A New Patron Saint for Chastity?


When we’re thinking about the Deadly Sins,
it helps to use examples. It’s too easy for theological writers to sling around Abstractions with Capital Letters, as if with each stroke of the pen they’re tapping into Plato’s realm of changeless, ineffable Forms. Or at least that they’re writing in German, where all nouns start with caps. A friend of mine used to write weekly for the estimable investigatory journal The Wanderer. Founded by German-Catholic immigrants, it was published auf Deutsch well into the 20th century. As my friend recalled, “The editors were, I think, waiting for the rest of the country to catch up with them. At last they admitted that this was unlikely, and agreed to translate the paper. But they kept on as their typesetter someone named Uncle Otto, who for years insisted on capitalizing every noun.”
 


At least, that’s the story. Such Teutonic stubbornness served The Wanderer‘s editors well in the wake of Vatican II, as the newspaper became a snout-rapper — whose reports, as Bishop Rembert Weakland whines in his memoirs, were what Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger used to roll up and smack heretical bishops on the nose. I urge all to subscribe.

 
But capitalizing your Concepts in order to give them an Air of spurious Authority will only take you so far in this world — as far as “B-minus,” I learned back in freshman rhetoric class at a staunchly secular school. So I’ve decided to give the Virtues and Vices a little flesh, to fatten them up for the reader so he’ll remember how they look, sound, even smell.
 
I’ve already, elsewhere, profiled the patroness of promiscuity, the racist shrew Margaret Sanger. Lust’s opposing virtue, Chastity, deserves an equally unforgettable advocate. Much as I love St. Maria Goretti, I’m not sure that her story is terribly useful for illuminating this virtue. Maria died from wounds incurred while resisting a rapist, and is quoted as having chosen “Death before Sin.” In another context that’s surely a worthy maxim, but it’s worth pointing out, over and over again, that rape victims who don’t fight back are not committing a sin. A woman I knew, the victim of a violent rape, said that tales of Maria Goretti (which she’d learned as a girl) fed into the crippling, inappropriate guilt that haunted her after the attack. What’s edifying about Gorretti’s story, I think, is how she forgave her attacker before she died, and how he converted afterward — even attending her canonization Mass. That part is enough to break your heart, but its matter is Mercy, not Chastity.
 
So let’s move on to another story, a longer and sadder one, of Chastity lived over decades and under duress in its most common context, marriage. I speak of someone well known to Showtime subscribers, Queen Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536). The beleaguered first wife of Henry VIII, she started life with every promise of pleasure and power — as the youngest daughter of Europe’s richest, most well-armed monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella. She learned Spanish, French, Latin, and Greek, and all the liberal arts, in an education infused with the Christian humanism that formed Erasmus and Thomas More (her future friend). Obedient to her parents, she made a political marriage at age 15 to the English Prince Arthur — a shy young man who died only six months later.
 
According to Catherine, Arthur carried shyness to quite an extreme, since she always claimed the marriage was never consummated. This may seem implausible now, but it pays to remember two things:
 
  1. Arthur was sickly.
  2. Arthur was English.
A few centuries down the line, it would take seven years for Louis XVI to consummate his bond with Marie Antoinette; perhaps the prospect of handing on royal genes can cause performance anxiety. Whatever the case, the pious Catherine would swear to this fact repeatedly under oath, so it probably behooves us to believe her; her actions in later years otherwise make no sense.
 
 
After Arthur’s death, Catherine was left for seven years an impoverished widow living under something close to house arrest in damp and alien England. She escaped this fate when her parents arranged with Henry VII for her to marry Arthur’s brother, the dashing and learned Prince Henry. Because of Leviticus 20:21, Canon Law forbade a widow’s marrying her brother-in-law. But royal dispensations back then were as thick on the ground as Kennedy annulments, so Henry and Catherine married in 1509. A very different man from his brother, Henry made Catherine pregnant five times — in between long bouts with mistresses, a sport which historians think gave Henry syphilis. That disease contributes to infant mortality, which might explain why only one of Catherine’s children outlived infancy.
 
Lacking a legitimate male heir, with his own family’s claim to the throne still legally tenuous, Henry began to doubt the validity of his marriage to Catherine. By sheer coincidence, he’d fallen in love with one of her teenaged ladies in waiting, Anne Boleyn. Thus began the well-known story of the English Reformation, whose sordid origins have given Irishmen ever after the chance to snark at their English landlords: “My Church was founded by Christ, and yours by Henry VIII.”
 
This isn’t the place to rehearse the tedious legal proceedings by which Henry sought a divorce, or the violence he used on those who resisted him. His efforts were slowed, not stopped, by the fact that Catherine was the well-loved aunt of Charles V, whose armies held the pope a virtual prisoner. There was little honor on any side of this issue, most of whose protagonists (except for saints such as Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher) treated the sanctity of marriage as a pawn on Europe’s chessboard. It all ended with butchered Carthusians; roofless abbeys; bare, ruined choirs; and the liltingly lovely language of the Book of Common Prayer, whose sacraments are invalid.
 
What matters to us is Catherine’s unfailing commitment to her marriage. As the wheels of her persecution ground slowly and certainly, she found herself losing first her privileges, then her rights. In the end, she was banned from even visiting her daughter, the disinherited Princess Mary, and imprisoned in a crumbling castle far from court. At any point in time, Catherine could have freed herself, left England, and returned to Spain — to life as a pampered dowager. All it would have required for Henry to set her free was a simple letter, admitting that their marriage was invalid.
 
But Catherine wouldn’t write it, not even long after she’d given up any prospect of the throne. To the end, she concerned herself with “my husband’s” health and holiness — both in steep decline. She died in poverty and solitude, but would never renounce the reality and the sanctity of her vocation as a wife. Deeply in love with her husband, affectionate and romantic, she was sentenced to decades of celibacy in the midst of the marital state. Abandoned, she never abandoned God. She never even gave up on Henry.
 
As she wrote him, the year before she died:
 
My most dear lord, King and husband,
The hour of my death now drawing on, the tender love I ouge [owe] thou forceth me, my case being such, to commend myselv to thou, and to put thou in remembrance with a few words of the healthe and safeguard of thine allm [soul] which thou ougte to preferce before all worldley matters, and before the care and pampering of thy body, for the which thoust have cast me into many calamities and thineselv into many troubles. For my part, I pardon thou everything, and I desire to devoutly pray God that He will pardon thou also. For the rest, I commend unto thou our doughtere Mary, beseeching thou to be a good father unto her, as I have heretofore desired. I entreat thou also, on behalve of my maides, to give them marriage portions, which is not much, they being but three. For all mine other servants I solicit the wages due them, and a year more, lest they be unprovided for. Lastly, I makest this vouge [vow], that mine eyes desire thou aboufe
She died with dignity, as true to her vocation as any monk or martyr. I cannot think of a worthier model today for all the married.

 

By

John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic's Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as editor of Crisis.

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