When Silence, Martin Scorsese’s epic film adaptation of the 1960s Japanese historical novel of the same title, hit theaters in late 2016, I was a master’s student at a mainline Protestant school of theology attached to a prominent private university. I was also in the process of entering the Catholic Church. I have a longstanding interest in Japan, my bachelor’s degree is in Japanese literature, and I was making a point of studying East Asian Christian history and thought; most of the people studying it along with me were excited about the movie and had nothing but good things to say about the book (which I would end up reading in the subsequent semester along with other Asian Christian classics like the graphic novel Boxers & Saints and Richard E. Kim’s Korean War novel The Martyred). Meanwhile, the chaplain and most of the students at the university’s primarily white Newman Center were deeply uncomfortable with the story, the climax of which seems to offer a moral justification or at least excuse for the act of apostatizing under torture. American priests I have talked to since then have often been similarly critical.

I often think of the polarized reactions to Silence when I read about Pope Francis’s focus on “going to the peripheries,” particularly when this takes the form of visiting countries with small Catholic minorities or creating cardinals from sees or even countries that have rarely or never had cardinals before. Pope Francis’s most recent consistory in June 2018 did not see any cardinals created from countries that have never had them before, but it did see (by my count) five countries regain representation in the College of Cardinals after having previously lost it, of which three are in Asia. The stories of Catholicism in Iraq, home to Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, and in Pakistan, home to Cardinal Joseph Coutts, have elements that have become all too familiar to those invested in Catholic news over the past three years: persecution by Islamist governments or non-state actors, demographic decline and “brain drain” in the context of this persecution, serious difficulties attracting the attention and care of policymakers in the developed world. The story of Catholicism in Japan, home to Cardinal Manyo Maeda, is somewhat different, and I believe it can tell us somewhat more about what “going to the peripheries” might mean in the Western countries where Pope Francis has encountered the most intense political criticism from within the Church.

Catholicism has been present in Japan since the mid-sixteenth century, when it was introduced to the country by St. Francis Xavier (along with other missionaries and not a few local converts). However, Japanese Catholicism lacked consistent oversight from the wider Catholic world for over two hundred years due to the isolationist and anti-Christian policies of the Tokugawa family of shoguns, hereditary military dictators who superficially ruled in the name of the in fact politically passive Emperors. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Japanese Catholics, passing down their faith by oral tradition in the near-complete absence of priests and competently translated Bibles, developed a number of wildly unorthodox theological ideas and devotional practices, some of which persist to this day in rural areas despite Japan having had an intact Catholic hierarchy once again since the overthrow of the shogunate in the 1860s. It’s in this setting, characterized by violent government persecution and almost total alienation from the rest of the global Church, that the apostasy at the climax of Silence, which is that of a Portuguese priest who has entered into this topsy-turvy Catholic world logistically unprepared and spiritually unready, takes place.

In Japan today, Catholicism is a small minority, with probably fewer than half a million invested practitioners in a country of over 120 million people. Japanese Catholics have to deal with the indifference or in some cases contempt of their non-Catholic countrymen, especially today in a political climate of resurgent Japanese nationalism and distrust of foreign ideas. Vocations are difficult to discern in a country with few well-established religious orders and a small Catholic marriage pool. Moreover, the Japanese Catholic political tradition is wildly different from that found in the West—as a small minority in a society that places a premium on homogeneity, the political interests of the Japanese Church consist mainly in resisting right-wing nationalism and fighting for separation of church (or shrine) and state rather than in battles like challenging Japan’s strong pro-choice consensus.

How often are we told similar stories about people who feel alienated from the Church in the West? It’s hard to keep up Catholic religious practice in rapidly secularizing Western countries; many people find themselves, almost by accident, in situations in which received approaches to vocation, work, or family life are unavailing. (For older Catholics this often takes the form of the notorious “irregular situation” with respect to divorce and remarriage; for younger Catholics, the past several decades’ changes in the social scripts with which people relate to one another and to the world have left many of us neither called to consecrated life nor suited for marriage despite being more or less functional adults.) And, of course, many Catholics, possibly even most Catholics in North America and Western Europe, have political priorities very different from those that we are taught to associate with “Catholic politics” and sometimes even at explicit variance with the Church’s social teaching or moral doctrine. We, too, have our peripheries, sometimes within our societies, often within our own hearts.

It would be presumptuous of me as a white American who has only spent a few months in Japan to insist on direct and explicit connections between these “peripheral” aspects of Japanese Catholic life and these aspects of the “peripheral” Catholic experience in Christianity’s traditional regions of strength. Nevertheless, the through-line is there in Pope Francis’s teaching and example if one looks for it. Christus vivit, the recent apostolic exhortation to and for young people, has a section headed “living in a world in crisis.” In this section, the Pope talks about the experiences of young people in war zones or suffering at the hands of sex traffickers, religious persecutors, and even their own peers; however, he also talks about paradigmatic “First World problems” such as online radicalization, disrupted relationships between parents and children, and even what my feminist friends simply call “makeup culture.” If experiences so radically different can be brought together into a broader theology of crisis, how much more so can the feelings of alienation I have described above?

Moreover, it is not only with reference to worldwide Catholicism that the Church in countries like Japan is on the periphery. It is also peripheral relative to its own culture, the culture of the country in which it finds itself. Catholicism in Japan is the same sort of exotic curiosity that Buddhism was for a long time in the West. It’s possible, though still not certain, that the Church all over the world might in the future find itself in some such position; that, due to secularization in traditionally Christian countries and the clergy’s loss of moral credibility due to the abuse crisis, some day soon Catholicism will become marginal, peripheral, a curiosity, even in places like Boston or Montreal or Rome itself. (Then-Father Josef Ratzinger’s now-famous prophecy that “the Church will become small” has been discussed on Where Peter Is here.) In the move to the peripheries combined with his call for “shepherds with the smell of sheep,” Pope Francis shows a way forward in a future in which the Church as a whole is most comfortable at the margins, where it can minister to publicans and sinners.


Image: “Maria-Kannon” (a statue of the Buddhist figure Kannon-bosatsu made a stand-in for Mary in crypto-Christian devotions). Source: Wikimedia Commons.


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Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.

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