Thursday, July 12, 2012

St. Augustine on misplaced shame

Today a reporter conducting an e-mail interview with me about My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints asked me to share what St. Augustine taught about virgin martyrs.

In My Peace I Give You, I describe how Augustine in City of God, writing about holy Christian women who were raped prior to being martyred, articulated Church doctrine on what is virginity's foundation. Virginity is founded upon the constant will to remain a virgin. Therefore, virgins who have suffered rape are not merely "secondary virgins" in the eyes of the Church; they are true virgins. Aquinas says, "Even supposing that one thus violated should conceive, she would not for that reason forfeit her virginity" (Summa Theologiae, Suppl., q. 96, a. 5, ad 4).

Being asked to say more about Augustine's writings, I looked up the relevant section of City of God and found something that had escaped my notice when writing My Peace I Give You. The Bishop of Hippo speaks about a phenomenon that is all too common to victims of sexual abuse, which I myself suffered after being victimized as a child: misplaced shame. What he says is remarkably insightful, especially given that he was writing in the early 400s, at a time before much thought was given to the psychology of victims.

Augustine acknowledges that a person who has suffered rape may harbor feelings of shame. However, the cause for such shame exists only in the victim’s mind—from the fear that others might think he or she enjoyed it. In other words, the shame is a purely subjective feeling, not grounded in objective truth. Objectively, "nothing that another person does with the body, or upon the body, is any fault of the person who suffers it, so long as he cannot escape it without sin."(City of God, Book I, chapter 16).

I find it interesting that Augustine treats this subject so early in City of God; it is in Book I of that magnum opus. Perhaps the legitimate guilt he felt over the time he spent willfully engaging in sexual sin, which he describes with sorrow in his Confessions, gave him particular sympathy towards those whose own feelings of guilt were misplaced.

Read more about My Peace I Give You at the Patheos Book Club.