On Discerning Spirits, Fr. James Martin Offers the Counsel of the Diabolical

Duccio di Buoninsegna, Temptation on the Mount

By John Zmirak Published on October 24, 2017

Last week, I mentioned Fr. Martin’s bizarre account of the Martin Scorcese movie, Silence. (Rev. Martin was the theological advisor on the film.) Martin explained in the pages of the official U.S. Jesuit magazine, America, that Jesus Christ told the Jesuit priest in the film to renounce Him. To spit on His image. To break his vows by marrying, and to join the Japanese government in its fierce persecution of Christians.

Really. Fr. Martin said all of this. I’ll quote his remarks below in context, but go read the whole thing yourself.

High-Minded Sophistry on Both Sides of the Tiber

Every Christian should be deeply interested in the high-minded sophistry Martin uses. It pervades not just liberal Catholic but Mainline Protestant discourse. It also flips on its head the careful rules that Jesuit founder St. Ignatius Loyola laid out for “discerning spirits.” That is, for determining the origin of religious inspirations that we receive. Do they come from:

  1. Ourselves, that is our passions, ego, and scruples?
  2. Almighty God, offering us guidance as the “still, small voice”?
  3. One of the fallen angels, trying to trick us into turning onto the path that leads to hell?

Clearly, this is an important question. It’s the kind of thing a person needs to know. It’s the subject matter of countless “Ignatian retreats” that Rev. Martin had to undergo in his Jesuit training. He may well have led them for others. In other words, he knows this stuff. If he’s getting it deeply, profoundly wrong, the cause isn’t ignorance. It’s something (or someone) else. Screwtape call your office.

Now, “the Jesuits” as an institution became bogeymen in the Protestant world for their fierce effectiveness at countering the Reformation. And for their loyalty to the pope. Ignatius is something else. His theology and methods are profoundly scriptural. They grow from the same “devotio moderna” that formed both Erasmus and Luther. His spirituality is practical: It helps ordinary believers make inexorable progress toward greater closeness to Christ.

Does every woman who “agonizes” before having an abortion also mirror Jesus?

So Protestant writers “borrowed” it, adapting his spiritual techniques to their own theological systems. Some 17th-century Protestant spirituality manuals clearly show Ignatius’ uncredited influence. Literary scholars have demonstrated how Anglican John Donne’s poetry follows the Jesuit method of “composition of place.” Our first president, George Washington, carried with him all through his youth a book of moral maxims, translated from Spanish Jesuits by an Anglican.

Intellectual Flim-Flam

So Ignatius’ rules aren’t some “Catholic thing.” They’re a part of the common Christian heritage. What’s more, they make eminent practical sense. And Rev. Martin flouts them in a shocking display of intellectual flim-flam, which brings to mind the old, pejorative use of the word “Jesuit.” That is, an adjective describing legalistic, sophisticated methods of deception.

Now to what Rev. Martin actually wrote. I will contrast it to what St. Ignatius taught.

In a piece he crafted for America, Rev. Martin asks and answers questions about the movie Silence, and its heroic apostate priests. Here are the key excerpts:

  1. Why does Father Rodrigues apostatize?

Once captured, Fathers Rodrigues and Garupe are confronted with a terrible dilemma: recant their faith and set the Japanese Christians free [from promised torture and execution], or hold onto their faith and let others suffer. It is an almost impossible choice. Thus, both Jesuits are forced to “discern” in a complicated situation where there are no easy answers. Fathers Rodrigues and Garupe come from a world of black-and-white and are both forced to make painful decisions in a world of gray.

Only in the end, after several searing experiences that include his own physical suffering and witnessing the torture and execution of others, after long periods of agonizing prayer and, in particular, after hearing the voice of Christ in his prayer, does Father Rodrigues apostatize.

He apostatized not simply because he wished to save the lives of the Japanese Christians, but because this is what Christ asked him to do in prayer. Contrary to what some Christian critics have concluded, it is hardly a glorification of apostasy.

Confusing as it seems to some Christian viewers, Christ requests this contradictory act from his priest. It makes little sense to anyone, least of all to Father Rodrigues, who has assiduously resisted it for himself. Yet he does it. Because Jesus has asked him to.

Not Compassion But Corruption

Let’s be brutally clear here. Rev. Martin is not saying any of the following (sensible) things:

  • That we can understand how Father Rodrigues makes a terrible mistake out of compassion.
  • That he is so overwhelmed by pain, fear, and empathy, that he’s not fully culpable for his sin. God will judge him kindly.
  • That we might fold under the same kind of pressure, so we shouldn’t be harsh toward this priest’s sin of unfaithfulness. We might do no better.

