Rebutting Fr. James Martin’s Utilitarian Defense of Silence 2016

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By Kerry Weber (photosub 2015040610018739) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

To begin with, as many might know, Fr. James Martin and the website he writes for “America: A Jesuit Review” are to be treated with great precaution. Even though this message is ran by the Jesuits, it still has problematic aspects. Not only because this magazine is from a liberal persuasion, but more precisely because it has a track record of being heterodox on many issues and stances. Many writers, including Fr. James Martin, who frequently writes for the magazine, have written about aspects of Church teaching, including news and things of that nature, in such a way that they are left distorted with some sort of political agenda masked as Church Teaching. Fr. Martin has often written publictly about aspects of homosexuality that are incompatible with Catholicism. This is true not only for Fr. James Martin but for nearly every other writer that writes for “American Magazine.” Don’t take my word for it. It isn’t just me saying it. which is a reputable website and which has a popular website review page, which judges the content of Catholic sources, in relation to the conformity with Church teaching, gives America a danger warning.

I point this out only for two reasons. 1) I would not want anyone to be misguided by an online publication that claims to be Catholic but whose approach to aspects of ecclesiality distort rather than inform. 2) The other main reason I point this out is simply to help us better to understand the movie at hand. There are many different things that should be taken into consideration when judging a movie. The main factor is obviously the intent of the filmmakers. If Fr. James Martin, who admits of being the chief adviser for the movie, is himself misguided then we have a huge problem. Furthermore many other people who star in the movie also have negative aspects about them which should cause us to have precaution. For example Liam Neeson has publicly stated things that are also contrary to Church teaching. This is most definitely true in regards to numerous defenses of abortion which he has made. If I am not mistaken I believe he has also defended Planned Parenthood simultaneously. The director of the movie, Martin Scorsese, has himself not been the most exemplary Catholic by any means. Once again I don’t point these things out simply as ad hominems, but to add context in understanding the nature of the movie which they made.

I point this out only for two reasons. 1) I would not want my readers to be misguided by online publications that claim to be Catholic but which approach aspects of ecclesiality in such a way that they misguide rather than inform. 2) The other main reason is simply to help us better understand the movie “Silence.” There are many different things that should be taken into consideration when judging a movie, some of which I have already pointed out. With this being said I believe I can now comment on Fr. James Martin’s individual article regarding the movie. To start off with, one of the main problems of Fr. James Martin is that he is clearly admitting that there are utilitarian motives behind the actions in the movie. Fr. James states:

“As the viewer knows from the start of the film, Ferreira chose to apostatize rather than see his friends suffer… Once captured, Fathers Rodrigues and Garupe are confronted with a terrible dilemma: recant their faith and set the Japanese Christians free, or hold onto their faith and let others suffer. It is an almost impossible choice. Thus, both Jesuits are forced to “discern” in a complicated situation where there are no easy answers. Fathers Rodrigues and Garupe come from a world of black-and-white and are both forced to make painful decisions in a world of gray.”1

Fr. James Martin is clearly arguing in the basis of utilitarian arguments. He is basically saying that there are not only circumstances that make such hard decisions understandable, but that such decisions can be justified at times which is contrary to Church teaching.

I would urge anyone and particularly Fr. James Martin to read the section of the Catechism which touches upon the morality of human acts which starts in paragraph 1749. This section takes into consideration the different elements that go into deciding the morality of human acts. These include 1) the object chose, 2) the end in view (the intention), 3) and the circumstances of the action. The catechism goes on to note that while there are particular intentions that we may have (saving the lives of others in the case of the movie), and circumstances (being tortured also like in the movie) there are some actions which by their very nature (the object chosen) are inherently evil (apostasy) being one of them, and being unjust regardless of the circumstance:

Circumstances of themselves cannot change the moral quality of acts themselves; they can make neither good nor right an action that is in itself evil… A morally good act requires the goodness of the object… It is therefore an error to judge the morality of human acts by considering only the intention that inspires them or the circumstances (environment, social pressure, duress or emergency, etc.) which supply their context. There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may not do evil so that good may result from it.” (CCC 1754-1756).

The next problematic aspect of Fr. James Martin’s article is in regards to the relationship between Jesuit spirituality and on what Christ would command us in regards to prayer. Fr James Martin misconstrues Ignatian spirituality. He rightly states that Ignatian spiritualtiy is completely focused on Jesus. He is also right in saying that Jesuit spirituality involves us to completely meditate on the life of Jesus and on what he is asking of us. However he is completely wrong in his conclusion that Jesus would ask of us that which is unlawful to begin with.

