Weak Love and Moral Culpability in Shusaku Endo’s Silence


Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence, of which a film adaptation by Martin Scorsese shall soon be released, is concerned with the deeply unsettling portrayal of a situation in which one’s faith seems to make irreconcilable demands. Set in 1643, after the Japanese persecution of the Catholic Church forced Catholics underground, Silence recounts the story of Fr. Sebastian Rodrigues and Fr. Francisco Garrpe, who travel to Japan as missionaries to minister to these hidden Catholics and to discover the truth about Fr. Christovão Ferreira, of whom there are reports of apostasy and collaboration with the persecutors. With the help of Kichijiro, a Japanese Catholic who apostatised to save his own life, they find the hidden Catholics, but Kichijiro betrays Fr. Rodrigues to the Japanese authorities. Fr. Rodrigues is forced to witness the brutal torture of apostate Catholics, being told that the torture will not end until he also apostatises by trampling on an image of Jesus called a fumie. He cannot endure witnessing their torture, and so apostatises to save them.

Christ-Figures and Judas-Figures

For much of the novel, Fr. Rodrigues identifies himself with the sufferings of Jesus. In fact, the narrative arc appears to be making Fr. Rodrigues into a Christ-figure. He looks into a pool of water and sees his face reflected like that of a crucified man. He realises that the money the authorities will give to anyone who turns in a priest is exactly ten times that Judas received for betraying Jesus. While in prison, he meditates upon the life of Christ, especially the Passion, believing that “his fate and that of Christ were quite alike,” and relishing being “united to the Son of God.”

Just as Fr. Rodrigues always sees himself as a Christ-figure, he always identifies Kichijiro as the Judas of his story, the one who will betray him to the persecutors. Indeed, as soon as the priests arrive in Japan, they believe that Kichijiro has betrayed them, and so they immediately compare him to Judas. The other Christians remain steadfast in their faith, unable to bring themselves to apostatise, but Kichijiro always betrays it. It is the detestable Kichijiro who is of weak faith and love, unlike Fr. Rodrigues, who has visions of becoming a martyr, certain that he will not fail to fulfill these visions if he is called to do so

The problem is that these visions of martyrdom are always tied up with visions of glory. Fr. Rodrigues goes to Japan for “the glory of God” and if he dies, he believes it will be for that same glory. He believes it is he who brings glory to God by dying for the faith. While he does pray for God’s intervention, he still has much confidence in the capacities of his own strength. Fr. Rodrigues is not egotistical by any means, but neither does he yet have the proper humility in face of trials and suffering. He has too much faith that his own strength can overcome any obstacle.

The irony is that, ultimately, Fr. Rodrigues is not a Christ-figure. Like Kichijiro, he apostatises when he faces an evil he cannot endure. In his 2007 introduction to the novel, Scorsese says Fr. Rodrigues plays the role of Judas, but this is wrong. Instead, Fr. Rodrigues is in many ways more akin to the apostle Peter, who promises that he will die for Jesus, but eventually swears that he does not know Jesus to save himself; when Fr. Rodrigues tramples on the fumie, a cock crows, just as it does when Peter makes his betrayal. Both have visions of glorious acts done out of love for their master, but betray that master. As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI says in the second volume of his Jesus of Nazareth trilogy, Peter “must bid farewell to the heroism of personal deeds and learn the humility of the disciple,” and we must not seek “to exalt ourselves to God’s level.” Fr. Rodrigues, like Peter, desires to do glorious things for God, but in the end, tramples on the fumie, and learns his human limits.

“Come to Me, All You Who Are Weary…”

Philip L. Quinn, in “Tragic Dilemmas, Suffering Love, and Christian Life,” characterises Fr. Rodrigues’s struggle as being “torn between the demand for loyalty to his priestly vows and to his church and the claim the suffering of the Japanese Christians makes on his capacity for love of neighbour.” He does not have the strength to bear the burden of choosing one over the other, but he believes God has the strength to endure his choice. Indeed, before trampling, he believes he hears the image of Christ say to him, “Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into the world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.” This is reminiscent of how, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Fr. Rodrigues, because he is weak, and cannot bear the burden of feeling responsible for the suffering of others, gives to Jesus the awful burden of being betrayed by one of his own priests. He knows that Jesus is stronger than he is, and facing this terrible dilemma, he believes that the only way out is to make the cross heavier. He can resolve this dilemma by burdening Christ or by burdening the victims, and so he burdens Christ, who promises rest.

A Weaker Love

At the end of the Gospel of John, Jesus asks Peter if he has the divine love of agapao, which is boundless and unconditional, but Peter replies that he only has the lesser and limited human love of fileo, friendship, which Jesus nonetheless accepts. In his general audience of May 24, 2006, Benedict says that in accepting the limited love of which Peter is capable, Jesus “has put himself on the level of Peter, rather than Peter on Jesus’ level.”

