Was St Maria Goretti’s Purity in Her Body? Let’s Ask St Augustine.

Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Purity is a virtue of the soul … not even when the body is violated is it lost. St Augustine

St Augustine had a lot to say about rape.

His teaching on this subject is the historic Christian attitude toward rape victims. It speaks comfort to the victims of ISIS and sex slavery today, as well as rape victims all over the world and throughout history.

St Augustine also discusses at length the practice — which is certainly still practiced in certain cultures today — of women who have been raped killing themselves from shame. He speaks forcefully against this.

St Augustine’s words on this subject separated Christianity from the world around it, and continues to do so today. It is a powerful affirmation of women’s rights as full human beings and, more importantly, as co-heirs of eternal life.

Augustine states clearly that rape does not defile the person who is raped. He says without equivocation that purity does not reside in the body, but in the soul of the person. He even goes so far as to say that the purity of soul of women who has been raped keeps their bodies pure, as well.

This is an enormous advance in the moral thinking of the world.

Christianity began in a world where baby girls were murdered for no other reason than that they were baby girls. It was a world in which women who committed suicide after being raped were thought admirable for having killed themselves; that they are “reclaimed” their honor by their suicide.

This carries over into our world today in many guises, including the gendercide of baby girls and demands from whole communities that women who have been raped commit suicide. In some countries women are actually sentenced to be raped for the crimes of their menfolk and then are expected to commit suicide afterwards to clear the family of the shame of having a woman who has been dirtied in this fashion in its midst.

Christianity, with its powerful affirmation of the eternal value of every human life, changed this. It stand as a sign of contradiction to it now, as if always has.

Christianity affirm the human rights of all people of every stage of their lives in a dramatic and powerful fashion. We do not offer our children to the Baals. We do not bend our knee to Moloch by murdering our children, our disabled, our elderly and our mentally disturbed.

We also do not condemn women who have been raped to the living death of life-long shame.

Or, at least, we shouldn’t.

The story of St Maria Goretti, as it has been told and is presented, is a reversion to the pre-Christian notion that women should commit suicide if they have been raped. Only with this story, the suicide comes before the rape.

I have a tremendous sense of oneness with Maria Goretti, this little girl who died at the hands of a murdering pedophile. But her death was a wanton murder by a grown man who wanted to rape a child. The miracle is that she forgave this man and converted him from the grave.

A few Public Catholic readers seem focused on whether or not there was “penetration” of Maria Goretti’s body by her murderer. I have trouble following their logic, and, to be honest, I find the whole line of reasoning disturbing.

St Augustine taught what has become the constant Christian teaching that purity resides in the soul. Nothing that is done to the body can defile a pure soul. In other words, if Maria Goretti’s murderer had raped her, her purity would still be intact. If it wasn’t for the misogynist character of the discussion, that would be a clear point.

If, say, we were talking about a man who had been drawn and quartered for his faith, no one would be debating whether or not the knife had “penetrated” his abdomen or if the rope had crushed his larynx. Everyone would understand that his body could not be defiled against his will, that the blood, gore, stink and filth of having his intestines yanked out and emptied around him could not touch the purity of his soul.

It is only women, only rape victims, who are subjected to the indignity of this kind of discussion.

The power of this shame is so strong that it multiplies when the victims of rape are men and boys. They feel the shame of having been raped and the additional shame of misogyny, once removed.

I’ve encountered a number of male rape victims, both in rape counseling situations and in my work as a legislator. I’ve actually passed new laws because of my encounters with adolescent boys who were violently assaulted.

The misogynist attitude toward women that informs much of our attitude about rape increases male victims’ shame. Part of their horror is that they have been used as if they were women. They feel debased and degraded in a unique way.

Rape is an attack on the humanity of another person. It is an attempt to deny and destroy that humanity. Because of its sexual nature, it is a powerful attack on the sexual identity and sexual pride of the victim. It is an attack on the life-force itself.

Because of the underpinning of misogyny that seeks to deflect victim’s rightful and righteous anger at what has been done to them, rape is also a kind of cultural warfare. This unspoken social construct of rape as a terrorizing thing men do to women which shames women and puts the in their place makes the shame and self-loathing of men who have been raped even greater.

The quotes below are the City of God, by St Augustine. They have been explicit Christian teaching for almost 2,000 years. St Augustine wrote at a time when an old world — the Roman Empire — was ending. He wrote in the midst of terrible persecution of Christians.

We live in just such a time today.

I copied this from the book itself, which I’ve read and have on my Kindle, so I don’t have a link. You can find a low cost (mine was free) Kindle copy of The City of God on Amazon.

The Violation of the Consecrated and Other Christian Virgins to Which They Were Subjected in Captivity and to Which Their Own Will Gave No Consent; and Whether This Contaminated Their Souls.

But they fancy they bring a conclusive charge against Christianity, when they aggravate the horror of captivity by adding that not only wives and unmarried maidens but even consecrated virgins were violated.

But truly, with respect to this, it is not Christian faith nor piety, nor the virtue of chastity which is hemmed into any difficulty; the only difficulty is so to treat the subject as to satisfy at once modesty and reason.

… It is, in the first place, laid down as an unassailable position, that the virtue which makes the life good has its throne in the soul, and thence rules the members of the body, which becomes holy in virtue of the holiness of the will; and that while the will remains firm and unshaken, nothing that another person does with the body or upon the body is any fault of the person who suffers it … But as not only pain may be inflicted, but lust gratified on the body of another … shame invades even a thoroughly pure spirit.

… is there a fear that even another’s lust may pollute the violated? It will not pollute, if it be another’s …

… purity is a virtue of the soul, and has for its companion virtue the fortitude which will endure all ills … and since no one, however magnanimous and pure, has always the disposal of his own body, but can only control the consent and refusal of his will, what sane man can suppose that, if his body be seized and forcibly made use of to satisfy the lusts of another, he thereby loses his purity?