“Only in the end, after several searing experiences that include his own physical suffering and witnessing the torture and execution of others, after long periods of agonizing prayer and, in particular, after hearing the voice of Christ in his prayer, does Father Rodrigues apostatize.

He apostatized not simply because he wished to save the lives of the Japanese Christians, but because this is what Christ asked him to do in prayer. Contrary to what some Christian critics have concluded, it is hardly a glorification of apostasy.

Confusing as it seems to some Christian viewers, Christ requests this contradictory act from his priest. It makes little sense to anyone, least of all to Father Rodrigues, who has assiduously resisted it for himself. Yet he does it. Because Jesus has asked him to.”2

You can rest assure that Jesus would never call us to sin, or to contradict the moral or religious laws that Christ has established. God can’t self-contradict himself. He cannot call us to do “evil that good may come of it” or else that would be saying that Christ is himself a utilitarian who believes that decisions that are inherently evil can be justified in particular circumstances (which the Catechism has refuted). Because Christ told him to do it? But how could Christ contradict the Church and the Scriptures? Jesus said if you deny me before man I will deny you before my heavenly Father. (Matt 10:33) He also says that a house divided against himself cannot stand. (Mark 3:25). Christ cannot contradict his words in Scripture, and if he does, we should strongly question whose voice we’re actually hearing.

Even more problematic than this is Fr. Martin’s misconstruing of Sacred Scripture to justify his utilitarian principles. Fr. Martin uses the example of Christ’s agony in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:42) as a means to show that Christ himself was showing that there are circumstances in which we can do that which is intrinsically immoral and hence sinful.

“Jesus struggles mightily to understand God’s will, and says, “Father if you are willing, remove this cup from me.” He does not wish to die. But then he says, “Yet not my will, but yours be done” (Lk 22:42). Jesus does something that everyone in his circle opposes and misunderstands. Even Peter doesn’t want Jesus to suffer: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!” (Mt. 16:22).The apostles do not want Jesus to suffer, much less to embrace the cross. It makes no sense to them.”3

In what way did Jesus struggle in understanding the father’s will? Jesus is God and as such he always knew what his mission was and hence on what the Father’s will was. Jesus did not struggle in understanding this one bit. Jesus has the hypostatic union (meaning that God the flesh incarnate never lost unity with the Trinity). Likewise the Trinity is consubstantial, meaning that what belongs to one of them, belongs just as much to the other of the Divine Persons. If perfect knowledge belongs to the agonyFather; so then does it belong to the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Furthermore does not Jesus say in Luke 2:49 to his parents “Do you not know that I must be about my father’s business?” How could he have said this if he didn’t know what was the Father’s will to begin with? What Jesus was struggling with in regards to the Garden of Gethsemane was nothing else than natural human fear…. And yes even God as a human had human emotions yet without sin. Furthermore the example that James Martin uses is completely taken out of context. In the one hand you have priests which are being forced to apostatize their faith, in which they succumb for reasons of personal weakness, as well as on utilitarian grounds. On the other hand Christ’s agony in the Garden of Gethsemane had NOTHING whatsoever to do with apostasy. It rather had everything to do with the opposite. It had to do with the redemption of mankind. Furthermore Saint Thomas Aquinas teaches that this act was completely voluntary. Christ freely chose to become man and to be crucified. Yes it was out of “obedience even to death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:8) but it was still a voluntary act out of Charity. Nevertheless it is a null comparison between the beginning of Christ’s passion and the events in the movie.

Another aspect which I found most problematic in this article is Fr. James’ misconstruing of Jesuit spirituality as I have already pointed out in regards to what Christ would ask of us. It seems that Fr. James Martin, a Jesuit, is completely misunderstanding what his own spirituality asks of him. In other words he is isolating Jesuit spirituality from Catholic Teaching, in such a way as if such spirituality stands by itself. No spirituality can be genuine unless it is tied with the wholeness of Church teaching.

“He apostatizes, finally, because Christ asks him to. And for those who say that Christ would never ask something like that, ask yourself how the disciples felt when Jesus told them he would have to suffer and die.”4

Fr. James states that there are three levels of degrees of humility in regards to a longstanding Jesuit spiritual tradition. 1) Avoiding sin (mortal or venial) 2) seeking detachment from external elements (e.g., honor vs dishonor, poverty, vs riches, health, vs sickness) 3) and lastly the highest which is when one does something dishonorable because it brings him or her closer to Christ.

