Why Do We Care If She Was A Virgin?

Why Do We Care If She Was A Virgin? November 27, 2011

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?


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  • Perhaps the emphasis on female virginity in the Church is part of a larger pattern, one that Elaine Pagels brought to the fore in Adam, Eve, and the Serpent: the Augustinian shift in the focus of Christian morality from how we treat our neighbor to how we deal with our (inherently sinful) sexual urges. I am not entirely convinced by Pagels’ conclusions, but I think she raised issues worthy of ongoing discussion.

  • What a thought provoking post – thank you for this. It is good “wake up” material for Advent if you ask me.

    I knew a priest who spoke of the importance of virginity not as pure bodily sexual purity as it is interpreted, but about how we might be of pure heart… and not in the pious sense. Just that we would be fresh for God to enter into. Many people thought him heretical, but I have thought about this many times.

    For an incarnational faith, we often get a bit obsessed about the body in some very powerful ways. I’m not proposing on-going sexual feasts, but I do think that St. Augustine’s influence has turned the tide so powerfully to another extreme.

    I can only imagine how this comment might be interpreted and misunderstood… *sigh* God have mercy.

  • In the traditional Divine Office there are actually several legends of male Saints which point out how they preserved their virginity.

    Of course, virginity in the theological sense is a lot stricter than in the “pop culture” sense and refers to a signal victory (a “little crown”) over the flesh and seems to exclude even masturbation:


    Of course, the same article denies that it is a separate virtue, but rather is simply the paragon of chastity generally.

    The Church has no need to drop the category. The psychological power and appeal of the virgin (especially virgin women) is deep-seated in human consciousness, and the Church does not discard so easily what is human. The virgin is incredibly powerful symbolically, as one who is independent, who is Christ’s Alone, who is not in anyway attached or bound to the world. Even just look at how much emphasis Protestant England put on the virginity of Elizabeth the First; the point was clear, the virgin belongs to no man, is thus in some sense impartial in the world, and has set her mind in a more single-hearted way on higher goods (by sacrificing such a great temporal one).

    Yes, people can be penitents, can repent a past of unchastity. People can be widows, having been married once but ceasing after the death of a spouse. People can be chastely married. But one receives 100 fold fruit, one 60, and one 30, according to traditional theology.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      “In the traditional Divine Office there are actually several legends of male Saints which point out how they preserved their virginity.”

      True, I recall the story of St. Thomas Aquinas and the prostitute. However, the point remains that they are not classified as or categorized as virgins.

      “The psychological power and appeal of the virgin (especially virgin women) is deep-seated in human consciousness, and the Church does not discard so easily what is human.”

      I have to question this assertion. Is it really that deeply embedded in the human psyche, or just a long lasting epiphenomenon related to Western (Christian) culture?

      “Yes, people can be penitents, can repent a past of unchastity. People can be widows, having been married once but ceasing after the death of a spouse. People can be chastely married. But one receives 100 fold fruit, one 60, and one 30, according to traditional theology.”

      If I understand you correctly, married people are categorically lower on the scale of grace than either widows or celibates? This seems both wrong and pernicious, denigrating both the sacrament of marriage and the lay vocation. That would seem to all the more suggest that the category of “virgin” should be eliminated. Of course, this might explain why there are no, or at least very, very few, married couples who are canonized saints. In the traditional order of things they simply could not be holy enough to be saints.

      • “Is it really that deeply embedded in the human psyche, or just a long lasting epiphenomenon related to Western (Christian) culture?”

        Muslim martyrs get 70 virgins in heaven, remember.

        Female virginity is valued on the natural level in most societies even just for simple bio-evolutionary reasons related to ensuring paternity, etc. A virgin bride is valuable.

        That Christianity also values male is the transformation of the natural valuation into the supernatural, as it were.

        “If I understand you correctly, married people are categorically lower on the scale of grace than either widows or celibates?”

