QUAERITUR: A saint’s qualification for the title “Virgin”

Sts. Nunilo and Alodia, virgins and martyrsFrom a reader:

Praised be Jesus Christ!  I was recently told (by someone who heard from someone else) that in order to bear the title “Virgin”, a Saint would not only have been kept from all physical sins of impurity during their life, but are also thought/known/revealed to have been entirely free of mortal sin throughout their life. Is this true? Would you point me to a record of the actual criteria used for discerning if one is to be called “Virgin” in the Church?

It is not true that such a woman would have to be “entirely free of mortal sin throughout their life”.  There is only one woman ever who ever fit that description.

This isn’t as difficult as your friend is making it.

To be given the title “virgin” the woman had to be physically a virgin.  Full stop.

An exception is made in the case of women who lost physically virginity against their will.

This is also the criterion for the modern Consecration of a Virgin, which some women who live in the the world receive from a bishop.  Some women religious, such as Benedictines, also receive that Consecration.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Precentrix says:


    What is the definition of virginity per se? I have seen definitions ranging from the ‘proof’ of an intact hymen (which can be broken by exercise such as swimming or horseriding, or from use of, umm, sanitary products) to simply not having had intercourse (which would rely on the woman’s word, though of course lying would invalidate the consecration)… to not having had intercourse willingly (a woman who was raped could still be called a virgin).

  2. Girgadis says:

    We know that Mary, Holy Mother of God, remained entirely free of mortal sin while on earth, but St. Therese of the Child Jesus was assured by her confessor that she, too, never committed a serious sin her entire life. I find that extraordinary and I wonder how many other saints could say the same.

  3. Ana says:

    Actually, we know the Blessed Virgin Mary was conceived without sin and remained free of all sin — hence the “Immaculate Conception of Mary” — not just that she remain free of mortal sin.

  4. cpaulitz says:

    “There is only woman ever who ever fit that description.”

    That’s not true. There were plenty of saints, both capital and small s saints, who were free from mortal sin their entire lives.

    Mary was the only woman free of all sin, including venial.

    [Once we get into the category of mortal sin, how can anyone other than God know? How can you prove it?

    1 John 1:10: “If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” That just popped into my head.

    This may be a technical point, but it is nevertheless true for all of us who didn’t receive Mary’s singular grace: by definition Original Sin is mortal sin and we all commit it. We all have the guilt of Original sin, not just the dire effects.

    It is, by the way, categorical for Augustine that even the iusti are sinners. For Augustine, Christ is “solus liber“.

    So… dear commentator… I’m curious. If there are “plenty” of women saints who never committed a mortal sin, will you please name them?]

  5. I don’t think lifelong freedom from mortal sin is impossible. I would be willing to bet that many saints managed it. St. John Bosco certainly advocated doing all one can to avoid ever committing a mortal sin, and even had visions about the special sanctity of souls who succeed in never falling out of the state of grace. But freedom from all sin is a different story.

  6. Oneros says:

    I have to agree with the above posters. Freedom from MORTAL sin is not a privilege limited to the Virgin Mary. Only she was free from even original sin, but tradition attests that John the Baptist was free from all personal sin (and some would suggest St. Joseph was as well, if his doubts surrounding the Nativity narrative can be explained away as reasonable and natural; after all, he seems to try to do the right thing, and immediately believes when the angels tell him). There are also many traditions suggesting that various Saints only ever committed venial sin (St. Therese comes to mind, yes).

  7. Maltese says:

    St. Gianna, though not a virgin, is a modern hero to me:


  8. Oneros says:

    As for definition of “virginity” Precentrix check out the Catholic Encyclopedia article and the Summa article. I don’t think Fr. Z is right to focus on “physical” virginity, full stop. I doubt an intact hymen (which can be broken in other completely innocuous ways) matters for giving a Saint the title Virgin, which what I’ve typically seen “physical virginity” refer to in the literature. What’s important is moral virginity, I’m sure, defined by Catholic Encyclopedia (for the purposes of the theological category, the “aureole”):

    “There are two elements in virginity: the material element, that is to say, the absence, in the past and in the present, of all complete and voluntary delectation, whether from lust or from the lawful use of marriage; and the formal element, that is the firm resolution to abstain forever from sexual pleasure.”

