What They Died For: Maria, Agnes, and Mistaking Virginity for Virtue

A friend recently pointed me to this blog post, wherein the pseudonymous “Boniface” addresses what he sees as certain modern errors in how we interpret the life story of St. Maria Goretti. Namely: he wants it known that a) Maria was canonized a saint because she died to protect her virginity, and b) any rape victims who might be triggered by this notion need to get over themselves. Sigh. I do realize that my summary of his point (b) is perhaps an unfair paraphrase. Nevertheless I found his whole piece to be frustrating. He does not name those to whom is replying, except as “certain Catholic bloggers – shall we say, those who lean to the left of the political spectrum and have embraced certain principles of feminism”. I don’t know the extent to which his straw (wo)men represent actual writers anywhere, but if I had to guess, I’d say he is referring to the work of authors like Simcha Fisher, Mary Pezzulo, or Rebecca Hamilton (that strangest of beasts: the pro-life democrat). Not calling out specific authors, he is spared the necessity of addressing any of their specific arguments. But he does offer in defense of his own claims the words of Pope Pius XII at St Maria’s beatification, who compared her to St Agnes and called the former “a Roman country maid who did not hesitate to struggle and to suffer, to shed her life’s blood and to die with heroic courage in order to keep herself pure and to preserve the lily-white flowers of her virginity.” “Boniface” further cites Pope John Paul II, who in a 1991 article in L’Osservatore Romano declared that Maria “chose death when there was no other way to defend her virginal purity.”

I think the papal soundbites quoted by Boniface can hardly convey the whole picture of a saint,; further, they are the personal reflections of those two men, and therefore I hope do not preclude me offering my own, personal, experience meditating on the life of St Maria Goretti. For my own part, once upon a time I chose Maria as mine own confirmation saint, because at the tender age of eleven I was jazzed by the fact that she was my same age when she died. I’ve had decades to think about and pray to her since then, and my admiration of her and estimation of her virtue has likewise undergone many years of growth – and change.

First, I must confess that – much as I admire and love Maria — she will never be my go-to example for people struggling with the virtue of chastity. And that’s because an 11-year-old girl who doesn’t want to have sex with a mentally unstable 20-year-old man is ACTING LIKE A NORMAL 11-YEAR OLD GIRL, and may not have any ingrained virtue motivating her in that regard. My heroes for chastity, if I had to name them, are every couple in an irregular situation, living as brother & sister while they pray for annulments; the person with same-sex attraction who embraces Catholic teaching and lives in continence; or seriously any hormonal teenager who manages never to turn to porn despite having 24/7 private access via the internet-connected device in his pocket. Maria, on the other hand, hadn’t yet had to face the long adolescent years of raging hormones and striving for self-control; she appears never to have loathed herself enough to seek false validation in someone else’s bed; she never knew the painful ache of the long-single woman who yearns for motherhood. In her short life Maria was exemplary for her charity, unselfishness, and courage; but as far as I can see she never faced any terribly great temptations to be unchaste. A child who doesn’t have sex is behaving like a normal child, and (hopefully) doesn’t require much self-control to keep her virginity; a child who does have sex is being abused. This being the case, I don’t think it’s “political correctness” or misplaced concern for sensitivity that have/had the Catholic blogosphere beginning to question Maria’s helpfulness as a model of chastity.

At her beatification and canonization Pope Pius XII compared Maria to St Agnes: two noble virgin martyrs, who gave their lives at a young age for Christ. This was perhaps a natural comparison, and yet I would argue that comparing Maria’s virginity to that of the early martyrs is only accurate in the general sense of them all being young holy women who never married; the analogy breaks down when you examine their separate circumstances. When Agnes or Cecilia died protecting their virginity, they did so because they had taken vows to remain perpetual virgins, and they fought off not potential rapists but men who wanted a lawful marriage with them. The problem was that, as far as these virgins were concerned, they were already married (to God) and weren’t willing to pretend/live as if they weren’t, even to save their lives. Their virginity surely required sacrifice before they were ever called to martyrdom — and breaking their vows out of fear wouldn’t have been a one-time choice, either. To marry against their vow would be to live in sin for the rest of their lives. The choice these young women were offered was a real one between earthly success and heavenly joy: the temptation/appeal of submitting to the marriage would be to rectify their positions with society, to have the greater legal/social status afforded to a woman as a wife & mother; but that would come at the cost of being in communion with Christ and his church. So as far as I can see, they didn’t die to protect their “intact virgin” status (as Boniface implies), or in defense of the virtue of chastity; they died as witnesses to Christ and the perpetual promises they had made to him. Cecilia’s faithfulness to her heavenly husband actually converted her would-be husband — it was the law, not the man who wanted to sleep with her, that ultimately condemned her to die.

It is therefore possibly unhelpful and certainly inaccurate to equate the perpetual, committed virginity of an Agnes to the circumstantial virginity of a Maria. Virginity, in the sense of “a state of never having been one half of a penetrative sexual act,” is not a moral/ethical distinction. There are non-virgin rape victims, whose souls remain as pure as they were before their bodies were assaulted. St Augustine emphasized this, as Rebecca Hamilton notes, less than a century after Agnes gave her life for Christ; further, the church continues to recognize this by allowing rape victims to become consecrated “virgins”. On the other hand, there are surely many ‘technical’ virgins who have nevertheless been gravely unchaste at some point(s) in their lives, by acts of masturbation, etc. Vesting Maria’s virginity with a merit in and of itself is false. We are called to be chaste; there is no inherent moral value in being ‘intact’.

