After the murder of John the Baptist by Herod, Christ begins His public ministry where John left off. Christ echoes everything John said (at least as recorded by the evangelists) except John’s condemnation of Herod’s illicit marriage. Christ certainly doesn’t lack the nerve; He wouldn’t discount the evil. His presumed silence cannot be an act of practical politics of the compromising kind.
So why the silence?
Christ continues, in line with John, his invective against the Scribes and Pharisees. Like John, he refers to them as a “brood of vipers” in an attempt to bring about their conversion or at least to mitigate the scandal they presented to the more simple and devout Jews. The skittish Pharisee Nicodemus, for one, might not have become a disciple had not Christ (and John before Him) harshly accused the Pharisees of hypocrisy. There seems to be continued hope for their conversion, however remote.
The presumed public silence of Christ with respect to Herod – except for referring to him as “that fox” – continues throughout His ministry. Christ even remained silent before Herod during the trial that preceded His Passion. The silence couldn’t have been “passive-aggressive” or any other sort of psychological manipulation. It had to have a profound – and dreadful – purpose.
It is interesting to note by contrast that Christ, while apparently never entering into a dialog with Herod, entered into a conversation with Pilate. During the trial of Christ, that fascinating exchange may have been based on the expectation that Pilate truly sought the truth, a truth that would lead to his conversion. But the discourse comes to an abrupt end when Pilate responds to Christ – apparently with obdurate skepticism – “What is truth?”
We read in the Old Testament (cf. Ezekiel 3:26) that, because of the hardness of the hearts of the people of Israel, prophets were unable to preach. Their tongues cleaved to their mouths. Does the silence of Christ reveal a similar and more terrible judgment?
By murdering John, did Herod definitively disclose his true character, and did he reveal he would never repent despite an overabundance of the actual grace he was offered through the ministry of John? Did Herod perhaps commit the mysterious “sin against the Holy Spirit”?
Does the silence that follows Pilate’s cynical refusal to seek the truth even as he gazed upon and conversed with the Way, the Truth and the Life bring with it a comparable divine judgment? It is not for us to judge; but we are free to wonder.
Woe Unto You, Scribes and Pharisees by James Tissot, c. 1890
Saint Thomas More chose to be silent in the face of Henry VIII’s adultery. Like Christ, his silence was not based on cowardice. But unlike Christ, Who freely gave Himself up to death, Thomas More attempted to avoid execution in obedience to Christ’s command that he be “clever as a serpent and innocent as a dove.”
As everyone including Henry himself knew at the time, however, even More’s silence was a stinging indictment of the king. (There is truth in Cromwell’s remark: “nay, this silence was, not silence at all, but most eloquent denial!”)
That More met the same fate as Bishop John Fisher, who actively and courageously opposed Henry, does not detract from the harsh effect of More’s tactic of silence.
Pope Pius XII went silent, after his 1941 Christmas message, in the face of the Nazis in World War II in order to prevent an even greater slaughter. The comparison with Christ cannot be one-to-one, of course, because Pius was not in any way the “master of the moment,” as Christ always is.
And we must allow for errors of judgment (although Pius worked diligently behind the scenes to save Jews, in evidence that remains in the Jewish graffiti still observable in their hideout at Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence). Allowing for a wobbly correlation, even the silence of Pius can be understood as a kind of judgment of the Nazis: they refused to be persuaded by even the prophetic witness of the Vicar of Christ. The fact that Pius never met with Hitler reinforces silence as a powerful means of judgment.
All of this is conjecture, avoiding judgments that belong to God alone. But we are free to pose the question: Would it be better, in God’s providence, for our sins to be revealed for purposes of our repentance than for us to finish our lives without a whisper of Divine indictment because God knows the extent – and ultimate hopelessness – of our hardness of heart?
The ever so wearisome flouting of Catholic teaching by pro-abortion (or to be redundant, “pro-choice”) Catholic politicians quickly comes to mind. And this leads one to wonder whether – again, from the mysterious point of view of providence – whether pro-abortion advocacy and practices are so evil that proponents have become the new Herods of the culture, willfully impervious to grace.
We shouldn’t press the point too far, since God’s ways are not our ways. And there remain stunning if rare examples of true repentance. (Abortionist Bernard Nathanson’s conversion, for instance.)
Still, in the grand providential scheme of things, silence can be a dreadful judgment of sinners, even if the official silence is the result of sinful negligence. Ecclesiastical discipline or the noisy excommunication of an unrepentant sinner is better – as a sign of hope to the sinner – than the harsh judgment of silence.