In the same way, Fr. Rodrigues no longer seeks to raise himself up and find Jesus in majesty, or in a beautiful endurance of suffering, but in the face of a man who is “sunken and utterly exhausted.” He now sees his weakness and knows what it is to suffer not for the good Catholics in Japan, but for the corrupt, particularly Kichijiro because he has that same corrupt love. He no longer takes no pride in being able to identify with Jesus, because it is not something that he can do of his own power. Instead, Jesus can identify with him in his suffering. Instead of Fr. Rodrigues reaching up, Jesus reaches down.

“A Broken and Contrite Heart, O God, You Will Not Despise”

Although Fr. Rodrigues tramples, he does not renounce his faith. He has certainly betrayed it, profaning God by stepping on His image, and desecrating the face of Jesus which he loves so dearly. However, he detests his betrayal. It is not the case that, in retrospect, he knows that he did the “right thing” to save the suffering; he knows he did something profoundly evil. The persecutors tell Fr. Rodrigues that trampling is a mere formality, but for a priest who believes that faith without works is dead, that faith bears fruit in one’s actions, and who loves the face of Jesus with his whole being, acting contrary to one’s faith is not simply a formality. His continued faith is seen in the burden he now bears: he cannot bear the burden of allowing others to suffer and so tramples, but he cannot escape the burden of guilt for his apostasy.

The Catechism, paragraph 1735, says, “Imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors.” However, even if one’s culpability for an evil act is diminished, that act is still intrinsically evil, and therefore still has consequences. Fr. Rodrigues certainly acts under duress, but apostatising is still intrinsically wrong. After apostatising, Fr. Rodrigues loses all agency, being compelled to live in Japan under a Japanese name with a Japanese wife, and having his movements monitored. He even disappears from the narrative itself by the end of the novel, and his death is merely reported instead of depicted. Having apostatised he does not flourish, but is instead effaced.

Furthermore, Fr. Rodrigues feels “hatred and contempt” for Fr. Ferreira, as Fr. Ferreira feels for him because in each other, they see each other’s betrayal reflected. Fr. Rodrigues hates the fact that he betrayed his faith, even though the alternative was similarly intolerable. This evil act, though he might not be fully responsible for it, and though it results in a new humility, damages his freedom and self-regard. Intrinsic evil exists independently of one’s intentions or guilt, and so even though Fr. Rodrigues is trying to make the best of an awful situation, the evil of his apostasy still has awful consequences, and so he must cling to his hope for mercy. His potential lack of culpability does not mean that the consequences of evil do not apply to him. They still damage him.

Silence understands the world as fallen, and so even if one loves God with all of one’s heart, mind, and soul, as Fr. Rodrigues tries to do, one may still end up in a situation where that love is not enough. Coming face-to-face with his own weakness, he betrays his faith, even though the alternative also seems to betray that faith. He can only seek rest by sacrificing faith in his own strength and seek hope in knowing that although he cannot share in Christ’s glory, Christ shares in his debasement, and so he is not abandoned.

see Shusaku Endo’s Silence and the Divine Command to Sin


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4 thoughts on “Weak Love and Moral Culpability in Shusaku Endo’s Silence”

  1. I’ve been researching on the internet about the dilemma described in the book and movie “Silence” and it appears to me it remains an unsolvable dilemma. Yet I would so emphatically say that it is not! Rodriguez and Ferrera, I would assert, had options open to them for actions that would have led to their triumph! What, if for instance, they challenged the Inquisitor to a duel to the death? If he refused they would cry out to everyone that the Inquisitor is a coward and has no honor. Ok that being done, Ferrera or Rodriguez are engaged with the Inquisitor in a duel to the death. If the Inquisitor dispatches him (kills the priest) as he would most probably have to, gone is all the leverage that made the dilemma vexing. The Inquisitor would no longer have the priest to make an example of apostasy. Rather, in fact, that priest would have become a glorious Martyr! I am reminded of the saying, “There is no problem too great for God” It is horribly unfortunate that Ferrera or Rodriguez could not come up with the answer then, but as all these threads of articles about the subject illustrate, perhaps even they can be forgiven for their failure.

    1. BerneyJoe,

      Shameless self-promotion time! You should read the other essay I published, which can be found here: https://www.catholicstand.com/shusaku-endos-silence-divine-command-sin/

      In it, I say, “It is not even the case that his own life and physical well-being are at stake; he will not be tortured or martyred. One thinks of George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which O’Brien, reprogramming the thought criminal Winston Smith, says, “In this place there are no martyrdoms.” Just as Winston is made to betray his love for Julia and love Big Brother before he is executed and wiped out of history, Fr. Rodrigues is not allowed to suffer for the Japanese Catholics…”

      I don’t think I mention it anywhere, but Fr. Garrpe does sacrifice his life trying to save hostages instead of apostatizing earlier in the novel. My understanding is that the Japanese authorities would have learned from their mistake, and not allowed that opportunity to Fr. Rodrigues. For the priests, this is a case of persecution without the possibility of martyrdom.

  2. Thank you for your commentary; this is the best article on Silence that I have read so far! Today’s Gospel was on the beatitudes and the Silence story is a moving and disturbing account of our difficulty with poverty of spirit. In the movie Silence one can see the difference between the peasants martyrdom and Rodrigues’ struggles. While these themes are uncomfortable, they point out important truths about ourselves.

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