Virgin on the ridiculous – the church, women and the cult of virginity

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. 

 

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My problem with saint-making

All Saints is one of my favourite feasts. It’s an opportunity for me to remember the many saints I have known over the years who have passed from this life – family members, colleagues, friends – and to celebrate also the countless others who have lived saintly lives throughout history. I think this year especially of my father, who died 11 months ago, and my Aunt Mary, who died two weeks ago, as well as Fr Jacques Hamel, brutally beheaded in France, and of all those Christians who are being martyred every day in Syria and Iraq.

It’s a reminder also of my call to become a saint, even if I will never get to join the list of those in the official calendar of the church’s saints.

One thing’s for sure – there is no shortage of saints in the Catholic calendar. Pope John Paul II made sure of that. During his 26-year pontificate he canonised 482 saints and beatified 1,300 – far more than any pope in history. Indeed, between 1000 a.d. and 1978 a.d., fewer than 450 men and women were made saints by the Catholic Church. In other words, John Paul doubled this number all on his own.

He loved making saints. Many people would see that as a good thing. After all, we are all called to be saints, and surely we can never have too many of them.

But I have a number of problems with the saint-making process, especially as it developed under John Paul.

The first has to do with changes that made canonisation easier. The ‘Devil’s advocate’ was thrown out the window or, at least, downgraded to such a degree that the role is no longer recognisable. I’d prefer the more stringent process that existed in the past.

Then there is the speed of some canonisations. Several saints have been canonised within a very short period of their deaths. Yes, that happened occasionally in the past too, but what’s the rush? A wait-and-see attitude is always wise so that nothing might emerge in later years to cast a shadow on a particular saint.

Another issue has to do with the criteria John Paul II used when saint-making. He canonised more saints in his 26 years as pope than all popes of the previous millennium combined. He canonised all types. So, it’s extraordinary that he ignored Oscar Romero. Many people in El Salvador and throughout the Catholic world consider Romero to be a martyr for the faith, and yet the Vatican under John Paul and Benedict made no move to advance Romero’s cause. Why was Romero not canonised when so many others were? One would have to conclude that ideology and politics were at play; that JPII did not want to endorse someone so publicly associated with liberation theology, even though he was himself the most political of popes.

Pope Francis, of course, has no such hesitation. One of his first acts as pope was to put Romero on the road to sainthood.

Then there is the policy of almost automatically canonising popes. People accept that those elected to the papacy, at least in modern times, are good and holy men. Why, then, the need to canonise them? And if some popes are not canonised, does that mean they were less holy or great than those who were?

Of course, a danger with canonising popes is that it becomes all about church politics. Conservative Catholics will always refer to Pope John Paul as Saint John Paul the Great, whereas liberal Catholics – who prefer Saint John XXIII – are more likely to refer to him simply as John Paul. Indeed, it was to appease both right and left that canny Pope Francis canonised JPII and John XXIII on the same day. When I hear someone talk about Saint John Paul the Great, I know exactly where he or she stands theologically. Better not to canonise any pope than to turn the whole process into a political and ideological battle.

Then there’s the money involved. Saints don’t come cheap. Unless a group or religious order has the cash and resources to promote the cause of someone they would like to have canonised, it’s not going to happen quickly or at all. There’s something unseemly about mixing cash and saint-making.

So, let’s ease off on the saint-making and focus more on All Saints, those we have known and those who have gone before us, too numerous to tally.