Category Archives: Reflections

What affects me as I try to grasp it.

Making Distinctions, Marking Consequences

Ed Peters helps us to make the distinctions necessary to understand Bishop Paprocki’s clear restatement of canonical norms in light of novel variants of permanent human problems:

Paprocki knows, for example, that the CLSA New Commentary (2001) discussing Canon 1184 at p. 1412, understands one in “manifest sin” as one “publicly known to be living in a state of grave sin”. That’s a far cry from Shine’s rhetorical jab, delivered as if it were the coup de grace to Paprocki’s position, “Who among us, including Bishop Paprocki, does not publicly sin at different moments?” Hardly anyone, I would venture, and so would Paprocki. But the law is not directed at those who, from time to time, commit sin, even a public sin; it is concerned about those who make an objectively sinful state their way of life. Fumble that distinction, as Shine does, and one’s chances of correctly reading Canon 1184 drop to, well, zero.


I want to end these remarks by highlighting a much more important point: Paprocki’s decree is not aimed at a category of persons (homosexuals, lesbians, LGBT, etc., words that do not even appear in his document) but rather, it is concerned with an act, a public act, an act that creates a civilly-recognized status, namely, the act of entering into a ‘same-sex marriage’. That public act most certainly has public consequences, some civil and some canonical.

(source: Bp Paprocki’s norms on ‘same-sex marriage’ | In the Light of the Law)

I think that last paragraph, especially, bears considering.

We are all sinners. That has consequences. We all also take public acts that really do, or really purport to, mark us with permanent characters or create permanent relationships. Those public acts have well-known implications, and the consequences need to be equally well-known and well-considered.

We too often think of “consequences” as threats designed to modify behavior by anticipation. But consequences are basically facts, and ordering the canonical response to those facts so as to make those real consequences clear and the responses prudent is an act of great mercy–the kind that does justice and then goes beyond.

Summa Comparison Texts

So my brain needed a good, relaxing bath in sound reasoning after walking down memory lane with the Modern Western Philosophy crew.  A dip in the Summa, of course, was just what the Doctor ordered.  Of course, what that meant was trying to find a few texts that would be likely to come into direct conversation with the texts I’d picked as an intro to that tradition.

Here’s what I found, with no particular explanation.  I’m hoping our Summer Seminar conversation will make the connections.

In our knowledge there are two things to be considered. First, that intellectual knowledge in some degree arises from sensible knowledge: and, because sense has singular and individual things for its object, and intellect has the universal for its object, it follows that our knowledge of the former comes before our knowledge of the latter. Secondly, we must consider that our intellect proceeds from a state of potentiality to a state of actuality; and every power thus proceeding from potentiality to actuality comes first to an incomplete act, which is the medium between potentiality and actuality, before accomplishing the perfect act. The perfect act of the intellect is complete knowledge, when the object is distinctly and determinately known; whereas the incomplete act is imperfect knowledge, when the object is known indistinctly, and as it were confusedly. A thing thus imperfectly known, is known partly in act and partly in potentiality, and hence the Philosopher says (Phys. i, 1), that “what is manifest and certain is known to us at first confusedly; afterwards we know it by distinguishing its principles and elements.” Now it is evident that to know an object that comprises many things, without proper knowledge of each thing contained in it, is to know that thing confusedly.

(source: Summa Theologica)

the Essence of God, the pure and perfect act, is simply and perfectly in itself intelligible; and hence God by His own Essence knows Himself, and all other things also. The angelic essence belongs, indeed, to the genus of intelligible things as “act,” but not as a “pure act,” nor as a “complete act,” and hence the angel’s act of intelligence is not completed by his essence. For although an angel understands himself by his own essence, still he cannot understand all other things by his own essence; for he knows things other than himself by their likenesses. Now the human intellect is only a potentiality in the genus of intelligible beings, just as primary matter is a potentiality as regards sensible beings; and hence it is called “possible.” Therefore in its essence the human mind is potentially understanding. Hence it has in itself the power to understand, but not to be understood, except as it is made actual. For even the Platonists asserted than an order of intelligible beings existed above the order of intellects, forasmuch as the intellect understands only by participation of the intelligible; for they said that the participator is below what it participates. If, therefore, the human intellect, as the Platonists held, became actual by participating separate intelligible forms, it would understand itself by such participation of incorporeal beings. But as in this life our intellect has material and sensible things for its proper natural object, as stated above (Question [84], Article [7]), it understands itself according as it is made actual by the species abstracted from sensible things, through the light of the active intellect, which not only actuates the intelligible things themselves, but also, by their instrumentality, actuates the passive intellect. Therefore the intellect knows itself not by its essence, but by its act.

(source: Summa Theologica)

Since the human intellect in the present state of life cannot understand even immaterial created substances (Article [1]), much less can it understand the essence of the uncreated substance. Hence it must be said simply that God is not the first object of our knowledge. Rather do we know God through creatures, according to the Apostle (Rm. 1:20), “the invisible things of God are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made”: while the first object of our knowledge in this life is the “quiddity of a material thing,” which is the proper object of our intellect, as appears above in many passages (Question [84], Article [7]; Question [85], Article [8]; Question [87], Article [2], ad 2)

(source: Summa Theologica)

This doctrine is wisdom above all human wisdom; not merely in any one order, but absolutely. For since it is the part of a wise man to arrange and to judge, and since lesser matters should be judged in the light of some higher principle, he is said to be wise in any one order who considers the highest principle in that order: thus in the order of building, he who plans the form of the house is called wise and architect, in opposition to the inferior laborers who trim the wood and make ready the stones: “As a wise architect, I have laid the foundation” (1 Cor. 3:10). Again, in the order of all human life, the prudent man is called wise, inasmuch as he directs his acts to a fitting end: “Wisdom is prudence to a man” (Prov. 10: 23). Therefore he who considers absolutely the highest cause of the whole universe, namely God, is most of all called wise. Hence wisdom is said to be the knowledge of divine things, as Augustine says (De Trin. xii, 14). But sacred doctrine essentially treats of God viewed as the highest cause—not only so far as He can be known through creatures just as philosophers knew Him—”That which is known of God is manifest in them” (Rm. 1:19)—but also as far as He is known to Himself alone and revealed to others. Hence sacred doctrine is especially called wisdom.

(source: Summa Theologica)

A thing can be self-evident in either of two ways: on the one hand, self-evident in itself, though not to us; on the other, self-evident in itself, and to us. A proposition is self-evident because the predicate is included in the essence of the subject, as “Man is an animal,” for animal is contained in the essence of man. If, therefore the essence of the predicate and subject be known to all, the proposition will be self-evident to all; as is clear with regard to the first principles of demonstration, the terms of which are common things that no one is ignorant of, such as being and non-being, whole and part, and such like. If, however, there are some to whom the essence of the predicate and subject is unknown, the proposition will be self-evident in itself, but not to those who do not know the meaning of the predicate and subject of the proposition. Therefore, it happens, as Boethius says (Hebdom., the title of which is: “Whether all that is, is good”), “that there are some mental concepts self-evident only to the learned, as that incorporeal substances are not in space.” Therefore I say that this proposition, “God exists,” of itself is self-evident, for the predicate is the same as the subject, because God is His own existence as will be hereafter shown (Question [3], Article [4]). Now because we do not know the essence of God, the proposition is not self-evident to us; but needs to be demonstrated by things that are more known to us, though less known in their nature—namely, by effects.

(source: Summa Theologica)

It is impossible for any created intellect to see the essence of God by its own natural power. For knowledge is regulated according as the thing known is in the knower. But the thing known is in the knower according to the mode of the knower. Hence the knowledge of every knower is ruled according to its own nature. If therefore the mode of anything’s being exceeds the mode of the knower, it must result that the knowledge of the object is above the nature of the knower. Now the mode of being of things is manifold. For some things have being only in this one individual matter; as all bodies. But others are subsisting natures, not residing in matter at all, which, however, are not their own existence, but receive it; and these are the incorporeal beings, called angels. But to God alone does it belong to be His own subsistent being. Therefore what exists only in individual matter we know naturally, forasmuch as our soul, whereby we know, is the form of certain matter. Now our soul possesses two cognitive powers; one is the act of a corporeal organ, which naturally knows things existing in individual matter; hence sense knows only the singular. But there is another kind of cognitive power in the soul, called the intellect; and this is not the act of any corporeal organ. Wherefore the intellect naturally knows natures which exist only in individual matter; not as they are in such individual matter, but according as they are abstracted therefrom by the considering act of the intellect; hence it follows that through the intellect we can understand these objects as universal; and this is beyond the power of the sense. Now the angelic intellect naturally knows natures that are not in matter; but this is beyond the power of the intellect of our soul in the state of its present life, united as it is to the body. It follows therefore that to know self-subsistent being is natural to the divine intellect alone; and this is beyond the natural power of any created intellect; for no creature is its own existence, forasmuch as its existence is participated. Therefore the created intellect cannot see the essence of God, unless God by His grace unites Himself to the created intellect, as an object made intelligible to it.

(source: Summa Theologica)


In names predicated of many in an analogical sense, all are predicated because they have reference to some one thing; and this one thing must be placed in the definition of them all. And since that expressed by the name is the definition, as the Philosopher says (Metaph. iv), such a name must be applied primarily to that which is put in the definition of such other things, and secondarily to these others according as they approach more or less to that first. Thus, for instance, “healthy” applied to animals comes into the definition of “healthy” applied to medicine, which is called healthy as being the cause of health in the animal; and also into the definition of “healthy” which is applied to urine, which is called healthy in so far as it is the sign of the animal’s health. Thus all names applied metaphorically to God, are applied to creatures primarily rather than to God, because when said of God they mean only similitudes to such creatures. For as “smiling” applied to a field means only that the field in the beauty of its flowering is like the beauty of the human smile by proportionate likeness, so the name of “lion” applied to God means only that God manifests strength in His works, as a lion in his. Thus it is clear that applied to God the signification of names can be defined only from what is said of creatures. But to other names not applied to God in a metaphorical sense, the same rule would apply if they were spoken of God as the cause only, as some have supposed. For when it is said, “God is good,” it would then only mean “God is the cause of the creature’s goodness”; thus the term good applied to God would included in its meaning the creature’s goodness. Hence “good” would apply primarily to creatures rather than to God. But as was shown above (Article [2]), these names are applied to God not as the cause only, but also essentially. For the words, “God is good,” or “wise,” signify not only that He is the cause of wisdom or goodness, but that these exist in Him in a more excellent way. Hence as regards what the name signifies, these names are applied primarily to God rather than to creatures, because these perfections flow from God to creatures; but as regards the imposition of the names, they are primarily applied by us to creatures which we know first. Hence they have a mode of signification which belongs to creatures, as said above (Article [3]).

