Saturday, 4 July 2009

How do you solve a problem like Maria (Goretti)?

There are millions of Catholic saints, many named, but most not.

Of those that are named, everyone has those that they have an affinity for and those that repel them. Whilst I adore Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross, I couldn't dislike Therese of Lisieux, Padre Pio or Jose Escriva de Balaguer more. Different strokes for different folks.

But Maria Goretti is something else entirely.

For those who do not know the story of Maria Goretti, here it is in short: born in 1890, it is claimed (with all the smell of a justifying backstory) that she was a particularly God-fearing, pious little girl. On 5 July 1902, her neighbour, Alessandro Serenelli, came upon her sewing and said he would kill her if she didn't let him rape her, at which point she told him it was a mortal sin and that he would go to Hell if he carried on. He choked her, she refused, he stabbed her 17 times. She died later in hospital, supposedly having forgiven her attacker.

She then became the patron saint of those who had been raped and sexually abused.

Do we see a problem here?

Let me sum Saint Maria Goretti up for you in four words: better dead than deflowered.

Several years ago, I sat in church on her feast day, open-mouthed in absolute shock as the priest stood up and waxed lyrical over how Maria had died to protect her purity, how amazing that was, and how she was an example for everyone to follow. My rather politically incorrect thought, and the only one that is vaguely printable, was, "WTF does a woman's purity matter to YOU, you aging queen?"

When I confronted one of his colleagues, who happens to be a good friend, about it, he responded that Maria Goretti's sainthood was about forgiveness, not her chastity. I know he believes that, but I think he's wrong - and here's why:

From Pope Pius XII:

"The value of Christian virtue is so great, so overwhelming, so imperative, that it is worth more than life. Purity is not just a separate part of our being. It belongs to our existence as a whole, it is essential for our life. Purity brings us in harmony of body and soul."

From JP II:

"Maria Goretti, so illuminating with her spiritual beauty, challenges us to a firm and secure faith in the Word of God, as the only source of truth, to remain firm against the temptations of this world."

"Young people, look at Maria Goretti, don’t be tempted by the tempting atmosphere of our permissive society, which declares, everything is possible. Look to Maria Goretti, love, live, defend your chastity."

Oh, and let's not forget the Maria Goretti Society which has cute pink t-shirts that say 'Maria Goretti Society: Purity is worth dying for'. Is it, fuck.

Of course, we all know that being threatened by rape is the same as being tempted by 'permissive society'. It's the same as choosing to remain chaste. I mean, after all, what's the difference between being a child, helpless in the face of someone twice your size or a woman threatened at gunpoint and saying 'No' to your boyfriend because you want to wait?

Obviously, none in the eyes of the above popes, and thus, none in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church.

So, let's look at virginity/purity. Worth dying for?

Virginity is simply the state of not having had sex - nothing more and nothing less. In and of itself, it is neutral. Value is placed on it by a patriarchy incapable of getting past its animal nature: a virgin bride/woman ensures that any children belong to the man who's sleeping with her (also the reason that a woman's faithfulness is more important than a man's, of course). Perpetual virginity, robbing a woman of her sexuality, makes a woman the eternal girl, meaning that she is non-threatening to the men who idealise her - making it impossible for any living woman to measure up.

I'm sure as hell not dying to protect that. And there is NO way I'd want a daughter of mine to, either.

I'm not saying, 'Wey-hey, everyone, go out and shag mindlessly' - unless that's your thing. You should never give up anything that is uniquely yours - and your body and the way you have sex is that - to win approval, to buy love, to manipulate, to fill an emptiness you can't face. You should give it because you WANT to, because you LOVE what you are about to do. And in that case, when you give it and to whom is no one else's business (unless you're doing it where I and everyone else have to watch).

The problem with Maria Goretti is the message she, and the priests & faithful who idolise her, sends - that those of us who were sexually abused or raped and lived aren't worth a hell of a lot. At the very least, we're worth less than Maria Goretti and those who chose to die.

Read my lips: Bullshit.

Whilst I absolutely respect and mourn those who have died, the courage and power of the survivors never ceases to humble me. Does some sheltered celibate REALLY believe that I would rather have a daughter of mine DIE a virgin than LIVE, having survived a horrific crime? How can you POSSIBLY even THINK that I would rather bury a child than hold her, help her make it through her darkness, teach her to trust, help her to take the steps she needs to heal?