The third level of humility, the highest, is when a person is able to choose something dishonorable because it brings him or her closer to Christ. “I desire to be regarded as a useless fool for Christ, who before me was regarded as such,” in the words of the Spiritual Exercises. A person accepts being misunderstood, perhaps by everyone, just as Christ was.

This is what Father Rodrigues chooses, confusing as it may be to Christian Europe, to his Jesuit superiors—and even to modern-day filmgoers.5

This is especially offensive to someone like myself who loves Ignatian and hence Jesuit spirituality. It is most definitely true that this (the three levels of humility) is a longstanding Ignatian (Jesuit) tradition. However he is misconstruing what the third level of humility is. The third level of humility is speaking in regards to someone who is publicly ridiculed or dishonored in a public way because of one’s Christian faith and love of God. However, as I have pointed out, you can’t isolate spirituality from its connection to Church teaching. Spirituality which is itself an example of ecclesiastical tradition (small t tradition), is nothing more than a manifestation of Church teaching in one’s spiritual life. It can’t contradict that which it springs from. Apostatizing of one’s faith is not an example that would merit the third level of humility that Fr. James Martin is talking about.

Fr James Martin then makes the point that Fr. Rodrigues kept his faith, even after his public apostasy. He argues that this can be shown by the fact that Fr. Rodrigues has a funeral rite, in which his wife places a crucifix, showing the belief and significance that Fr. Rodrigues had of his Christian held belief. He also argues that this is true in regards to Fr. Rodrigues’ last prayer to God in which Fr. James Martin states

“But there is an easier way to see that Rodrigues still believes in God. At the end of the film, despite having publicly recanted his faith, he addresses God in prayer. “To this very day, everything I do, everything I’ve done speaks of him. It was in the silence that I heard your voice,”

“The film, however, leaves no doubt, as I see it. Several scholars believe this was Endo’s underlying intent: Rodrigues holds onto his faith even after his public apostasy. Mr. Scorsese and Mr. Cocks have given filmgoers an image to convey this interpretation: the magnificent final scene, which shows Rodrigues’s funeral rites, during which his Japanese wife inserts into the dead man’s hands his old crucifix, given to him by one of his Japanese Christian friends. When I first read the scene in the script I was deeply moved by this image of “holding on” to one’s faith.

My own interpretation is that Rodrigues’s wife grasped how important the crucifix was to her husband and, in turn, how important his faith was to him. It’s also important for viewers who doubt his faith to ask themselves why Rodrigues would have held onto this object if he no longer believed—especially at risk to himself and his family.” 6

However Fr. James misses the point. I don’t deny by any means that someone could out of great suffering, and torture denounce one’s faith, while after words repenting and continuing to believe in Christ. The point that is missed is that the act of denying one’s faith, is indeed a PUBLIC ACT of apostasy. In other words during that act such person is indeed denying one’s faith whether one wants to admit it or not. That does not mean that such person can’t repent of doing such act and bring back his faith. However it doesn’t change the fact that a sinful act has occurred. Furthermore in the case of Fr. Rodrigues he doesn’t seem to have that much faith if you ask me. He does not seem to have faith in his priesthood at least. Otherwise he would not have abandoned it in order to get married. He definitely does not seem to accept what the church allows and does not allow in regards to funeral rites, or else he would not have allowed himself to be cremated at a time in which this was completely prohibited by the Church. This is something he would have known about.

I can’t comment too much in regards to the character of Kichijiro.

There are two troubling notions that Fr. James Martin makes in his fourth section in his article regarding God’s silence and in regards to the problem of evil. First and foremost Fr. James Martin, misconstrues what it means for God to be silent. It is most definitely true that God is often silent in our lives. This is what we call the “Dark Night of the Soul.” However Fr. James Martin seems to miss the fundamental element which gives the “Dark Night” its spiritual basis. That is, that the dark night is what has been described as one of the three conversion in the spiritual life. The Dark Night is that period in which someone acknowledges their sinfulness and their dependence on God and whom realize that they fall completely short of God’s glory. They realize that without Him they are nothing. Another element in regards to the Dark Night is that it is God’s means for us to grow in holiness. God allows those whom he wants to advance (or better yet are ready) to advance in the spiritual life to experience the Dark Night (which in this case is a sharing in the darkest period of Christ in the Cross). Using the reality of the dark night as a means by which to justify apostasy is not only heretical but unwarranted. If Fr. Martin meant only that they were experiencing the dark night in the midst of this temptation of apostasy then that would be a different story.

