The Corner

Trampling the Fumie

Shusaku Endo’s Silence has haunted me for years. The novel is the story of Rodrigues, a 17th-century Portuguese Jesuit sent to pagan Japan. Rodrigues is a tireless missionary, but the Japanese seem impervious to Christianity, and he makes little headway. Eventually Rodrigues is betrayed, and imprisoned — like all Japanese Christians, he is forced to choose between apostasy and death.

But Rodrigues doesn’t fear death. His torturers must resort to something more perverse. While he sits helpless in prison, Rodrigues listens to Christians being tortured. They suffer because he does not trample the face of Christ.

Rodrigues is haunted by the cries of suffering. The Christians occupy his dreams. When he is placed before the face of Christ, nailed crudely to a wooden board, he chooses the immediate over the abstract. He cannot imagine any Christian choice but to the end the suffering of others. In resignation, and exhaustion, and deep sorrow, Rodrigues tramples the fumie.

Of course, it was a mistake. The abstract and intangible gives meaning to the immediate. Christians know that a martyr’s death means more than an empty life. Christians know that chaos reigns, and with it more suffering, without the ordering effect of truth. Rodrigues made a mistake, but one I’ve always feared I might also make.

Joseph Bottum, who published “The Things We Share” in Commonweal last week, might have a kind of kinship with Father Rodrigues. Bottum is the poetic voice of modern Catholic intellectual life. His work at The Weekly Standard and First Things shaped the minds of a generation — of my generation. His creative thought about abortion has probably moved the pro-life cause far down the field.

“The Things We Share” suggests the depth of Bottum’s pro-life conviction. I suspect that like Rodrigues, he’s haunted by cries of suffering.  I suspect the unborn occupy his dreams. “The Things We Share” is a choice for the immediate over the abstract — a vain hope that moving past arguments about natural law and common welfare and sexual complimentarity might bring about some good for the suffering and dying — for the unborn.

The essay is subtitled “A Catholic’s Case for Same-Sex Marriage,” but it is no such thing. There is no compelling argument for redefining marriage. There is no real argument at all. “We’ve lost,” Bottum seems to say, “so let’s just move on.” This position might be the foundation of a valuable political discussion. Catholic minds might disagree, but the assertion is hardly novel. If Bottum had pointed out only that the fight seems largely over, most Catholic leaders might have quietly agreed.

But Bottum didn’t stop there. Instead he said that “same-sex marriage might prove a small advance in love in a civilization that no longer seems to know what love is for.”

I don’t know whether Joseph Bottum believes that a falsehood such as same-sex marriage can advance truth, or charity, or goodness. I doubt it. His mind is too sharp for that, and too well formed. I do know that most Americans would agree with him — that same-sex marriage is here to stay. And that while we still argue, other battles — most particularly the irreducible moral battle over abortion — rage on.

Joseph Bottum knows that without a foundation of truth, laws against abortion are a faint hope. He knows that we order our common life to natural law in order to protect the unborn, and the disabled, and the elderly. That same-sex marriage will lead only to greater injustice.  But haunted by the cries of suffering, Joseph Bottum trampled the fumie.

Let’s pray that not everyone does.

— J. D. Flynn is a canon lawyer who lives and works in Lincoln, Nebraska. 

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