    I do assume “voluntary” here would mean that women raped are still morally virgins. However (perhaps to the consternation of some), the Church traditionally seems to have held a stricter standard of what constituted “rape,” to the point that if a woman “gave in” (even under threat of violence) it was considered in some sense (at least partially) voluntary. Just consider the Saints, like Maria Goretti, praised for resisting to the death; the message is apparently that if you don’t do everything you can to stop it, you have in some sense “consented,” even if not fully.

    I’m not sure what I think of this message. I suppose it could be taken something along the lines of the existentialist idea of rejecting “bad faith”: we are always free and even coercive force does not allow us to deny our own agency; if there is a threat of death unless we do something…we still are free and can still make a choice: we can choose death. We are only truly exculpated if we are literally physically forced against all resistance.

    Some would scream “That’s awful!” regarding victims of rape and such who do not resist to the death, and yet we have to ask…if the threat of violence allows us to give up our agency (and blame it on the perpetrator), then why should Christians have faced martyrdom for refusing to sacrifice to the emperor? Shouldn’t the threat of death they were under have exculpated them? But no, it wouldn’t have, they had to choose death instead. It’s interesting to think about.

    Anyway, this traditional “theological” definition of virginity is obviously very different from “pop culture” virginity which (at its strictest) only excludes sexual activity with a partner, and which (at its most “technical”) seems to refer only to penetration. When it comes to the consecration of virgins, I’m not sure whether the Church currently disqualifies for masturbation or even bothers inquiring; I tend to think they’re probably only concerned with sex itself, which would make the practical canonical definition closer to the “popular” understanding.

    But technically, as Catholic Encyclopedia says, “Virginity is irreparably lost by sexual pleasure, voluntarily and completely experienced” and lest anyone thing “sexual pleasure” refers only to the pleasure of sex [with a partner], Aquinas clarifies in the Summa “Pleasure resulting from resolution of semen may arise in two ways. If this be the result of the mind’s purpose, it destroys virginity, whether copulation takes place or not […] On another way this may happen beside the purpose of the mind, either during sleep, or through violence and without the mind’s consent, although the flesh derives pleasure from it, or again through weakness of nature, as in the case of those who are subject to a flow of semen. On such cases virginity is not forfeit, because such like pollution is not the result of impurity which excludes virginity. ”

    You will notice he explicitly maintains the virginity of the raped (and of nocturnal emissions of course; a huge source of concern for the medievals, apparently, to the point that we get that awkward line about wet dreams in the Compline hymn…)

  9. Mike says:

    Pope John XXIII said he had never committed a grave sin against impurity. (He thanked his parents for that, among others.)

    Correct: Our Lady was totally free from all sin, mortal and venial.

  10. Elizabeth D says:

    “It is not true that such a woman would have to be “entirely free of mortal sin throughout their life”. There is only woman ever who ever fit that description.”

    Like others have said, there are certainly Saints who have been (credibly) said to never have committed a mortal sin, including St Aloysius Gonzaga and St Therese of Lisieux (she was told this by a confessor at the time of her entrance to Carmel), and others also. They sinned venially though, which the Blessed Virgin did not.

    The traditional spiritual teaching is that on the journey to sanctity there is a Way of Innocence (of never committing a mortal sin all one’s life, keeping the Baptismal garment unstained) and a Way of Penance (of those who have sinned mortally). The fact that such a teaching exists implies that it is understood that there are some who, by the grace of God, never personally commit mortal sin.

    Committing mortal sin is a rupture so horrible it is really unbearable to consider the real significance, separation from God, a betrayal of the One who has loved us so perfectly, few consider what they have deserved in hell because of their deeds. Jesus’ suffering all pain, exhaustion, thirst, inner torment and mockery and death is all out of love for poor sinners and truly reconciles those who believe in Him especially in the Sacraments. In His glorious Resurrection is the hope of all us Mary Magdalenes, the awful wound of mortal sin is transformed by the fire of merciful Love, the greater good of the Savior triumphs over the evil of sin.

  11. Girgadis says:

    Of course I should have said that the Blessed Virgin Mary remained free from all sin, not just mortal sin.

  12. dawneden says:

    When I researched this question for my upcoming book My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints, I found that much of what Catholics believe the Church teaches on this matter–such as that rape is somehow voluntary if a woman is violated–is completely erroneous.

