Aliens in This World

An ordinary Catholic and a science fiction and fantasy fan.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

St. Augustine on Rape

I was over reading the Catholic Answers forums last night, which is always interesting, and specifically their Ask an Apologist feature, which is often enlightening. Anyway, back on the 9th, some lady had written in, sure that the Church didn't think rape victims were guiltless. Her evidence for this was that St. Maria Goretti was praised for fighting back.

*pounds head against wall*

This is especially frustrating, since when I was young, stories about St. Maria Goretti made it sound like she didn't fight back. Also, that she was an ethereal maiden and not a robust young Italian version of the song's "Irish agricultural girl". Apparently, the culture thinks Maria Goretti is damned if she does and damned if she doesn't.

But, moving on...

Anyway, the apologist gave a good answer. But I kept thinking about the beginning of St. Augustine's City of God. No, I haven't read the whole thing. But the first part, written right after the sack of Rome by Alaric's Visigoths, deals with the problems of such an event. One of them is the rape of Christian consecrated virgins.

Pagan Romans felt that raped women had lost their honor, and that it could only be regained by killing themselves, like the famous Lucretia of legend. We know that many cultures today still teach this sort of behavior -- most notably the Muslims. But for Christians, such an idea was wicked foolishness, on many levels.

St. Augustine attacks this problem head on. First of all, he proclaims that "the virtue which makes the life good has its throne in the soul, and thence rules the members of the body, which becomes holy in virtue of the holiness of the will; and that while the will remains firm and unshaken, nothing that another person does with the body, or upon the body, is any fault of the person who suffers it, so long as he cannot escape it without sin."

He acknowledged that people who are raped feel "shame invades even a thoroughly pure spirit from which modesty has not departed -- shame, lest that act which could not be suffered without some sensual pleasure, should be believed to have been committed also with some assent of the will."

First, he says (as an act of pastoral comfort to those worried about the fate of suicides' souls) that "even if some of these virgins killed themselves to avoid such disgrace, who that has any human feeling would refuse to forgive them?" (Normally, suicide was considered back then as an aggressive, controlling, act of defiance against God and the world. Considering the culture, it may well have been.)

But then he makes sure to emphasize that if a woman refused to commit suicide, she was doing a good thing, not being shameless and wicked as the local culture said. "Why, then, should a person who has done no wrong do wrong to himself, and by killing himself kill the innocent to escape another's guilty act, and perpetrate upon himself a sin of his own, that the sin of another may not be perpetrated on him?"

Furthermore, he insists that "what sane man can suppose that, if his body be seized and forcibly made use of to satisfy the lust of another, he thereby loses his purity?" In fact, the soul's intention sanctifies the body, no matter what has been done to it by others against its will.

"For the sanctity of the body does not consist in the integrity of its members, nor in their exemption from all touch; for they are exposed to various accidents which do violence to and wound them, and the surgeons who administer relief often perform operations that sicken the spectator. A midwife, suppose, has (whether maliciously or accidentally, or through unskillfulness) destroyed the virginity of some girl, while endeavoring to ascertain it: I suppose no one is so foolish as to believe that, by this destruction of the integrity of one organ, the virgin has lost anything even of her bodily sanctity. And thus, so long as the soul keeps this firmness of purpose which sanctifies even the body, the violence done by another's lust makes no impression on this bodily sanctity, which is preserved intact by one's own persistent continence."

"This, then, is our position, and it seems sufficiently lucid. We maintain that when a woman is violated while her soul admits no consent to the iniquity, but remains inviolably chaste, the sin is not hers, but his who violates her."

He also rips on the story of Lucretia: "But how is it, that she who was no partner to the crime bears the heavier punishment of the two? For the adulterer was only banished along with his father; she suffered the extreme penalty. If that was not impurity by which she was unwillingly ravished, then this is not justice by which she, being chaste, is punished."

The pagan Romans argue that suicide is a good way to prevent women getting interested in their rapist. (Clearly they've been watching General Hospital too much.) Augustine slaps this down, too.