        Not in terms of the “essential reward,” necessarily, but in terms of the accidental rewards, yes, all other things being equal, as virgins (in the strictest theological sense which, as I pointed out, seems to traditionally exclude ANY deliberately entertained sexual pleasure EVER; ie, even masturbation) receive additionally both an “aureole” AND a one-hundred-fold “fruit” in traditional theological thought:


      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        “A virgin bride is valuable.

        That Christianity also values male is the transformation of the natural valuation into the supernatural, as it were.”

        My point, however, is that the Church continues to value female virginity as a physical attribute, the property of an object to be bought, sold or traded. Male virginity, more properly chastity, is treated quite differently.

      • Sinner:

        “Female virginity is valued on the natural level in most societies even just for simple bio-evolutionary reasons related to ensuring paternity, etc. A virgin bride is valuable.”

        In an agricultural society with marriage contracts this is true. The authors of Sex at Dawn would have it otherwise in hunter-gatherer societies, and they have evidence to support their position. Therefore I don’t buy the argument that the “value” of female virginity has any demonstrable bio-evolutionary reason or origin.

        Whatever you believe about antediluvian sexuality, the value of female virginity is a social construct, not a biological fact.

    • “The psychological power and appeal of the virgin (especially virgin women) is deep-seated in human consciousness[…] The virgin is incredibly powerful symbolically, as one who is independent, who is Christ’s Alone, who is not in anyway attached or bound to the world.”

      In a culture where women are effectively property attached in marriage to a groom, female virginity carries a completely different meaning than male virginity (which would be cast as “inexperience” rather than “purity”). Despite advances in feminism and a dramatic shift away from marriage as a property contract, it is still difficult if not impossible to disconnect regard for female virginity from regard for women-as-property. This raises at least two issues I find important: First, we have an opportunity to see through our cultural conditioning and to chose whether at some sub-conscious level we want to continue relating to each other as men and women through the paradigm of property. Second (as if that weren’t difficult enough), we might glimpse other meanings, example, and value in Cecilia’s life as an echo of the Blessed Mother.

      If we get to vote on David’s question: No, physical virginity is not at all the issue. Past transgressions and evil deeds done to or by a person aren’t the issue. Unless, of course, we’re still attached to those evil deeds.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        Frank, I like this analysis in terms of “person as property”: it really clarifies some of the ideas I was struggling with.

        I do want to take exception to your last point that “Past transgressions and evil deeds done to or by a person aren’t the issue.” I don’t agree and in this I think scripture is on my side. Consider the parables of the lost sheep or the lost coin. There will be more rejoicing in Heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 who had no need to repent. (Not an exact quote, but you get the idea, I hope.) Thus, looking at the life of St. Francis, I think it was more honest, and more powerful, when his early biographies were franker about his dissolute youth, than when Bonaventure tidied up his early life to make him pure from the get go. The redemption of the fallen sinner provides both evidence of God’s power and love, and also on a pedagogic level gives hope and encouragement to those of us still trapped by our sins.

        Finally, would you care to expand on your intriguing comment about alternative ways of viewing each other by saying more about “Cecilia’s life as an echo of the Blessed Mother”?

      • David:

        I’ll take your points one at a time, because I’m late for work! I was a bit late for work yesterday as well, and in retrospect I didn’t express all my thoughts clearly.

        I agree with you that the Gospel is much more about redemption and heaven’s rejoicing over the lost sheep, than it is about perfection from the start. I’d add the parable of the prodigal son to your list. Note how much more shocking the story would be if the son were a daughter, and she returned pregnant and addicted to meth? Yet as I read the parable, that variation would still be the same parable. The idea in my head with regard to past transgressions is that God accepts and loves us unconditionally as we are now. The point about “unless we are still attached to [our past transgressions]” relates to our real condition and readiness to accept divine love as we are now. God loves us, male or female, virgin or not.

        The Big Problem with unconditional love is that it is not an invitation to live an unchaste life. Yet, it takes some spiritual maturity (individual and collective) before we’re ready to handle absolute freedom and unconditional love. The Church’s pastoral challenge is to hold to the Gospel and at the same time avoid pitching entire generations of young people (and older but childish ones) into lives of dissolution.

