Portrayal of apostasy

Question: In the movie “Silence,” a central premise is that intentionally stepping on a holy image, even if done out of fear or to save the lives of others, is apostasy. Is this a correct notion?

James MacDonald, via email

Answer: The notion in the premise of the movie, at least as you state it here, is simplistic. And this is so for two reasons.

The first oversimplification involves the definition of apostasy. The Catechism of the Catholic Church distinguishes four sins against faith and the First Commandment.

“Incredulity is the neglect of revealed truth or the willful refusal to assent to it. Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same. Apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith. Schism is the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him” (CCC, No. 2089).

Thus, apostasy generally involves more than stepping on a holy image. This could be irreverence or disrespect, which, while serious, is less than apostasy per se. For the act to be formal apostasy one would have to indicate or mean by the action, “I, by this act, intend to utterly and totally repudiate the Christian faith.”

Unless that intent is actively and consciously operative and certain in life, simply stepping on holy images is not formal apostasy.

A second oversimplification is that apostasy, like any mortal sin, requires that not only the act itself be grave but also that there be sufficient reflection and full consent of the will.

From what you indicate in your summary of the movie, those who step on the holy images are under significant duress. And this fear is not related merely to their own lives but the lives of others as well. Thus, what they do may be sinful but not necessarily mortally sinful. And this fact may also impact the very question of whether this is even apostasy.

For, if faith cannot be forced by threats and fear, neither can apostasy be said to always occur when it is obtained under severe duress.

However, as the martyrs remind us, fear alone cannot excuse acts of irreligion and apostasy. We are dealing with complex matters that ought not be oversimplified.

Mystical body

Question: A certain theologian spoke recently of the “mystical body of Satan” that opposes the mystical Body of Christ. Is this terminology proper?

Robert Bonsignore, Brooklyn, New York

Answer: While less common today, this terminology is in the Tradition. Note that “mystical” does not mean “holy” as some think. Rather it simply refers to something unseen by physical eyes.

The mystical body of the devil has the devil as its head, and the evil persons are its members. St. Gregory says, “The body of the devil is composed by all the impious men.”

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St. Paul also warns fornicators: “Do you not know that your bodies are the members of Christ?” He then indicates that sexual sin is “taking the members of Christ, to make them the members of a harlot?” (1 Cor 6:15)

St. Augustine also writes that “we cannot be at the same time members of Christ and members of a prostitute and that too easily many are making themselves members of the devil, so they greatly diminish the Body of Christ.”

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org.