Now, as a young girl, I didn't quite understand how he wanted to "do wrong with her." I had a general idea that it meant sex, though what sex meant was still pretty vague. The story did tell me two things: 1. Sex is "doing wrong" and 2. It's better to die than let someone "do wrong" with you.
The story also told me that no matter how much someone hurts you--even if they stab you 14 times and leave you to die slowly and painfully--you are supposed to forgive them. I didn't understand why her murderer would be allowed into Heaven, especially since murder was supposedly a "mortal sin." But my mom and my teacher both told me that was why Maria was a saint. She was so good and pure that she was able to forgive her murderer.
Of course, there's a little more to Maria's story. The Picture Book of Saints had summed up the major points, but left out a few things. Including the fact that Maria Goretti is also the patron saint of rape victims.*
Maria Goretti was born in October, 1890 to a family of peasant farmers. Alessandro, her murderer, was the son of her family's landlord. The attack took place in July, 1902, when Maria was a few months shy of her twelfth birthday. Most accounts say that Alessandro had "propositioned" her before and she had always refused him. After her death, Alessandro went to jail, where he dreamed that he saw Maria in Heaven and she forgave him. He then repented and was forgiven by both the church and Maria's mother.
And so, the patron saint of rape victims is an 11-year-old girl who was not raped, but who died rather than "allow herself" to be raped.
The Catholic Church holds up Maria Goretti as a shining example of purity and chastity. As Pope John Paul II explained, "St Maria Goretti is an example for the new generations who are threatened by a non-commital[sic] attitude that finds it difficult to understand the importance of the values which admit of no compromise."
In case you are not yet outraged (or at least perplexed and concerned), let's look at this a little closer.
According to the catechism of the Catholic Church:
2356 Rape is the forcible violation of the sexual intimacy of another person. It does injury to justice and charity. Rape deeply wounds the respect, freedom, and physical and moral integrity to which every person has a right. It causes grave damage that can mark the victim for life. It is always an intrinsically evil act. Graver still is the rape of children committed by parents (incest) or those responsible for the education of the children entrusted to them.That sounds fairly accurate. It seems to acknowledge the severity of rape and the grave damage that is done to victims of rape. Yet, the patron saint of rape victims is a girl who "chose" to die rather than be raped, and thus lose her "virginal purity." I have several problems with this:
First of all, since when is rape a choice? Does the Catholic Church think rapists give their victims an option of either being raped or murdered? Does the Church think rape victims have any ability whatsoever to "allow" or "not allow" a rape to happen? If so, they know nothing about the act of rape.
Second, why does the Catholic Church think that it is better for women to remain "pure" rather than remain alive? What message does this send to rape victims? Furthermore, if the "sin" is with the rapist, why would a rape victim ever be considered "unchaste" or "impure"?
Third, why is the patron saint of rape victims a girl who was canonized for maintaining her "purity" even when the cost was death? What does "purity" (i.e. virginity) have to do with rape? Does the Catholic Church only consider someone a rape victim if she was a virgin before the rape?
A message sent out by Pope John Paul II on the centenary of Maria Goretti's death, said in part:
3. In the homily for her canonization, Pope Pius XII of venerable memory pointed to Maria Goretti as "the sweet little martyr of purity" (cf. Discorsi e Radiomessaggi, XII [1950-1951], 121), because she did not break God's commandment in spite of being threatened by death.How does being raped "break God's commandment"? We know the Catholic Church believes that sex outside of marriage is wrong, but isn't there a difference between sex and rape? Another statement by Pope John Paul II about Maria Goretti is rather telling:
Her martyrdom reminds us that the human being is not fulfilled by following the impulses of pleasure but by living life with love and responsibility.Given the context of promoting chastity, "following the impulses of pleasure" appears to refer to normal sexual desire. If so, what does "following the impulses of pleasure" have to do with Maria Goretti? Is the pope saying that if Maria had "allowed" herself to be raped, she would have been "following the impulses of pleasure"? Or is he saying that Alessandro was "following the impulses of pleasure" by wanting to rape Maria?
If the pope was referring to Alessandro, it still shows the Catholic Church's lack of understanding about the psychology of rape. The act of a rapist is not the same thing as normal sexual desire. Not for the rapist, or for the rape victim. Rape is a violent act of domination. The fact that this case is about a 20-year-old attempting to rape an 11-year-old should already tell us that this is not an example of normal sexual desire.
As an atheist, it may seem like this issue should not concern me. Yet this is not a matter of whether or not god or gods exist. The Catholic Church is an organization which holds tremendous power over its followers. The Church's teachings affect the way its followers see the world, which in turn affects the way they treat others.
As a woman and a human being, I am appalled by a message that holds a woman's virginity above all else. I am appalled by a message that says that it is better for a woman (or girl) to die than to survive being raped. And I am appalled by a message that says a rape victim, or the victim of any violent crime, should be expected to forgive her rapist or assailant.
Yet this is a religious description of morality.
*Maria Goretti is not the only patron saint of rape victims. Other saints similarly were killed after refusing to "allow themselves" to be raped. For example, Pierina Morosini who was born in 1931, was killed during an attempted rape when she was 26 years old. Pope John Paul II beatified Pierina Morosini on October 4, 1987. She is also considered a patron saint of rape victims.