For if purity can thus be destroyed, then assuredly purity is no virtue of the soul … If on the other hand, it belongs to the soul, then not even when the body is violated is it lost. Nay, the virtue of holy continence … sanctifies even the body and therefore when this continence remains unsubdued, even the sanctity of the body is preserved because the will to use it holily remains.

For the sanctity of the body does not consist in the integrity of its members, nor in their exemption from all touch … so long as the soul keeps this firmness of purpose which sanctifies even the body, the violence does by another’s lust makes no impression on this bodily sanctity, which is preserved intact by one’s own persistent continence.

… We maintain that when a woman is violated while her soul admits no consent to the iniquity, but remains inviolably chaste, the sin is not hers, but his who violates her.


For another take on our modern world and rape, check out Simcha Fisher. 

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What if We Took a New Look at the Story of St Maria Goretti?

Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons, Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en

Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons, Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en

This is for those who lie in the field, the lake, the dump and the shallow grave. It is for the ones whose bodies will never be found, whose names will go unrecorded; for the forgotten, unidentified, unfound women who died at the hands of their attackers. Rebecca Hamilton

I know a simple way to turn St Maria Goretti into a saint that rape victims and battered women all over the world would turn to in gratitude and adoration.

Why don’t we look at her story from the angle that rape is a mortal sin, that it is a sin against the humanity of the individual person who has it done to them, and that it is a sin which is so ubiquitous that it keeps half the human race in fear?

How about if we approach the story of St Maria Goretti as an admonition for men to stop raping?

Yes, she appeared to her would-be rapist from beyond the grave, and yes, this moved him to remorse. But the story is not that she died “for purity.” The story is that he was a grown man who repeatedly tried to molest a child, then murdered her for resisting him, and she forgave him and appeared to him from heaven to save his sorry soul.

We might also consider her story in light of the reality of child sexual abuse. Her murderer was 20 years old. She was 12. He had been repeatedly attempting to molest this little girl before he murdered her.

I have a lot of love and tenderness toward a little girl of 12 who was murdered while fighting off her rapist. I have tremendous sympathy for a little girl who is being subjected to repeated sexual advances from her adult neighbor.

What I do not see is that she is a saint because she died rather than be raped; that the salutary tale we are to take from her story is that she died “defending her purity.” This is a view of little girls and women that has led to enormous suffering for women for millennia. In some parts of the world today, rape victims are expected to commit suicide because they have lost their “virtue.”

Let’s be clear about this: The one without honor is the rapist. The one who has no purity is the rapist. If anybody deserves death because of this crime, it is the rapist.

The truth is that the “purity” of a human being does not reside in physical virginity. It resides in a soul that rests in Christ. A woman’s “honor” is the same as a man’s honor: It is her honesty, her loyalty and her courage.

A woman’s honor has everything to do with whether or not you can rely on her word, if she will be honest in her dealings with the world and if she keeps her commitments. It has nothing to do with whether or not a rapist has destroyed her hymen.

Purity is a matter of the heart and soul, not the physical things that are done to a person. A comfort woman that the Japanese raped over and over again may very well have more honor than any of the people commenting on this blog, including me. A victim of sex trafficking may have a soul so pure that it rings like crystal when she stands before the Lord, while those who claim that she is besmirched and worthless are without honor, kindness or love.

The story of Maria Goretti is a story of child sexual abuse and attempted rape that resulted in the death of a child at the hands of her attacker. The miraculous element in it comes from Maria Goretti’s forgiveness of the man who did this. It is a forgiveness that reaches from beyond the grave.

However, even this element can be completely turned on its head if we follow the way that St Goretti’s story is currently told. Can child-murdering pedophiles be forgiven?


There is no sin we can commit that is greater than God’s mercy in Christ Jesus.

Did Maria Goretti feel concern for her attacker that led her to come to him and seek his conversion from heaven?


But that is because hell is so terrible, and because this child-murdering pedophile was so dastardly that her compassion reached out to him in love in spite of what he did to her.

Maria Goretti did not die to save her murderer. She acted in love after her death to save him. Her death is not a wondrous tale of how women are supposed to value their “purity” above their lives. It is a story of how a person who is one with Christ can forgive the unforgivable, just as Christ forgave from the cross.

It is not a story to be used to exacerbate the guilt and shame of other little girls, and indeed, of older girls, who are sexually molested by adults when they are children, or who are forcibly raped when they are older.

There is no requirement on any woman to resist her rapist to the death. Getting yourself murdered because of a misogynist notion of “purity” that says that a woman’s “honor” resides in whether or not she has had sex should never be taught as an ideal to little girls.

The way that St Maria Goretti’s story has been used harms rape victims. It adds to their shame and increases their misery. It can make recovery from this horrible crime impossible.

I have had enough in my young life of my fellow Christians turning their backs on rape victims. I once witnessed a church that actually voted on whether or not to allow a rape victim to remain a member of the church.

I have known rape victims who committed suicide over this kind of attitude toward them. I knew a woman who had been raped by 5 men who, when she encountered this kind of “why didn’t you fight harder, why were you at that concert in the first place” condemnation climbed into her bathtub, put a gun to her head and pulled the trigger.

I do not care — let me say that again – I do not care if I am the only person on this planet who speaks out against the abusive use of this saint’s story to shame and blame rape victims. I will still do it.

I do not care – I do not care – if every single person reading this blog opposes what I am saying.

Blaming and shaming rape victims is anti-Christ. Claims that He somehow or other regards half the people he made this way defame His holy name.

