Teaching Chastity Through the Virgin Martyrs

Saint-Susanna-of-Rome-Aug-11In her best-selling book and movement Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters, Dr. Meg Meeker challenges the popular feminist attack on traditional masculinity and advocates the most important factor for girls developing into confident, well-adjusted women is a strong father with conservative values. I often wonder if the book would have achieved the same success had a man written it.

Here’s why. When I see traditional fathers with conservative values venturing out to speak, write, or preach (as in from the pulpit) on the topic of teaching their children, daughters especially, about the virtues of modesty, purity, and chastity they are all too often labeled as chauvinist, prudish, out-of-touch, and oppressive. Comments like the following often accompany the slurs:

  • “I feel sorry for your poor oppressed wife.”
  • “You’re the one obsessed with sex, you pervert.”
  • “You just wait. All this conservative fathering will push your daughter to promiscuity by the time she’s 16.”

I know these comments well because they’ve been hurled at my husband. Most often, they come from women identifying themselves as atheist and feminist. And I concede that certain feminist groups will simply vehemently disagree that Joel’s strong, traditional, and conservative approach to fathering will yield a strong, confident, well-adjusted daughter. Their paradigm is polar opposite to ours.

But when I see presumed strong, traditional, Catholic women going after a strong, traditional Catholic father, I find it concerning because the source of the criticism is rather unexpected. Case in point. The latest critique from within our tribe is aimed at a post written by Dr. Taylor Marshall at his blog Canterbury Tales. From his post titled Are We Catholics Willing to Die for the Sake of Virginity and Modesty?:

Do Catholic girls know more about Beyonce than they do about Saint Agatha? If that’s the case it’s time to take some action.

Please let me make a suggestion: The feast days of Saints Agatha, Agnes, Cecilia, Philomena, Lucy, Anastasia, Dorothy, and Maria Goretti should be Catholic “International Daddies take their Daughters to Mass days.” We must create a culture that loves the great virgins of the Catholic Church.

One of the most powerful tactics in battling our culture of promiscuity and sexual license is a greater reverence for virginity. We must praise our young daughters for being virgins and we must tell them that we value virginity as an exalted status. The same goes for our sons …   [continue to read full post]

I think this idea is brilliant. We are called to live a special Communion of the Saints, a communion willing and eager to help us grow in personal sanctity, to serve as our cloud of witnesses. If a witness is one who simply gives testimony, who can better testify to personal sanctity than those who have trod its path? So to help introduce these concepts of modesty, purity, and chastity to our children, Dr. Marshall advocates that we examine and study the lives of the virgin martyrs whom the Church exalts so highly as to include their names alongside the apostles and first popes in the Eucharistic Prayer I. Inclusion in such company says volumes about the Church’s theology on the gift of virginity. 

What I think may have ruffled the most feathers however is when Dr. Marshall continued with the following:

Fathers and mothers need to be strategic in how they instill this love for purity in their children. We must teach our children that physical death is to be preferred over immodesty and sexual promiscuity.Yes, it’s that serious.

Yeah, that sounds heavy. But maybe it’s not all that complicated. The critics question, “Taylor Marshall would rather see one of his kids dead than to lose her virginity?” Is that what he’s saying here? I don’t know. Perhaps Dr. Marshall is suggesting that we should teach our children to grieve mortal sin, in this case the sins associated with sexual promiscuity, with a heart of a martyr — one who prefers physical death over spiritual death. Our children are immersed in a culture that pressures them, perhaps even shames them, to lose their virginity at younger and younger ages. In the face of this, shouldn’t we want our children to respond with “Over my dead body!” and actually mean it? Doesn’t this really come down to our children grasping what it means to die to themselves and live for Christ?