(source: Summa Theologica)

God understands Himself through Himself. In proof whereof it must be known that although in operations which pass to an external effect, the object of the operation, which is taken as the term, exists outside the operator; nevertheless in operations that remain in the operator, the object signified as the term of operation, resides in the operator; and accordingly as it is in the operator, the operation is actual. Hence the Philosopher says (De Anima iii) that “the sensible in act is sense in act, and the intelligible in act is intellect in act.” For the reason why we actually feel or know a thing is because our intellect or sense is actually informed by the sensible or intelligible species. And because of this only, it follows that sense or intellect is distinct from the sensible or intelligible object, since both are in potentiality.

Since therefore God has nothing in Him of potentiality, but is pure act, His intellect and its object are altogether the same; so that He neither is without the intelligible species, as is the case with our intellect when it understands potentially; nor does the intelligible species differ from the substance of the divine intellect, as it differs in our intellect when it understands actually; but the intelligible species itself is the divine intellect itself, and thus God understands Himself through Himself.

(source: Summa Theologica)

It is necessary to suppose ideas in the divine mind. For the Greek word {Idea} is in Latin “forma.” Hence by ideas are understood the forms of things, existing apart from the things themselves. Now the form of anything existing apart from the thing itself can be for one of two ends: either to be the type of that of which it is called the form, or to be the principle of the knowledge of that thing, inasmuch as the forms of things knowable are said to be in him who knows them. In either case we must suppose ideas, as is clear for the following reason:

In all things not generated by chance, the form must be the end of any generation whatsoever. But an agent does not act on account of the form, except in so far as the likeness of the form is in the agent, as may happen in two ways. For in some agents the form of the thing to be made pre-exists according to its natural being, as in those that act by their nature; as a man generates a man, or fire generates fire. Whereas in other agents (the form of the thing to be made pre-exists) according to intelligible being, as in those that act by the intellect; and thus the likeness of a house pre-exists in the mind of the builder. And this may be called the idea of the house, since the builder intends to build his house like to the form conceived in his mind. As then the world was not made by chance, but by God acting by His intellect, as will appear later (Question [46], Article [1]), there must exist in the divine mind a form to the likeness of which the world was made. And in this the notion of an idea consists.

(source: Summa Theologica)

For it is clear that whatever is received into something is received according to the condition of the recipient. Now a thing is known in as far as its form is in the knower. But the intellectual soul knows a thing in its nature absolutely: for instance, it knows a stone absolutely as a stone; and therefore the form of a stone absolutely, as to its proper formal idea, is in the intellectual soul. Therefore the intellectual soul itself is an absolute form, and not something composed of matter and form. For if the intellectual soul were composed of matter and form, the forms of things would be received into it as individuals, and so it would only know the individual: just as it happens with the sensitive powers which receive forms in a corporeal organ; since matter is the principle by which forms are individualized. It follows, therefore, that the intellectual soul, and every intellectual substance which has knowledge of forms absolutely, is exempt from composition of matter and form.

(source: Summa Theologica)

We must assert that the intellect which is the principle of intellectual operation is the form of the human body. For that whereby primarily anything acts is a form of the thing to which the act is to be attributed: for instance, that whereby a body is primarily healed is health, and that whereby the soul knows primarily is knowledge; hence health is a form of the body, and knowledge is a form of the soul. The reason is because nothing acts except so far as it is in act; wherefore a thing acts by that whereby it is in act. Now it is clear that the first thing by which the body lives is the soul. And as life appears through various operations in different degrees of living things, that whereby we primarily perform each of all these vital actions is the soul. For the soul is the primary principle of our nourishment, sensation, and local movement; and likewise of our understanding. Therefore this principle by which we primarily understand, whether it be called the intellect or the intellectual soul, is the form of the body. This is the demonstration used by Aristotle (De Anima ii, 2).

But if anyone says that the intellectual soul is not the form of the body he must first explain how it is that this action of understanding is the action of this particular man; for each one is conscious that it is himself who understands. Now an action may be attributed to anyone in three ways, as is clear from the Philosopher (Phys. v, 1); for a thing is said to move or act, either by virtue of its whole self, for instance, as a physician heals; or by virtue of a part, as a man sees by his eye; or through an accidental quality, as when we say that something that is white builds, because it is accidental to the builder to be white. So when we say that Socrates or Plato understands, it is clear that this is not attributed to him accidentally; since it is ascribed to him as man, which is predicated of him essentially. We must therefore say either that Socrates understands by virtue of his whole self, as Plato maintained, holding that man is an intellectual soul; or that intelligence is a part of Socrates. The first cannot stand, as was shown above (Question [75], Article [4]), for this reason, that it is one and the same man who is conscious both that he understands, and that he senses. But one cannot sense without a body: therefore the body must be some part of man. It follows therefore that the intellect by which Socrates understands is a part of Socrates, so that in some way it is united to the body of Socrates.

The Commentator held that this union is through the intelligible species, as having a double subject, in the possible intellect, and in the phantasms which are in the corporeal organs. Thus through the intelligible species the possible intellect is linked to the body of this or that particular man. But this link or union does not sufficiently explain the fact, that the act of the intellect is the act of Socrates. This can be clearly seen from comparison with the sensitive faculty, from which Aristotle proceeds to consider things relating to the intellect. For the relation of phantasms to the intellect is like the relation of colors to the sense of sight, as he says De Anima iii, 5,7. Therefore, as the species of colors are in the sight, so are the species of phantasms in the possible intellect. Now it is clear that because the colors, the images of which are in the sight, are on a wall, the action of seeing is not attributed to the wall: for we do not say that the wall sees, but rather that it is seen. Therefore, from the fact that the species of phantasms are in the possible intellect, it does not follow that Socrates, in whom are the phantasms, understands, but that he or his phantasms are understood.

Some, however, tried to maintain that the intellect is united to the body as its motor; and hence that the intellect and body form one thing so that the act of the intellect could be attributed to the whole. This is, however, absurd for many reasons. First, because the intellect does not move the body except through the appetite, the movement of which presupposes the operation of the intellect. The reason therefore why Socrates understands is not because he is moved by his intellect, but rather, contrariwise, he is moved by his intellect because he understands. Secondly, because since Socrates is an individual in a nature of one essence composed of matter and form, if the intellect be not the form, it follows that it must be outside the essence, and then the intellect is the whole Socrates as a motor to the thing moved. Whereas the act of intellect remains in the agent, and does not pass into something else, as does the action of heating. Therefore the action of understanding cannot be attributed to Socrates for the reason that he is moved by his intellect. Thirdly, because the action of a motor is never attributed to the thing moved, except as to an instrument; as the action of a carpenter to a saw. Therefore if understanding is attributed to Socrates, as the action of what moves him, it follows that it is attributed to him as to an instrument. This is contrary to the teaching of the Philosopher, who holds that understanding is not possible through a corporeal instrument (De Anima iii, 4). Fourthly, because, although the action of a part be attributed to the whole, as the action of the eye is attributed to a man; yet it is never attributed to another part, except perhaps indirectly; for we do not say that the hand sees because the eye sees. Therefore if the intellect and Socrates are united in the above manner, the action of the intellect cannot be attributed to Socrates. If, however, Socrates be a whole composed of a union of the intellect with whatever else belongs to Socrates, and still the intellect be united to those other things only as a motor, it follows that Socrates is not one absolutely, and consequently neither a being absolutely, for a thing is a being according as it is one.

There remains, therefore, no other explanation than that given by Aristotle—namely, that this particular man understands, because the intellectual principle is his form. Thus from the very operation of the intellect it is made clear that the intellectual principle is united to the body as its form.

The same can be clearly shown from the nature of the human species. For the nature of each thing is shown by its operation. Now the proper operation of man as man is to understand; because he thereby surpasses all other animals. Whence Aristotle concludes (Ethic. x, 7) that the ultimate happiness of man must consist in this operation as properly belonging to him. Man must therefore derive his species from that which is the principle of this operation. But the species of anything is derived from its form. It follows therefore that the intellectual principle is the proper form of man.

But we must observe that the nobler a form is, the more it rises above corporeal matter, the less it is merged in matter, and the more it excels matter by its power and its operation; hence we find that the form of a mixed body has another operation not caused by its elemental qualities. And the higher we advance in the nobility of forms, the more we find that the power of the form excels the elementary matter; as the vegetative soul excels the form of the metal, and the sensitive soul excels the vegetative soul. Now the human soul is the highest and noblest of forms. Wherefore it excels corporeal matter in its power by the fact that it has an operation and a power in which corporeal matter has no share whatever. This power is called the intellect.

It is well to remark that if anyone holds that the soul is composed of matter and form, it would follow that in no way could the soul be the form of the body. For since the form is an act, and matter is only in potentiality, that which is composed of matter and form cannot be the form of another by virtue of itself as a whole. But if it is a form by virtue of some part of itself, then that part which is the form we call the soul, and that of which it is the form we call the “primary animate,” as was said above (Question [75], Article [5]).

(source: Summa Theologica)

Teachers, Universities, Colleges, Neighborhoods

The University should teach the teachers.

The teachers should live among the families in the neighborhoods, and serve them freely.

The families in the neighborhoods should feed the teachers, and send their most apt pupils to the University.

The University should be organized on a scale and in a manner that permits it to thrive on what the neighborhoods send to support the apt pupils and the faculty who instruct them.

This means the University needs colleges (room-and-board facilities for faculty and students) and libraries that are in cities that are mutually supporting–where tradesmen and merchants can have their living enhanced by offering services to the colleges, and where the faculty and students provide benefits worthy of subsidy to the city.

A city should be composed of neighborhoods, and on a scale that permits detached neighborhoods away from the city (the villages) to flourish.

Such a situation would permit both local and aggregated use of resources.

It is both unimaginably difficult to conceive in terms of current structures, and unimaginably simple to conceive if enough of us were to decide, together, to do it differently.

What is lacking is imagination and consensus, linked to the practical know-how that is often kept too busy and too distracted to apply itself to these matters.

We can make these things happen. Wake each other up and start organizing on better principles, friends.

Caesar’s Image Is God’s First

Caesar’s image is stamped on the coin, marking the coin as his.

Caesar, the Pharisee, the Herodian, the disciples, you, me, all human creatures are stamped with the image of God.

The world is not divided between Caesar’s realm and God’s; Caesar and his realm belong to God, and only insofar as God relegates matters to Caesar can they belong to him.