These women are Christ crucified, standing right in front of you. If you don’t get that, then you really are missing the whole point of Christ’s passion.

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Many Rape Victims Have a Bit of Trouble with St Maria Goretti. Here’s Why

Photo Source: Flickr Creative Commons by Elvert Barnes https://www.flickr.com/photos/perspective/

Photo Source: Flickr Creative Commons by Elvert Barnes https://www.flickr.com/photos/perspective/

I’ve spent a fair amount of my adult life, trying to help rape victims.

I was one of the six original founders of the YWCA Rape Crisis Center here in Oklahoma, the first such center in the state. I have passed a ton of legislation to help end the scourge of violence against women, including more than a few laws to help rape victims. I spent a number of years on the board of an organization that rescued women who were victims of sex trafficking.

I know that many women, including most rape victims, are affronted by the story of St Maria Goretti. This one story becomes for them a symbol of what they believe is the Church’s utter blindness to the reality of rape and what it means to women. The way St Maria Goretti has been presented to them is certainly why.

A few years back, I was making a speech on the subject of violence against women and I said, “This is for those who lie in the field, the lake, the dump and the shallow grave. It is for the ones whose bodies will never be found, whose names will go unrecorded; for the forgotten, unidentified, unfound women who died at the hands of their attackers.” I say that again now.

Rape is a crime of extreme violence and dehumanization. It is so ubiquitous that fear of it forces half the human race to live in constant vigilance, in a sort of war zone mentality.

St Maria Goretti disturbed rather than comforted every rape victim I have dealt with who knew about her. The reason lies in the dual impressions taken from her story that (1) The Church is teaching that is better to die than suffer rape and live, and, (2) The Church is teaching that if a woman really wants to, she can avoid being raped.

Both these ideas are cruel and misogynist to the core. Rape is a crime of extreme violence. It is committed by bigger and stronger people against physically weaker people because the weaker person cannot successfully defend themselves.

The purpose of rape is to reduce another human being to an object, to destroy their humanity and lower them to the level of meat. Gang rape also has the effect of bonding the guys together as part of their sadistic recreation.

I’ve read the blog posts of my two colleagues Michelle Arnold and Simcha Fisher. Both of their discussions of Maria Goretti’s short life and death are couched in language and a manner that reflects the fact that they understand and are sensitive to the feelings of women.

Many rape victims find St Maria Goretti, or at least the way she has been shown to them, to be a further affront to and attack on their dignity and value as human beings. This alienates them from the Church.

The crux of the problem with this saint is that misogynists have gotten control of her story. They have depicted her as girl of no real value in herself who became a saint because she chose to die rather than forfeit her hymen, and who then forgave her attacker who — get this — was so moved by her piety that he became a priest. (Actually, he became a gardener at a Franciscan friary or monetary, but that is not how the story is told to young girls.)

This manner of discussing Maria Goretti is right up there with the old story about the woman who stayed with her husband who beat her and suffered his battering prayerfully and piously right up to and including when he beat her to death. The murdering hubby was then so impressed by her piety that he — you know it’s coming — became a priest.

I’ve actually heard this latter story being told to young girls and women since I converted.

That’s sick stuff folks. It defames Christ to pin this misogyny on Him. Women’s lives matter more than any part of their anatomy. Their human dignity is real human dignity. It cannot be fluffed off with instructional tales of women who die to save their virginity and who sacrifice their lives by letting their husbands beat them to death.

This nonsense places the blame for the batterer and rapist’s behavior squarely on the shoulders of the battered and the raped. Somehow, women are, according to these stories, responsible for avoiding rape and converting their batterer by submitting to beatings.

If they fail in this, then, the implication is that they didn’t fight hard enough, resist long enough, pray hard enough, or submit piously enough. Not only that, but they are responsible for converting their rapists and batterers by how they die.

This notion of martyrdom is not martyrdom at all. It is a method and a means of enforcing and justifying social injustice against half the human race by the other half.

That is the rape victim’s perception of St Maria Goretti as she has been presented to them. That is the view of far too many women when it comes to the Church and what they can expect from it if they are themselves raped or battered.

I’ll leave the apologetics about St Goretti to Michelle and Simcha. They did a fine job.

I’m going to use my internet space to do a bit of apologetics for rape victims. Personally, my heroines are the ones who smash the guy’s nose and run for it. My heroines are the ones who crawl out of the dump where they were left for dead and rebuild themselves into productive and full human beings.

I’ve said a lot in opposition to divorce, but men who beat their families don’t deserve families. I think every battered woman should dump the dude. Every. Single. One.

My heroine is the woman who says you can’t treat me like that and gets the bleep out of Dodge. My heroines are the women who assert their own right to life and humanity in the face of those who would deny it.

I never want to see any young girl die for her virginity. Her virginity is not a physical thing. It’s a matter of spiritual purity, and the rapist, with his beer breath and disgustingly filthy heart, cannot touch that.

My advice to women who are confronted with the savage violence of the rapist is simple: Do what you have to do to survive. If submitting will get your out alive, submit. If you have to kill him to survive, do what you must. Fight, if you can. But if you can’t, don’t let the jerks of this world make you feel bad about it later.

Women’s lives are real lives. Their humanity is real humanity. Survival in the face of bestial behavior is not a sin. It is a virtue. It is also a God-given mandate.



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ISIS Offers “Beautiful Young Girls” as Sex Slaves to Winners of Koran Memorization Contest

Photo Source: Flickr Creative Commons by Matt Lemmon https://www.flickr.com/photos/mplemmon/

Photo Source: Flickr Creative Commons by Matt Lemmon https://www.flickr.com/photos/mplemmon/

Evidently, ISIS is sponsoring a Koran Memorization contest in honor of Ramadan in which “beautiful young girls,” said to be as young as 12 years of age, go to the winners.

