While the Franciscans and the Dominicans were busy evangelizing South America and French Jesuits were converting the Hurons of Quebec and Ontario, other zealous Jesuits were reaching out to the native peoples of India, China and Japan. The fervor of these sixteenth and seventeenth century missionaries was depicted not too long ago in the movie, “Silence.”
A Jesuit father had worked eagerly and fruitfully in Japan establishing a dedicated and committed Catholic community within the largely and perhaps exclusively Shinto religious culture of the island empire. Japanese imperial officials sensed that this new religion would be divisive. A citizen’s loyalty would be divided between traditional Japanese values and imported Western values. This fervent new missionary had to be stopped. And so he was. Since this Jesuit was no longer in contact with his superiors in Europe, they became understandably concerned and sent two younger missionaries to rescue the vanished member of the Society. The movie graphically depicts the persecution but also the perseverance of the tiny Christian band of believers who maintained the faith even after their mentor had gone silent.
When the senior Jesuit was finally located by the younger Jesuits, he offered them a justification for his loss of faith in the uniqueness of Christianity and his acquired tolerance for the officially protected Shintoism. The senior Jesuit, portrayed by Irish actor Liam Neeson, argued that all religious expression was simply a variation of a generic religion that underlay all human activity. Being a Christian or a Shinto or a Buddhist or a Hindu or a Jew or a Moslem was merely a reworking of fundamental human principles like “Do good and avoid evil,” “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” These fundamental principles were at the heart of all religious activity, he argued. Various cultures simply expressed these foundational codes in different ways. Liturgies, ceremonies, pieties, prayers, rituals and rites might differ; but honoring the Supreme Being and one’s neighbor remained constant. Particular beliefs vary but basic religion endures.
The senior Jesuit certainly had a point. And the Roman Catholic Church has argued this point for centuries. In Catholic circles, the religion common to all mankind is called by theologians “The Natural Law” and by philosophers “Reason.” Consider the universal framework of the Ten Commandments. The first three Commandments pertain to God, His Name and His day. The second seven Commandments relate to mankind and his obligations: family, life, sexuality, property, reputation, inner thoughts. These foundation stones are the groundwork of every society. Every civilization has honored some kind of god, no matter how distorted the features might be. Every civilization has maintained some kind of respect for marriage, life, family, private property, a good name. When these institutions have been dishonored, a nation has collapsed.
This notion of an elementary, underlying reality to which all humanity must answer influences all moral and even religious conduct. When this natural law is denied, society becomes divided, alienated, even chaotic. The loss of the Judaeo-Christian heritage on which the United States was founded and which treasured the natural law for millennia has clearly resulted in a divided nation. Americans vehemently disagree on the value of unborn life, on the nature of marriage, on the significance of gender and sexuality, on the role of worship, on bearing arms, on capital punishment, on immigration, on a dignified death. Some of these issues are debatable; others, considered in the light of the natural law, are not.
The Catholic sacraments reveal a similar respect for an earthly bedrock underlying religious values. Each sacrament has a fundamental material entity at its core: the water of Baptism, the bread and wine of the Eucharist, the oil of anointing for the sick and confirmed, the imposition of hands for priesthood, the spoken vows of matrimony, the oral confession of sins in Penance. Just as God the Father has given the Natural Law a Divine significance, so he takes natural elements and raises them to a Divine level. The Incarnation of Jesus Christ is, of course, the supreme elevation of human nature into the Divine realm. So religion is indeed fundamental to the human scene. There is a common religious instinct in the heart of humanity. Through Christian revelation, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit have graciously raised this innate human instinct for God to the highest level and, through the Church, happily intend this Good News to be shared with all mankind.