The image Caesar stamps on his coins is the shadow of the image of God, who permits Caesar to stamp his coins.

Some Pharisees and Herodians were sent
to Jesus to ensnare him in his speech.
They came and said to him,
“Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man
and that you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion.
You do not regard a person’s status
but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.
Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?
Should we pay or should we not pay?”
Knowing their hypocrisy he said to them,
“Why are you testing me?
Bring me a denarius to look at.”
They brought one to him and he said to them,
“Whose image and inscription is this?”
They replied to him, “Caesar’s.”
So Jesus said to them,
“Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar
and to God what belongs to God.”
They were utterly amazed at him.

USCCB Daily Readings

Via Purgativa [sonnet]

This one’s been on my mind, both on account of the way the world seems to be, right now, and on account of some fiction I worked on today for the first time in years.

From The Clay Pot:

The car ran out of gas; I had to walk.
The grass turned brown and then gave way to clay.
The dirt was red, and on a rainy day
Had sucked up shoe-marks now turned into rock.
I followed this relief, until a block
Of solid concrete showed me where there lay
The slab from some old store that seemed to say,
With eloquence that taught me stones could talk:
You seek a pathway forward, yet you drive
Encumbered by your need to fill your tank,
Insuring your survival, nine to five,
By heart-attacking suit for shares and rank.
Where did these shoe-marks lead? Can you forego
The weary world a few miles, still, and know?

PGE 11-30-2014


Leisure and Labor–notes from the conference at St. Gregory’s University

As St. Gregory’s University in nearby Shawnee, Oklahoma, welcomes its new president, Michael Scaperlanda, we nearby academically-inclined folks get to enjoy a conference designed to offer shape and scope to the direction St. Gregory’s is heading–and it’s encouraging!

Alas, keynote speaker Fr. James V. Schall was sick, and not able to read his own paper, but it was read by the learned and witty Dr. Wilfred McClay in his stead, with comments offered by Dr. Marcel Brown, Dr. Kyle Harper, and a stimulating discussion from the audience.


And the conversation really did continue at the reception afterward.

There were too many good turns and reflections in the original paper and the total conversation to remember, and I won’t wear you out trying to recount them all in my wandering fashion–nor would I do justice to the “you had to be there” quality of such a good discussion, if I tried.  You’ll just have to come join the conversation when you can.

But there was one really good thread that I wish we’d had even more time to pull.  Fr. Schall’s talk included a discussion of the “uselesness” of much that is still true and good to learn, distinguishing it from the merely instrumentally “useful” nature of other things.  In commenting later, someone linked “leisure” (as conceived by Pieper, especially–note the forward written by Schall) to the “uselessness” of learning, and linked these in turn to the need for a “contemplative” as well as an “active” component to life.

But in that process, I really found myself wanting to jump up and press for some distinctions.  (I have now decided that, given a chance to teach an appropriate audience, especially in a Socratic classroom, I will certainly ritualize the cry, “Distinguo!”)

Specifically, teaching and study are considered to be part of the active life, not part of the contemplative life.  The relationship between these things, as external actions that prepare us for well-ordered, peaceful adoration of God in a state of readiness to obey Him, is less like the relationship between toaster and toast (instrument and object) than like the relationship between preparing a cup of tea for my wife when she’s reading and enjoying the repose I’ve cooperated in making more completely fit, or perhaps better yet by responding gratefully to God who arranged the giant gaseous ball that sends the rays that warm her and that help the tea grow (and all other things on this Earth).  It is less like working to put gas in the car to drive it down the road on vacation; more like repeatedly fueling the car and driving through the night and seeing my family’s back porch as I roll in the driveway.

In other words, the active life–to include teaching and study, that is, including leisure activities as well as “work” in our modern sense, whether professional or “labor”–is not of a kind with the contemplative, just arranged as the product of a process of manufacture, as commodity to factor.

Instead, the active life reaches many goods, and commensurates those goods in order to achieve the economies that let us recombine those goods in order to achieve goals; but this system of nominally commensurable exchanges does not reach all goods–we say vulgarly, “Money can’t buy me love”–because some goods have directly to do with the good of friendship with God, a good which is too basic to our nature (on the one hand) and too far beyond our powers of estimation and comprehension (on the other) to ever build the right theoretical or practical structure to grasp or “buy into” on the basis of activity alone.

But that means that our definition of “useful” needs some modification, so that we can understand how the active life can aid the contemplative life.  We can approach this in steps:

  • Some activities, including some teaching and study, yield only nominal goods that are not essentially good (false goods); they are truly useless.
  • Some activities, including some teaching and study, yield goods convertible only for other goods that are part of the active life; they are useful only in the utilitarian sense, but that sense is not negligible, as such activities can help us and help others toward truly liberal goods.
  • Some activities, including some teaching and study, yield goods that actually prepare us for and provide expanded opportunity for the contemplative life (or “leisure”); they are useful in the liberal sense, the sense intended by the liberal arts (and these therefore include more mechanical arts than many think).  These activities, or “liberal arts” properly so called, are not themselves contemplations or the goods of contemplation, but like driving through the night they are definitely related to the enjoyment of the goods of seeing one’s family home (and higher goods yet).
  • Contemplation, however, is our increasing capacity for enjoyment of friendship with God, sincere and constant prayer, docility to His leading in public and private, and readiness to cooperate in His movements (as when He directs us to some good activity); it is useless in the utilitarian sense, as its goods are not convertible for other goods that are part of the active life.  It is useless in the liberal sense, as it is the enjoyment of that for which we have gained and used both utilitarian and liberal goods.

This paradoxical double sense of “useless,” however, should alert us that a conversion from merely utilitarian to properly liberal activity is an essential property of our becoming capable of friendship with God, of gaining the opportunity and readiness to truly enjoy this transcendent good.

Where we find ourselves describing the contemplative life as useless in the utilitarian sense, our words are trivially true but dangerously wrongheaded:  all utilitarian goods ultimately (at the horizon of death) “cash out” either in liberal goods that make possible the enjoyment of friendship with God, or they prove to be false goods.

Put differently, we are either growing and shaping our active lives so as to make it more possible for ourselves and others to enjoy the goods of friendship with God, and thus converting the mixture of true and false goods that are judged useful in the utilitarian sense into liberal goods that fructify in enjoyment of friendship with God (and being converted from a utilitarian to a liberal conception of what is useful); or we are stunting and misshaping our active lives so as to convert its goods only into others of its kind, while specifically treating as useless those activities that would make the true enjoyment of those goods possible, thus making those goods truly useless to ourselves and others.

“For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

Here, enjoy some Hugh of St. Victor on the divisions of the liberal arts:


On Doubt and Investigation

I recently had the chance to sit down with a friend (a college student, though not one of mine) and discuss the way encountering the questions of others, and the active unbelief of others, affects us.  Some people find it easy to disengage from these encounters; others seek them out; others, having learned that aggressively seeking those encounters, or forcing them, is unwise, are nonetheless regularly called into the place where such encounters are inevitable.  Unless we simply say “Am I my brother’s keeper?” about these matters, we find ourselves obligated to at least do what we can to remove misunderstandings, to be sure we leave the situation better than we found it.

Of course, with malicious malingerers, that is not always possible.

Anyway, enough of these encounters and the honest reasoner begins to discover some skipped points, some blind spots, some stolen bases, in his own approach to expressing the truth.  That’s fine; it is a good opportunity for taking a deep breath, reflecting a bit, and looking around for a more thorough, more graceful, more complete and economical method of exposition and argument.

But of course we are spiritually complicated people, and our still-unformed character also seizes hard on our need to be right, our impatience with the stiff-necked and perverse generation, and other ways that the faithful have, since the beginning, struggled to emulate the Christ who expressed anger without sin, who questioned His Father without unbelief, who was both more authoritative and more meek than we have any right to be–who was the Rock, who gushed forth water at a word, who did not forget himself and strike the Rock like Moses, or like Peter the Rock striking the servant in the Garden.  He was not only forceful and effective, he was restrained.

So we often enter into periods of doubt ourselves after significant efforts to represent the truth to an audience with doubts–still more if we regularly meet with the sorts of bad faith that are common in our public discourse, today, or the organized opposition to the possibility of meaningful discourse that we often encounter.  There is a flatly demonic spirit abroad in this nation, in these times; we are confused by our own din.

But doubt, by itself, is just exactly an invitation to investigate.  It is a question, to searching eyes; it is a petition, to praying lips.  It is fine–simply fine, no questions need be asked–to find oneself in a season of doubt.

What I suggested was very important, though, was that my friend enter into that season–and, secondarily, into dialogues with others–aware of the difference between experiencing doubt and practicing unbelief.

Unbelief is not at all like doubt, though we often cloak one in the language of the other, whether in extenuation or in accusation.  Unbelief decides against, fails to assent to, treats as practically false what we know to be true–what God has clearly revealed, what has been proposed to us on good authority.  Unbelief is serious sin, and the grace of God cannot flourish in our lives while we continue to practice unbelief.

So, practically, I suggested that my friend watch the following distinction in himself, closely, as he lived through a season of doubt:  Am I posing questions, expecting answers? or am I defending questions against answers?

We have all experienced this distinction, I think, in ourselves–or if by some chance not, surely in another.

Yes, it is true that sometimes a question must be reconsidered and posed again where an answer is reasonably seen to be incomplete, inadequate, inapposite, or impracticable.  One should not, after all, assume that one answer given ends the relevance of every question!  Nonetheless, there is both inside me–and you–and in our conversations with others a “But…!” that refuses to accept an answer, not because it is inadequate to the question, but because it is not the one I hoped for.

There is a tight nexus between that risk of practicing unbelief–of defending my questions against their answers–and the problem of despair, in fact.  I said that it would be wrong to refuse to accept an answer “because it is not the one I hoped for.”  But why would I hope for the answer that is, in fact, wrong?  Why would I hope for something not properly articulated to reality, not capable of leading me on to things I hope for more durably and deeply?

Well, again, in honest doubt the reason might be that I am aware that the answer is actually inadequate.  I may need to continue in prayer, to continue living in hope, for a question that draws a better answer; in fact, that total growth in my hope and faith may well be a reason for entering into a season of doubt.

In fact, in the case of the friend I was talking to, I suspect that is just what is happenning.

