Every July 6, Catholics everywhere celebrate the feast of St. Maria Goretti, who at age 12 valiantly resisted attempted rape, was stabbed, and died from her injuries. But did you know that St. Maria Goretti’s canonization for defending her virginal purity apparently is being portrayed as an affront to rape victims?
This is the armchair determination from certain corners of the Catholic blogosphere, insisting that Maria did not “die for her virginity” and that God doesn’t want saints who are “ardently devoted to a cause or a principle or a movement or a virtue,” but rather God just wants us to “love each other.”
Do we really need to assert that Maria’s purity was not in her body, solely in an attempt to defend the integrity of women who were raped, presuming that the way to offer such a defense is to negate the reality of bodily sanctity and dualistically assert that the only thing that’s really involved in purity is the soul, not the body?
That isn’t the teaching of the Catholic Church.
At this point, it’s time to make clear a few important things. First, it is absolutely correct to assert that victims of rape are not “damaged” or “defiled” as a result of the horrible crime committed against them. So it’s really good to make this clear.
However, trying to re-direct the authentic witness of St. Maria Goretti away from her example as a saint who died defending both physical and spiritual purity is an absolutely incorrect way to go about asserting that important truth about rape victims.
Secular culture today needs the authentic and historical witness of a young girl who valiantly fought a barrage of assaults against her virginal purity by the young man who initially sought to tempt her to fornication and ultimately victimized her through attempted rape and, finally, the violent stabbing.
While the perpetrator’s eventual conversion is itself a remarkable part of the story, the story of Maria’s courage in defending her sanctity—soul and body—is ultimately the reason for her being canonized, as the documentation associated with her canonization readily attests (check out Terry Nelson’s excellent treatment of this at his blog.)
The key to understanding the virtue of chastity and the meaning of both spiritual and physical virginity is the example of the Blessed Virgin Mary—the perfected icon not only of maternity but also of perpetual virginity—in both body and soul (yes, even during the birth of Christ!) Our call is to imitate Mary and pursue the sanctity of both body and soul. Someone like Maria, who knew the great gift of this purity even at a young age, is an eloquent reminder of the price Jesus Himself paid for the sanctity of His Bride, the Church—dying on the Cross for Her. Further, Maria showed great strength in not compromising the truth spoken in the “language” of her body, which made visible the invisible reality of her interior purity.
Maria’s battle to preserve her virtue was real—and courageous. And, no, the takeaway message here isn’t the crass notion that it’s somehow better to be murdered than to permit one’s self to be raped, as some have tried to portray it. Rather this battle with evil was for Maria very person-al, it was about who she was, before God.
It’s quasi-gnostic to try to downplay the eternal truth that the sanctity of the body is just as real as the sanctity of the soul. We’re called to keep our bodies, our temples of the Holy Spirit, in holiness. Rather than minimizing the example of St. Maria Goretti, we need to be spotlighting her example in hopes that this truth is overwhelmingly accepted and more deeply understood. Yes, no one else can rob us of our purity of body and soul. But our culture no longer welcomes reminders that bodily sanctity is something none of us can afford to give away.
The great saint of virginal sanctity, St. Maria Goretti, continues to offer the world that clear–though not-always-welcome–reminder.
St. Maria Goretti, pray for us!