A thought on St. Maria Goretti and virginity

A thought on St. Maria Goretti and virginity July 19, 2015

[Editorial note:  it is summer, and while I cannot speak for my fellow bloggers, I have been busy with other things–mostly my forthcoming move to Alabama.  So I have been remiss in posting and responding to comments.  I responded to several comments today—thanks to my readers for their patience.  I have been quite engaged by these discussions on racism, climate change and related topics.

Moreover, here is a short post that I had hoped to turn into a longer one but it would not come together.

May God bless and keep you all, and pray that my move is an easy one.]

Two weeks ago, Monday, July 6, was the feast of St. Maria Goretti.  Her story is well known:  killed as a young woman by an attempted rapist, she interceded for him in Heaven, prompting his conversion and repentance.  For my own part I have long had qualms about her—or more precisely, the ways in which her story has been told and packaged and the (to my mind) unfortunate baggage about women and women’s sexuality that adhere’s to it.  I wrote about this four years ago in a lengthy post devoted to the category of virginity, prompted by the feast of St. Cecilia.

Last week I stumbled upon a post by Simcha Fisher that I think addresses some of these issues well:  Maria Goretti didn’t die for her virginity.  I recommend you read the whole thing, but here is the money passage for me:

Over and over, I’ve heard [Maria Goretti] praised as a holy girl who prized her viginity so highly that she was willing to die to defend it.  And she did die as a result of defending her viginity.  But when her would-be rapist attacked her, she pleaded with him to stop because he would be committing a mortal sin, and he would go to hell.  She didn’t say, “Please, please, spare my virginity!” She begged him to spare himself.  

This is what it looks like when someone is close to God:  because they love God, they want to spare the person in front of them.  They are in love with living human beings, not in love with virtue in the abstract.  They are focused not on the idea of morality, but on the person whose life and safety (whether physical or spiritual) are at stake.

In Maria Goretti’s case, she was focused on her rapist — and it was her love for him, and not her blindingly pure devotion to virginity, that converted him and brought him to repentance before he died. 

Whenever I think of Maria Goretti, I come back to a passage I found in Augustine’s City of God, which I have also referred to in the past.  In it, he discusses the rape of the consecrated virgins during the sacking of the city of Rome, and whether they should commit suicide (a Roman custom to restore lost honor) because they were no longer virgins.  Here, I have hunted it down to add to the mix.  It is a long quote (Augustine was prolix at times, and the preceding two chapters are relevant as well) but worth reading in full.  I had hoped to find the time to weave this argument together with Simcha Fisher’s, but I will leave that to the commentary I hope you will all provide.

But is there a fear that even another’s lust may pollute the violated? It will not pollute, if it be another’s: if it pollute, it is not another’s, but is shared also by the polluted. But since purity is a virtue of the soul, and has for its companion virtue the fortitude which will rather endure all ills than consent to evil; and since no one, however magnanimous and pure, has always the disposal of his own body, but can control only 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 lust of another, he thereby loses his purity? For if purity can be thus destroyed, then assuredly purity is no virtue of the soul; nor can it be numbered among those good things by which the life is made good, but among the good things of the body, in the same category as strength, beauty, sound and unbroken health, and, in short, all such good things as may be diminished without at all diminishing the goodness and rectitude of our life. But if purity[Pg 27] be nothing better than these, why should the body be perilled that it may be preserved? If, on the other hand, it belongs to the soul, then not even when the body is violated is it lost. Nay more, the virtue of holy continence, when it resists the uncleanness of carnal lust, 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, and, so far as lies in the body itself, the power also.

For the sanctity of the body does not consist in the integrity of its members, nor in their exemption from all touch; for they are exposed to various accidents which do violence to and wound them, and the surgeons who administer relief often perform operations that sicken the spectator. A midwife, suppose, has (whether maliciously or accidentally, or through unskilfulness) destroyed the virginity of some girl, while endeavouring to ascertain it: I suppose no one is so foolish as to believe that, by this destruction of the integrity of one organ, the virgin has lost anything even of her bodily sanctity. And thus, so long as the soul keeps this firmness of purpose which sanctifies even the body, the violence done by another’s lust makes no impression on this bodily sanctity, which is preserved intact by one’s own persistent continence. Suppose a virgin violates the oath she has sworn to God, and goes to meet her seducer with the intention of yielding to him, shall we say that as she goes she is possessed even of bodily sanctity, when already she has lost and destroyed that sanctity of soul which sanctifies the body? Far be it from us to so misapply words. Let us rather draw this conclusion, that while the sanctity of the soul remains even when the body is violated, the sanctity of the body is not lost; and that, in like manner, the sanctity of the body is lost when the sanctity of the soul is violated, though the body itself remain intact. And therefore a woman who has been violated by the sin of another, and without any consent of her own, has no cause to put herself to death; much less has she cause to commit suicide in order to avoid such violation, for in that case she commits certain homicide to prevent a crime which is uncertain as yet, and not her own. (Book I, Chapter 18)


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