However, you or I may also be hoping for too little.  We may not have learned, really wholly absorbed, the goodness of our God, and the way He forgives, and calls, and shapes us.  Cardinal Newman was right to note the relationship of this kind of trust in God’s goodness–which has the character of hope, and is a constituent of friendship–to our capacity to grow in faith:

Yet there is a way, in which the child can give an indirect assent even to a proposition, in which he understood neither subject nor predicate. He cannot indeed in that case assent to the proposition itself, but he can assent to its truth. He cannot do more than assert that “Lucern is medicago sativa,” but he can assent to the proposition, “That lucern is medicago sativa is true.” For here is a predicate which he sufficiently apprehends, what is inapprehensible in the proposition being confined to the subject. Thus the child’s mother might teach him to repeat a passage of Shakespeare, and when he asked the meaning of a particular line, such as “The quality of mercy is not strained,” or “Virtue itself {16} turns vice, being misapplied,” she might answer him, that he was too young to understand it yet, but that it had a beautiful meaning, as he would one day know: and he, in faith on her word, might give his assent to such a proposition,—not, that is, to the line itself which he had got by heart, and which would be beyond him, but to its being true, beautiful, and good.

Of course I am speaking of assent itself, and its intrinsic conditions, not of the ground or motive of it. Whether there is an obligation upon the child to trust his mother, or whether there are cases where such trust is impossible, are irrelevant questions, and I notice them in order to put them aside. I am examining the act of assent itself, not its preliminaries, and I have specified three directions, which among others the assent may take, viz. assent immediately to a proposition itself, assent to its truth, and assent both to its truth and to the ground of its being true,—”Lucern is food for cattle,”—”That lucern is medicago sativa is true,”—and “My mother’s word, that lucern is medicago sativa, and is food for cattle, is the truth.” Now in each of these there is one and the same absolute adhesion of the mind to the proposition, on the part of the child; he assents to the apprehensible proposition, and to the truth of the inapprehensible, and to the veracity of his mother in her assertion of the inapprehensible. I say the same absolute adhesion, because unless he did assent without any reserve to the proposition that lucern was food for cattle, or to the accuracy of the botanical name and description of it, he would not be giving an unreserved assent to his mother’s word: yet, though {17} these assents are all unreserved, still they certainly differ in strength, and this is the next point to which I wish to draw attention. It is indeed plain, that, though the child assents to his mother’s veracity, without perhaps being conscious of his own act, nevertheless that particular assent of his has a force and life in it which the other assents have not, insomuch as he apprehends the proposition, which is the subject of it, with greater keenness and energy than belongs to his apprehension of the others. Her veracity and authority is to him no abstract truth or item of general knowledge, but is bound up with that image and love of her person which is part of himself, and makes a direct claim on him for his summary assent to her general teachings.

Accordingly, by reason of this circumstance of his apprehension he would not hesitate to say, did his years admit of it, that he would lay down his life in defence of his mother’s veracity. On the other hand, he would not make such a profession in the case of the propositions, “Lucern is food for cattle,” or “That lucern is medicago sativa is true;” and yet it is clear too, that, if he did in truth assent to these propositions, he would have to die for them also, rather than deny them, when it came to the point, unless he made up his mind to tell a falsehood.

Sometimes, I am convinced, a season of doubt is not even about the questions and the answers.  It is about the way that faith and hope interact, drawing us into that friendship with God that is perfect charity.

So pose your questions.  Investigate your doubts.  Do not defend your questions from answers.  Pray as you reason, and reason as you pray; do not set the two against each other.  And know, when you’re right but also experiencing doubt, that God may want you to really trust His goodness in the matter–to really expect good things to follow from truth.

My friend was Protestant, but I still didn’t scruple to recommend the best way I know to let my questions simply be–real and answerable, surrendered to God’s will against unbelief and despair, but not suppressed and not clamoring:


Because we know–even if we must keep learning to dwell more fully in its truth, even if doubt is the necessary experience of learning–that the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ is the reality that cuts more deeply to the heart of God than any other.  The very fulcrum of Creation and Redemption cannot fail to be more than the answer to more than the questions we know how to think of, so we can break into doxology without failing in our pursuit of truth:

What then shall we say to this? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies; who is to condemn? Is it Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us? Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,

“For thy sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

(source:  Romans 8:31-39 RSV-CE)

Social Construction of Gender: a detente breached

So, this was another Facebook conversation. A friend of a friend posed the following question (slightly prettified for the blog).

I’m exploring the reasons people have to marry gender, which is really socially construct[ed] mental stuff, to sex, which is biological as you know. The fact that these two are nothing (or not obviously) like [each] other makes [it seem suspicious that] the left are hurrying to marry the two together. Is this politics? Are you aware of any good reasons to think we should bring these two realities together?

Another friend pointed out that the question, as stated, was somewhat oblique to the contemporary conversation about these matters.


I thought it might help to rehearse some of the history of these terms, so I offered the following:

OK, so I think [our mutual acquaintance] is right that you’re getting the signals crossed, but it’s really interesting to see how all this is coming across to you–data is good.

From the days of my childhood until recently, “left” and “right” academics had a sort of detente on sex issues. With the exception of some dedicated Catholics and a few others, most of us were happy to keep “biological sex” in one box, and “socially constructed gender” in another.

Social construction, of course, has to do with the way real things (which, past empiricism, we moderns think we may not really know) are transformed into “things as we know them” by the historical processes that shape our ideologies. In a modest sense, we all know this happens (that’s why we speak of culture); in a more radical sense, we might doubt whether we know any real things at all, and we might try to “deconstruct” things as we know them in order to examine the judgments we and others have made that “construe” things.

Keeping “biology” in one box and “social construction” (or “culture”) in another did keep the peace, so to speak. We could debate the extent to which real things could be known, how evident they were, how we could get through the social construction to them–how much gendered behavior was sexual, how much was social, whether we should value it or neutralize it, etc.

(I emphasize that from a Catholic point of view we were *wrong* to accept that bargain, but until I headed that way I didn’t see a sufficient basis for rejecting it.)

That bargain peaked when many erroneously believed the “gay gene” had been found (no such thing, though there are epigenetic effects that very likely predispose some men to same-sex attraction). Biology of sex was suddenly useful to those trying to normalize homosexual behavior and relationships and to those trying to emphasize the biological fitness of traditional sexual mores.

That mistaken but relatively peaceful consensus has now been pretty radically fractured. The physical evidence for the “born this way” interpretation of homosexuality has proven far weaker than expected, and radical theory has labored to find a way to achieve the same rhetorical effect without the “gay gene” evidence. Other incoherences within radical feminism have produced other fresh theoretical efforts. The need for perpetual “revolution” that must always be construed as “liberation” or “getting rights” has led to still more theoretical efforts.

The most obvious and fascinating clash in this concerns whether sexually male people can be “women” for purposes of radical feminist theory, as you can see in this amazingly incendiary piece of work.

So right now most radical theorists speak in terms of “intersectionality,” that is, where two descriptions of identity lead to anomalies that need explaining. Theory is then deployed ad hoc into those “intersections” in an effort to create a result that–at this point in our politics, a result that serves the purpose of perpetual revolution.

The common form of this is to speak of biological sex as “assigned” at birth–because assignment can be construed as a rhetorical act, a use of power (the doctor’s authority) that affects a discourse (how we talk about sex/gender, “myself as I know myself”). The relation between biology as such and this “assigned” sex is generally disposed of by pointing to rare biological differences as though they invalidated any organs/sex/gender continuity, and also by multiplying subjective descriptions and possible surgical variations in an effort to show that “assigned” sex ignores factors equally or more important than biology.

If biological sex can be construed as “assigned,” then the relatively weak evidence of epigenetic variants that can dispose some men toward same-sex attraction can be construed as evidence that “sexual orientation” is (now will the heads spin) both so fundamental to human identity that it is equivalent to “born this way” *AND* so constantly “fluid” that any strong feeling that persists must be accepted as definitive, even if it changes repeatedly.

And we’re not done, because one’s “assigned” sex and “fluid” orientation still have to function relative to culture–to the social construction of gender that we started out with. This is called “expression” of sexual identity, and is viewed as radically subjective, provided one can express it in a way the currently dominant ideology finds acceptable (i.e., Catholic men, you’re just plain wrong no matter what).

Now, I hope that in presenting this I have already suggested how many kinds of wrong-headed the whole thing was, and how much worse it has become.

As Catholics, we believe that while cultural roles and expressions may vary, the sex/gender distinction is basically mistaken. Gender develops from and continues to be significantly related to biological sex, and attempts to divide them have proved medically, psychologically, and socially harmful (we should have known better). While a very weak form of the sex/gender distinction may be useful in distinguishing some cultural mores from real norms, it is usually better just to speak of “sexual difference” and remember that it can have a wide variety of expressions–none of which can make it wise or right to innovate against the basic realities of human bodies, male and female, or the natural and divine law that governs their relations.

Non Sum Dignus

I am not worthy; none of us are.


In the year that King Uzzi′ah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

Then flew one of the seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal which he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth, and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven.” And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”

Then I said, “Here am I! Send me.” And he said, “Go, and say to this people:

‘Hear and hear, but do not understand;
see and see, but do not perceive.’
Make the heart of this people fat,
and their ears heavy,
and shut their eyes;
lest they see with their eyes,
and hear with their ears,
and understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.”

Then I said, “How long, O Lord?”

(source:  Isaiah 6:1-11a RSV-CE, emphasis added)

But with the prophets and martyrs and all the faithful who repeat that chorus, by the grace of God and the faith that knows Jesus Christ we are being made worthy.

Speak truth to power, beginning with my weakness.

Including the power of your friends.  And mobs.  And principalities, and rulers of the darkness of this age.

Speak truth you have received, in the Name of Him you received it from, in union with those who brought it to you and you to it.

And have the humility not to budge from that truth, or to negotiate it away.

Be transformed.

A Last Fragment on Endo’s Silence, For Now

Well, this is one portion of a work caught “in the middle” between several projects I was attempting on Endo’s Silence between 2012 and 2014.  This is actually not the last-edited stage; I pulled up an edition that I labeled “overdeveloped three virtues” because a dimly possible thread I wanted to pull, at least in drafting, was threatening to take over the paper.  I’m putting it up here because–well, it’s a blog, so why not air my early-drafting laundry?

