When I read the news about the sixteen-year-old murder victim who was beatified as a “martyr to purity,” I had to check the date on the paper. Had I somehow picked up a sixty-year-old edition of Catholic New York? Alas, no. This girl, killed by a would-be rapist, was beatified on September 1, 2018, and it was Pope Francis who approved her classification as a martyr in defensum castitatis—in defense of her virginity. We are, it seems, still doing this.
Anna Kolesárová was a Slovak girl who was shot to death in her own home, in front of her family, by a soldier from the occupying Red Army in 1944. Her courage and her suffering are undeniable. She is the first Slovak layperson to be beatified. Her death at the hands of a Russian soldier makes her a symbol of the struggle against totalitarianism, and her cult represents a renewal of religion after Communism, especially among the young. The trouble is not in her biography, but in the outdated and harmful ideas about sex and purity the church applies to her death. A recent account from the Vatican’s Dicastery for Laity, Family, and Life says that Anna “repeatedly rejected the young man’s advances, preferring to die rather than give herself to him.” A church that continues to talk this way about rape, murder, and chastity is a church that cannot credibly face its own crisis of sexual abuse or repair its damaged moral authority.
In August, the Slovak bishops conference circulated a pastoral letter that describes Anna as having been “fully aware, despite her young age” of the consequences of the soldier’s advances, and praises her for having “followed the voice of conscience” without deliberation. The letter explains her story’s relevance for modern youth: “Today, the temptations against purity are much greater than before—they weigh on the young soul from every direction, via the internet and media.” It does not seem possible that now, today, we should need to ask this question: Was Anna murdered because she heroically resisted “temptation”? Or was she murdered by a man who tried to rape her at gunpoint? It can’t be both. Anna’s death is both tragic and galvanizing. But, as B. D. McClay wrote about Maria Goretti in a recent essay for this magazine, “The trouble is that she didn’t choose to die. Someone chose to kill her.”