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Virginity: Spiritual practice or patriarchal purity?

The feast day for St. Catherine of Siena was on 29 April. She is one of four female doctors of the Church. Margaret Blackie observes that Catherine of Siena’s holiness is almost always prefaced by her virginal state, rather than her actions that made her such an influential figure in the history of the Church.

Can we separate the spiritual practice of sexual abstinence from patriarchal purity culture?

I was scrolling through Facebook on Wednesday evening. I had already participated in a Zoom Eucharist earlier in the day to mark the feast day of Catherine of Siena, when this caught my eye:

‘Feast of St Catherine of Siena, virgin and doctor of the Church, co-patron of Europe’

I won’t name the source here – it is irrelevant – it could have been any English speaking Roman Catholic Church website. Catherine of Siena, for those who may not know, was a member of the third order of Dominicans – a lay person who lived in accordance with the order’s spirituality, but wasn’t a nun or religious sister. She was an extraordinary woman who was apparently influential in the restoration of the papacy from Avignon to Rome. The quote she is most known for says a great deal about who she was:

‘Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire’

St. Catherine of Siena

She was powerful woman. She was educated, she was intelligent, she was deeply faithful.

What caught me that day was the use of the term ‘virgin’. It struck me that we never ascribe ‘virginity’ to our male saints. It is only ever associated with women.

Sexual abstinence as a freely chosen spiritual practice

Most of the mainstream traditions that have survived at least a thousand years put a value on sexual abstinence as a spiritual practice. In our current world it may be hard to argue for that, but let’s presume that there can be merit for a small portion of our communities to harness their sexual energy in this particular way. It will always be a minority path, but those who choose it freely in response to a call from God find something new in that space.

To be very clear, I have absolutely no intention of undermining the merit of that choice. In other words, I believe that for some sexual abstinence has spiritual merit for those who are called to it.

It will always be a minority path, but those who choose it freely in response to a call from God find something new in that space.

However, that is not why the adjective ‘virgin’ is associated with Catherine of Siena. If it were simply about valorising sexual abstinence then men would be attributed with that too. If we know anything about the relative sex drives of men and women it is that men tend to have a stronger drive than women, so the term ‘virgin’ would be even more impressive for men. (And yes not all men etc. etc.). But it seems to me that virginity is associated with patriarchical purity, not with spiritual discipline.

Isn’t it time to separate the two? Anyone who is not in a committed, exclusive, sexual relationship can immerse themselves in the discipline of sexual abstinence. This is something to be valued in our spiritual tradition. It is available to the widowed, the single, the divorced.

But virginity for its own sake has no spiritual value. One can be raped and lose this as possibility. Virginity then simply cannot have the same spiritual value or consequence as chosen spiritual abstinence. Virginity is a binary state that the vast majority of women in history have had no control over retaining.

I would not think less of Catherine of Siena if some new tell-all biography gave tales of some dalliance in her youth. But if she tried to present herself as inspired because of her sexual abstinence, I would certainly pause.

Can we just begin to seriously consider what we doing when we valorise our women saints as ‘virgins’?

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.