The contest announcement, which was posted on Twitter, is below.

From The Jewish Press:

‘Soldiers of the Islamic State, Commanders and Troops, Greetings and salutations upon the advent of Ramadan, May it be the will of Allah to accept our fasts and prayers May Allah protect us all from the fires of hell.

Da’wa institutions and mosques hereby declare the opening of the Qur’an memorization competition, To include the following traditions (chapters):

Surat Al-Anfal (Surah prey), (Surah a-Ta’uvah) Surat Muhmad, and Surat Patikha (Surat opening). The competition will be held from 1 Ramadan 1436 to 21 Ramadan 1437.

Those who wish to participate may register at the following mosques: Mosque of Abu Bakr, Mosque of Osama Bin Laden, Mosque of Abu Musab a-Zarqawi (senior Al Qaeda official, the founder of ISIS assassinated in Iraq in 2006), and the Al Taqwa Mosque.

Allah willing, winners will be chosen between 21 Ramadan 1436 and 27 Ramadan 1437.

Competition Prizes:
Grand Prize Winner: ‘Sabia’ (a young girl)
Second Prize: Teenage girl
Third Prize: Teenage girl
Fourth place: 100,000 Syrian pounds ($530)
Fifth place: 90,000 Syrian pounds ($477)
Sixth place: 80,000 Syrian pounds ($424)
Seventh place: 70,000 Syrian pounds ($370)
Eighth place: 60,000 Syrian pounds ($317)
Ninth place: 50,000 Syrian pounds ($265)
Tenth place: 50,000 Syrian pounds ($265)

We ask Allah the Great to ease and help you on your way in serving Him as He desires.
Da’wa Institutions and Mosques



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ADULTS ONLY for This One: Rape is Hilarious

I have nothing to add to this. The video speaks for itself.

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The Church and the Cultural Acceptance of Sexual Violence



Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, made the statement below  at a 4-day meeting hosted by British Foreign Secretary William Hague and UN Special Envoy Angeline Jolie.

Cardinal Nichols’ comments address a several  issues that I think are important ones for the Church to take up if we want to end sexual violence.

He deplored the de facto cultural acceptance of sexual violence. This is a key component in the issue everywhere on the globe, including here in the United States. Rape is treated as entertainment in this country. The signals our culture gives about sexual violence, are, at best, mixed. We sometimes go into a frenzy of indignation over a particular crime of sexual violence. But more often, we attack the victims and treat rape as entertainment.

There is a reason why young men video themselves committing gang rapes and then put those videos on the internet to brag. There is a reason why girls are cautioned to be careful what they drink at fraternity parties or to stay away from the jock dorms on campus. There is a reason rape victims don’t talk to their pastors or tell people in their churches what has happened to them.

It all circles back to this one thing: The cultural acceptance, including the direct promotion and exploitation of, sexual violence against women and girls.

He also said — although not nearly strongly enough —that sexual violence is a sin. Potential rapists and their victims both need to hear this. I once put together a meeting of the heads of the various religious groups in Oklahoma for the express purpose of asking them to call sexual violence a sin. My reason was simple: I had been going to church, sitting in pews, for decades, and I had never once heard this preached. This is a moral black hole on the part of the churches, and it has fed into the cultural acceptance of sexual violence.

Finally, Cardinal Nichols gives one of the most accurate descriptions of why sexual violence is such a fundamental crime against the humanity of its victims. Here’s what he said,

Human sexuality is a strong and vital component of our humanity and of each person’s nature. The exercise of that sexuality, in sexual relations, is something that touches the deepest aspect of our identity and personhood. A fundamental aspect of the Church’s teaching about sex is that sexual acts must always take place within the context of authentic freedom. This is because, properly understood, human sexuality has the capacity to unite two people, body and spirit, at the deepest level, in a completeness of self-giving that has within it the call to a permanent commitment between them and which, of its nature is open towards the creation of new human life. What is most relevant in this teaching for us today is that there is no place in sexual relations for brutality, aggression or any kind of de-humanisation of a person.

This Initiative is concerned to highlight that the use of sexual violence is always and absolutely a violation of human freedom and of every rational standard of human decency. And what is more, its de facto cultural acceptance in many places and in so many circumstances contributes significantly to the degradation of women in particular. Sexual behaviour is so often the key litmus test of the honour and respect given to women either in conformity to moral standards or in defiance of them.

I can say without equivocation that the church’s (I am speaking here of the entire body of Christ in every denomination) easy acceptance of sexual violence and its willingness to condemn the victim while harboring the perpetrator led me directly into 17 years of defiance against both organized religion and God Himself. It made me into an ardent advocate for legal abortion.

I do not think I am unique in this.

It literally took an act of God to change me about this. I was so damaged by what I had seen in the churches that I asked God in all sincerity if He hated women. I don’t often get direct answers to my prayers, but I got one then. That answer bound me to God in a way that nothing else could have. It has also made me fearless about speaking out about clerical disregard of sexual violence. I know — know — that this indifference is not only wrong, it is deeply sinful.

It means a lot when a Prince of the Church speaks out against sexual violence. We need to see a lot more of it. His remarks are directed at the use of sexual violence as a weapon against cultures and societies in warfare. I apply them to all sexual violence in every circumstance.

I’ve highlighted a few points in the text below.

From Vatican Radio:

Please find below the full text of the address by  Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, to the conference, delivered on 12th June 2014:

Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative

“I am privileged to have this opportunity to speak at this most important Initiative and to be invited to do so from the perspective of my Catholic Faith. In doing so, I offer my fullest congratulations to the Foreign Secretary in particular, for his dedication to this crucial cause.

