A Treasure Scorned — Why Virginity Baffles Our Culture

St. Maria Goretti’s greatness leaves today’s young people puzzled — and that’s a tragedy with many consequences

St. Maria Goretti
St. Maria Goretti (photo: Public Domain)

I don’t believe virginity
Is as common as it used to be….
— Don Williams

St. Maria Goretti was an 11-year-old Italian farm girl who died in 1902 in defense of her chastity. A 20-year-old male neighbor, who had previously made sexual advances and was ready to rape her, stabbed her almost 15 times. She died a day later, forgiving her attacker who, after 27 years in jail, converted to become a lay Capuchin brother until his death in 1970.

The Church celebrates some virgin almost every month in her calendar. St. Maria Goretti’s feast is July 6.

I started with mention of St. Maria Goretti because she was a virgin and martyr — or, more strictly, she was martyred because of her virginity. She’s hardly alone among young women in that regard. Blessed Karolina Kózka was a 16-year-old Polish girl killed in 1914 for refusing the advances of a Russian soldier in World War I. Blessed Anna Kolesárová, whom the Vatican recently beatified, died at the same age in 1944, shot in front of her father, for refusing a Soviet soldier. 

When Pius XII canonized Goretti, she was held up as an example of feminine virtue and honor. My questions are three:

Does Maria Goretti make any sense to today’s young woman?

Could the Catholic Church of the 21st century anywhere in the West produce another St. Maria Goretti?

If the answers to either (or both) of the preceding is “no,” do we care?

Goretti, Kózka and Kolasárová were not canonized as patronesses of “choice.” The Church did not find their virtue just in defending their “right to say no.” It also found their virtue in their affirmation of virginity. Goretti told Serenelli, her assailant, that what he wanted was a “sin” — and not just because he had not elicited her consent.

When our culture repeatedly insists that the only important moral question connected with sex is whether there is “mutual consent,” are Goretti, Kózka and Kolasárová to be reduced to anti-rape poster children? 

Nobody is minimizing rape. But Christian sexual ethics incorporates other values in addition to consent.

Just survey the literature being fed to young people. The mass media and pop culture targeting young people is sexually saturated and often vulgar. If anyone begins to question it, “experts” — particularly in “sex education” — quickly swoop in with a relativistic ethic that sex has no real normative meaning and its meaning is whatever you decide it to be (alongside Anthony Kennedy’s “universe”).

Consider this site, which suggests that virginity is really just a “social construct” that has been historically surrounded by unscientific taboos and fetishes our “scientific” age is shedding.

Indeed, if the body itself is relevant to one’s sexual identity only when one wants it to be, what then is “virginity?” A state of mind? Given modernity’s 40 shades of gender, “virginity” may be a “choice” not just about what one does or does not do but even what one defines “virginity” to mean. 

As Catholics, we hold a vision of the human person markedly at odds with the gnostic secular version enforced by the culture and others. It is a vision that also sees sex and marriage as going together.

But if Maria Goretti is unknown to Catholic young people, and if — if they get to know her — they imagine her some naive peasant girl, we have a pastoral problem. If she is known, perhaps she’s a model to young women striving to live chastely. But given the social indifference to loss of virginity, how is a contemporary young woman to identify with Maria, Karolina or Anna? Paraphrasing Canto XIII of Dante’s Inferno, how is one to value what one has freely thrown away? 

Is one of the reasons Marian devotion is in eclipse, even among women, because the sense of her virginity is increasingly incomprehensible to moderns? And why celibacy has no more significance than an “outdated” ecclesiastical discipline?

St. John Paul II spent three years developing a rich “theology of the body.” He spent 26 years of his pontificate expounding a rich, contemporary, yet orthodox sexual ethic.

Why are we not talking about these things? 

Some might say, “Well, Pope Francis has not prioritized them.” But do we need a pope to tell us where the problems are? Are not lay Catholics responsible for carrying the Gospel message to others, including our own youth?

Have Catholic young people rejected Catholic sexual ethics or have they simply not even really heard them? It’s claimed young Slovaks who learn of the life of Blessed Anna Kolesárová start questioning the assumptions secular culture feeds them.

George Weigel once remarked that, although he doubted it would happen, Pope Francis would do best if he would dedicate an upcoming synod to the question of chastity. No doubt he would be the object of derisory commentary, but it’s a topic of far greater immediate relevance to real peoples’ lives. Real peoples’ lives get upended by the consequences of sex, not by inaccessibility to synodal processes.

If the Pope did so, he might launch it on St. Maria Goretti’s feast day because — appearances notwithstanding — that early 20th-century Italian girl remains extremely relevant for the Church in the modern world.