    The actual teaching of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church is that the measure of whether a holy virgin who is raped qualifies as a virgin martyr (also known as a martyr of chastity) is not whether she was violated, but whether she resisted.

    As Father Z would say, full stop.

    Exhibit A: St. Augustine, City of God, Book I, Chapter 18. The chapter is titled “Of the Violence Which May Be Done to the Body by Another’s Lust, While the Mind Remains Inviolate.” That should tell you something right there. Augustine, writing about the virgin martyrs of the early Church, lashes out at pagans who claim that virgins who had been violated were no longer virgins: “What sane man can suppose that, if his body be seized and forcibly made use of to satisfy the lust of another, he thereby loses his purity?”

    Exhibit B: In the Acts of the third-century martyr St. Lucy (which were first quoted by St. Aldhelm in the seventh century, but were probably written much earlier), when a Roman consul threatens St. Lucy with rape unless she recants her Christian faith, she replies, “If you cause me to be violated against my will, my chastity will receive a double crown.”

    Exhibit C: St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Supplement, q. 96, a. 5, ad 4. Quoting the Acts of St. Lucy, Aquinas writes that a virgin martyr who was raped will receive a double reward in heaven—“one for observing virginity, the other for the outrage she has suffered.” He adds that “[even] supposing that one thus violated should conceive, she would not for that reason forfeit her virginity.”

    In researching My Peace I Give You, I was told by a senior investigator of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints, in no uncertain terms, that the teaching of St. Augustine still stands.

    It is a terrible loss for all Catholics that victims of rape are being told that, because saints like Maria Goretti were not violated, they themselves are somehow considered by the Church to have stained themselves by “letting” themselves be raped. We, as a Church, need to get our message in line with our own Fathers and Doctors if we are to begin to address the sexual abuse crisis in the culture at large, which the media is only beginning to acknowledge in the wake of the Penn State outrage.

    Please say a prayer, as you read this, for anyone reading this who is a sexual-abuse survivor. Every Catholic bears a personal responsibility to show them, and all who have suffered injustice, the way to the healing that can be found only in Christ in His Church. Ave crux, spes unica.

  13. amsjj1002 says:

    Why isn’t this title given to male virgins — or is it? Almost all of my saints are, and this has me wondering.

  14. priests wife says:

    dawneden- your book sounds really interesting and very important!

  15. Elizabeth D says:

    Dawn, I am looking forward to your book and thinking about pre-ordering it, I like very much what I have seen about it so far and I think it may fill a keen need.

  16. Elizabeth D says:

    Okay I will go pre-order it now while I am thinking about it.

  17. Joy says:

    I, too, have placed your book on pre-order. This discussion has brought up past pain, for I was indeed taught that, as you wrote: “because saints like Maria Goretti were not violated, they themselves are somehow considered by the Church to have stained themselves by “letting” themselves be raped.” I will commit myself to prayer for the weekend, and encourage all others reading this to say a prayer for sexual abuse victims as well. Prayer does help.

  18. Oneros says:

    The virginity of male saints is discussed in some of the legendaria, but female virginity has a higher symbolic premium (because a female virgin ensures paternity for a future husband, etc) and male saints are not “classed” this way because of how they can be classed instead as a variety of clerical things (Bishop, Abbot, etc)

  19. Jael says:

    It is my understanding that someone can repent of sexual sin and be consecrated a virgin from that time forward.

  20. Jael says:

    I thought I’d better give at least one reference. Here’s paragraph 5 of Sacra Virginitatis:

    5. Innumerable is the multitude of those who from the beginning of the Church until our time have offered their chastity to God. Some have preserved their virginity unspoiled, others after the death of their spouse, have consecrated to God their remaining years in the unmarried state, and still others, after repenting their sins, have chosen to lead a life of perfect chastity; all of them at one in this common oblation, that is, for love of God to abstain for the rest of their lives from sexual pleasure. May then what the Fathers of the Church preached about the glory and merit of virginity be an invitation, a help, and a source of strength to those who have made the sacrifice to persevere with constancy, and not take back or claim for themselves even the smallest part of the holocaust they have laid on the altar of God.