The unbelievable surge of sexual violence against both women and men in parts of our world is manifested in the shocking facts well documented in this Conference. I doubt though whether even the most graphic accounts of this evil are capable of conveying the sheer horrors which are generated by sexual violence in conflict and warfare. The damage which is done to the human dignity of the large numbers of victims of sexual violence is so radical and so permanent that it defies description.

It is not the random act of men who have, for a while, lost all sense of decency, which defies description but the deliberate and ordered tactic of oppression, domination and destruction which is at the noxious heart of sexual violence. It is to the shame of our world that the systematic use of sexual violation is still today, in some places, considered as a duty of soldiers, an order that they must carry out. This horror is further compounded by the fact that the stigma attached to sexual violation often falls on the victim and not on the perpetrator. What terrible collusion is indicated by that fact! The public tolerance of sexual violence leads to the inversion of human decency; it reinforces other forms of oppression and undermines the morals which uphold the rights of the human person.

I wish to make three points regarding the moral and religious framework which, I believe, can strengthen this fight against Sexual Violence in Conflict.

The first is the clear principle that every human activity is subject to moral principles and judgment if it is not to lose its truly human character and sink into the realms of the amoral, the dark hole of a subhuman wilderness. This principle applies to situations of warfare and conflict. No declaration of war – whether arguably legitimate or not – excuses those who fight from their obligation to observe fundamental moral principles.

In Catholic teaching this is described as ‘jus in bello’, that just principles must be observed even in warfare. The teaching states: ‘the Church and human reason both assert the permanent validity of the moral law in armed conflict. The fact that war has regrettably broken out does not mean that everything becomes licit between the warring parties (CCC 2312). It refers explicitly to ‘non-combatants, wounded soldiers, prisoners’ who must be respected and treated humanely.’ It continues ‘Actions contrary to the law of nations and to its universal principles are crimes, as are the orders that command such actions. Blind obedience does not suffice to excuse those who carry them out’ (2313).

History has many examples of the pursuit of war criminals. It is also has many instances of the failure to do so. In this Initiative, the measures being proposed and pursued to strengthen the legal frameworks for the pursuit and prosecution of all war criminals are fully supported by the principles of morality and social justice and must be given widespread support. War is no excuse. The demands of justice remain in place. A crime is a crime, whether committed in the context of conflict or not.

And sexual violence is always a crime; it is always an immoral act.

The second point I draw from Catholic moral thinking and teaching is this.

Human sexuality is a strong and vital component of our humanity and of each person’s nature. The exercise of that sexuality, in sexual relations, is something that touches the deepest aspect of our identity and personhood. A fundamental aspect of the Church’s teaching about sex is that sexual acts must always take place within the context of authentic freedom. This is because, properly understood, human sexuality has the capacity to unite two people, body and spirit, at the deepest level, in a completeness of self-giving that has within it the call to a permanent commitment between them and which, of its nature is open towards the creation of new human life. What is most relevant in this teaching for us today is that there is no place in sexual relations for brutality, aggression or any kind of de-humanisation of a person.

This Initiative is concerned to highlight that the use of sexual violence is always and absolutely a violation of human freedom and of every rational standard of human decency. And what is more, its de facto cultural acceptance in many places and in so many circumstances contributes significantly to the degradation of women in particular. Sexual behaviour is so often the key litmus test of the honour and respect given to women either in conformity to moral standards or in defiance of them.

What is clear, therefore, is that the Church wholeheartedly backs every initiative to prevent sexual violence being perpetrated against anyone, anywhere and under any circumstances. The justice at the heart of human sexual relations must be respected as integral to all justice, even in conflict and warfare.

I am proud today to be able to point to the significant work carried out by many religiously motivated people in the fight against sexual violence in warfare and its dreadful consequences. I salute especially the work of religious sisters, in many countries, who for decades have dedicated themselves to this work, without seeking reward or praise. They do so as part of their commitment to justice in our world today. And we are richer for their efforts, along with the efforts of many others, too. This enterprising work generates the kind of wealth without which our world cannot survive. They are, in my view, at the top of the world’s rich list!

The third point I wish to make flows directly from this notion of integral justice as our greatest wealth.

In the efforts of this Initiative to prevent sexual violence, we rightly speak of wanting to protect the human rights of everyone, especially the most vulnerable and the victims of this terrible form of abuse. In order for this language of human rights, and the framework it offers, to be robust, I believe we are helped by clarity about its foundations. The entry of human rights into the international legal framework is largely welcomed. But human rights themselves do not derive from a legal system, nor a political authority, or a state. The dignity of every person, and the pattern of rights which flow from that dignity, are inherent in the person, herself or himself. They are inalienable. Often, of course, there are choices to be made between competing human rights and difficult decisions ensue. But some rights are more immediate, more fundamental than others. I believe that this priority of human rights can best be seen when they are understood in the light of their ultimate origin.

The dignity of every person arises from within their nature and that nature is most clearly understood as deriving from its Creator, from the mystery of God. Here the light of faith sharpens our rational understanding, it deepens our sense of who we are and the dignity which is properly ours. And in this God-given dignity, the right to life itself and the right to bodily integrity are fundamental, as is the right to religious freedom. The violation of that bodily integrity in sexual violence is therefore a most fundamental denial of human dignity and a most gross breach of a person’s human rights. It is a crime which ought to be eradicated with all vigour.

Sexual violence as an instrument of warfare and conflict is a deep wound in the body of humanity, to borrow a phrase of Pope Francis. That it is as old as humanity is a cause for our lasting shame. That this Initiative is daily growing in strength, that it is beginning to engender a common will to say ‘no more, never again’ is a source of real encouragement. That it is producing the statutes and instruments by which perpetrators will be prosecuted and punish is a measure of its initial success. That it will in time challenge and change the cultures which tacitly support these crimes and heap the stigma of shame on its victims is a cause for real hope. I congratulate all involved and I assure you of my full support.”

