I have been wondering about the extraordinary emphasis the church places on virginity.
Belief that Mary was a virgin at the time she conceived Jesus is a core article of faith. Her virginity has been celebrated in Christian tradition and in the prayers of the church since its foundation. Countless hymns have been composed to honour the virgin.
That is all well and good. But sometimes it seems to me that the church goes on about it a bit too much, as if the words Mary and virgin, like love and marriage or Trump and controversy, cannot be separated. The liturgy of the church almost always refers to the mother of Jesus as Virgin Mary or Blessed Virgin. The Catechism of the Catholic Church and other teaching instruments do the same. Mary has been accorded many wonderful titles – Mother of Perpetual Help, Our Lady of Victories, Queen of Heaven – but Blessed Virgin trumps them all.
For many people, this obsession with virginity is off-putting. It’s as if the church is stating that sex is bad and our virginity is what we should hold onto, if it’s not too late already.
The cult of virginity doesn’t stop with Mary. It extends to female saints, too.
In the liturgical calendar, which lists the feast days of the church’s year, a striking distinction exists between almost all the female saints and their male counterparts. With few exceptions, female saints are classified as Virgin.
The great Catherine of Siena is described first as Virgin, and only second as Doctor of the Church, even though the latter is one of the highest accolades a saint can receive. St Agatha is listed first as Virgin and then as Martyr, even though martyrdom ranks in the top category of saint. Poor St Scholastica is listed simply as Virgin.
In each case, whether she was religious or lay, the saint’s virginity is considered at least as significant as her martyrdom or her zeal, or even her status as doctor of the church.
The same doesn’t apply to men. Nowhere in the liturgical calendar is a male saint described as virgin. Depending on the individual, he is listed as Priest/Bishop/ Pope/ Religious/Missionary/Martyr/Apostle/Doctor of the Church, or a combination of these, but never as Virgin. Even if he took a vow of chastity and never had sex in his life, he is never called virgin.
This may be because the word virgin has traditionally been applied to women who haven’t had sexual intercourse.
It’s true, too, that the veneration of virginity is not a Catholic invention. It goes back to ancient Rome and the cult of the vestal virgin. Mankind – a better word here than humankind – has always placed virgins on pedestals.
But is it appropriate for the church of today to have a similar obsession? To champion virginity – as opposed, say, to chastity, which is a different thing – seems not only sexist but also to claim it as the ideal state over and above all others.
What does this say to women (and men) who are not virgins? What does it say to married women, widows, the divorced, and all those who have experienced sexual intimacy at the deepest level?
What does it say about the church and its relationship with sex?
Of course, virginity is fine for those who choose it, and purity is wonderful, and consecrated chastity is noble, but so also and equally is the married state and parenthood and the single life.
Christians honour Mary, the mother of Jesus, not because of her perpetual virginity but because of the unique role she played in the story of salvation. Her ‘yes’ to God’s plan for her is incalculably more important than whether she ever had sex.
So also with the other women saints. How they lived the Gospel is what makes them saints. Their fidelity to their baptismal promises is what makes them saints. Whether they kept their virginity is far less significant than that they were true followers of Jesus.