  • Melody

    I have long been fascinated by St. Cecilia since she is the patron saint of music. I read in one source that her marriage was more or less a forced one which would explain why she didn’t feel called to live a normal married life. Her husband apparently was miraculously converted to Christianity. Though the prayers for her feast day emphasize her virginity more than her martyrdom, the story of her death is well known. Her killers attempted to smother her in a steam bath, when that failed to kill her, they attempted to behead her. They botched that and she lay in the steam bath for 3 days before she died (an allusion to Jesus’ 3 days in the tomb?). It is documented that her remains were exhumed in 1599 and found to be incorrupt. I agree that people have tended to obsess about physical virginity in female saints to the exclusion of their other saintly qualities. Cecilia was said to be a leader in her Christian community, known for her courage and works of charity. These qualities of her life deserve to be better known.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      unfortunately, as the article in the Catholic Encyclopedia makes clear, there is no historical basis for these many inspiring stories about St. Cecilia. As for her incorruptiblity, I had never heard this. The Catholic Encyclopedia does not mention it, though I found a number of websites that uncritically reported that she was found incorruptible in 1599. However, I did find a scholarly article that casts a great deal of doubt on this:


      Scroll down to the article “Visions of Cecilia” by Judith Testa. (Sorry if I seem a grumpy skeptic, but I like to get my facts straight!) But I agree: there is much about her that is praiseworthy beyond her virginity.

      • Melody

        It does appear from the link that the incorruptibility thing in 1599 is pretty doubtful, especially as Cardinal Sfondrato didn’t allow any kind of a detailed examination of the remains, or even let anyone remove the veil covering them. I did think it was sort of touching that his motive seemed to be reverence and a reluctance to disturb the saint’s body. We can contrast that with an over-eagerness of some people to obtain relics, so that some saints have a hand here, a foot or a toe there; their bodies have basically been parted out like a vintage car in a salvage yard.
        I suppose it isn’t really possible to determine the actual details of someone’s life from so great a distance in time. Still, there may be grains of truth in some of the legends. But likely a lot of creative embellishment, too.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          Though off topic, I agree with what you say about relics. It is an old obsession. When St. Francis was dying the city fathers of Assisi sent the city militia to guard him. They were concerned that after he died someone else would steal his body. And of course Chaucer had a wonderful time mocking the sale of “relics” in the Canterbury Tales.

  • Obviously the answer to your last question is “no.”

    The orthodox Christian Church’s obsession with “virginity” is, historically, a holdover from the Ghostic’s loathing of the flesh, and the desire of the Early Church to convert so many Stoic Romans–who, like Marcus Aurelius, in his Meditations, could not abide even the thought of human copulation.

    But it is a bad doctrine, and ought to be discarded–particularly because it clouds the issue of the far superior virtue of chastity, which is an absolutely necessary state of mind for sanctification, or what we here in Asia call “Enlightenment.” An Enlightened or “sanctified” being may copulate and be chaste (and not just within the institution of “holy matrimony”–sorry, Catholic Fundies!) or one may be celibate and be chaste, but it is “chastity,” as a state of mind, that should rule our affectional lives.

    The preaching of “abstinence” to those the growth of whose affectional temperaments demands that they NOT be “abstinent” for a period of time, is cruel, has nothing about it of compassion or love, and does NOT burnish the repute of the virtue of “chastity”; it undermines it.

  • Protestant England’s hypocritical cult of the “virginity” of the lascivious, unmarried and whorish Elizabeth Tudor (whose evil name should probably not even be mentioned in informed Catholic circles) was one of the factors that cost Britain her Civil War of the 17th century; the Puritans, knowing its corruptive deceitfulness, warred against it from their pulpits, and used it to inspire their fanatical, crazed youth to wish to murder their own monarch–a chaste and honest, loving husband.