When seeking theological counsel on this subject, a friend provided me with the following thoughts. While dying a physical death is quite countercultural, it wasn’t for the multitude of saints who came before us. Take the example of St. Rita of Cascia who actually prayed that her two sons die instead of committing mortal sins. In this case, the mortal sin was murder in revenge of those who killed their father. Did St. Rita pray, “Please God, take my sons’ lives, so that they don’t commit a mortal sin”? Or rather, might she have prayed, “Please God, do anything, but don’t let them commit a mortal sin”? Big difference. Is this what Dr. Marshall is highlighting? My friend continued on, “Let’s pray that God spares our children from committing (sexual) mortal sins.  But let’s not just pray, since we as parents are also instruments of God’s grace. We can be positive instruments, by encouraging reading the lives of the virgin martyrs and promoting the right understanding of sexuality (e.g., Theology of the Body).”  

I often hear about the struggles parents face when discussing sexuality with their children. Mine are still young, but here’s what I’m thinking. Why not use the stories of the virgin martyrs as a foundation to build a culture of chastity in our home, and better yet, ask for their intercession? Seems it could become a rather safe entry point to talk about the virtues of sexual purity … over time, then, maybe this stuff organically becomes part of our family’s vocabulary. Really, what other faith tradition gives you all this stuff? Why not take advantage of it? It seems a better alternative than having “the” conversation with my kids once they hit puberty when the culture’s already been having it with them since they’ve been potty trained.

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*Author’s Note: Orignal post updated to include the example and wisdom from St. Rita of Cascia.

This post was challenging to write. I don’t comfortably step into areas of controversy and I don’t claim to have all the answers on this topic. I almost gave up on it for fear of saying the wrong thing, for fear I hadn’t thought this through well enough. A handful of Catholic writers and bloggers whose work I respect really took issue with Dr. Marshall’s post. One woman found it “disturbing.” I don’t, so I guess in a nutshell, I felt called to say: I stand with Dr. Taylor Marshall and Dr. Meg Meeker. Strong fathers, strong daughters … strong families.

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2 comments to Teaching Chastity Through the Virgin Martyrs

  • What upset me about the original article is what I see as the corollary for young women who have lost their virginity, whether willingly, by force, in a moment of weakness under pressure from a boyfriend, or whatever other circumstances. That “it would have been better if I had died.” I’m positive that is not what Dr. Marshall meant but I know from experience working with young women that is how this idea can manifest itself. The shame and guilt do not necessarily disappear even after the sacrament of Reconciliation.

    I just think sexual sin happens in a completely different climate, culturally, from all other sin. I can’t think of another grave sin that the culture actively celebrates and that messes with your head in the same way. And the whole “fathers being personally invested in their daughters’ virginity” (which, again, I do not ascribe specifically to Dr. Marshall) is just as problematic – because, if she makes a mistake, or is in a coercive situation – then what? Now there is the further guilt over how she has disappointed her father?

    I strongly believe that the best way for fathers to help their daughters is to celebrate all of the ways they are beautiful that have nothing whatsoever to do with their sexuality.

    • Dorian’s concern is the one that struck me. In the non-Catholic Christian women’s blogosphere lately, there have been two posts that stirred up a great deal of controversy for taking the Christian establishment to task for exactly this idea–that purity, a holy and praiseworthy thing in itself, can become an idol. People screw up. They aren’t worth less afterward because of it. And, like Dorian, I’m sure that’s not what Dr. Marshall was going for. I think he’s got a good idea going, but all ideas have the potential to be taken to the extreme where they are no longer healthy. I was hoping to find reactions on his blog about what people had found objectionable, just because I was curious–but I didn’t see them there.

      I don’t know that we can divorce our daughters’ sexuality from these topics; I think sexuality is viewed with far too myopic a lens these days–it’s more than chastity and reproductive issues. Sexuality, through the Theology of the Body lens, is tying sexuality–i.e. masculinity and femininity–to the entire Christian life. In other words, how we view the world is deeply impacted by our masculinity or femininity. That’s beyond mere purity, chastity, etc. So I don’t think fathers and daughter CAN address things separate from sexuality. But we also can’t make all of life a long lecture on purity. It’s really easy (I know from experience!) to grow up with a really twisted vision of sexuality if it’s not handled carefully.

      Here are the big posts I’m talking about:

      http://www.elizabethesther.com/2013/01/virginity-new-improved.html

      and

      http://deeperstory.com/i-am-damaged-goods/

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