And there is another small distinction I’d like to make: virginity aside, no one, not Agnes, not Maria, is ever a martyr “for chastity.” If you’re a martyr, you’re a martyr for Christ. For someone to be a Christian martyr, their killer must be acting out of enmity for CHRIST, or the Christ they see in you. This can manifest as a hatred of Christianity as a whole (in odium fideii), or hatred of any individual Christian’s embodiment of Christlike behavior (i.e. a virtue). So what we’re considering here is whether Maria, in dying for Christ, did so in witness to the virtue of chastity or some other virtue; and if she did die as a witness to Christlike purity, by what specific act(s) was that virtue expressed?

The executions of the early Christian martyrs were clearly motivated by enmity for the person of Christ and the faith of Christians, but cases like Maria’s are less clear, in part because it doesn’t necessarily require virtue for any particular person to just not want to sleep with any other particular person. Incels who turn to violence are driven by sexual frustration, but is that hatred of virtue? Men have been murdering women who refused them sex for, well, millennia, and we don’t give all those victims the martyr’s crown. And while the early Christian martyrs went to their deaths after criminal trials and personal deliberation, Maria and other murder victims were granted no such time for reflection; as B. D. McClay states, unlike Agnes, Maria “didn’t choose to die. Someone chose to kill her.” So at the very least, whatever we canonized Maria for, it has to have been for something more than the fact that she was murdered before she could be raped.

Because no matter which way you spin this, even if she had submitted in fear of the knife, Maria would still have been a rape victim. And on that note, if all Alessandro had wanted was her body, he could have gotten it; pardon my crudeness, but it isn’t terribly difficult for a grown man to overpower a pre- or barely-pubescent child. But he didn’t just want sex; he wanted her to affirm his right-ness in having it, with her. Alessandro, by his own account, had tried several times to ‘seduce’ Maria and failed. He approached her with a knife, finally, embittered that she had refused him but also because he hoped thereby to coerce her cooperation. But when he approached she ran, and when he managed to lay hands on her she “wouldn’t stop crying” and kept saying “God does not want it, it’s a sin” — it was, alas, that last reminder that finally spurred him to stab her repeatedly. Therein lies his hatred of Christ-in-her: that she, instead of shutting up in the face of danger, appealed to his own better conscience. By Alessandro’s account she was a strong-willed but terrified child, who despite her terror remained concerned about his soul: on his deathbed decades later he would write “I still have impressed upon my heart her words of rebuke and of pardon.” Her words to him weren’t panic about her imperilled virginity; they were a rebuke of him and his actions.

If you’ll pardon me a painful thought experiment: one can imagine an almost identical scenario, wherein Alessandro completed his rape of Maria but was still enraged by her appeal to God and his commandments – and killed her anyway. In that hypothetical scenario, Maria would still be a martyr. She would still be a martyr because Alessandro (in both this hypothetical story and in the actual sequence of events) would’ve killed her because she shone a painful light on his own sinfulness. That’s why I struggle with the “Maria died for her virginity” narrative, because even if Alessandro had taken her virginity before killing her, Maria would still have died a true witness to Christ; she would still have died with a seemingly impossible concern for Alessandro in her heart. She was a witness to the virtue of charity, and yes, the virtue of chastity also – but it wasn’t so much her purity as his that was at stake here.

Back to the real story: Maria’s concern for Alessandro’s soul remained apparent in her final hours. I don’t claim that she died a martyr “for forgiveness” (as Boniface seems to think Simcha et al are claiming), but her unhesitating pardon is significant here because helps us interpret her actions in the heat of the moment. This pardon suggests that her frightened “it’s a sin, it’s a sin” wasn’t merely the fear of committing sin herself, but a concern that her attacker not commit any sin, either. By that act, the generosity she had always embodied continued to extend to this man, her bitterest earthly enemy. This makes Boniface’s claim that Maria’s pardon is irrelevant because “none of the official acts I could find made any reference to her act of forgiveness as the rationale for her beatification or canonization” seem particularly obtuse. I would think that the significance of her forgiveness is obvious; it is what confirms that she fulfilled the necessary qualifications of being a martyr — and her martydom is cited as the crowning act of her saintly life.

There is a lesson in sexual ethics to be learned from Maria, but I suspect it’s not the one most of us would have thought. We – the doctor who examined her to affirm she was still a virgin, many of us faithful who have venerated her, even Pope Pius XII – we all assumed she was telling us that virginity was important, or at least that we should be prepared to stoutly defend our virtue. This may be true, in a way, but it also obscures the more powerful truth she embodied: that chaste love, true love, always remembers that the other is a person. Most of us are tempted to forget this by making our sexual partners into mere objects for our pleasure; Maria, by contrast and with heroic virtue, never forgot her attacker Alessandro was a person, even when he assaulted her like an animal. Our failure to see that lesson for so long doesn’t make it any less true.

I feel I’ve several more miles of thought to unravel here (as I said, I’ve had a number of years to think about this). But the hour grows late, and this post grows quite long; I think I’ll leave it here and perhaps take it up another time.

St Maria Goretti, St Agnes, Pope St John Paul the Great: Pray for us!

3 thoughts on “What They Died For: Maria, Agnes, and Mistaking Virginity for Virtue

  1. Wow. Thank you for a truly thought-provoking and challenging reflection on a saint that I had thought I basically understood. I especially appreciated your observation that “chaste love, true love, remembers that the other is a person. Most of us are tempted to forget this by making our sexual partners into mere objects for our pleasure; Maria, by contrast and with heroic virtue, never forgot her attacker Alessandro was a person, even when he assaulted her like an animal.”

    St. Maria Goretti, pray for us!


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