  • Her wedding night anecdote is awful. Imagine if the husband was marrying to avoid fornication inter alia as per I Corinthians 7….and then he’s informed on the wedding night that A. she’s really betrothed to an angel so hubby is second fiddle emotionally and B. hubby picked the one woman on earth to make his concupiscence worse not better. This nutty fable must have caused many a conversion toward the reformers.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      You raise an interesting question: how was this story, and similar stories, received at different times? In other words, how did people understand their meaning and apply them to their own lives? Did they even see them as applicable, or just as examples of such “heroic” virtue as to be irrelevant to the listener? I imagine that the reception varied according to the period, but it is not clear to me how, and I am not aware of any scholarly applications of “reception theory” to this literature.

      • David
        In 1450 the first printing press was made (invented ten years prior). An increasingly well read populace started shortly after….and at some point Bibles were sold for whoever could afford one. And Luther’s posting of his objections happened thereafter in 1517. Hence the wedding night anecdote and similar stories were looking pretty silly to anyone who read the Bible’s I Cointhians and was bothered by other present things like Pope Alexander VI’s parties at the Vatican (1490’s)….not to mention his numerous offspring and his young mistress serving as a contrapunctal reality to stories of only wise virgins from the past. Pope Julius II shortly after the Borgia’s also had two daughters he acknowledged publically (“The Pope’s Daughter” is a recent book in our day about Julius’ daughter, Felice).
        Christ spoke of wise and foolish virgins….half and half. We soon made virginity and wisdom identical.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO


          the problem is that the people who promulgated the legenda of St. Cecilia were almost certainly aware of 1st Corinthians, the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, etc. But they received and understood these legends in very different ways than did the hypothetical reformers you are referring to. Why? Can you point to any specific texts from the reform period where these legends were commented on and the conclusions you suggest were actually drawn?

      • David
        No, I cannot. I’m thinking that I Cor.7 in the hands of a generation of Northern Europeans who were tired of being taxed by Rome for building projects in a decadent at times Roman papacy….would be used logically to downplay the idolization of virginity as reformers in the long run did n fact downplay it….having married clergy etc.
        And I’m thinking more along the lines of the reformers receiving remote preparation for this revolt by a momentous moment in Aquinas’ Summa Theologica in the 13th century when he pronounces Aristotle’s dictum within Christian ethics: “Pleasure in a rational act is itself rational”…(ie “good”).
        That dictum in the long run (unknown to Aquinas) was to unravel the “sex as sheerly concupiscence” found in Augustine’s “The Good of Marriage” and in Jerome’s “Against Jovinianus” ….in the former concupiscence is “excused” in the marriage act due to offspring and in the latter, Jerome, Seneca’s and the Stoic’s idea that sex is only moral during procreation is held by Jerome who then calls Seneca “our Seneca”….little thinking that Seneca like many stoics believed in infanticide for sickly
        infants. Both men in those two books see large families as Jewish not Christian and both men oppose birth control which means both men believed in a lot of marital abstaining and had little attachment to I Cor.7:5 telling couples not to abstain too long lest satan enter their marriage.
        The reformers as in Luther’s case wanted married clergy. Stories of wedding night disclosures of permanent virginity would have thrilled Jerome
        given his Stoic connection… but would not thrill a generation of northern Europeans in 1517 mad at Rome for partying on their dime and also themselves seeking a married clergy.

  • Kurt
    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Definitely not the same Cecilia! 🙂

  • Kurt

    Some folks think so! 🙂

    The songwriter suggests that the “Cecilia” of the title refers to St. Cecilia, patron saint of music in the Catholic tradition, and thus the song might refer to the frustration of fleeting inspiration in songwriting, the vagaries of musical fame or in a wider sense the absurdity of pop culture. The song is generally interpreted as a lament over a capricious lover who causes both anguish and jubilation to the singer. St. Cecilia is mentioned in another Paul Simon song, “The Coast” (from his 1990 album The Rhythm of the Saints): “A family of musicians took shelter for the night in the little harbor church of St. Cecilia.”

