"You will be a better mom because you are a theologian, and a better theologian because you are a mom."

Is it true? In this blog, I explore the interplay and intersection of motherhood and theologianhood.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

On St. Maria Goretti

Just two days ago, the Church celebrated the feast of St. Elizabeth of Portugal. As I mentioned in my post regarding her, Elizabeth was married to the King of Portugal at age 12. It's interesting that only two days following her feast, the Church celebrates the feast of a saint who died at age 11, preferring death to rape. At a surface level, their lives make for an interesting comparison. Elizabeth's marriage was likely not a marriage of personal choice, but, given that it was a standard practice at the time, apparently she accepted it and managed to live a holy life in spite of her marriage at a young age. In contrast, Maria Goretti is celebrated for her "choice" of being killed rather than raped. In both cases, we see the worldly powerlessness of girls and yet their potential to be saints despite this powerlessness.

I suppose it's bad to say that one feels ambivalence toward a saint, but I can't help but admit that I do feel ambivalence thinking about the way this saint has been used in material culture. The license plate above seems harmless enough: "St. Maria Goretti's Girls Club" can't be that bad, right? She is, after all, the patron saint of youth. But then, look at the t-shirt below:

You can see that the model for this t-shirt is a girl probably about the age of Maria Goretti at the time of her stabbing. What I was trying to draw attention to is the slogan (bottom left of the design), "Purity's worth dying for." Believe me when I say that I hope and pray that my daughter (and future children) will always live chaste lives. But do I want my daughter walking around with a shirt that proclaims: "Purity's worth dying for"? Let me boldly say "NO" to that.

It concerns me that an 11 year old girl who protested getting raped and instead was murdered should be held up to young girls today as a model of purity. What 11 year old girl does want to be raped? Even sexually promiscuous adult women don't want to be raped. That desire in and of itself does not make for purity. Nor does the desire to be killed rather than raped make for purity.

I don't really doubt that Maria Goretti possessed purity. The accounts of her life - which detail a difficult childhood involving poverty, the death of her father, and fieldwork with no chance for education - indicate that her life was one informed by charity. Contrasting with Elizabeth of Portugal, whose poverty was of a voluntary sort, Maria Goretti demonstrates the sanctity possible for one born into poverty. Like Elizabeth of Portugal, Maria Goretti's life was rooted in prayer. With a consistency of all Christian virtue informed by charity, Goretti undoubtedly was pure.

In a country with a multibillion dollar pornography industry, scantily clad women on billboards, Victoria's Secret window displays at every mall, movie stars and singers who model sexual promiscuity, and mainstream television where women are treated as sex objects, girls certainly do need to be taught the value of purity and chastity. We need to think seriously about the best ways to form our daughters to value chastity while not overvaluing purity. "Purity's worth dying for" seems to be a dangerous overvaluing, and applying it to Maria Goretti on account of her being killed rather than raped seems to suggest that had she been raped, she would have been made "impure."

It makes sense that Maria Goretti would be the patron of the youth. Her death at age 11 and subsequent canonization indicate that even children can be saints; it indicates that children are called to holiness. It ought to inspire parents to pay attention to the spiritual formation of their children. John Paul II's message on the centenary of Maria Goretti's death explains this. But like Pope Pius XII that canonized her, John Paul II also emphasizes Goretti's purity.

Though I said I don't doubt Goretti's purity, I do object to her as the best model of purity for girls and young women. A tried and true purity could be found in many female saints - both those who were mothers and those who were celibate religious. These women of an older age are more likely to have endured sexual temptation and to have subordinated this temptation, directing it by the guidance of Christian love and a desire to do God's will. Their lives of sexual wholeness (whether celibate or conjugal) were lives of spiritual wholeness.

The many female saints seem to indicate that purity's not just worth dying for. As a part of a complete Christian life, it's worth living for.

7 comments:

Clara said...

I share some of your ambivalence about the Maria Goretti cult, Theologian Mom. The "purity's worth dying for" is a bit morbid under the circumstances, and it's particularly worrisome to think what sort of message this might send to rape victims. "You're not pure anymore because you didn't fight hard enough?" Eek. Even more unfortunate to send that message since St. Maria Goretti's supposed to be the patroness of rape victims, I believe.

Personally, I also feel an ambivalence about the angel-girlchild persona. I'm not usually one for tearing down hagiography in favor of the "saints should be regular folks" approach -- you know the sort of account, where they want to focus more on reports of a saint's short temper or garlic breath than on his heroic virtues. I'm not normally a fan of that, but the angel-girlchild model does seem to send a kind of unclear message to girls. I don't doubt the holiness of the saints themselves, but the language in which they are described (in the older accounts, that is) often puts a strong emphasis on submission and docility, and even sometimes glorifies ignorance, as though it is more feminine not to understand anything. We do want our daughters to submit to proper authorities and especially to the will of God, but do we want them to be wallflowers and dunces? Discernment is called for, I think, in presenting these models to our daughters.