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Atonement and the Undoable

Note: This is a re-post of an earlier post. I hope you enjoy reading it again.


Eve Tushnet and a friend went to see a presentation at the Jewish Community Center in Washington, DC. The presentation was designed to prepare people for the High Holy Days.

Since the High Holy Days are about repentance, it tracks that the presentation was on atonement. However, Eve finished the evening more bemused that enlightened. As she put it,

All of the stories were interesting and for the most part well-told–but literally none of them followed the form I was most hoping for: “I sinned, I realized I was wrong, and I made amends, here’s how.” Several of the stories explored related questions of conscience: Ritija Gupta turned the story of how a bad-girl friend persuaded her to steal sixty cents’ worth of beads, at age seven, into a sharp little parable on how we misunderstand the gravity of our actions, condemning ourselves for peccadilloes while assimilating huge ongoing sins into our sense of what’s normal and acceptable. The host, Amy Saidman, did a funny shtik about the war between “Citizen Amy,” whose conscience would never allow her to damage a car and not even leave a note, and “Spray-Tan Amy,” who can’t stop because she is receiving an award that night, who is special and above the rules.

… The most powerful story came from the most intensely compelling storyteller, Colin Murchie. He’s someone I’ll be looking out for at future Speakeasy events. I don’t want to tell his story for him, but it was about a night when he was forced to completely reassess the motives which had led him to become a volunteer firefighter in a very tough Maryland suburb.

Based on Eve’s description, I would say that one reason the stories didn’t lead to atonement is that they weren’t about serious sin. I understand why, or at least I think I do.

The evening wouldn’t have been entertaining if the story tellers had talked about their adulteries, abortions, shoplifting and the night the guys all got drunk at the fraternity house and passed the girl around. If the wife-beater among them had confessed to beating his wife, and the woman who was sleeping with her husband’s best friend had told all, the evening might have ended early.

But the truth is that the first requirement for atonement has to be an action that wounds someone else.

Let me give you an example. Back in my misspent youth, I was the NARAL Director for Oklahoma. I referred women for abortions. I helped organize the first abortion clinic in Oklahoma and got it up and running.

In short, I helped kill people.

Lots of people.

Helpless little people that I denied were people while I was advocating for their deaths.

Now there’s something that needs a little atonement.

But how? How does anyone atone for so heinous a crime?

For those of you who are reading this with baited breath, waiting for me to give you an answer, I’ll cut to the bottom line: You can’t. You can not atone for sins as black as the ones I’ve committed.

Can’t do it.

Nothing you can do, nothing you can say, nothing, but nothing, but nothing will ever make right again what you have done wrong.

But if, for reasons that confound all comprehending, God still loves you, even after what you’ve done; if He welcomes you home to Him with joy that defies your ability to find words to describe it, and if He then puts you back into the same place where you committed some of your worst sins in the past –

– If He does all that, then, just maybe, you get the chance to … not do it over, because nobody ever gets the chance to do anything over … but to do it again, and this time to do it better.

How does an adulterer atone for his or her adultery? By being faithful to their spouse.

How does a wife-beater atone for beating his wife? By loving her the way God intended.

But even this kind of living atonement cannot undo the harm you have done. One of the hardest penalties of committing grave sin is that you can’t un-sin it. 

You can’t unadulter, unbeat, unrape, unkill anyone.

Without Jesus Christ you are stuck there in the pit of your sin and remorse forever. You will be a murderer/adulterer/liar/beater all your days. This is why I sometimes get so impatient with people who come on this blog and demand that the Catholic Church change the rules to tell them that their sins aren’t sins. They never do this about eating too many cookies or being a volunteer firefighter for the “wrong” motives.

Nope. They’re ok with those things and the Church’s teachings about them.

It’s the biggies that get them on here demanding a hall pass to heaven. They want the Church to tell them that their adulteries, abortions, disordered sex and lying, cheating ways are not a sin. They claim that anyone, anywhere, who says otherwise is “judging” them.

There are days when I want to put my arms around these lost souls and hug them. There are other days I want to ask, Are you kidding? Where do you get the arrogance to do these things and then demand that the Church — the Church — say that they are not sins?

Do you know what saved me?

The knowledge that I had sinned.

Without that, I would still be lost.

As for atonement, that came long afterwards, when I was mature enough in Christ to survive it. Atonement for me was being given an extra measure of forgiveness I most assuredly did not deserve. God put me in the place and almost coerced events so that I would be given the opportunity to pass pro life legislation. Atonement for me was being pilloried by pro abortion people. I was forced (against my will, I have to admit) to suffer public hazing for the babies.

It was that suffering, that character assassination and constant emotional battering, that finally set me free.

God forgave me, and, after a period of intense grief, I realized that I could not refuse His forgiveness by hanging onto my grief any longer. To do otherwise would be to say that my sins were greater than His mercy.

But it was the atonement — which in my case amounted to a kind of social death — that finally set me completely free of my sins.

I could not undo what I had done. I could not unkill those I had helped kill. I was powerless to rewind the havoc I had wreaked with my sinfulness.

But God could heal me of this grief, and He did. He gave me the chance to suffer just a bit, and the suffering cleansed me in my heart and mind.

I read somewhere — I think it was In This House of Brede, but I’m not sure — that atonement is really at-one-ment. That is a beautiful thought, and I think a true one. Atonement heals the person who atones and allows them to fully rejoin the human race, including those they have harmed, with a renewed self and a new purpose.

Now I, the former advocate of abortion, champion the unborn. I moved from who I was to who I am, from my then to God’s now. In the process, I found a wholeness and forgiveness that only someone who has gone to Jesus in the hopelessness and desperation of knowing that nothing they do can ever undo what they have already done can understand.