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Okay, I stand corrected. Or rather, sit and type corrected! 🙂

  • David,

    You left out one occasion in the New Testament of the word virgin, in its plural form. Unfortunately the one you missed was the only one that was relevant to your point, and it undercuts it. In Rev. 14: 4 – “These are the ones who were not defiled with women, for they are virgins. These are the ones who follow the Lamb wherever He goes. These were redeemed [fn] from [among] men, [being] firstfruits to God and to the Lamb.” It’s about the 144,000.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Thank you Teresa: for some reason my search engine, when I searched “virgin” returned several instances of “virgins” but not this one. However, I am not convinced that my position lies in ruins, as at least some commentators believe that “virgin” is being used here in a metaphorical sense. At the online version of the NAB at the USCCB website I found the following gloss:

      Virgins: metaphorically, because they never indulged in any idolatrous practices, which are considered in the Old Testament to be adultery and fornication (Rev 2:14–15, 20–22; 17:1–6; cf. Ez 16:1–58; 23:1–49). The parallel passages (Rev 7:3; 22:4) indicate that the 144,000 whose foreheads are sealed represent all Christian people.

      Even if this passage does refer to actual virginity, I do not see how a passage referring to men (they did not defile themselves with women) completely undercuts my argument about an obsession with women’s virginity.

  • Pinky

    I know I’ve read some old writings about St. Philip Neri that emphasised his virginity.

    I like A Sinner’s comment about not throwing away human wisdom. I don’t think it’s uniquely Western to put a high importance on virginity. Personally, I never felt comfortable with the issue of Mary’s perpetual virginity – not because I doubt it, but because that seems like a private matter. But every time Mary is mentioned in the Mass, there’s a comment about her virginity, so I guess it’s important.

    • Melody

      “… I never felt comfortable with the issue of Mary’s perpetual virginity – not because I doubt it, but because that seems like a private matter.” Me, too. I have a hard time believing that it was something that came up a lot in conversations that people had with her.

  • Whatever can be bantered about regarding ancient beliefs, it’s also true that the Church’s esteem of virginity may have been the only defense that women had in regards to protecting themselves from complete objectification. We have to be very careful about lightly dismissing ancient attitudes that seem at odds with modern thought. We moderns may too easily regard the veneration of the virgin as obsessive attention to women as sexual property or the antithesis of current sexual norms (i.e. freedom to participate in the hook up culture). But the Church’s praise of virgins (its sanction and consecration) also serves the cause of defending a woman in her freedom and gives her the opportunity to declare herself off limits from male intrusion. In fact, the more that a culture views women as objects or property, the more the esteem of virginity gives them the option to resist.

    Regarding your example of St. Maria Goretti, I always found the aspect of forgiveness as her hallmark of sanctity. But I wouldn’t hesitate to focus on her desire to maintain her virginity and make her the patron of trafficked children, especially young girls, who have no opportunity to control their own bodies.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      In fact, St. Maria Goretti is the patroness of rape victims. And perhaps I am reading too much into it, but I worry a little about the message this sends to women who do not resist their rapists to the point of death. Does this somehow convey the message that women who do not choose death over defilement are somehow lesser? Again, think of St. Augustine’s views in contrast to this.

    • Yes you are completely misreading my comments. I was not even thinking about what strategies are best in repelling rapists. My point was that the Church sanctified and further developed a space where women could exist outside of marriage. Glancy’s account is inciteful, and it shows how hard it was for the Church to separate itself from the prevailing notions of women as property. The distinction of free woman and slave is truly a horror story as she relates it. I also want to point out that the Augustine et al discussion was in regard to the guilt associated with suicide (not submission) to avoid rape.

      My own formation on the devastation of rape was in reading Susan Brownmiller’s, “Men, Women and Rape”. Her main point was this was much more an issue of power and domination as opposed to sexual impulse. A few years later I stumbled upon an attempted rape; I interceded and it was the scariest moment of my life. And though I’ve never seen her since, the woman’s gratitude stays with me 40 years later.
      Now I can’t even imagine the ordeal of a Lucretia or a Goretti, or the unwilling surrender of one’s body to forced entry. I’m really not qualified to advocate or train a young person on how to best avoid or cope with an attack so I don’t offer advice. Even so, I know that no strategy is guaranteed. You’re from CT so you remember Michael Ross. I knew him slightly, and I knew his many victims all who were from my parish. If you remember the details you know that no stance could stop him.

