When I earned my MBA in finance, questions were welcomed. When I got a degree in chemical engineering, questions were encouraged. But before that, I attended an all-female Catholic high school, and a “wrong” question could land you in the principal’s office.
According to Catholic teaching, Gabriel, a winged angel, visited a virgin named Mary and told her she was pregnant with a child she should name Jesus. When Mary’s time on earth ended, her body and spirit were assumed into heaven. Questions about the story of the Immaculate Conception were deflected as a “mystery of faith.”
In all accounts, Mary was said to be underage by today’s standards. Many priests and nuns put her at around thirteen when she conceived. Among my Catholic girlfriends, the mystery of Mary—and what it implied about the Catholic Church’s view of women—was a hot topic of debate. But that debate took place outside the earshot of nuns who could give you after-school detention.
As Catholics we were asked to believe a story that echoes Greek myths. One myth tells of Zeus transforming himself into a winged swan to mate with Leda, a married queen who bears his immortal offspring. In another myth, Alcmene mates with Zeus, disguised as her absent husband, Amphitryon, king of Tiryns. Alcmene’s son is Hercules, a demigod with superhuman physical strength and extraordinary courage. When Alcmene dies, Zeus orders Hermes, who wore a winged helmet and winged sandals, to bring her body to the Elysian Fields, a paradise for the virtuous.
As high school girls, we were asked to believe a story that said God chose an underage virgin. Michelangelo painted God as an old man for the ceiling of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. But wait…who said God has a gender? If you think that God has a gender, then why not female, since women nurture life with their bodies? Where are the female priests?
As citizens of the United States, we were asked to overlook what seemed to us to be a form of statutory rape. In some countries, girls are married off at the age of 13—or younger—but not in the United States. Even if the conception were immaculate, law enforcement would still have questions about impregnating an underage girl.
I recently wrote a mystery/thriller, Archangels: Rise of the Jesuits, about the Jesuits having their fill of financial and sexual corruption, blackmailing the pope with secret documents, and taking control of the Vatican bank and the Catholic Church. In my novel, Helena, a married Italian mother, engages in a short conversation with Father James:
“I find it appalling that the Church claims Mary consented at the age of thirteen to become the mother of God.”
“But she did,” James said. “There is ample evidence to show she consented.”
“Isn’t that the classic defense of the pedophile?” Helena asked. “In Christ’s time and even today in some countries in the Middle East and India, child marriages are customary. But that doesn’t make it right. In Europe and the U.S. we prosecute adults for preying on children. God would be arrested for impregnating a girl below the age of consent.”
“People didn’t live as long then,” James said.
Helena would not back down. “But human biology hasn’t changed. My point is she was too young to consent. The brain of a young teenager isn’t fully developed.”
“The mysteries of the faith require us to have faith,” James said.
“Don’t hide behind that nonsense. What kind of message is the Church sending to women? Only virgin children are pure? Experienced mothers are impure and unfit to raise Christ? It’s creepy and insulting when you think about it, but you would have me suspend rational judgment and just accept something I would tear your eyes out for thinking about my underage sister?”
If God were arrested and questioned, the outcome might be something like this: So your defense is that it’s okay because you’re God; you never laid a finger on her; she consented; and it’s normal in your culture to impregnate underage girls. Please step this way. Your long white beard will look great in a mug shot.
“Helena Can’t Be a Catholic”
Some Catholics believe that Helena’s questions are a form of heresy. Although this conversation was just a brief passage in my novel, two readers—one male and one female—emailed me expressing outrage at perceived heresy: “Helena can’t be a Catholic and think that way.”
The Vatican Embraces Questioners
If you believe people who question are heretics, then the estimated number of 1.2 billion Catholics is much too high. Many men and women call themselves Catholics and ask so-called dangerous questions.
Catholics’ questions aren’t limited to those raised by Helena. The Vatican Bank scandals and the church’s sexual scandals have given Catholics ample reason to ask challenging questions of church leadership.
News accounts from the Vatican claim around 1.2 billion world-wide Catholics. Pope Francis I has inherited a church in crisis, and it seems he believes all questioners count.
Endnote: Since writing this post, a priest advised me that in the gospels of Luke and Matthew that talk about this subject, Mary’s purity stemmed from her being born without original sin, not from her virginity. Her virginity is mentioned not to establish her purity but to establish paternity. Her age is never specifically mentioned. She may have been twelve and a half, when Jewish law would allow her to marry, or she may have been, say, twenty. The gospels do not mention her age at the time of her marriage or at the time of Christ’s birth.