Sexual Purity is a Virtue of the Soul That Sanctifies The Body

St. Maria Goretti on pilgrimage in the United States (Photo: Charlotte Observer)
St. Maria Goretti on pilgrimage in the United States (Photo: Charlotte Observer)

I came across a blog post at Zippy Catholic the other day that was a response to an ongoing debate in the comments section of another blog post at OnePeterFive about whether Saint Maria Goretti died to preserve her virginal purity when her attacker attempted to rape her or whether she died trying to prevent her attacker from committing mortal sin if he were to be successful in his attempt.

There were some commenters who were offended at the idea that she died preserving her purity or virginity.  They claim that it insinuates that rape victims who were not successful at warding off their rapist or who did not put up much of a fight due to being threatened with severe bodily harm or death, were damaged goods, rendered sexually impure or somehow sinful in not fighting to the death in preventing their rape.  There were other commenters defending that she did indeed die to preserve her purity.  There were some good points on both sides but sometimes that was lost in the lack of charity extended among the debaters due to speculation and assumptions about each other’s motives behind each of their arguments.  I think the offense comes in because it is assumed that by holding St. Maria Goretti up as an example of the value of purity, that it means victims of rape are obligated to fight to the death against their attacker lest they sin and ruin themselves.

When a woman is raped her sexual integrity is violated.  She does not will the rape to happen.  The bodily violation harms her physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Some of these wounds can be healed if she is made to understand that despite the harm done to her, it ultimately didn’t take away her worth or somehow make her dirty.  She has been sinned against and has had damage done to her but it doesn’t render her damaged goods.  She is not made impure or unchaste by what has been done to her.

St. Augustine taught this very clearly in The City of God, Chapter 18.  He wrote, “…purity is a virtue of the soul…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.”  He goes on “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. ”

The commenters who are offended that she died to preserve her purity are right in that purity is not destroyed if a woman is raped.  Because it’s a virtue of the soul rather than the body, if a woman in her God-given freedom does not will to consent to intercourse but it is forced upon her, then she is still pure.

Another question comes to mind as well, “Is a virgin still a virgin, if she is raped against her will?”  Yes, she is, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia entry on Virginity.  The entry explains in the very first two sentences, “Morally, virginity signifies the reverence for bodily integrity which is suggested by a virtuous motive. Thus understood, it is common to both sexes, and may exist in a women even after bodily violation committed upon her against her will. ”

So what of Maria Goretti?  Because her virginity and purity would have remained, was it in vain that she chose to fight off her attacker to the death?  Absolutely not. Although her resistance to the death was not an obligation, it was an heroic act of love for God.  St. Maria Goretti exemplified heroic virtue, which goes beyond ordinary virtue, in her love for God above all things, even that of her very life.

Heroic virtue is a degree of perfection which, according to St. Thomas Aquinas,” belongs to the blessed in heaven or to a few of the most perfect in this life.”  Pope Benedict XIV wrote “In order to be heroic a Christian virtue must enable its owner to perform virtuous actions with uncommon promptitude, ease, and pleasure, from supernatural motives and without human reasoning, with self-abnegation and full control over his natural inclinations.”

The Catholic Encyclopedia explains that ” An heroic virtue, then, is a habit of good conduct that has become a second nature, a new motive power stronger than all corresponding inborn inclinations, capable of rendering easy a series of acts each of which, for the ordinary man, would be beset with very great, if not insurmountable, diffulties.”

We know from St. Maria Goretti’s story that the incident in which she was murdered was not her first encounter with Alessandro. The defense of virtue that was considered in her canonization was not just the incident that lead to her death but her ongoing defense of it over a period of time.  He had been hounding her and sexually harassing her for months and she had vehemently refused and did what she could to run away from him.  This “habit of good conduct” combined with her great love of God taught to her by her parents and strengthened by the power of the Rosary said by her family each evening, all gave her an unshakable foundation on which her will was able to cooperate with the gift of supernatural grace given to her in order that she be a witness to the value of sexual purity before God.

For those who were raped and unable to fend off their attacker or who were rendered helpless under fear of the threat of death, St. Maria’s story should not make them feel as though they have sinned, are impure or have even lost their virginity if they were virgins when it happened.  If anything, St. Maria’s story should bring to light the horrible violation that is the sin of rape that was committed against them and against God.   Her story acknowledges the great value of the victim’s sexual integrity and the freedom they should have had to refuse and have that refusal be respected.

For most of us, we will not be called to martyrdom nor will we reach the highest degree of perfection attainable while we are still in this life.  However, by these stories of the heroic virtues of the saints, we should find inspiration to every day be striving after holiness and working towards that perfection we hope to have in the future as one of the blessed in heaven.

Here is a link to one of the better in-depth accounts of the story of St. Maria Goretti