bit at those words of warning that Christ has addressed to Judas.

These were words that from of old he had never understood when he read the Bible. And not only these words, but the whole role of Judas in that man’s life was something he had never been able to grasp. [. . .] Wasn’t Judas no more than a puppet made use of for that man’s crucifixion?

And yet . . . and yet . . . if that man was love itself, why had he rejected Judas in the end? Judas had hanged himself at the field of blood; had he been cast aside to sink down into eternal darkness?

Rodrigues despairs, he has no hope. Is his despair rooted in his inability to love Kichijiro or does he fail to love Kichijiro because he has already despaired? It is not clear.

The Catechism also says:

By despair, man ceases to hope for his personal salvation from God, for help in attaining it or for the forgiveness of his sins. Despair is contrary to God’s goodness, to his justice – for the Lord is faithful to his promises – and to his mercy. CCC 2091

What Rodrigues fails to see in the figure of Judas is the possibility that Judas could have made another choice rather than despair and suicide. He does not see that just as Peter was free to repent, so was Judas. Judas could have turned his eyes to the Lord and his plea for mercy would not have been denied. (And for that matter the Church says that we cannot know for certain whether or not Judas did repent at the end. Only God knows.) 

By behaving as if Judas’ sin and Kichijiros’s sin is unforgivable, Rodrigues denies God’s mercy and goodness.

God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end. In the Eucharistic liturgy and in the daily prayers of her faithful, the Church implores the mercy of God, who does not want “any to perish, but all to come to repentance” Catechism of the Catholic Church 1037

Clearly Rodrigues despairs of God’s mercy when he fixates on the figure of Judas, when he implores the Christians to apostatize, and when he tramples on the fumie. But the novel is not as clear about whether he perseveres in his error to the end. Does he persist in his turning away? A closer reading of the end of the novel will reveal some ambiguities. The appendix reveals that Rodrigues lives out his life in Japan serving the anti-Christian authorities and helping to identify Christian artifacts. He takes a Japanese wife. He is buried in a Buddhist funeral, cremated, and given a posthumous Buddhist name in death. And yet, his final encounter with Kichijiro suggests that perhaps Rodrigues comes to a different understanding of Christ’s mercy.

Perhaps it isn’t quite so clear as to whether he persists in error to the end or whether in the end he comes to resemble the Japanese Christians who trample the fumie yearly and yet somehow cling to the faith. Does he finally become like Kichijiro? He tells the authorities that he never converted Kichijiro. But is it possible that Kichijiro converted him?



Part 1: In which I address some critical concerns, including the problem of the unreliable narrator

Part 3: On Mercy

Part 4: Concerning Shepherds

Part 5: Rodrigues’ False God

Part 6: A Tale of Two Jesuits

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