You can sort of see, though, why this club might have seemed like a good idea to someone. St. Maria Goretti and the earlier virgin martyrs at least offer an example of people who placed a great value on sexual purity. We *do* want to instill in our kids that fornication is not only sinful but also deeply, deeply shameful. It wouldn't be bad to instill in them that virginity is a beautiful thing. Of course, that might also make rape victims feel bad... but then again, maybe not. I mean, obviously that would be a horrible thing to suffer in any event, but regaining our understanding of the value of virginity might help victims (and their families) to better appreciate *why* they feel so awful, and why the crime is such a vile one. Sometimes it helps to put a name to things.

In any event, to me the most inspiring thing about St. Maria Goretti is neither her poor background (which I don't normally think of as admirable *per se*) nor her preference of death over rape. I like to focus on her ready forgiveness of her attacker, first in the hospital before her death, and then in a vision years later in his life. That seems to me like the most inspiring thing to take from the life of St. Maria Goretti.

Theologian Mom said...

Yes, I agree with you, on all accounts (imagine that!!!). Goretti's ability to forgive is indeed inspiring.

Clara said...

Huzzah! If we both agree, we MUST be right!

Railroad Wife said...

Thank you for this wonderful post on the Church's language surrounding the events leading to Maria Goretti's murder. Right now I am really struggling to even remain in the Church because of this whole idea that girls who are raped are somehow impure or devalued. I am suffering a horrible spiritual depression because of this, and am eager to find someone who can help me to reconcile this anger and sadness I have with the fact that the Church does offer us the fullness of the faith-- even if our participating in that fullness is facilitated by flawed human beings. Please pray for me; I am really suffering because of the Church's language surrounding Maria Goretti.

Theologian Mom said...

It's understandable that the language around St. Maria Goretti would cause you some trouble. I wrote this post a long time ago, so it's not fresh in my mind. However, I would like to note that in the City of God, St. Augustine makes it clear that a woman who has been raped is in no way at fault, has not sinned by being raped, and is not impure. The Church upholds that perspective.

Perhaps it might help to note that Maria Goretti's attacker did not want to rape her; he wanted her consent. She was not willing to consent, especially realizing that it was a sin.

I do not mean to question Maria Goretti's sanctity, so much as the "purity's worth dying for" statement. Again, according to Augustine, her purity would not have been affected had she been raped, so that seems to be a bit misguided.

Prayers for your faith struggles...

Robin Aitken said...

I agree with much of what has been written here; as a male, practising Catholic, the Maria Goretti story leaves me feeling queasy. Here's why: the cultural value attached to virginity seems lopsided and smacks of paternalistic notions of femaleness. At mass this morning (Maria's feast day) I asked myself whether the church has ever canonised a male 'virgin' simply for being in that state; I imagine there are male saints who were virgin at their death but I don't recall the Church drawing attention to that particular aspect of their humanity. But if not, why not? Those cultures which still put a high value on virginity strike me - from the standpoint of someone living in 21st Century Oxford - as undeveloped - even somewhat backward. The whole notion that a virgin girl is worth more somehow, or is somehow to be preferred to a non-virgin seems slightly shocking and rather primitive. There's a suggestion that the non-virgin is sullied and therefore of less value to a man; a terrible and un-Christian notion. Then there is the grotesque practice - relatively common I believe in some cultures - of 'virginity' being physically re-constituted through the surgical reconstruction of the hymen. As for the tee-shirt slogan it is an awful formulation; far better for a girl to be raped and survive (terrible though that would be) than to be murdered defending some notional 'purity'; my whole spirit rebels against that idea.

Robin Aitken said...

I agree with much of what has been written here; as a male, practising Catholic, the Maria Goretti story leaves me feeling queasy. Here's why: the cultural value attached to virginity seems lopsided and smacks of paternalistic notions of femaleness. At mass this morning (Maria's feast day) I asked myself whether the church has ever canonised a male 'virgin' simply for being in that state; I imagine there are male saints who were virgin at their death but I don't recall the Church drawing attention to that particular aspect of their humanity. But if not, why not? Those cultures which still put a high value on virginity strike me - from the standpoint of someone living in 21st Century Oxford - as undeveloped - even somewhat backward. The whole notion that a virgin girl is worth more somehow, or is somehow to be preferred to a non-virgin seems slightly shocking and rather primitive. There's a suggestion that the non-virgin is sullied and therefore of less value to a man; a terrible and un-Christian notion. Placing too high a value on virginity leads to the grotesque practice - relatively common I believe in some cultures - of 'virginity' being physically re-constituted through the surgical reconstruction of the hymen. As for the tee-shirt slogan it is an awful formulation; far better for a girl to be raped and survive (terrible though that would be) than to be murdered defending some notional 'purity'; my whole spirit rebels against that idea.