Last Tuesday, November 22, was the feast of St. Cecilia. Very little is known about her, except that she was a martyr to the faith: even the date of her martyrdom is uncertain. There are a number of legends about her early life and her death, but the Catholic Encyclopedia states that they are a “pious romance” that “has no historical value.” These legends make a very big deal about her virginity: indeed, according to the legends she was a married woman but still a virgin having told her husband on their wedding night that she was betrothed to an angel. Presumably, it is for this reason that she is recorded in the chronicles of saints as virgin and martyr.
But in praying the office for her feast day I noticed—in fact I found it quite distracting—that the prayers for the feast lay great emphasis on her virginity and very little on her martyrdom. The readings and intercessions focus exclusively on her virginity; of the antiphons, only the antiphon for the canticle at morning prayer refers obliquely to her martyrdom: “At daybreak, Cecilia cried out: Come, soldiers of Christ, cast off the works of darkness, and clothe yourselves in the armor of light.” (The second reading at Matins is a sermon of Augustine on singing, presumably because Cecilia is the patron saint of musicians.)
So why the repeated emphasis on St. Cecilia’s purported virginity? The historical evidence for it is weak at best; if anything historical has come through the legends about her it is probably that she was married and martyred along with her husband. So why is she not honored for what she was: a martyr for the faith? Moreover, extolling the virginity of a married woman itself seems problematic theologically, since it calls into question the dignity and nature of the sacrament of marriage.
I suspect that this is a hold over from a time when the Church, along with the broader society, had an obsession with women’s virginity. Unlike men, who were lauded for being celibate (becoming “eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom”), the key criterion for women was that they were physically virgins. No young male saint (such as St. Gerard Majella or St. Dominic Savio) is ever described as a virgin, even though they undoubtedly were. Their chastity is taken for granted. I sometimes feel that the apotheosis of this is St. Maria Goretti, who is oftentimes more remembered for dying to preserve her virginity than she is for forgiving her murderer on her death bed and interceding for him in heaven (whence the miraculous dream of the lilies and his subsequent conversion).There is little or no scriptural support for a concern with virginity. The word virgin appears in the New Testament only nine times: three times relating to the Virgin Mary and the birth of Jesus, three times in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, and three times in St. Paul, in a passage that he himself clearly indicates is his own advice and is not an injunction from the Lord (1 Cor 7:25-35). So how did it arise? I am not sure; one possibility is that it was inherited uncritically from the broader society. Given the legends surrounding St. Cecilia, it must have been commonplace by the 5th or 6th century at the latest. St. Augustine speaks to this in a remarkable passage in the City of God (Chapter 1), where he argues that the consecrated virgins in Rome who were raped during the sacking of the city remained virgins. My sense is that he is arguing against a dominant view that they were rendered impure and therefore lesser because they were raped. (For a brief discussion of this, see Glancy. It is interesting to contrast Augustine’s view as presented by Glancy with the story of St. Maria Goretti.)
I think that even though the category of “virgin” is hallowed by time and tradition, the Church would be better off letting it go. I am not saying this to besmirch either chastity or celibacy: these are both categories we should indeed praise in both men and women. But the category of “virgin” , tied as it is to specific issues of women’s “purity” and which ignores the corresponding questions for men, adds nothing and has the effect of holding women to a different standard than men.
I know that in making this suggestion I am out on a limb, and someone is going to raise the point of the Bless Virgin Mary. But it seems to me that the importance of her virginity was her willing sacrifice of a normal married life to be the mother of Jesus: she was the first to become a eunuch for the Kingdom of Heaven. That she remained virgo intacta seems to be beside the point. Had Mary been raped by bandits or Roman soldiers during the flight to Egypt, would she have been any less holy?