Whilst we mourn and honour the women who chose to fight their attackers and died, we celebrate those who survived. Those who take those baby steps back towards trust, love, being able to be touched. Those who cheer every milestone: the moment a lover can touch you there; the first time you don't freeze or check out during a makeout session or sex; the first time a man coming up behind you doesn't freak you out; the first time you can sit in the middle of a row at the movies; the first time a man can touch your hair without your tensing up and oh-so-many-more things most people take for granted. Those who breathe through the flashbacks; through the two steps forward, one step back; those who wake up from the nightmares.

Survivors become rape counsellors. Survivors learn immense compassion. Survivors can enter almost any emotional landscape. Survivors make a disproportionate difference. And eventually, survivors thrive.

Don't you DARE tell me dying takes more courage. Unless you've been there or been beside someone who has, you know NOTHING. Speak not of what you know not - especially from the pulpit, where your words have immense effect - for good and for ill.

Worshipping a 12-year-old and glorifying what one of my priest friends sneeringly called 'infant chastity' is just *sick*. And making her the patron saint of women who have been sexually abused and raped reeks of contempt. Find us someone who has actually survived, suffered and overcome.

Go on. I dare you.

Maria Goretti's feast day is Monday, 6 July. A day that I can make it to mass. Will I go?

You bet. Why?

Because if one of the four priests most likely to go into raptures over how wonderful it was that Maria died protecting her chastity is up there and opens his mouth, I want him to have to LOOK at me when he says that.

And then, I want him to have to answer to me on behalf of every amazing survivor - man or woman - who has suffered rape or sexual abuse. I want him to understand exactly what his words could have done to someone in his congregation who has been violated in ways he can't even begin to imagine, or to impressionable children. I want him to remember that his vocation is to heal, not expound some twisted ideal - after all, he wouldn't suggest that someone who was mugged should have died instead, would he? No rape/sexual abuse victim bears ANY responsibility for the crime perpetrated on them. The responsibility - EVERY LAST IOTA OF IT - lies with the person who chose to attack and violate.

A small thing - one person, one statement. But a small difference is better than none at all.

And this one's for everyone who has the courage to survive - and find their way back to living, loving and laughing. One step at a time.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for that thoughtful piece of writing. It should certainly inspire any priest or preacher reading it to think carefully about how they preach on that sort of subject.

It really made me stop and think.

Thank you.

Kell Brigan said...

I'm in the midst of deciding whether or not to leave Catholicism, specifically because of the Goretti Problem (and a few other "martyrs to purity"). I honestly don't know what to do. And, I can't fathom how the Church came up with this whole obscene business -- it just doesn't compute.

Irim said...

Dear Kell,


I hear you; I'm struggling with whether or not to leave too - several years ago, I nearly became Anglican - but the inability to admit I'd probably made a mistake at conversion stopped me.

But I still want to go - and yes, the Goretti Problem is a big part of it, alongside the sexual abuse crisis, the increasing 'believe what I tell you', the swing to the right, the loss of depth of thought - and so much more.

I'll keep you in my prayers.


Anonymous said...

I know this is a few years too late but thank you for this. I am a Catholic (and mostly quite happy that way, I must add) but I too am troubled and angered by the Church's treatment of this poor little girl. I think this is one of the occasions where snide comments about celibate old men are entirely justified and deserved. How can they presume to comment and theologise on a situation which they will never experience?
Having read some of the justifications of the "Goretti Problem" (good title - maybe I should write a critique under that name!) I think part of it hinges on the fact that her attacker wanted "consent" rather than "rape". By this logic, then, if I (and not incidentally, I am no Amazon or female boxing champion) were to "consent" to a man after he had "only" brandished a knife at me, I would not be a rape victim, but would be impure and defiled, having failed to adequately defend my virginity. This shows a peculiarly legalistic mindset, unable to realise that "Alright, I'll do it if you promise you won't hurt me" is not in any way, shape or form comparable to willingly agreeing to a bit of recreational hanky-panky.
Good point too about the rather nauseating descriptions of her pious childhood being perhaps exaggerated - I notice a lot of saints are credited with this and I agree with one writer that this sort of piety is perhaps partly a bit of childish enthusiasm than genuine saintliness. I was rather a devout child myself and I can recognise this, but I'm probably not much holier than your average Joe now though!