Here, then, the somewhat dramatically titled, unfinished work on Garrpe, in Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence:

Christ’s Unknown Soldier: The Role of Garrpe in Endo’s Silence


Nobody would deny that Rodrigues is the protagonist of Shusaku Endo’s Silence. Most criticism seems to consider only the choices Rodrigues makes as essential to the story’s final significance. Readers and students are then left to moot the question of whether Rodrigues is a tragically weak man destroyed by hubris or an unforgiving spirit, or whether he heroically proclaims a triumph of spirit over letter or pity over fidelity. Both genre conventions and Endo’s storytelling, however, tend to undermine the reader’s confidence in Rodrigues’s judgments. Characters such as Garrpe and Kichijiro also challenge any excessive reliance on the subjective experience of Rodrigues. Kichijiro’s role has been explored in the literature, but Garrpe remains sadly neglected. Garrpe demonstrates even more definitely than Kichijiro that Rodrigues has ignored or foreclosed crucial possibilities of thought and action on his way to the famous fumie scene. Given the subsequent development of Endo’s fiction and his public statements about his views, it is especially interesting that Garrpe appears in this text to witness against the dilemma that the Japanese authorities, Rodrigues, and even Endo have in various ways constructed for the reader. Clearly emphasizing Garrpe’s conversion from initial wavering to final martyrdom makes better sense of the book’s enduring allure for Christian readers than a narrow focus on the protagonist Rodrigues.

Critical Commitments

Examining secondary characters and subplots can re-enliven readerly and critical interest in a work whose reading has become stereotyped. Literature teachers are familiar with the tendency of students to discard the text in their rush to discover “what’s it about?” and learn “will it be on the test?” Scholars at all levels, however, must avoid the trap of simple “debunking,” of displays of cleverness that entertain and impoverish, rather than enrich, readers and their habits. Critics reading “against the grain” by using lesser features of a work to solicit questions about that work’s well-known major features have some obligation, then, to declare what larger pattern of facts supports this seeming inversion.

Two such considerations warrant the present effort. First, some of the best criticism of Endo’s work already points out genre considerations that might mislead many readers, especially readers doubly distanced from Silence’s situation as a Japanese book published in 1963. Such examinations of Endo’s genre gain strength from Endo’s own responses to criticism of his book, even taking into account the possibility that some of these comments are post hoc rationalizations. Second, and at least equally important, there is a theological warrant for attending to Garrpe’s powerful death scene and the response to the novel’s essential dilemma that it suggests. I take it as a basic commitment for Religion and Literature scholarship that T. S. Eliot was correct when he argued that “literary criticism should be completed by criticism from a definite ethical and theological point of view” (343). “Completed,” not merely occasionally supplemented, because if there is any sense at all in calling a work of art “religious,” in that same sense we must acknowledge that religion not only has its own intrinsic order (theology and morality) but encompasses and defines subsidiary fields, each in turn possessed of its own intrinsic order. Garrpe’s role in Silence, which may typical criticism seems to take as simply another moment in the story of Rodrigues, turns out to be crucial in reconciling our aesthetic and theological appreciation of this truly problematic work.

Guided by these commitments, I begin below by summarizing Garrpe’s role in the plot of Silence, then sketch in a few typical readings of Silence and the genre and narrative structure questions that challenge those readings. After sketching in the ways that Garrpe’s actions help to supply what is lacking in typical readings, I proceed to the theological considerations that recommend greater emphasis on Garrpe’s role in the novel. I conclude that such an analysis helps to re-integrate elements of the story which tend to be ignored on account of their dissonance with a straightforward thematic reading of the overall plot and its climax.

Summary of Garrpe’s Role

Simple page-counting suggests Garrpe’s structural place in the novel (201 pages in this edition). Garrpe and Rodrigues come on stage together in the Prologue. Garrpe and Rodrigues are separated almost exactly one-third of the way through the book (on page 62), and Garrpe is brought back on stage by the Japanese authorities at almost exactly the two-thirds mark (pages 128-35). During the middle third of the novel, Garrpe is almost forgotten. Shortly before Rodrigues is captured, he “quite suddenly” remembers Garrpe (65); later, Rodrigues recalls their early conversations about torture shortly before being taken to see Garrpe’s death (125). In the meantime, Rodrigues is first literally and then figuratively transported through a strange land, unable to read the signs and lacking Garrpe or any similar aid to his conscience. After Garrpe’s death, Rodrigues is at last introduced to the apostate Ferreira. The first third of the novel in which Garrpe and Rodrigues are together is thus mirrored by the final third, in which Garrpe is replaced by Ferreira. Setting aside for the moment the more complex weave that introduces the interpreter and Inoue as manipulating events to bring Rodrigues to this end, and the way Kichijiro destabilizes this tidy sequence, Garrpe’s role is worth examining in its own right.

Garrpe is continually associated with Rodrigues throughout the Prologue and the first four chapters (each of these chapters is notionally a letter from Rodrigues). The novel’s focus on Rodrigues, together with the point-of-view shift after chapter four, makes it easy to assimilate Garrpe’s role to that of Rodrigues. Such an assimilation is probably not a misreading; as we shall see, the novel’s conventions encourage readers to treat Garrpe, Kichijiro, the interpreter, and other fictional characters introduced into the historic setting as entirely relative to the unfolding story of Rodrigues. Garrpe and Kichijiro especially seem to play out Rodrigues’ psychomachia, serving as doppelgangers or alternative author surrogates to give highly subjective fiction a richer social and historical situation (Gessel “Voice” 199-201).

In the first pages of his narrative, Rodrigues is more likely to report Garrpe’s direct interaction with other characters than his own. Rodrigues may offer his point of view to the reader, but it appears to be Garrpe whose words drive the plot and reveal the characters. When Rodrigues, Marta, and Garrpe are delayed in Macao, Valignano “was finally moved by our pleading—especially by that of Garrpe” to send them on their way (15). In the team’s early interaction with Kichijiro, it is Garrpe who repeatedly calls Kichijiro to testify plainly about his identity. “Are you a Christian?” he asks the evasive Kichijiro during their first meeting, and follows up later in that conversation with “Well, anyhow, you are a Christian, aren’t you? … You are. Aren’t you?” (17) Kichijiro’s evasiveness in the face of this questioning is partly explained by Japanese risk-aversion, somewhat more by an alcoholic’s avoidance of responsibility, and perhaps even more by a perfectly understandable fear of the intense persecution of Japanese Christians that he describes to Garrpe and Rodrigues.

Garrpe’s repeated questions about Kichijiro’s Christianity reveals his interest in essential characteristics (like the ineffaceable sacramental character imparted at baptism) that mere choices or momentary denials cannot wholly efface. In the face of Kichijiro’s panicky denial of his Christianity, Garrpe reasons with Kichijiro on the basis of Japanese identity: “Anyhow, you want to get back to Japan” (17). When Kichijiro’s behavior does not match the ideas Garrpe and Rodrigues have formed of Christian and Japanese behavior, Garrpe again presses him with, “Are you really a Japanese? Honestly, are you?” (20) A while later, when Kichijiro’s fear of a storm at sea drives him to ejaculate “Santa Maria” repeatedly, Garrpe once again tries to ascertain his character: “‘I am asking a question,’ said Garrpe raising his voice. ‘Give me a clear answer. Are you, or are you not, a Christian?’” (25) In these interactions, both Garrpe and Rodrigues are shown to lack understanding of Japanese culture and of the deforming effects of persecution and privation on virtue, and to have somewhat facile understandings of the effects of grace. Nonetheless, a clear distinction between Garrpe and Rodrigues emerges. Rodrigues tends to be driven by his aesthetic response to situations and characters; he is the source of the reader’s vision of sunsets, storms, horizons, birds, and seasons, as well as the “pitiful coward” Kichijiro (24). Garrpe, on the other hand, comes into his own when Rodrigues reports on his pleas and questions, questions which attempt to plumb down to the essential character of things.

Garrpe’s role in driving the plot and pressing the characters to define themselves seems to have a theological dimension, as well. Garrpe’s confidence in a stereotyped description of Japanese people hints at this: Rodrigues says that Garrpe had “too credulously taken at face value the talk of so many missionaries” (20). In the passage immediately following, Rodrigues is at pains to reconcile himself to the idea of trusting Kichijiro, using the word “entrusted” repeatedly; the problem, which Garrpe has confronted head-on despite some potential for error in his “face value” judgments, is one of good faith versus bad faith. Rodrigues, with his aesthetic orientation toward future glory, seems to find fidelity slippery; Garrpe readily extends good faith and just as readily demands it from others.

This theological dimension of Garrpe’s role is part of a larger theme that unfolds throughout the work, beginning with the introduction of Garrpe and Marta with Rodrigues as a three-person team. “Francisco Garrpe” and “Juan de Santa Marta,” as they are first introduced (9), both seem distinct in character from Rodrigues. Rodrigues is forenamed “Sebastian,” after the saint who survived his martyrdom by arrows only to be clubbed to death when he criticized the persecuting Emperor Diocletian to his face; the name appears to foreshadow both his future ordeal and his hope of outliving that ordeal (which he does, albeit hardly as a martyr). Garrpe’s forename “Francisco” at the time of this story could only have referred to St. Francis of Assisi, whose seemingly naïve pursuit of Christ led him to challenge sultans and popes, and who readily abandoned secular pursuits but ended up founding three great religious orders. Garrpe’s forename (shared with the great Jesuit missionary to the East, St. Francis Xavier, whose canonization would have taken place while Garrpe, Marta, and Rodrigues were children) also hints at the difference between Rodrigues and Garrpe, as the Franciscans had been generally excluded from the Jesuit mission areas in Japan. Rodrigues, named for a martyr from the Praetorian Guard, suggests the Jesuit “Soldiers of Christ” in much the way that Garrpe suggests their sometime rivals, the Franciscans.

The name “Juan de Santa Marta” in turn, suggests both St. John, the Beloved Disciple, and St. Martha, the hard-working sister of Mary of Bethany and Lazarus. The Apostle John is the author of the Gospel in which he is repeatedly characterized as the disciple “whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23 et passim); not only does he receive the Revelations recorded in the book of that name, but he writes three letters notable for their emphasis on Christian and divine love. In his First Epistle, St. John offers perhaps the most sweeping and dense exhortation to charity in the Scriptures: “Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love” (1 John 4:7-8). St. Martha, in turn, is one of the only individuals in the Gospels picked out for similar mention: “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister Mary and Lazarus” (John 11:5). Martha’s confession of faith in Christ and hope of the Resurrection is one of the most ringing in all of Biblical history: she was the first to go out to seek Jesus when her brother Lazarus died, and the words of promise Jesus entrusted her with are still cited in every Christian burial rite (John 11:20-27).

The shape of Marta’s name may also suggest the name of St. John of the Cross (San Juan de la Cruz). John, a contemporary of Xavier’s, had been marginalized and even imprisoned in the confusion of rival religious orders and secular powers in 16th Century Spain. John’s profound attachment to the love of Christ granted him the detachment from all other things described in such works as The Dark Night of the Soul, saying of the soul that has suffered patiently that “its love alone, which burns at this time, and makes its heart to long for the Beloved, is that which now moves and guides it, and makes it to soar upward to its God along the road of solitude, without its knowing how or in what manner” ( CITE ). The probable allusion to St. John of the Cross in Marta’s name, as well as his being named for St. John and St. Martha, associates Marta with the theological virtue of charity.