None of this belongs in a play, of course. At least not an entertaining one.

But it is the truth.

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At Gethsemane


Gethsemane is far more than the physical garden where Jesus prayed the night He was taken.

Gethsemane is a place in the human heart, a destination we all reach. Some of us will go there many times in our lives.

Gethsemane is what I call The Alone. It is that stripped-bare moment when the pretenses and self lies that sustain us in our illusion of invincibility and significance are taken from us. Gethsemane is the realization that we are alone in a way that the glad-handing niceties of human interaction hide from us.

Emotions such as loneliness and even despair are trivialities when contrasted with the stark solitary helplessness of The Alone. It is a stunning thing to look into the eyes of another human being and see satan looking back at you. It is a soul-scouring reality to face the insignificance we really are to other people.

That is Gethsemane, and it is what Jesus faced for you. And for me.

Can you not wait with me one hour? He asked the disciples, and the question vibrates with the isolating aloneness that prompted it.

He had to face the awfulness of what was coming without human succor or understanding. When they came, when Judas struck Him to the heart with a kiss of betrayal, when He looked into the pitiless eyes of Satan, staring at him from another human face, He was alone.

That was Christ’s Gethsemane. Our Gethsemane, even though it will differ, is in some ways like it.

My friend Linda Caswell is director of All Things New, a ministry that shelters and redeems women who have been trafficked and prostituted. These women know The Alone, not as an event or passage, but as the whole of their lives. They have inhabited The Alone the way you and I inhabit our jobs, families and lives, because it has been their lives.

Most of these women have had very few positive contacts with people of faith. They avoid churches because the men who have bought them are also in the churches. Their only safety is in Jesus, but they do not understand that at first.

When Linda shows them the movie that Mel Gibson made, The Passion of the Christ, it inevitably breaks through the hard shell of their defenses. Women who do not understand the Gospels as anything but a lie told by lying liars who buy and sell them break down and sob uncontrollably when they see Jesus humiliated, beaten, tortured and disregarded.

This Jesus, the One who prayed “let this cup pass” in Gethsemane, they understand. And by the miracle of the grace of the cross, they believe that this Jesus understands them.

Their lives, which have been an unending Gethsemane, open to this Brother God who was beaten, tortured, humiliated and disregarded as they have been.

Because He understands. Because He does not disregard them. Because He is the only One who can go with them into The Alone of their personal Gethsemanes.

Jesus Christ suffered for us to redeem us from our sins, from the things we’ve done. He also suffered to redeem us from the things that have been done to us. In this cruel world, the things that are done to us can cut deeper and leave us less able to see the Divine than our sins.

We put people outside the bright circles of acceptability that we draw around ourselves and those we deem worthy. We cast them into the hell of unending Gethsemane where no one keeps vigil with them and no one cares that they are alone.

Only Jesus, Who has been there, can penetrate The Alone of our lives. He is the One, the only One, who can draw people back from the man-made abyss of life lived in The Alone where we cast so many of the people that He died to save.

It is important to remember this at all times, but especially today when we re-enact the Last Supper. Jesus was becoming Christ on this night when He gave us the Eucharist and the servant priesthood. He was teaching us how to love with a love that passes all human understanding and how to live the life of the Kingdom in this world. He was showing us that even in our Gethsemane, even in the deepest pit of The Alone, we are never alone, for He is always there.

And he will keep watch with us, not just for an hour, but for the whole of this life and into the one beyond.


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Does the Laity Have the Right to Expect Authenticity from Our Priests?


I’m evidently somewhat different from the average pew-sitting Catholic.

I don’t want my pastor to confirm me in my sins.

I want my pastor to tell me the truth about my spiritual condition and to lead me in the Way that leads to eternal life. I don’t go to church to validate myself, my sins or my choices in life. I go to church to grow closer to the Lord and to learn how to follow Jesus.

When I ask a Catholic priest for instruction on moral issues, I am not asking him for his personal prejudices or his individual neurosis. I want him to give me the straight truth about what the Church teaches so that I will be better able to evaluate what I should do and how I should live.

In short, I rely on the priests I go to for help to be authentic in their Catholicity and to tell me the truth.

I trust them to not use their position and power to lead me in ways that are sinful, belligerent to the Church, or that will allow me to commit grave sins against myself, other people, or my God.

So far in my Catholic life, this trust has been well-rewarded. I have had priests who always told me the truth of Church teaching, even when it made them personally uncomfortable and when I argued back and gave them a hard time about it.

Every person who lives brings themselves to the altar. They bring their own story, their own sins, their own desires for validation of their sins and an easy out from the narrow way of truly following Christ. There are no exceptions to this. Jesus told us that the Way of following Him was hard, and it is.

I, for one, would have loved to have been told that abortion in the case of rape is alright. I’ve seen what rape does to women and girls. I know how desperate and terrified a woman who’s been raped feels when she learns she is pregnant from that rape. I understand the price of choosing life in the face of this crime against her humanity.

If I had been given my druthers, I would also have loved to hear my pastor say that it’s ok to be all in for gay marriage. It would have been wonderful for me to be able to stand shoulder to shoulder on this with the friend I loved. I will grieve the loss of him in my life all my days.

It cost me dearly to accept that I was wrong about these things. It costs me almost every single day of my life.

But if my priest had lied to me, and given me his pastoral permission to do these things, he would have done me a great disservice. Also, I believe that part of my sin would also have been on his soul.

I do not begin to know how God deals with priests who throw away their priesthood to mislead the people who trust them; people they are supposed to shepherd.