  21. Imrahil says:

    St. Maria Goretti is not praised for wishing to be rather dead than raped, but because she persevered in her virginity, warning her attacker that his deed was a mortal sin, and for suffering martyrdom from his wrath following this accusation.

  22. APX says:

    It is my understanding that someone can repent of sexual sin and be consecrated a virgin from that time forward.

    No, that is not correct. A woman must be an actual virgin, not a “born again virgin”. The only exception is if she is a victim of sexual assault. In such circumstances the woman is still considered a virgin.

  23. APX says:


    I should add, what you posted speaks about chastity as opposed to virginity. Women who have lost their virginity can still consecrate themselves to God and live a life of chastity, but for te purposes of Consecrated Virgins, yes she must be a virgin. The reason being is that a Conscrated Virgin is enters into a mystical enspousal to Christ, becomes his bride (this is why only women can be consecrated virgins) and offers him the gift of her perpetual virginity. A woman who is no longer a virgin cannot offer this gift, as she no longer has it.

  24. dawneden says:

    Canon law states [No, it doesn’t.] that a woman who has lost her virginity by involuntary means, i.e. rape or incest, may still become a consecrated virgin. See “Who Can Be Consecrated,” by the U.S. Association of Consecrated Virgins. [That is the Praenotanda of the Rite of Consecration of Virgins, not the Code of Canon Law.]

  25. dawneden says:

    In other words, losing physical virginity is not necessarily the same as losing spiritual virginity in the eyes of canon law. If one seeks to consecrate one’s virginity, what is required is not physical intactness, but virginity of the will–that is, having always had the will to remain a virgin.

  26. Speravi says:

    On this topic, are there any instances besides St. John the Apostle of male saints being referred to as “virgins?” I have thought interesting that, among male saints, he alone seems to be spoken of using this title. If St. John is given this title, it would seem that someone like St. Aloysius could also receive it. Perhaps its use for St. John predates its limitation to female saints?

  27. Elizabeth D says:

    Dawn is right in substance that rape does not exclude from the Consecrated Vocation vocation (Cardinal Burke says so) but it is true that Canon Law does not specify that, only that the candidate may not “have lived in open violation of chastity” and must have a good reputation with everyone.

  28. There are plenty of virgin male saints, and it is sometimes used as one of their titles. There’s generally a good deal of info about how pure the guy was, if he was, or how much he played around in his pre-saint days, if he did. However, the classification of saints into various categories (abbots and abbesses, holy women, virgins, priests, bishops, confessors, martyrs, etc.) is a different matter, because it allows priests to pick out what kind of votive Mass they should offer.

    The readings and propers for the Mass of a Virgin (or multiple virgins), like the readings and propers for the Mass of Holy Women, are all about women. The hymns are about women. Everything is women. Do you really think St. Aloysius and St. John want a Mass praising them for becoming a bride of the King? “Listen, my daughter” is really going to be super-applicable?

    C’mon, people. Sometimes we focus on commonality, but sometimes we have to acknowledge differences.

    That said, I’m glad Dawn Eden brought up St. Augustine. This part of The City of God is one of the great liberating moments in Church and world history, and yet the guy gets slammed as a woman hater. He had to go against a great burden of pagan Roman tradition for this, and even against the old folk Roman attitudes taught by the bishop who converted him, St. Ambrose. A lot of Christians honestly thought that suicide (before or after rape) was a valid Christian alternative or even a commandment. St. Augustine did his best to stop that.

    There is nothing wrong with women fighting rape, obviously. But that there is nothing shameful in not being able to fight, or in being unsuccessful, or in living to tell the tale and living out one’s life without being ruined by it — St. Augustine drew that out from God’s teaching.

  29. APX says:

    In other words, losing physical virginity is not necessarily the same as losing spiritual virginity in the eyes of canon law. If one seeks to consecrate one’s virginity, what is required is not physical intactness, but virginity of the will–that is, having always had the will to remain a virgin.

    I guess so. I’ve read through the decernment guide on the aforementioned site and I simply interpreted it as someone who has never willingly had sex. I read of one story of a woman who thought it meant that other people didn’t know about her losing her virginity and once she realized she was misguided, went back to her bishop and cancelled the consecration ceremony.

