What does the church teach about resisting rape?

Q: As a cradle Catholic, I was taught that the denial of Christ is gravely wrong, that Christians must be prepared to die rather than apostatize. However, now I've become aware of a claim that I am not sure about. It has been asserted by someone claiming to be Catholic that in the cases of attempted rape, a married woman is obligated to resist to the point of death or else be guilty of breaking her marriage vows of forsaking all others. According to this person, any married woman who (in the hopes of surviving the ordeal) takes a passive approach to being violated would be guilty of grave sin. St. Maria Goretti was held up as the model for rape victims.

A: No, it is never a sin to be a victim of rape, regardless of how actively one tries to resist. Sin requires knowledge of an action's sinfulness and a free choice to engage in the act. Rape, by definition, involves a lack of knowledge, consent, or both.

It is a horrifically grave sin to force sexual activity upon someone who does not consent to it. But the sinfulness of the one committing rape does not in any way impact the moral or spiritual status of the one who suffers from this kind of violence. Despite what some individual Catholics may have said or thought over the years, the church has never taught that rape victims are in any way guilty for what has happened to them. In the fourth century, St. Augustine -- who lived at a time of great civil instability, when foreign invaders would often abuse women during their plundering of Roman cities -- taught that in many cases, a victim of rape should still be considered a virgin. In Book I, chapter 18 of his massive work "The City of God," he writes: "the sanctity of the soul remains even when the body is violated."

Therefore, the church does not teach that anyone is required to resist an attacker to the point of death. In terms of the church's teachings on martyrdom in general, there is certainly a good argument that we should prefer death to denying Christ. Even so, being in a position where we must choose between martyrdom or actively committing a sin ourselves is very different from the situation of anyone, male or female, who is the sinned-against victim of an attacker.

But then what should we make of the story of St. Maria Goretti, and the many other virgin martyrs?

First, in terms of St. Maria Goretti in particular, it's good to keep in mind that there is much more to her story than resisting her would-be rapist There are many reasons why she was named a saint -- most importantly for her demonstration of heroic mercy. Pious and prayerful from a young age, she died while forgiving her attacker. After her death she appeared to her attacker in prison, inspiring his sincere repentance and conversion.

In my opinion, I think we can regard it as praiseworthy to resist an attacker to the point of death, even while fully understanding that a lack of resistance would NOT be a sin. "Martyrs of purity" did not die to avoid sinning (because being the victim of an assault was never a sin in the first place); they died to bear an exceptional, above-and-beyond witness to the sanctity of the human body.

We might look at these saints as being somewhat like those martyrs who died in order to prevent the profanation of the Eucharist, like St. Tarcisius. That is, a Catholic is not guilty of sacrilege if someone else profanes the consecrated host, but some saints have been called to take the extra, non-required step of preventing the destruction of the Eucharist even at the cost of their lives.

- Canonist Jenna Marie Cooper is a consecrated virgin, a practicing canon lawyer, and columnist for OSV News.