But I can say from personal experience that the remorse you feel later for misleading people is a terrible sorrow. I would also add that you can’t often undo it once it’s done. I have gone to people I misled and told them I was wrong, that I regretted everything I had done. I could not change them. I could not unconvince them of the sinful things I had convinced them to believe earlier.

Priests who throw away their priesthood to preach and teach that which is contrary to the Gospels are the most piteous of creatures.

I believe that the laity has a right to expect authenticity from the men who pastor us. I believe we have a right to know that they will not mislead us and tell us our sins are not sins and that we should go and sin even more. I believe that we have a right to be able to trust that they will tell us the truth and teach us the Gospel without their personal prevarications and politically correct longings getting into it.

A case in point is the fallen Catholic school in Seattle that I wrote about earlier. Students at this school walked out because the school dismissed a member of the staff who had gotten “married” to his same-sex partner. There was a lot of carrying on, and ultimately, the school backed down about another staff member.

A priest from the Seattle area recently wrote an opinion piece for America magazine which accidentally illustrates the abysmal Catholic leadership that went into this tragedy of a failed Catholic school. I am sure that he’s very popular with the gay rights people. I would imagine that he’s viewed as a hero by his many friends in those circles.

He is also evidently a priest who many unsuspecting Catholics have chosen to follow. Again, I’m sure that these people feel they have the best pastor in the world, affirming them as he does in placing the teachings of the world ahead of the teachings of the Church. I would imagine that he’s a legendary folk hero in certain circles.

But from my viewpoint, he is inauthentic as a priest. He is not teaching what the Church teaches. In fact, he is using his collar to give gravitas to his personal teachings that the Church is wrong. He is leading people away from the light and into the darkness of popular piety without actual fealty. He is teaching them to turn their back on the real God and become their own little g gods.

I hate and detest singling out one person for the misbehavior of many. I am quite sure that there are a plethora of people in the Church who are responsible for the mess that is this school and for other fallen Catholic individuals and institutions around this country.

But I feel that someone, somewhere, has to point out that the Catholic laity has a right to expect authenticity from their priests. I don’t know anything about Canon law, but if this is not Canonical, it should be. We, as the people of God, have the right not to be deliberately misled by our shepherds.

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I Am a Feminist and I Have a Wish List for Pope Francis

Kathy Schiffer, who writes at Seasons of Grace, published a post today about one feminist’s list of things she’d like to see Pope Francis do.

Kathy does a fine job of critiquing this To Do List — which was written by Angela Bonavoglia — from the viewpoint of a faithful Catholic.

Predictably, there was not one thing on this list that would help, or that even addresses, the real problems that endemic misogyny foists on real woman in the real world.

The list was all about demands that the Catholic Church change its hierarchy, appoint a woman cardinal and, oh yes, do away with the celibate priesthood. There was a call to “leave behind the Virgin Birth,” and the predictable demand that the Church get its head right about abortion and contraception.

The only thing on the list that I agree with is that the Vatican should have women on the panels when it discusses women. That’s what you might call a no-brainer. I’ll go a step further and say that the Church should have women on its advisory panels on most topics. We are, after all, half the human race.

I am aware that virtually all of today’s “official” feminists do not consider me much of a woman, much less a feminist, due to my support for the sanctity of human life. Abortion has become the qualifier for what is a feminist in their minds. This is a tragedy, both for feminism and for the women of the world who are in such desperate need of a movement that will speak for them and to them.

The author of the Pope Francis To Do List left out the two fundamental human rights that are denied women in every corner of this globe. She didn’t mention the basic and absolutely essential right to life for female babies and little girls. She also ignored the human right of all people — including women — to live without fear of being bought, sold, raped, beaten, tortured or murdered.

Think about this for a minute.

Girls right here in America are regularly cautioned not to drink from open containers at parties for fear their drink might be drugged and they will end up gang raped by the men at the party. Girls in college dorms are cautioned about this before going to fraternity parties. These fraternities and their behavior are that well known. But the college administration does nothing about it except to caution the girls to be careful.

Here’s a thought Mr or Ms College President: If you can’t trust a fraternity not to drug and gang rape their guests, maybe you should close the fraternity.

Women all over the world know that they cannot go outside alone in certain areas, that they may not wear certain types of clothes, all for fear of violent attack.

Certain cultures here in America and whole cultures elsewhere tolerate husbands who routinely rape their wives, because she “belongs to him.”

Women are bought and sold like chattel on on-line porn sites, on the streets and byways, and in the offices of medical doctors. Egg harvesters run ads on college campuses to entice young girls to endanger their lives and their future fertility by allowing their bodies to be brutalized by massive doses of hormones, then subjected to totally unnecessary surgeries in order to harvest eggs. Women are used in an international surrogacy industry that leaves many of them, especially in other countries, dead.

Women and children of both sexes are trafficked all over the globe in an international sex trafficking industry. This industry could not exist without men who are willing to buy women and children and use them as if they were things.

Sex tourism is a major contributor to the economies of a number of small countries, including island nations in the Caribbean. Again, this could not happen without customers who come from more affluent places to buy human beings and use them without regard for their humanity.

This leads me to an admission.

I have a wish list for Pope Francis of my own.

It’s the same wish list I’ve had for every pope since I converted to Catholicism. It will be my wish list until I either go home to the Lord, or a pope finally grants it.

I want to see a full-scale Encyclical condemning the wholesale, endemic and historic violence against women that is the shame of the human race. I have written previous popes letters, asking them to do this. I haven’t written Pope Francis about it yet, but I must. I will.

I can not describe what such an encyclical would mean to the women of the world. It is so needed — and so long overdue.

As for the feminist woman and her list of things she wants Pope Francis to do, my advice is for her to stop making her feminism about her grudge fights with the Church and start making it about the needs of women who are faced with virulent, degrading and often fatal misogyny.

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