Christian Nightmares Too is a site that posts true stories of some of the most horrifying experiences people have in Christian culture – like a teen who was told her recently-deceased dad was burning in hellfire, or
Their latest offering? A group of young Christian women challenged to kill themselves to preserve their virtue during rape:
One spring morning, our teacher decided to address the girls in the class. He wanted us to know that if we were ever pursued by a rapist, we could kill ourselves to preserve our virginity, and God would not punish us. The ticket to hell would essentially be waived. [. . .] Our teacher explained that we could kill ourselves in this instance, but not someone else, even in self-defense. “It is a sin to kill another person,” he said gravely—probably the only authentically Catholic thing he’d said all year.
Not so, dear reader! It’s true that it’s considered a sin to kill another person . . . but he was also being authentically Catholic when he told you to kill yourself rather than lose your virtue. In fact, the idea that women should die instead of letting themselves be raped is such a classically Catholic value-judgment, women have been made saints for that very thing.
Consider the story of Maria Goretti, patron saint of young women like the ones being taught in the aforementioned Sunday School class, and also the patron saint of rape victims. Little Maria was only eleven years old when a nineteen-year-old boy who lived with the family tried to rape her. She fought back – not because she didn’t want to be raped, so the story goes, but because she didn’t want to see Alessandro go to hell. Angry at being denied, Alessandro stabbed her multiple times, wounds that ultimately killed her. Before she died, however, she forgave her rapist and murderer, who became a Catholic convert, did time behind bars, got out around age fifty, and lived to be an octogenarian. He expresses his gratitude to little Maria, who didn’t live long enough to even see her teen years . . . but gosh, she’s still just existing to serve his purposes, isn’t she?
That’s the thing that really bugs me about this story: what makes Maria a saint isn’t just that she refused to be raped, but that she refused because “it’s a sin! you’ll go to hell!” – as if it’s not virtuous enough for a woman to fight being raped because she doesn’t want to be raped. Her death is a tragedy and a crime, but she blesses her attacker and forgives him all the same. Maybe that’s good Christianity to the extreme – turn the other cheek and all that – and maybe it brought her peace as she lay dying, since she was certainly devout. But it still seems to convey the message that whatever you’re doing – sewing for the family, being raped, or laying in a hospital dying of multiple stab wounds – you should be living for everyone else’s good and placing yourself last.
That’s psychologically unhealthy and it leaves you wide open to abuse. And that’s the lesson young Catholic girls are supposed to learn from the exemplary behaviour of Maria Goretti.
Make no mistakes: saints are examples. In Catholicism, saints are the people we know made it to heaven. If we want to grow up to be in heaven ourselves, our best bet is to choose a saint and emulate his or her example. And she’s frequently positioned as the perfect saint for teens:
- The Catholic Culture liturgical calendar recommends her story as a starting point for lessons about chastity.
- They carry on to recommend a book about her, aimed at kids the same age she was when she died.
- LifeTeen’s website extols Maria as an example of faithfulness (“to be only eleven and already believe in something enough to die for it!”) and an even better example of resisting sexual temptation – as if the temptation to consensual sex can really be considered equivalent to rape! But I guess the loss of purity is the same either way.
- LifeTeen also has a video about her to serve as “a call for all of us to defend our chastity, and to forgive those who sin against us.” (The video notes that Maria said she wanted her attacker to join her in heaven, “for Jesus’ sake”.
- The youth-friendly pope of my Catholic years, John Paul II, even called her “an example for the younger generations [. . .] which finds it hard to understand the importance of values on which it is never licit to descend to compromises”.
- Teens wanting to fit in to Catholic culture are buying what the Church is selling: check out a fifteen-year-old’s reflections posted to her Catholic blog, Faithfull Teens.
- Feeling really excited about the St. Maria Goretti craze in spite of my misgivings? T-shirts are available – in youth sizes, of course – on Zazzle.
It’s not surprising that reflections on Maria Goretti’s purity would be connected to examples of our own culture’s impurity. That’s pretty standard in Catholicism and hardcore Christianity more broadly. The anti-sex streak is no secret. But would you actually prefer a dead daughter to a raped one? Is that actually what you mean to teach your children? Because that is definitely the lesson here.
And you can probably imagine the layers of complexity that adds to the guilt and shame and fear associated with rape – the idea that you shouldn’t have survived, that if you were real saint material you’d have fought harder and made your attacker kill you, or killed yourself. And the idea that, no matter how hard you fought, it only counts as holy if you did it more for his sake than your own, because caring about others more than yourself is what it really means to be a woman.
Lest you think that Maria Goretti is an anomaly, she’s not – she’s just the most currently popular and the most relevant to the cultural space described on Christian Nightmares Too. See also:
- Saint Margaret the Virgin, profiled on a site called ‘Catholic Harbor of Faith and Morals’, where morals means “she refused a most favourable marriage, and rather suffered the most intense torments than suffer the loss of her priceless treasure” – that is, her virginity.
- Saint Agnes of Rome, who refused to marry any earthly man because she saw it as an insult to her heavenly Spouse, Jesus, for which she was ultimately murdered. Did I mention she was twelve years old?
- Saint Agatha refused to have sex with a senator who offered her freedom from capture for her favours. She’s sometimes depicted with her breasts cut off, because apparently that was the punishment for not having sex with a senator. Yes, that one very much valued her chastity.
- Saint Gemma Galgani does these ladies one better: she once refused to be raped by the Devil when he appeared to her in “an impure form” (not otherwise specified). She avoided him by diving into freezing water, which would have killed her if not for a miraculous invisible rescuer. She was so chaste, she refused to uncover herself for medical exams when she was ill, and she zealously scourged herself, sometimes to the point of fainting. That’s what makes her saint material.
- Saint Cecilia didn’t actually die for her chastity; she died for her astonishing ability to convince people to get baptized. But the story goes that she had an angel who watched over her and prevented any man, even her husband, from besmirching her virginity, so there’s a definite connection made between virginity and holiness.
- Let’s not forget the queen of Catholic chastity symbols, the Virgin Mary herself. (Don’t forget, Catholic doctrine teaches that Jesus had no siblings; those the Bible calls “brothers of Jesus” were actually kinsfolk, like cousins, and Mary remained a virgin for the rest of her life.)
Do we even need to ask what makes a little Catholic girl holy and good? The saints have spoken. And through them, Catholic authority figures send a pretty clear message about what a woman’s role is supposed to be.
I reject that totally. Women do all kinds of godly things – or, in the absence of religious belief, all kinds of good and moral and loving and world-renewing things. We don’t need to be defined by whether or not we’ve had sex and how violently we feel we need to avoid it. And we certainly don’t need to be taught that our gifts exist only to provide a backdrop for others, because we are unimportant and men – fathers and husbands especially – are the ones who really matter. When we act on our gifts and talents, we contribute something unique and special to the vibrancy of our world.
That’s way more valuable than avoiding intercourse.