“The Catholic Church thinks it’s better to be a dead virgin than a rape survivor.”
That’s how I saw the Church’s stance on Christian women martyred ‘in defense of their chastity’ summed up by a critic in newsprint a few years ago, and it came back to mind with the beatification of Anna Kolesárová earlier this month.
In 1944, a Soviet soldier tried to rape and then murdered the devout 16-year-old Slovak. Anna was a daily Massgoer who had taken over domestic chores following the death of her mother. When the soldier came looking for food and took hold of her to satisfy another appetite, she broke away from him and cried her farewell to her father before she was fatally shot. The memory of Anna’s death survived throughout the period of communist rule in Slovakia, resulting in growing public interest in the post-communist nation, culminating in this month’s beatification.
But this kind of holy role model is controversial. A Catholic critic in Commonweal asked, ‘Are we still doing this?’ Even a more sympathetic commentator on Alateia conceded the weakness of trying to tell school children that Maria Goretti was a saint because ‘she refused to let herself be raped’. A hostile Slovakian, Ria Gehrerová, questioned the implication that being murdered is preferable to being raped.
Gehrerová noted that on Anna’s grave, it is written “better death than sin”, which has also been used by the church when promoting Kolesárová’s story. But “would Kolesárová have sinned if the soldier had raped her? A spokesperson of the Slovak church said no.”
Let’s first acknowledge the blindingly obvious. Anna was sexually assaulted and killed by a violent man through no fault of her own. If the soldier had succeeded, she would not have committed any sin – any wilful, personal, choice – against purity. The only choice she was faced with, in the heat of the moment, was whether to consent, acquiesce, or resist – and her choice to resist was a reflection of who she was as a person.
‘Consent’ given under duress is never true consent, whether to an act of sexual abuse or to some other act of manipulation such as a hostage situation. Nevertheless, there are moral questions around co-operation, and the Church holds (based on the writings of St Paul) that we cannot do evil that good may come of it. No sin (wilful co-operation with evil) committed under duress can be mortal; there is likely hardly any culpability at all. But there is still a moral choice to be made between co-operating and acquiescing – that is, saying ‘no’ but not actively resisting – or indeed putting up a heroic show of resistance. And I write these words conscious that it is easy to pontificate about an abhorrent situation in which I have never found myself.
We could be distracted, at this point, by a long exploration of the goodness of virginity per se. The Book of Revelation (14:4) gives us a glimpse of a special category of saint, who died as virgins for the sake of the Lord – ‘men who have not defiled themselves with women’. There is a difficult history, from St Augustine of Hippo until righted by St John Paul II, of Christian scholars suggesting that even within marriage, the sexual act is intrinsically impure. The Vatican recently ruffled feathers by suggesting (88) that women who were not virgins could be admitted to the Order of Consecrated Virgins. This reveals the tension between the sign given by a woman pledging perfect chastity from now on against the spiritual value of always having been a virgin (the subject of heated mediaeval debates about whether Our Lady could have theoretically had children after bearing Christ). Derek Carlsen believes the Torah gives no compensation to a raped virgin because, in God’s eyes, she has not lost her virginal status. Suffice it to say that the Bible drops hints that there is some spiritual and eternal significance in always having been a virgin but there is not enough evidence to pronounce on the heavenly status of a woman who loses her virginity against her will.
Does it matter, from a spiritual point of view, if a person chooses to resist sexual assault and pays with their life, rather than acquiescing as a survival strategy? The Catholic viewpoint, of course, holds that there is an afterlife and heroic deeds do receive their reward there. So the calculus for a Catholic faced with mortal peril looks very different from the plight of an atheist who believes they face a choice between eternal annihilation or living out one earthly lifespan bearing the trauma of being a survivor.
It would not have been a sin (on her part) for Anna to have been raped. It clearly was a heroic act to resist and break away as she did. It would have been a sin to wilfully co-operate with the rapist. That seems to leave acquiescing as the ‘morally neutral’ response – which could also be interpreted as another kind of heroism, that of planning to ‘get through’ the horrible circumstances so she could continue supporting her father and brother. We might also ask whether her decision to resist, in the heat of the moment, was motivated by a Christian sense of purity – or was it the kind of reaction any young women, of any or no creed, might make given that kind of provocation?
By raising up Anna as a role model, are we proclaiming that choosing to be a living survivor is less heroic?
The history of the early church is marked by a different kind of virgin martyr – the women who decided to entrust their virginity to Christ and then faced pressure from powerful relatives to enter marriage. In today’s climate we might focus on the abuse of human dignity represented by any kind of forced marriage rather than the Christian motive of these particular women. Nevertheless, it seems right to say that those women were martyrs both for human dignity and for Christ.
There are martyrs who choose to lay down their lives for others – the purple martyrdom of a Maximilian Kolbe or Gianna Molla.
There are martyrs who are killed simply for being Christian – think of the 21 Copts murdered by ISIS, the 7 Tibherine monks or those attending Mass in Pakistan or Indonesia caught up in the blast of suicide bombers. In some cases, martyrs are put to the further test of being given an ‘out’ if they renounce their Catholic faith, but simply being in the right place at the wrong time is enough to qualify you as a ‘red martyr’.
Then there are those who are killed for standing up for their values – values endorsed by the Catholic faith but also held by many non-Christians of the utmost integrity. For example, Blessed Marcel Callo (Nazi-occupied France) and Blessed Francesco Aleu (Spanish Civil War) were martyred not for attending Christian worship but living out their Catholic values in strained times.
When Cardinal Newman was declared ‘Blessed‘ a few years ago, Radio 4 broadcast a play about Newman’s life. The playwright imagined that Newman’s guardian angel met him at the moment of his death and declared to him – ‘You are to become a saint!’
‘Oh no!’ said Newman. ‘Not a saint! I shall be sliced up like salami and made into bite-sized lessons for schoolchildren!’
There’s always a danger with a beatification, that we take the one, most dramatic fact about the person being raised up and turn it into an over-simplified lesson. Simcha Fisher has likened these moral slices to the ‘bathwater around the baby‘ who is actually a living person with love for Christ at their heart. Ultimately, the Virgin Martyrs remind us not only that Christians are called to chastity but that we are called to resist evil and confront it heroically, without compromise.
Should we teach children that Maria Goretti is a saint because she didn’t want to be raped? No. Is Maria Goretti a saint because she thoroughly resisted being raped? Yes – but that’s an incomplete answer. First, the moral goodness is not that she kept her virginity intact, but that she never even acquiesced to evil. Second, when she showed the heroism of not acquiescing but resisting – she did this in the context of a life which was already devoted to Christ and which culminated in trying to persuade her attacker not to sin, for the good of his soul. Similarly, Blessed Anna is beatified not only for the moment of her death but the manner of her life. The short, ‘teachings to children’ version might be ‘resist evil and never compromise, even if it costs your life’. The longer answer requires a commitment to living out the Catholic faith in its fullness, which finds its fruition in this moment of crisis.
“The Catholic Church thinks it ‘s better to be a dead virgin than a rape survivor?”
“Being murdered is preferable to being raped?”
When I am caught up in the violent choices made by others, I have only one choice – how to respond. The Catholic Church thinks it’s better to enter into heaven as a hero of the resistance than to remain on earth as a wounded soldier. Most societies honour their heroes precisely because they have gone ‘beyond their duty’. May not all of us, who are wounded in some way by the sins of others, honour the few who went above and beyond?