      I think if you give my comment above a wider berth you’ll see that I’m connecting the Church’s stance on virginity (celibacy, sexual continence, and chaste thought) with authentic liberation for both men and women. True, there has been much zig zag into backwater thought along the way, but the principle is foundational to Christian development, especially for those given the task of witness and evangelization. Is it a struggle? Of course, but none of this detracts from marriage or its sexual expression, in fact it highlights and preserves it.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO


    sorry: I made a quick response to one small part of your post and was not clear about it. Let me try to be clearer here.

    With regards to your broader point about “connecting the Church’s stance on virginity (celibacy, sexual continence, and chaste thought) with authentic liberation for both men and women” I am in general agreement. This may seem odd, but this was one of the reasons that I objected to the commemoration of St. Cecilia as a “virgin.” Ignoring for a moment whether she was in fact chaste (a point which cannot be settled), my concern is that the category of “virgin” does not give women a space to develop outside of marriage, but rather constructs a new box in which to trap them. Virginity is a bodily attribute—a characteristic of “property”. Chastity is an act of will, a virtue. I feel that the Church, in touting “virginity” as a special category for women alone is hewing to an unjust representation of women. In saying this, I am not simply adhering to the “modern” stance on women being sexually liberated, which in many ways is just as constraining and demeaning as an earlier era’s obsession with virginity. Rather, I want the Church to hew more closely to its own true path, which yields the liberation and an authentic identity for both men and women. The Church can and should continue to honor men and women who embrace chastity and the freedom that it provides, but we need to do so with equal standards for both sexes.

    Regarding rape: my comments were strictly limited to St. Maria Goretti, and reflect my own wrestling with this problem. When a women is raped I can make no judgment about the “right” response. My only concern (which, as I indicated, may be misplaced or misguided) is that by simultaneously making St. Maria Goretti the patronness of rape victims, while at the same time highlighting her “virginity” preserved by death, the Church may (inadvertently) be conveying the message that “death before defilement” is the “right” response that all women should choose.

    As for Michael Ross, I am very familiar with his sordid crimes. I became active in the anti-DP movement shortly before he decided to seek his own execution, and I was forced, repeatedly, to defend the cause of abolition with him as the example. I ended up spending a very cold night in May praying outside the prison when he was executed.

    • …my concern is that the category of “virgin” does not give women a space to develop outside of marriage, but rather constructs a new box in which to trap them.

      I was not thinking of ‘development’ as spiritual development in purity, rather I was referring to small advances in social status wherein a woman could exist as something other than daughter or husband of a man. A new category with less interference from male control. I know your topic was about ‘virginity as a bodily attribute-a characteristic of property’. I was simply trying to consider it as a social characteristic of status/property. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to discuss these separately since the expectation has always been that the unmarried young lady (the Miss, the Senorita, the Virgin,) would also include virginity or chastity. When we think of the parable of the wise and foolish virgins are we imagining ‘Misses or Senoritas’ or are we thinking about their sexual integrity?

      Now I’m not very knowledgeable about the sociology of the ancients, but Glancy does point to a worldview that was horrifying by today’s standards. The free men were on top with severe limitations even for free women; let alone slaves and slave women. Did the early Church create this worldview or did they wrestle with a deeply entrenched system? Were they vigilant enough in breaking away? Is the Church the cause of so much grief…is it complicit in an unjust world for women…or does it advance slowly towards a better world?

      My assertion is that things got somewhat better for women as the Church pondered the implications of Christ’s message. Did the status of ‘Virgin’ within the church, with the veneration of the Blessed Virgin help to elevate the wretched condition that women in general endured? Since up to very recently, the expectation has always been that ‘the virgin and virginity’ went together it’s hard to fault the ancients for creating boxes to trap them. One woman’s trapped box is another woman’s shelter.

      I am not in disagreement with your points, I simply say that its difficult to imagine that the status of women could have easily evolved along a different track.