This association of Marta with charity completes the triad suggested by the characterizations of Garrpe and Rodrigues. Garrpe’s easy good faith and his confidence that characters and essences are real, not merely nominal, similarly associates him with faith; Rodrigues is linked to hope by his aesthetic orientation and relentless attempts to appropriate the future. As any standard account of the theological virtues will suggest, charity is inseparable from faith and hope, while faith and hope cannot subsist without charity; in St. Paul’s words, “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:12-13). As St. Thomas Aquinas says, “Charity is the root of faith and hope, in so far as it gives them the perfection of virtue. But faith and hope as such are the precursors of charity … and so charity is impossible without them” (Summa I-II.65.5 ad. 2). It is precisely this language of “precursors” and possibility that echoes in the scenes where Garrpe, Rodrigues, and Marta plead with Valignano for permission to complete their mission, and where Garrpe and Rodrigues take their leave of Marta.

Marta’s speech to Valignano on behalf of their mission invokes all three theological virtues, alluding directly to the compassion of Christ and suggesting that their obligation in charity is to promote faith and prevent despair. He says,

And yet our secret mission could with God’s help turn out successful … In that stricken land the Christians have lost their priests and are like a flock of sheep without a shepherd. Some one must go to give them courage and to ensure that the tiny flame of faith does not die out. (14-15).

Marta here alludes to Matthew 9:36-38, in which Jesus “saw the crowds” and “had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd”; His immediate response is to instruct His followers to ask God for more workers, because “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” Marta’s echo of this charitable impulse leads him to express faith in “God’s help” and hope that “our secret mission … could turn out successful”; at the same time, he indicates that their obligation in charity is to stave off despair and unbelief in their “harassed and helpless” flock, serving to “give them courage” and see to it that “faith does not die out.”

Garrpe’s speech to Marta when Garrpe and Rodrigues finally gain Valignano’s permission to continue on their way to Japan firms up this thematic framework. Garrpe specifically describes himself and Rodrigues as precursors to Marta, saying “We go first…. We’ll prepare the way so that you can come afterwards when you get better” (19). Garrpe and Rodrigues are ventured forward into a situation where charity has been wounded, where charity is infirm and seemingly cannot survive the Pacific crossing. Historically and in the novel, this is a situation of persecution and apostasy, to be sure; but the novel also suggests that this is a situation in which the politics of East and West have become almost impossible to distinguish from the proclamation of the Gospel. This suggestion gains considerable strength from Endo’s role as a leading postwar Japanese writer (Gessel “Endo” 71, Pinnington 102, Netland “Who” 77-78).

Garrpe’s promise that he and Rodrigues will serve as precursors is an effort to keep faith with their original intention; but Rodrigues, as soon as he reports it, begins to question the future. “But can anyone predict what will happen?” he asks, then imagines a “safe and happy life” for Marta, and a bad end for himself and Garrpe (19). Noting that “Marta remained silent,” Rodrigues attempts to fill the silence with speculation. He indicates his own orientation toward future glory, toward acknowledged results, when he responds to Marta’s illness by thinking, “There is no one more wretchedly alone than the priest who does not measure up to his task.” Rodrigues has already begun to construe a future in which Marta’s illness is a final obstacle to his participation in their mission; by comparison, Garrpe keeps faith by speaking of possible futures only insofar as they characterize current intentions.

This tendency to separate hope from faith—this infirmity of charity—has significant consequences throughout the story. When Garrpe and Rodrigues set sail, Rodrigues has to admit that “I feel no inclination to write about Santa Marta,” who has not recovered from his illness (22). Rodrigues writes as though Marta were already dead, making his repetition of Garrpe’s assertion at the end of the letter rings hollow: “No doubt,” he says, “God is secretly preparing” Marta’s task. The pages since their parting from Marta, however, have been filled with little but expressions of doubt and alienation. The only reassurance that comes from within Rodrigues is his aesthetic appropriation of the image of Christ.

Imagining the future, Rodrigues consistently finds doubts and temptations to despair; his reassurances are counterfactual and hypothetical, afterthoughts marked by the “perhaps” of magical thinking rather than the promise of faith (19). When he fixates on his own imagination of the face of Jesus, Rodrigues sees “a face filled with vigor and strength. I feel great love for that face” (22). Rodrigues is not wrong when he says that the Scriptures are reticent about the Incarnate Son’s exact physical description, of course (“This point the Bible passes over in silence”). Few people living before the age of mechanically reproduced art considered eidetic reproduction of individual features a major concern of art; it is probably anachronistic even for Rodrigues to be considering the question of likeness versus iconic value in sacred art. Rodrigues has already conceded, though, that this “face” is of his own choosing. He chooses an image from his memory (Piero della Francesca’s Resurrection) and invests it with reality, not only in preference to the Bible’s “silence” on Jesus’ literal lineaments but also setting aside the substantial Biblical basis for iconic representations of Christ.

In taking this reticence as license to conjure his own image of Christ and fixate on that, however, Rodrigues runs sharply counter to the plain drift of multiple Scriptures that treat the Biblical and Eucharistic witness to Christ as the true memorial of the Incarnate Son and true precursor of a final, face-to-face encounter in perfect charity at the Resurrection (1 John 3:1-3; 2 Cor. 4:5-7; Rev. 22:1-5; 1 Cor. 13:12-13). It is perhaps especially important that one of the most prominent of these is the key text relating faith and hope to their summation in charity, cited above. His own, personal Jesus does not have the face of a Suffering Servant, like Isaiah’s prophecy of a face marred beyond recognition by torture (Isaiah 52:13-15); nor does Rodrigues see far enough to connect that sufferer to St. John’s face-to-face encounter with Christ exalted beyond description in Resurrection (Rev. 1:12-16). The iconic adjuncts to the true memorial of Christ in Word and Sacrament have their place, but Rodrigues silences the true memorial and erects his fantasy in its place. Rodrigues, thinking of the future, does not seem able to imagine it faithfully without relying on Garrpe’s words.

Garrpe’s drive to ascertain essences and characters does not, by itself, mend the infirmity he and Rodrigues suffer. As he and Rodrigues, lacking Marta, proceed into Japan (with the second interrogation of Kichijiro’s Christianity happening en route), Garrpe is if anything the more timid of the pair. Garrpe is the “last of all” to go ashore through the “icy cold water” (26). While he and Rodrigues wait on shore for Kichijiro, who has gone to fetch some Christian villagers, Garrpe is the one who suddenly exclaims that “He won’t come back!” and exclaims “tearfully” about the “weak-minded coward” who seems to have abandoned him. Even in this, however, the basic contrast between the two priests can be seen, for Rodrigues immediately follows this with his own speculations about “a more terrible fate,” casting Kichijiro as the traitor “Judas” in his fantasy. Garrpe does not have any basis for resisting this fantasy, but responds immediately by “quoting the Scriptures” that describe the “band of soldiers” Judas brought to Gethsemane. When the Christian villagers find them, it is Garrpe who immediately asks about the particulars of Christian practice: “But what happened during these six years? What about baptism and the sacraments?” (28) When the villagers explain the ingenious and dangerous system by which they had maintained what observances they could, it is Rodrigues who immediately imagines such practices continuing everywhere (29).

Garrpe’s fallibility and his realist orientation are both reinforced when Rodrigues suggests that they slip out of their shelter—a remote hut with a priest-hole in the floor—and sunbathe (36). As when Rodrigues suggested that Kichijiro had not merely run away, but had sought out soldiers to betray them, Garrpe has no specific reason to disagree. Their conditions are unquestionably bad, and they have not actually seen any clear and present danger, though they have strong reason to believe that real danger surrounds them at some unknown distance. In this extreme isolation from all others (Rodrigues “gazed greedily at the world of men” outside), and this utterly inescapable togetherness, the boundaries between Garrpe and Rodrigues break down. Their dangerously limited and mistaken understanding of their situation, their confidence in the goods of nature and the goodness of God, and their expectation of good outcomes overlap more completely than at any other time in the novel. The language of faith and hope merge, here, as well; it is Garrpe who speaks of “the future,” albeit with many qualifiers: “In the future we must sometimes at least allow ourselves the pleasure of a sunbath.” True to his tendency to trust appearances, Garrpe also exclaims that there is “Nothing to be afraid of!” Garrpe even indulges in a certain amount of fantasy with Rodrigues, although it is a fantasy concerning their shared past which comments wryly on their situation, rather than wishful thinking about the future.

Despite the dangerous errors in judgment both priests make, largely due to their extreme isolation and other distortions caused by persecution, it is during this initial period of ministry together that Garrpe and Rodrigues are most faithful to their calling and most reasonably hopeful of good results. Even so, it is consistently Garrpe who is most responsive to reality. Garrpe baptizes the infant brought to them from the village; Rodrigues, assisting, records his imaginations about the baby’s future, and his own subjective generalizations (38). When they are approached covertly by some Christians from another village, who had observed them while they were unwisely breaking cover for their walks and sunbathing, it is Garrpe who notices that “somebody is watching us” and who is most aware of their situation (37). When the strange villagers persist, it is Garrpe who is most realistic and most fearful, insisting that they stay under cover, even ordering Rodrigues to “Stop!” (39)

Rodrigues, by comparison, talks himself into opening the door to strangers by deciding which course of action best reflects his own self-image: “Grasping the wooden door with my hands I made as if to go out. Yes, I would go. Even if this were a trap, even if these men were the guards, it didn’t matter…. What a disgrace it would be to betray my vocation from cowardly fear.” Again, and especially at this phase of their ministry, there is relatively little question of which judgments are best; the priests are too isolated, and the data too thin, to reliably decide such matters. Garrpe’s fearfulness may well reflect a lack of confidence that their mission has any promise of success; but it certainly reflects reality rather than fantasy. The contrast between the two priests is underscored by the irony that Rodrigues has just been “awakened by the snoring of the optimistic Garrpe,” who he later describes as “good-natured in the face of the most terrible difficulties” (51).

