I hope that Martin Scorcese’s Silence, premiering this week, will accurately capture the genius of Shusako Endo’s novel. The novel is a meditation on evangelization, the intimate dialogue of prayer, and the imperfect alignment of Christianity with Western culture. And one of its themes in particular makes it timely, in view of the challenges currently facing the Catholic Church.

At its pivotal moment, Silence’s protagonist, the Jesuit missionary Sebastian Rodrigues, faces a terrible choice: He can hold fast to orthodoxy, or he can repudiate it and thereby alleviate the serious, immediate, and temporal sufferings of a people he has come to love. As he contemplates these alternatives, Rodrigues must discern whether he is being guided in conscience by the Lord, by his own psychology, or by more diabolical voices.

Much of the debate surrounding Pope Francis’s Amoris Laetitia explores the same questions. Should the Church revise her theology in order to alleviate suffering? Is there a tension between truth and mercy? What does it mean to accompany the sinful, to be pastoral among the broken? The recent discussions began with marriage, but this month, in response to a pastoral letter of Canadian bishops, it segued into euthanasia.

R. R. Reno summarizes the substance of the pastoral letter. Ten Canadian Catholic bishops have issued guidelines and directions affirming, as Reno says, that “it is permissible, perhaps even desirable, for a priest to anoint a Catholic who is about to receive a deliberate, self-willed, death-dealing dose of medication.”

This affirmation is tragic. To suggest that the Church can, by accompaniment, usher believers into suicide with a sacramental endorsement is inconsistent with Catholic moral theology. The Church stands against suicide, in all circumstances, because she believes that life is sacred and that death, though it must be accepted, can never be proposed or endorsed as a solution to the problem of suffering.

We should not assume that the Canadian bishops have made their error due to malice or a willful denial of the Gospel. Most likely, their error arises from earnest compassion (tragically misdirected), and from a popular but sloppy trend in moral and pastoral theology.

In Silence, Rodrigues entertains the possibility of apostasy because he is tormented by the suffering of his people. Their pain, and their problem, seem to him the basic facts of his situation. His theological reasoning is anthropocentric: He sees men with a true problem, and then begins an inquiry into possible resolutions of that problem. Some resolutions are consistent with the deposit of faith, and some are not. Rodrigues has trouble making these distinctions, however, because he thinks that love requires that he alleviate the suffering of other people. He instrumentalizes his theological training in order to find ways to bring about their satisfaction.

Sound moral theology, fides quarens intellectum, begins with understanding real things, most especially divine things, and then drawing conclusions about behavior, discipline, and comportment. Good pastoral practice arises from sound theological principles; actions are responses to truths. But the Canadian bishops, and many others in the Church today, seem to begin with a desire to ameliorate suffering, and to draw conclusions about divine realities from anthropocentric pastoral practice. “We know a just God would not want anyone to suffer,” the anthropocentric theologian seems to say, “and therefore God must permit certain choices.”

The Canadian bishops say that “the pastoral care of souls cannot be reduced to norms for the reception of the sacraments or the celebration of funeral rites.” They’re right about that. Faithful moral theologians need to guard against reductionism. And a robust vision for pastoral care needn’t be understood as a repudiation of Catholic moral teaching. True pastoral care for souls begins with knowing the Creator of every soul, and knowing his nature, and knowing his desire for human hearts and human lives. True pastoral care is attentive to suffering, and tender, gentle, and patient with those in agony.

But real pastors are not messiahs—they know that they cannot end suffering, nor should they try. They know instead that true pastoral care helps to unify our suffering with that of the Suffering Servant, who redeems us, and sanctifies us, and strengthens us to suffer with dignity in truth, as Christ himself suffered silently, conquering death upon the cross.

J. D. Flynn is a canon lawyer in Lincoln, Nebraska.

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Articles by J. D. Flynn

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