Nope. Rev. Martin is saying that Father Rodrigues made the right decision when he renounced Christianity. And when he stepped on an image of Christ in public, at the behest of pagan inquisitors. And again when he became a pagan inquisitor, helping to ferret out Christian books and icons that missionaries tried to smuggle into Japan. These were the right things to do. Jesus asked him to do them. Have you got that? Rev. Martin could not be more emphatic about this point, so it’s only fair to take him at his word.

As An Angel of Light

At the heart of Rev. Martin’s argument is the claim that “Christ asked him to [apostasize] in prayer.” That’s a problem. Just because you’re praying for answers, that doesn’t mean all the answers you get come from God. Jesus prayed in the desert, but the angel that appeared to Him wasn’t from God. In fact, the whole reason St. Ignatius wrote “Rules for the Discernment of Spirits” is that some spirits are evil! And yes, they will come to us. They will come to us “in prayer.” They weren’t afraid to urge Jesus Himself to bow down and worship Satan. Do we think they’re too shy to visit us? Disguised as “angels of light” or even as Jesus Himself?

If a spirit urges you for high-minded reasons to do something that you know is evil, the spirit is evil. Like the spirit that quoted scripture to Jesus in the desert. Rev. Martin learned that in his first few months of Jesuit training.

St. Ignatius laid out clear, precise, detailed rules for determining a spirit’s origin. Go read them. But the crucial, sure-fire test of whether a spirit is really from God, or else a devil or even a projection of our own unconscious desires, is simple. What is it urging you to do? Is the action in itself good, evil, or indifferent? If it’s objectively evil, you have your answer. And it is indeed, black and white. It’s as clear as the divide between heaven and hell. Here that is in the saint’s own words:

We ought to note well the course of the thoughts, and if the beginning, middle and end is all good, inclined to all good, it is a sign of the good Angel; but if in the course of the thoughts which he brings it ends in something bad, of a distracting tendency, or less good than what the soul had previously proposed to do, or if it weakens it or disquiets or disturbs the soul, taking away its peace, tranquillity and quiet, which it had before, it is a clear sign that it proceeds from the evil spirit, enemy of our profit and eternal salvation.

Not Every Passion is the Passion of the Christ

Rev. Martin blows lots of inspirational smoke by conflating Father Rodrigues’ decision to commit apostasy and persecute Christians with Jesus’ choice to die on the Cross to save Christians.

How can we understand that theologically? Perhaps by looking at the experience of Jesus on the cross, as recorded in the Gospels. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus struggles mightily to understand God’s will, and says, “Father if you are willing, remove this cup from me.” He does not wish to die. But then he says, “Yet not my will, but yours be done” (Lk 22:42). Jesus does something that everyone in his circle opposes and misunderstands. Even Peter doesn’t want Jesus to suffer: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!” (Mt. 16:22).The apostles do not want Jesus to suffer, much less to embrace the cross. It makes no sense to them.

Yet Jesus accepts his fate because this is what the Father asks. His actions make no sense outside of his relationship to the Father. Likewise, Father Rodrigues’s actions make no sense outside of his relationship to Christ. In a sense, there is nothing subtle here: He apostatizes, finally, because Christ asks him to. And for those who say that Christ would never ask something like that, ask yourself how the disciples felt when Jesus told them he would have to suffer and die.

This is just the kind of empty, seemingly high-minded talk that corrupts Christian circles today.

Does Anguishing Make it Right?

Yes, both Jesus and Father Rodrigues were distressed by the choices that faced them. Both suffered, and acted in ways that surprised their friends. So I guess they were both the same then, right? Does every woman who “agonizes” before having an abortion also mirror Jesus? How about men who “agonize” before deciding, finally, to murder someone in an act of vengeance? Or to leave their wives for a younger lover? Does the anguish that wraps a decision make it justified, even Christ-like?Temptation

Rev. Martin’s comparison is deeply, even diabolically false. God the Father asked Jesus to offer His life for sinners. Is that intrinsically evil, to offer your life for others? No. In fact, it’s the highest good we can imagine.

The Japanese pagan inquisitors asked Father Rodrigues to renounce Jesus, violate his vows, and persecute fellow Christians. That is objectively evil.

If a spirit urges you for high-minded reasons to do something that you know is evil, the spirit is evil. Like the spirit that quoted scripture to Jesus in the desert. Rev. Martin learned that in his first few months of Jesuit training. The fact that he has chosen to mislead Christians by pretending he doesn’t know this is an appalling public scandal.

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