Both realistic fear and fantasy-inspired courage suggest the infirmity of charity that characterizes the whole situation. Together, Garrpe and Rodrigues may balance each other’s infirmities; Rodrigues with his aesthetic orientation toward future glory may move Garrpe past his realistic fears, while Garrpe’s ready good faith and insistence on reality allow them to keep hold on the essential grounding that Rodrigues so readily abandons in his anxious fantasies. Thus it is important that Garrpe is the one who quickly grasps the essential dilemma the Japanese authorities have created for the priests and their people, realizing that the villagers will “all end up as hostages” as the systematic interrogation and persecution continue (51); and that Garrpe’s proposal involves keeping the priests together while safeguarding the people: “Rather than such a calamity it is better for the two of us to get away from this mountain altogether” (52). He suggests that they both go with Kichijiro to Goto Island.

What follows the next visit from the authorities, however, opens a breach between Garrpe and Rodrigues even before they are separated; in so doing, it foreshadows the path Rodrigues will travel when he no longer has Garrpe to lean on. The Christian villagers who have sheltered priests are trying to decide what to do, as they know that the systematic investigation will continue until they have all either trampled the fumie or been exposed as Christians (53-4). Sending Garrpe and Rodrigues away might protect them, but it would definitely remove the counsel and comfort the priests ought to be able to give, and the sacramental graces they have the authority to bestow. The faithful villagers are confronted with the seeming futility of their own faithfulness: “If we don’t trample, everyone in the village will be cross-examined.” Those less firm in their faith will be exposed to a trial they may not be able to bear; those who do not share their faith will be confirmed in their separation from Christ; all will suffer intensified fear, mutual suspicion, and mistreatment as the persecution continues.

The faithful villagers, confronted with such a powerful dilemma, specifically ask the priests, “What are we to do?” (54) They strive to be faithful, and have shown great resolve, but the best option on their horizon appears to lead to exactly what they seek to avoid; they need hope. They need reason to expect a good outcome, and an imaginative depiction of that outcome that will reassure them when appearances and speculation conjure fantasies of futility and despair. Rodrigues, with his orientation toward future glory and aesthetic judgments, is now being called on to do just what he should be most ready for. Garrpe has usually spoken up to now; and despite their fear and the infirmity of charity, both priests and villagers have been faithful. Here, however, where relying on Garrpe’s words will no longer do, Rodrigues falls critically short. Moved by “pity,” rather than more well-formed compassion or charity, Rodrigues abandons the ground of faith and speaks “without thinking.” His “pity” treats the faithful villagers as “unfortunate men” who cannot be expected to measure up to his fantasies about legendary martyrs; because their reality falls short of his fantasy, he feels he cannot even expect fidelity from them, let alone give them hope.

Rodrigues responds by saying, “Trample! Trample!” He tells his correspondent “I know you would never give” such advice, that it “should never have been on my lips.” Just as important, at that moment, “Garrpe looked at me reproachfully.” Garrpe’s silence seems to indicate that he, like Rodrigues, has reached the limit of his ability to articulate his faith in the horrible circumstances in which they find themselves; but Rodrigues does not stop at silence, but tries to bridge the gap to the future with speculation, rather than faith—and ends up offering counsel of despair. Garrpe’s silence and the bad counsel of Rodrigues open up the gap between the remaining priests which prefigures the unfolding of the rest of the plot. Marta’s infirmity leaves Garrpe and Rodrigues to serve as precursors, seeking to bring faith and hope where charity is so badly wounded. When Rodrigues abandons good faith to nourish his own fantasies, then what should be an aesthetic appropriation of the future promised by faith, true hope, becomes instead radically inauthentic and moribund.

This foreshadowing unfolds in the three major events which follow. First, Kichijiro asks a question familiar to all who have suffered injustice: “Why has Deus Sama given us this trial? We have done no wrong” (54). The question haunts Rodrigues (55), whose hope is too abstracted from observed reality and the specifics of Word and Sacrament to offset the weight of apparent wrong; he neither adverts to the blessings and promises given to those who suffer injustice (Matt. 5:11-12; 1 Peter 4:12-19) and martyrdom (Matt. 10:39-42; Rev. 2:10-11), nor considers that his own priestly acts are the very proclamation and memorial of Christ, as long as he faithfully carries out his vocation. It is in the wake of his own failure to remain silent when he could not speak in good faith, and in the middle of this noisy consideration of a question abstracted from all good-faith efforts to provide an answer, that Rodrigues first repeatedly notes what he calls “the silence of God,” complaining that “God has remained silent” as the villagers suffered (55).

Second, the leaders among the faithful villagers are in fact taken, interrogated, and eventually martyred (54-61). Kichijiro, whose questions express the doubts Rodrigues tries to suppress with his fantasies, readily apostatizes: “Following my advice, Kichijiro was the first to place his foot on the image” (55). The others also step on the fumie because the priest said to do so, but they are unable to blaspheme and spit on the Virgin’s image to prove that they have no mental reservation (55-6). Kichijiro completes his public apostasy, “overcome by the threats,” while the other leaders are similarly broken, but remain faithful and “at last confessed openly that they were Christians” (56-7). They are executed on crosses in the ocean, taking several days to die of exposure and dehydration, singing hymns all the while (57-60). Rodrigues, again, notes that their martyrdom does not measure up to his fantasies, the “splendid martyrdom I had often seen in my dreams” (60); he complains that their martyrdom “was no such glorious thing.” His preference for visions of glory over the promises of faith turns the heroic fidelity of the martyrs, and the song that expresses their faith that “We’re on our way to the temple of Paradise,” into “a melody filled with dark sadness” (61). His darkening of the song’s authentic expression of hope presages another passage in which Rodrigues obsessively considers “the depressing silence of the sea, the silence of God.”

Third, after the martyrdom of the villagers, Garrpe and Rodrigues are parted, and Rodrigues at their parting wonders “why on earth do we remain in this country at all?” and “What had happened to our glorious dream?” The bad faith expressed in the answer Rodrigues gives, to apostatize in order to shield others from temporal suffering at the hands of secular authorities precedes his lack of an answer to Kichijiro’s question, his dark interpretation of the martyrdom of the faithful Japanese, and his own despairing speculations upon his separation from Rodrigues. These three events, in turn, are echoed in the scenes surrounding the martyrdom of Garrpe (128-35), the turning point from Rodrigues’s journey through the middle third of the novel toward his apostasy at its climax.

[…here kindly recall that this is an unfinished draft….]


I Almost Cried With Relief

Read the whole thing.

In 2010, I finally received in full the strangely long-delayed thought, “Oh, I need to take the claims of the Catholic Church seriously:  they might require action if I understood them more fully, and not be of merely historical interest.”  When I did, I had very little idea where to turn–my limited exposure to Catholics in their own words had been more kaleidoscopic than coherent.  So I hunted down the only Catholic priest I knew by name, one I had been surprised almost ten year before to find myself back-to-back with in vibrant academic discussions about Church history.  “Father Tim,” as I recalled his name, had been a welcome presence among our Baylor grad circles, where Ralph Wood had invited him as an authentic voice of Catholicism in his Catholic novel seminars.  What he said to me in that 2010 conversation, I have since repeated to many a friend contemplating what conservative Protestants necessarily feel is a very large “blank check” we must write to the Magisterium in becoming Catholic.  I won’t repeat it here, though; ask me on my porch, sometime.

What brings this up is the immense feeling of joy, encouragement, and relief it gives me to see this heartening, straightforward witness to “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” from Father Timothy Vavarek of the Diocese of Austin.  I have been reading and becoming familiar with many sound Catholic voices over the past few years, and as an RCIA coordinator and a professor I have tried to become, in a small way, such a voice.

But these are days when feeling betrayed by our leaders is more common than finding ourselves taught and encouraged and nourished by them.

Every counterexample, friends, is another day the truth lives on in the hearts of somebody who doesn’t want to give up, but is running out of fuel and getting no effective support.

Here, then, words of hope and encouragement; true spiritual works of mercy:

God is unfailingly faithful in his generous, wise, and loving work of drawing humanity to himself. Neither Israel nor the Church has any claim on him rooted in their own actions, certainly not in the face of sin. He is the faithful spouse; we are the adulterers.

Yet his fidelity expresses an infinite mercy that calls us to conversion and to sharing his life through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit by which he comes to dwell in us and we in him. For that purpose, the Word took flesh and returned to the Father by way of the Cross. He is the faithful spouse who purifies his bride and brings her home. This unwavering fidelity led Paul to assert: “If we are unfaithful, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself.” (2 Tim 2:13)

Only on the basis of Christ’s fidelity, poured into our heart by the indwelling of the Trinity, can we hope to remain faithful. Humanly speaking this is impossible, but “with God all things are possible.” (Mt 19:26)

In the present crisis regarding marriage, those who say it is sometimes impossible for Christians to remain faithful to the vow made to a spouse and to God (such as when the marriage is irreparably broken or has been replaced by a second union) have forgotten the meaning of Christ, the human person, marriage, and the cosmos, which all declare the glory of God and his fidelity. This is no development of doctrine or relaxing of Church discipline. It is the complete overthrow of the Christian vision of God and human existence.

Were there a single case in which fidelity to a spouse or to God was impossible for a Christian, this would mean that God’s fidelity had failed. Perversely, infidelity in that instance would be rooted in God’s infidelity of withdrawing his grace and/or misleading us through Jesus and the Church’s false teaching regarding the obligations of the Gospel.

Far from being realistic and merciful, the suggestions being made are heartless and cruel abstractions that imply that Jesus’ fidelity is not always available to us. This makes a mockery of those who have lived chastely, after a broken marriage, in fidelity to their earthly and heavenly spouses. The proponents of these theories must name a case in which God and Christ are unfaithful before they presume to permit a Christian to be unfaithful in the slightest matter. That is the concrete, real, personal truth of the Gospel.

Mercy will not be found in exchanging the beauty of marriage for a lifeless illusion. It will be found, as it ever has been, by allowing Jesus to draw us to himself on the Cross and learning that with him we can be faithful even unto death.

Lord Jesus, have mercy on us.  Mary, Mother of God, and Joseph her spouse, pray for us.


And thank you, Father Tim.

One Quibble with a Great Review

Alexi Sargeant has one of the best responses to Scorsese’s adaptation of Silence I have yet seen–really, go read the whole thing.

I do have one quibble, though.  (All right, one big one and one little one.)  Here it is:

In his discussion of Silence, Scorsese recapitulates the way he portrayed Judas as a collaborator in Jesus’s sacrifice in his own The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)—projecting his particular interpretation of Judas as pseudo-saint onto Endo: “In order for Christianity to live, to adapt itself to other cultures and historical moments, it needs not just the figure of Christ but the figure of Judas as well.” This image of Judas is far afield from the Christian tradition that formed Endo and his protagonists.