  30. Supertradmum says:

    There is a difference in the Church between public consecration of virgins, whom by the way, must be physical virgins, and private vows. “The virgin is consecrated to God by the diocesan Bishop according to a rite approved by the church. [Catechism of the Catholic Church, 922-924]” indicates as does the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity that the woman is a virgin. I have a friend who is a Consecrated Virgin, who made public vows under her bishop and lives in the world publicly as a Consecrated Virgin. It is a question as to whether the Catholic Church as an institution acknowledges a particular vocation. In private vows, this is not the case.

    There are private vows to a bishop as well, which are not the same as the above. Some members of third orders make private vows of chastity (St. Catherine of Siena) and are not labeled as such,”Consecrated Virgins”, although such women may be living a very similar, but not exact, vocation. Widows, the annulled, or those who have converted from a life of sin cannot be consecrated virgins according to the Rite.

    Here is the Code in Canon Law: Canon 604
    §1. Similar to these forms of consecrated life is the order of virgins, who, committed to the holy plan of following Christ more closely, are consecrated to God by the diocesan bishop according to the approved liturgical rite, are betrothed mystically to Christ, the Son of God, and are dedicated to the service of the Church.
    §2. In order to observe their commitment more faithfully and to perform by mutual support service to the Church which is in harmony with their state these virgins can form themselves into associations.

  31. Supertradmum says:

    PS I should have added that the Rite, etc. is vague concerning those who have experienced sexual abuse. There have been, as noted above, generous interpretations. However,The United States Association of Consecrated Virgins takes the stricter view of real virginity.

  32. cpaulitz says:

    Father, off the top of my head, I believe St. Tereze said she never committed a mortal sin. I’m sure there’s more but the GOP debate is about to start, so I gotta go!

  33. Elizabeth D says:

    Supertradmum, as noted above you are not correct that the USACV considers women who have been sexually assaulted to be excluded from the CV vocation.

  34. Elizabeth D says:

    A particular physical state of the body generally naturally corresponds with virginity but is not the essence of how Catholic Tradition understands virginity. Muslims in contrast typically DO insist that the physical state defines virginity.

    The Blessed Virgin we would of course understand as being inviolate (“inviolata, integra, et casta es Maria”) in every sense.

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  36. Shoshana says:

    So where does this leave a repentant lesbian who is a physical virgin?

  37. Jael says:

    “…by definition Original Sin is mortal sin and we all commit it.”

    Fr. Z, what do you mean, we all “commit” original/mortal sin? Commit means “to do or perpetrate.” When Eve perpetrated the original sin, I was not yet conceived. How, merely by being conceived, did I “do” or “perpetrate” anything?

    Yes, I know we all suffer the consequences of Eve’s sin. But I fail to see how we all perpetrated it.

  38. Jael says:

    About not committing a mortal sin one’s whole life:

    I just read a biography of Thomas Aquinas that said he never committed a mortal sin.

  39. inara says:

    Shoshana, it seems that, based on the quotes provided by Oneros above, that one would not be considered a virgin (even though physically so) who had experienced sexual pleasure (through consent of the will) either alone or with a member of the same sex.

  40. dawneden says:

    Shoshana, it is true that, to be a consecrated virgin, one must have never lived in open violation of chastity. But you don’t have to be a consecrated virgin to be a saint. Mary Magdalen could not have become a consecrated virgin, yet she was raised to the altar as one of the Church’s greatest saints, the “apostle to the apostles.”

    “For I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” – Jeremiah 29:11 (RSV)

  41. Imrahil says:

    Dear @Jael,

    it is written (Rom 5,12): “In Adam all have sinned”.

    That being said, theologians usually distinguish between original sin and mortal sin, though both lead to loss of grace. At any rate, we do so in speaking. And in this sense, while none but Christ and Mary have not committed original sin (in Adam), there may – at any rate there may – be (relatively) plenty who have never committed mortal sin. 1 Joh 1:10 refers to mortal and venial sin put together.

  42. Brad says:

    I was just reading about St. Agatha last night, who was thrown into a brothel by her own suitor. I assume, real world, she was raped many times. But then again, maybe the Lord protected her as he did the young men in the furnace. If the former, she still became a virgin saint, no?

  43. Jael says:


    I wrote to Fr. Z because I would like him to explain his statement saying we have all “committed” original sin.
    I do not believe we have “committed” original sin. I think that statement is nonsensical.
    I would like his explanation.

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