Second of all Fr. James Martin seems to say that the Church does not know why God permits evil. He states

“In short, “Why is there suffering?” As anyone who has experienced profound suffering knows, even the devout believer, there is no satisfying answer to this question.”7

This statement is only a half-truth. It is true that those who are personally going through a though time have a hard time seeing the goodness of God’s actions, but that does not mean that there is no answer. For example, Saint Thomas Aquinas teaches that there are many reasons for which evils exists and for which God permits such evils. Some of these reasons are 1) the existence of free-will (this explains why moral evils exist. In the case of the movie it explains why some Japanese were persecuting their own brethren. Saint Thomas Aquinas teaches that God is perfectly powerful and almighty and hence has no limitations as to what he can do. However there is the principle of “logical necessity” which means that God can’t do that which is metaphysically impossible. God can’t contradict himself.

“Thus, for example, if God chooses and should choose a given good, and that good logically implies an accompanying evil, God is not blame-worthy for the evil. For God to choose the good but prevent the evil is a contradiction. The occurrence of the evil, in such a case, is logically necessary, and so God cannot be blamed for it. He would still be all-good, even though this evil were present in his creation.”8

In this case God made man in his image and likeness. This includes the creation of free-will in man. Hence man is able to abuse of his freedom and hence sin and do evil. Before the fall there was no concupiscence or tendencies to do evil. Nor was there any natural evils such as death, disease, genetic mutations, etc. However these things came about because of the fall. Hence man’s current nature is fallen and both moral and natural evils are the result of this. God can indeed miraculously prevent man of these things, but he doesn’t have to.

2) Hence in the case of natural evils, the answer is also that in addition to the reality of free-will, God respects the current state of nature. 3) The last reason for which God permits evil is that God is so perfectly good that he can even make greater goods, come from the evils which he permits.

 “This is part of the infinite goodness of God, that He should allow evil to exist, and out of it produce good.” (ST 1.2.3). That is to say, the reason God allow evil is precisely because he intends to bring good out of it, whether that good is that we come to learn from the mistakes we make, that we come to have certain virtues that could not be acquired without struggling against evil, that we come to appreciate what is good by contrast with that is evil, or whatever.”- Goodness comes out of evil (Edward Feser: “Aquinas a Beginner’s Guide pg. 124-25).9

Fr James Martin is right in saying that those who are personally going through profound emotional, or psychological hardships during that particular time have a hard time seeing this. They may fail to understand why evils exist. Or why God permits evils. Or that greater goods may truly come from those evils which God permits. As Edward Feser, a Thomist states:

 “Of course, in the face of the worst real-world evils, the idea of such a good in the hereafter can seem cold, abstract, and remote. But that is an tendency to show that there is or could be no such good, but only that it is hard for us to keep our minds fixed on it in the face of suffering.” (Aquinas pg. 125) In other words it’s not that there is no satisfying answer or no answer at all, but rather that it is the person’s emotional character at the moment who has a difficult time seeing the goodness of God, or at least the reason by which God allows this suffering. (Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide pg. 125)10

Lastly, I can’t really object to the last section of the article of Fr. James Martin in of itself. Fr. Martin is very true to point out the history, the hardships, and especially the motives out of love and of the salvation of mankind which the Jesuits, alike with other religious orders went out to preach. I don’t object to this by any means. Nor do I object to the movie in portraying this. But this does not justify the means which Fr. James Martin, Martin Scorsese, and the rest of the cast took to film the movie. In other words it still doesn’t justify the problematic elements of the movie, namely the way and reasons for which these people apostatize and the way the movie ends. In short it is the way in which these things are presented that it becomes problematic.


1)                  American: The Jesuit Review (Fr. James Martin answers 5 common questions about 'Silence'
2)                   Ibid
3)                  Ibid
4)                  Ibid
5)                  Ibid
6)                  Ibid
7)                  Ibid
8)                  Aquinas Online (Aquinas and the Necessity of Natural Evils)
9)                  Edward Feser: A Beginner’s Guide pg, 124-125)
10)              Beginner’s Guide pg. 125






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