Sargeant wants to give Endo too much credit for orthodoxy, or those who taught him too much credit for sound formation.  It’s not Scorsese who infuses the suggestion that Judas is embraced as a collaborator in the work of Christ into Endo, though that is obviously the major connection between the two movies Scorsese has called “bookends” of his career, Last Temptation and Silence.

It is true that this is far from the Catholic faith, Endo’s baptismal faith; but it is inaccurate to view this as far from Endo’s practical belief and expression.  Even in Silence, this is obvious enough; but if you need it spelled out, go look at Endo’s radical rewriting of the Gospel accounts, A Life of Jesus.  It is just barely possible to differentiate Endo’s view, which is ambivalent about whether this reductively human Jesus positively intended or merely factored in the actions of Judas, but Endo’s take clearly interprets “Jesus loved Judas” not as meaning “Jesus embraced Judas in human-divine friendship that could lead Judas into perfect charity with God and other people” but “Jesus expressed to Judas human sentiments of caring and concern.”


Because the second of these is merely sentimental, it is possible to imagine Jesus continuing to express these sentiments, even by dying, even when Judas rejects him; and if these expressed sentiments are the sum of the meaning of Christ’s atoning work, then of course Judas in betraying Christ makes the expression all the more dramatic–so why not portray Judas as a collaborator?

Of course, if you actually believe that God does real work that really happens in life and history, transforming “whosoever will” into not only objects of concern but reciprocating subjects of true friendship, creating perfect charity where enmity and amity had contended, you will not at all be able to agree that betraying Christ to death and committing suicide out of remorse can be evaluated merely in terms of their dramatic potential; you will not evaluate the life of Jesus merely as a performance expressing a sentiment.

Anyway, Sargeant is right on the point, but I thought it worthwhile to note that Scorsese doesn’t insinuate this theme into Endo; it is already part of Endo’s evolving agenda when he writes Silence.

Observations, Having Watched Scorsese’s Silence

Having the honor to write a little bit about Endo’s novel Silence, recently, of course I went to see the movie.  My observations here will make more sense if you know what I’ve written elsewhere:

Up to Garrpe’s death scene, I’d say we’re seeing material that is at least as good as the novel. A few details are dropped, but only to foreshorten the very long backstory and make this story more definitely about Rodrigues from the beginning, something it would be very hard to avoid in a movie adaptation. The companion left behind before they even reach Japan is a very noticeable omission.

One scene that some reviewers made confusing-sounding is clearer in the movie even than the book, as the Father-Brother system the kakure kirishitan used is clearly applicable only to baptisms and leading prayers; there is nothing exceptional at all about what they’ve done, nothing that would require special permission. The scene of Garrpe not understanding the woman’s confession is very well-rendered, one of many ways Scorsese tries to make the story legible to an American movie audience (something of a quixotic aim, but nobly attempted).

Scorsese gives very good play to both Kichijiro and Rodrigues. Kichijiro’s role is less ambiguous than in the novel; Kichijiro clearly and specifically acknowledges sin, his traumatic past is viscerally included in his characterization, and Rodrigues plainly gives him absolution. Catholics ought to love the presence of the Sacrament of Reconciliation in this movie; one of the most vivid visual presentations I can recall of confession.

Rodrigues comes across as sincere, passionate, and rather more adolescent than I imagine him from the movie–same for Garrpe. Garrpe is more erratic than Rodrigues, but it is Rodrigues who makes really dangerous errors, repeatedly. The first time Rodrigues tells the villagers “Trample!” is shockingly underplayed; the book treats it as a sort of loud Freudian slip, a word hastily spoken and instantly regretted. The movie makes it quite plain that Rodrigues thinks the villagers should just apostatize when threatened and then practice secretly, which fits with some reviews of the movie that suggest Rodrigues applies a radically different standard for apostasy to priests than laity. While I’m not sure I agree that this accords with the book’s depiction of Rodrigues in detail, it’s a simplification that helps to underscore one of the two important themes that do flourish in the movie: that treating spiritual warfare as a matter of summoning up enough internal resources, to try to “believe harder” or be “strong enough,” is fundamentally missing the point. We are all weak, and frankly under some circumstances we can all be broken. “Let him who thinketh he standeth, take heed lest he fall.”

The other theme that comes across quite clearly in the movie is the persistence of faith even under external and internal rejection. This theme comes across clearly, I should say, despite many obstacles. To be honest, the arguments and motives become almost incoherent in the last third of the movie. Garrpe dies, not singing with bobbing “basket-worms,” but clinging to one of them and pushed under, apparently drowning while trying with panicked inefficacy to save her life. The scene is rushed, with the “basket-worms” being hastily drowned in a manner that sharply departs from the book; the effects on Rodrigues are thus intense but not intelligible. Similarly, the colorful characterization of Inoue and the flattening of the interpreter’s character put speeches which have less influence on Rodrigues in the novel in more prominent positions. Scorsese is hardly to be blamed for this, because those speeches include many of the most-quoted lines from Silence and are very close to the novel’s climax. The scene of the pit torture is actually muted after what we have seen before; the flashback to Ferreira’s ordeal at the beginning of the movie, especially, has stolen the thunder of the climax. The “snoring” is still horrifying.

As is true many places in both book and movie, Rodrigues appears to be determined by the author’s problematic, rather than internal motivations, in his decisions. This is especially true of the “voice” telling Rodrigues he can formally apostatize, which has to either be a delusion (in which case it cannot help justify the later actions of Rodrigues) or something we are to imagine could actually be a speech of Christ (which would be straightforward blasphemy). Given that the voice quotes Rodrigues, and is inconsistent with Christ (though consistent with Endo’s later A Life of Jesus), I am confident that the right way to take this is as a semi-autobiographical delusion shared by Rodrigues and Endo; I would like the movie to have made that clear, in some way. In many cases, the movie sides with Endo’s baptismal faith rather than Endo’s ideological agenda; in the case of the voice from the fumie, it simply renders Endo literally.

All that by way of concession against my point that the movie does make the story one of the persistence of baptismal faith even when one is forbidden to practice and when one struggles against it. This is a fitting theme to draw from Endo, both because this is his own stated experience and because his style of writing explicitly deploys characters to act out possibilities of experience for the highly subjective narrator (a modification of the I-novel genre). The film makes a number of interpretive choices for the viewer that the novel does not, and these are not obviously motivated; and the Confession scene of Rodrigues and Kichijiro is completely fabricated (it partially duplicates a scene elsewhere). Whether the choices are especially effective, or faithful to Endo, though, they do all tend to underscore what I hope Scorsese intends us to take away: that even under conditions where we find our faith suppressed and distorted beyond belief, the grace of God that reaches out to us through the Mochiki or Kichijiro he sends us may shape an opportunity for repentance–symbolized by a wife who knows her fallen husband will of course want Mochiki’s crucifix in his hands at burial, and who risks her life to place it there–that we must willingly accept. Not by proving our strength, even under the banner Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam, but by setting aside our boasts and entrusting our feeble selves to His mighty love.


Just Published: “Interpret Carefully” in Christ and Pop Culture

I suggest three fundamental approaches to finding the best possibilities in Silence. When I go to watch Scorsese’s movie, I’ll be hoping he chooses to emphasize elements such as these; I shall be elated if that happens and critical if it doesn’t. First, it is possible to read the very cryptic section that follows the end of the main plot as offering a definitive reinterpretation of the plot. When the story moves on past the self-justifications Rodrigues offers for his apostasy, and instead traces the bureaucratic records concerning the household where the new apostate has been set up, it is possible that we are meant to see that both Kichijiro and Rodrigues return to the faith. That is, though both of them break under pressure, they are subtly called back to the faith; their baptismal faith repeatedly subverts their apostasy, and triumphs over it when they are punished. To weigh this very heavily in our evaluation, though, we need some basis for disregarding pretty much every conclusion that Rodrigues draws from his experiences. Most importantly, we need a reason to believe that Rodrigues has returned, or returns periodically, to a faith that specifically repudiates his claim that Jesus personally called him to commit an act of apostasy.

(source: Interpret Carefully: Balancing Caution and Hope in Responding to Shusaku Endo’s Novel Silence – Christ and Pop Culture)

From the cutting-room floor: Why bother retrieving the nourishing from the toxic?

This is the second post that features portions deleted from “Interpret Carefully: Balancing Caution and Hope in Responding to Shusaku Endo’s Novel Silence,” just published in Christ and Pop Culture.

(Incidentally, here’s the first “cutting-room floor” post.)

This was an extra conclusion, not needed for the article’s internal logic, but connecting to an anecdote I included at the beginning (which, alas, didn’t make the cut, either).  You can see how these paragraphs, exciting though they were to compose, were good candidates for the “kill your darlings” treatment.


Here, then, the paragraphs attempting to vindicate the effort of sorting good from ill in Endo’s signature novel:

Why bother with such a reading?  Why bother to seek vindication for truth when it seems so futile, when the interpreter’s arguments begin to sound so plausible to us?  Here is where we consider Rogue One and the kakure kirishitan.  In Episode IV of Star Wars, the “new hope” spoken of in the title is the resumption of the Jedi line–of a discipline that guides its practitioners to right use of a talent invisibly implanted within them–after the destruction of all the Jedi by Darth Vader.  The genius of Rogue One, I argue, is in convincingly depicting the era when those who had heard of the Force, who were sensitive to it or were aligned with the benevolent goals of the Jedi, were scattered “like sheep without a shepherd.”  Rebel factions protested each other, fought and undermined each other; lone Force sensitives marched into dangerous situations full of devotion to what they remembered but untutored and without well-founded hope.  Goodness, hope, reverence do recur in such situations, and Rogue One bears compelling witness to the beauty and tragedy of those who achieve great things in such terrible times.

But finally, Rogue One describes a generation that lived and died without any well-founded hope that their desire to do good was anything but a futile refusal to acquiesce in evil.  Under those circumstances, we see people who want good things justify terrible acts; we see leaders of men fatalistically embrace death, families torn apart, whole lives lived in alienation from what is best in humanity.  It is beautiful, I suggest, when a voice tears through all that, determined to do at least one thing that is definitely good, and to reject futility; it is fitting that such a voice should become identified with the word “hope.”  But consider those Christian villagers, well portrayed in Silence, who were forced to find whatever ways they could to maintain a partially-taught Christian faith over not just a generation, but over centuries of official persecution and separation from the teaching office of the Church.  How could we not, like Jesus, be “moved to compassion” when we see them?  How can we not long for their descendants to know the fulness of the faith they lived and died desiring?  How can we not choose Garrpe’s way, and dive into the ocean, swimming as long as we can, to bolster their faith?