In the midst of all our preparations for our Christmas celebrations, something serious appeared on the horizon. A former Evangelical, Valerie Tarico, wrote an article on Salon called "Why rape is so intrinsic to religion." With a title like that, the week before Christmas: one can only surmise that she intended to provoke.
I feel called to respond to this article, as a Roman Catholic woman intellectual. I know that I have many non-Catholic readers among my Ruth Institute friends, but I have to speak as a Catholic for two reasons. First of all, that is what I am. Secondly, non-Catholic Christianity is not a well-defined thing. One can readily point to non-Catholic Christians who believe all sorts of things. There is no non-Catholic Christian "definitive" or "traditional" interpretation of anything. Say what you like. Believe what you like. But Catholicism has at least this virtue: one can figure out what it actually says and does not say.
Dr. Tarico cites numerous examples of rape stories in a variety of religious traditions: Zeus, Jupiter, Zoroaster and so on. Tucked away within those stories is the story of the virginal conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary. I'm reminded of the old Sesame Street song: "One of these is not like the others."
As a matter of Catholic doctrine and Catholic tradition, Mary freely gave her consent. The Angel Gabriel stood there and waited for her answer. Nearly a thousand years ago, St. Bernard of Clairvaux captured the beautiful image of all creation, including Adam and Eve and all their descendants, waiting breathlessly for the Virgin's answer.
Of course, no one is required to believe a sermon or poem written by a monk, no matter how privately holy or publically celebrated he may be. We Catholics make use of these kinds of writings as resources for meditation. These reflections of St. Bernard are among the many treasures of the Church that the Church permits, but does not require, us to use.
A more definitive and more recent treatment comes from St. John Paul II's 1987 Encyclical Redemptoris Mater, in English, The Mother of the Redeemer. Paragraph 13 emphasizes the traditional teaching that Mary gave her full consent to the angel's message. John Paul ties his account to the dogmatic Catholic teaching that Mary was free from the stain of original sin, from the first moment of her conception. By this singular grace from God, she was in a position to be a "new Eve," free from sin and able to completely conform herself to the will of God. In effect, Mary is God's "do-over" from the Garden of Eden. This is why the Immaculate Conception has been so important to the Catholic Church that it was proclaimed as an official doctrine.
Dr. Tarico suggests that Mary's consent is more apparent than real. Perhaps this is a secularized version of predestination. But Catholicism has always had a "both/and" approach to the question of grace and free will. We owe everything, including our existence to the grace of God, who foresees all ends. And we have the capacity to make genuine choices.
How do these two seemingly contradictory things fit together? No one knows exactly. But we Catholics believe that if one goes too far down one path or the other that one ends in madness and heresy. Better to keep the two concepts in tension and live with and in the tension, than to go off the deep end.
So Dr. Tarico is simply mistaken in holding that Mary's consent was optional, that her "fiat" as we call it, was really the response of a slave. I cannot speak for all those who describe themselves as Christian. But I can say that this is definitive Catholic teaching.
But I have a deeper concern about the overall rhetorical strategy in this article. Dr. Tarico wants to speak of religion in general, and sweeps Catholicism into a bucket with all sorts of religions. She is quite correct to see that in religion after religion, the gods come to earth and rape women. Indeed, this is part of the general pattern of the gods indulging themselves and doing what they like with humans.
Atheists sometimes sneer that "man creates god in his own image." And so we do. Quite regularly, as a matter of fact.
And when we do create god in our own image, this is what we come up with: gods who rape, pillage, get drunk, get jealous, make war, and generally do whatever their superior power allows them to get away with. Alpha males love this kind of stuff. I believe that is why the patterns Dr. Tarico points out are so consistent across time and space. Elites of all societies love having religious sanction to use their power without restraint.
All except Christianity. In Christianity, God sends a gentle messenger to ask Mary to be the mother of His Son. She could have said no. In Christianity, God comes to earth, and allows us to do what we want to Him. We do the worst things we can think of, and He takes it. He triumphs over our worst sins, and over death itself. Christianity most specifically says that the Elites do not get to do whatever they can get away with.
"One of these things is not like the others." So unlike the others, that it is hard to imagine that someone just made it up. One might even suppose that God revealed Himself to us, since He knew we would not figure it out on our own.
The danger of attacking "religion in general" is that it undermines the one religion that has the potential to put the brakes on the rich and powerful. Indeed philosophers from Machiavelli to Nietzsche have understood as much. They hated Christianity precisely for the restraints it places on the Prince and the Uber Mensch. Sweep Christianity away, especially the Catholic version, and all that will be left standing is the paganism that Dr. Tarico rightly fears.
Dr. Tarico, you gave up Evangelicalism. Time to give up the atheism and paganism, which will not protect you and other people from the abuse of power. Dr. Tarico, you would make an awesome Catholic! Come on across the Tiber! You will be most welcome.
This column was originally published in The Ruth Institute Blog.