The St. Maria Goretti Conundrum

What do we, as Catholics, do to promote virginity as a positive value?

Left: This picture, the only known photograph of St. Maria Goretti, was taken in 1902. Right: Giuseppe Brovelli-Soffredini, “Maria Goretti,” 1929.
Left: This picture, the only known photograph of St. Maria Goretti, was taken in 1902. Right: Giuseppe Brovelli-Soffredini, “Maria Goretti,” 1929. (photo: Public Domain)

July 6 is the feast of St. Maria Goretti, an Italian girl who fought off an attempt at rape in 1902 and paid for it with her life. Pope Pius XII canonized her in 1950. 

I’ll admit that, every time July rolls around, I wonder how intelligible St. Maria Goretti’s life is, especially to teenage girls today. Virginity is less prized. Premarital sex has become more common. Sexual experimentation is encouraged by the culture and even by schools. Put bluntly, as Don Williams already summed it up in a 1980 country song: “I don’t believe virginity is as common as it used to be.”

Planned Parenthood got embroiled in the issue over a recent tweet declaring “virginity is a social construct,” adding it is “patriarchal” and a way of thinking that “hurts everybody.” 

Its claims are hardly new. Both it and media focused on the teenage girl market have long argued that virginity is an ambiguous concept. In a variant of the old “how far can you go?” line, they argue it’s unclear whether virginity is lost by anything short of sexual activity involving vaginal penetration. That’s where the argument comes from virginity being a state of mind, a “social construct.”

And, in our “choice” mentality — that right or wrong is less dependent on what is chosen than that it is chosen — is the significance of St. Maria Goretti that she did not want to be raped, not that she wanted to maintain her physical virginity intact? 

I raise these questions because, while the answer to the last question was likely “both” when Pope Pius XII canonized Maria 73 years ago, it might be more ambiguous today. Some feminists might even claim that, by focusing on her virginity, the Church undermined Maria’s dignity.

When Alessandro Serenelli attempted to rape her, Maria protested, insisting it was a “mortal sin” for which he would be damned. Moderns might smirk at the argument, questioning whether that was the best or most powerful one against sexual assault. 

But Maria was a Catholic girl of the rural Italy of her times, and those values would have been very real to her. The fact that she addressed that argument to Serenelli’s salvation is telling: Maria did not protest as a matter of her salvation (which was not at issue) but of someone else’s. Whatever people may today think of that line of reasoning, it was Maria’s. It was not, arguably, just a negative (“this is wrong”) but a positive (“this is what is at stake”). We also need to respect Maria’s dignity by understanding her motives.

Which raises the question: What do we, as Catholics, do to promote virginity as a positive value?

Modern secular sexual ethics have — rightly — underscored the necessity of affirmative consent to intercourse. Consent is required. The woman must be in a state to consent validly, i.e., without restraint or other influences, e.g., alcohol or drugs. Consent must be given and not presumed.

While all those things are true, Catholic sexual ethics doesn’t stop there. Right or wrong in Catholic sexual morality may begin but does not end with two consenting people. What concerns me is how aware even today’s Catholic young people are of this further step.

Let’s be frank. While the “consent ethic” may be pushed by media, schools, teen magazines and all sorts of other venues, they usually end there. Even if young people are attending Sunday Mass (especially after the sacrament of Christian ex-limination, Confirmation), they won’t hear Catholic sexual ethics talked about there. ‘Twixt First Communion and Confirmation, no small number of Catholic young people fall out of religious education, reappearing when participation becomes mandatory for the latter sacrament. That time is usually taken up between remediating catechism (including elementary prayers) and memorizing soon-to-be-forgotten questions the bishop might ask during Confirmation. 

I’d venture that, to the degree those young people have heard of Catholic sexual ethics, it can be summed up in one sentence: “Don’t!” It might get specified, “Don’t have sex!” Getting to its rationale, much less articulating a positive value for virginity, is likely to be far more elusive.

Which is both sad and unjust, because young people are interested in these questions and, increasingly, wonder whether there’s more to life than hook-ups. We do them a great injustice by failing to articulate this vision fully, maturely and positively in a timely fashion. They may accept it or they may not … or they may accept it later. But they can never say, “Nobody told me!”

How many could say that right now?

Serenelli was a rapist who should have been — and was — punished for his crime. It was also the catalyst of his conversion. While today’s mentality may have moved beyond the mindset of 1902 or even 1950, it does so by broadening, not narrowing, the moral aperture of the grievous wrong perpetrated against St. Maria Goretti. 

Should that not also be a teaching moment for today’s Church, in terms of virginity, sexual assault (including within the Church, which compromises her witness), and the broader picture of Catholic sexual ethics, not just in its prohibitions but especially its vision?

Let’s also consider its broader implications. Lest someone thinks this essay is much ado about a relatively obscure saint today (even though, by ecclesial standards, she is relatively modern, dying in the 20th century), consider this. If we don’t appreciate the value of the virginity of St. Maria Goretti (or St. Agnes or St. Lucy or Blessed Karolina Kózka and Blessed Anna Kolesárová), will the virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary ultimately make any sense to us? Yes, she is the Mother of God, but what’s so important about her being “Virgin and Mother?” Unless we recover the profound value of virginity, that may be a difficult question for some.