"Now, in the first place, the soul which is led by God and His wisdom, rather than by bodily concupiscence, will certainly never consent to the desire aroused in its own flesh by another's lust. And, at all events, if it be true, as the truth plainly declares, that suicide is a detestable and damnable wickedness, who is such a fool as to say, 'Let us sin now, that we may obviate a possible future sin; let us now commit murder, lest we perhaps afterwards should commit adultery'? If we are so controlled by iniquity that innocence is out of the question, and we can at best but make a choice of sins, is not a future and uncertain adultery preferable to a present and certain murder? Is it not better to commit a wickedness which penitence may heal, than a crime which leaves no place for healing contrition?

"I say this for the sake of those men or women who fear they may be enticed into consenting to their violator's lust, and think they should lay violent hands on themselves, and so prevent, not another's sin, but their own. But far be it from the mind of a Christian confiding in God, and resting in the hope of His aid; far be it, I say, from such a mind to yield a shameful consent to pleasures of the flesh, howsoever presented. And if that lustful disobedience, which still dwells in our mortal members, follows its own law irrespective of our will, surely its motions in the body of one who rebels against them are as blameless as its motions in the body of one who sleeps."

Later, he points out that if people are supposed to kill themselves to avoid one sin, obviously these folks would advocate everybody killing themselves. Right after getting baptized, preferably. After all, that's the only sure way to avoid sinning, right?

But before that, he moves to the point which the forum questioner raised, of saints who heroically got themselves killed. In Augustine's case, actually, he deals with virgin martyrs who heroically resisted pagan Roman attacks by throwing themselves into rivers, etc.

"Of such persons I do not presume to speak rashly. I cannot tell whether there may not have been vouchsafed to the church some divine authority, proved by trustworthy evidences, for so honoring their memory: it may be that it is so.

"It may be they were not deceived by human judgment, but prompted by divine wisdom, to their act of self-destruction. We know that this was the case with Samson. And when God enjoins any act, and intimates by plain evidence that He has enjoined it, who will call obedience criminal? Who will accuse so religious a submission? But then, every man is not justified in sacrificing his son to God, because Abraham was commendable in so doing."

Augustine ends by telling the women, "Let not your life, then, be a burden to you, ye faithful servants of Christ, though your chastity was made the sport of your enemies. You have a grand and true consolation, if you maintain a good conscience, and know that you did not consent to the sins of those who were permitted to commit sinful outrage upon you." He tells them to say to the pagans, "our God is everywhere present, wholly everywhere; not confined to any place. He can be present unperceived, and be absent without moving; when He exposes us to adversities, it is either to prove our perfections or correct our imperfections; and in return for our patient endurance of the sufferings of time, He reserves for us an everlasting reward."

The Fathers of the Church are separated from us by time and culture. But this is no true separation for all those of us who are members of the Body of Christ. They have a lot to say to us today, if we are prepared to listen with sympathy.

Btw, you may have noticed on the encyclical reading over on my podcast blog that I pronounce the man's name as "AW-guh-steen". However, the preferred pronunciation among the English-influenced is "ah-GUH-stin". I say they're both correct (but point out that my pronunciation is a lot closer to the Latin, via Spanish), so I will continue pronouncing the man's name like the city in Florida. (Which I visited when I was five. It's a bit late to change now.) However, I will note that the really correct Anglicization of "Augustinus" is Chaucer's "Austin". So there. (Naeh!)


  • At 9:51 PM, Blogger Unknown said…

    Then there was the Roman matron (pagan) who was raped by an enemy commander....she believed only one man who had been with her should be alive, so, after he was captured in battle, she had him tortured to death...
    For some reason this story never got as much play as Lucretia's....

  • At 10:56 AM, Blogger Sardonicus said…

    Well-said! An excellent thought on the importance the Church Fathers placed on the interior life and virtue, rather than exterior action.


  • At 7:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Augustine says one thing, God says another, Whom will you believe?

  • At 1:07 PM, Blogger Unknown said…

    When I was a young woman in the Church, we were told specifically that Maria Goretti died rather than lose her chastity via rape (as I recall we were given the impression she fell off a balcony). She is, after all, the patroness of chastity and invoked by the church in relation to specifically YOUTH chastity.

    The conflating of consensual sex and rape in the story certainly gave a metaphorical imprimatur to the idea that being raped was the same as consensual sex, an idea that is immortalized in the Old Testament, and socially emphasized during the time of the life and canonization of Maria Goretti.


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