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The word made fresh New thinkers

Theologian links mystics, rape


Julie Miller knows when her students at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio are going to get riled up. It’s at the point when, discussing rape, one of them asks if the Catholic church always considered rape a sin.

And theology professor Miller, 37, replies, “Yes, it was a sin, but interestingly, if we look at Aquinas’ natural law theory, rape wasn’t that bad a sin. It was considered something that did violate a person’s integrity in full, but because rape could lead to procreation, it wasn’t as bad a sin as something such as masturbation.”

“My students -- they just can’t believe anybody could have thought that,” said Miller. “I have to keep telling them that Aquinas didn’t say rape was OK. It wasn’t good. It just wasn’t as bad as masturbation or homosexuality.”

As will be seen, Miller is likely to get some students of the medieval and Counter Reformation female mystics riled up, too. Miller believes that some women mystics helped to encourage violence against women in the ages that followed.

The church’s shift in attitude as to how it regarded rape came only gradually in and following the Middle Ages, explained Miller. The questions debated were, “Was rape violence against the woman? Or was it theft of male property? Starting with the 11th century,” said Miller, “there is a shift in emphasis on what the crime actually was, as recognition steadily grew that it was sexual violence against the woman.”

In canon law, by the late Middle Ages, the 13th and 14th centuries, “we find the issue of consent becoming important. Prior to that,” said Miller, “it didn’t really matter if the woman consented or not because the theft was committed against her father. She was his property. Even if she consented to elopement, say, the crime was still committed. She had no voice. Theft was the primary crime being committed.”

Miller, an Illinois native who got her bachelor’s at Notre Dame and her doctorate at Harvard, said the changes come “once you start to define rape as a crime against the woman herself. If she consented, if you can prove consent, then there was no crime committed.”

In Catholic teaching today, she said, “rape is unacceptable, is a crime, a violation of a woman’s body and soul, and in that sense reprehensible.”

Yet rape is a crime that’s still being committed. The latest National Crime Victimization Survery statistics -- and those cover only reported assaults -- reveal that in the United States a woman or girl is raped every 72 seconds.

Theologian Miller knows this from volunteering in the Boston area Rape Crisis Center from 1995 to 1998, and from something else.

“I’m going to go on the record here. I myself was date raped.”

Miller, with steady voice, said, “I was a virgin, thinking I would save myself for marriage, or at least for a situation where it would mean something. I was 24. I had been dating for about two months, and the situation occurred where I was forced to have sex. His response was, ‘Well, I thought you wanted to.’

“Interestingly,” said Miller, “he left his job at that point, and six months later joined the seminary and is now a Catholic priest. So he was very much part of the Catholic church and instilled in these ideas.”

The assault made her wonder, she said, what was it about “my Catholic upbringing and his Catholic upbringing that would get us to the point where he could think that I wanted this, that it would have been pleasurable. Then there was my own reaction. Was this my fault? Am I guilty? Fundamentally this has steered my scholastic pursuits, the experience definitely impelled my thinking on these issues.”

Miller’s 2000 dissertation was “Sexuality/Spirituality: Eroticized Violence and the Limitations of Contemporary Eros Theology.” Her primary question, she said, “was how violence within our culture has been eroticized. In matters of date rape or acquaintance rape, the most common defense that men have is, ‘Well, I thought she wanted it.’ ”

And that, says Miller, demands an answer to the question: “How have we as a culture gotten to the point where we would even think that a person, particularly a woman, would desire to be forced to have sex? Or would desire violence in sexuality?”

Volunteering at the Boston rape crisis center focused the issues for Miller in two ways. One was on the work being done for rape victims; the other on the way current thinking downplays the sex element within the crime of rape.

“In our culture, through pornography and the more general media where women are objectified, women are still to be submissive, and we find frequent images of women being violated and liking it. We have to be much more critical about looking at how sex and violence and power in eroticism are connected in our culture.”

After getting her master’s degree in theological studies, and before getting her doctorate, Miller taught Christian morality courses and scripture at St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City, N.J.

For her doctorate in theology, she theorized and looked at history to discover “what factors have been at play both in the culture but also within religion and spirituality that gave us this idea that women like violent sex.”

Some scholars, not least those looking at the medieval women mystics through a feminist prism, may find much to contend in Miller’s questioning.

Miller grounded herself in two areas, the writings of medieval women mystics, and the history of rape law from early Roman days and within Hebrew culture and the Bible down through Christianity.

“Rapture,” as rape was legally known, she said, was basically a theft or abduction of male property. “It generally referred to the abduction of a virgin for the purpose of marriage. There was a kind of subtext that understood sexual violence would occur in this abduction.” At the same time in the Middle Ages, the shift was occurring from rape as a crime of theft to rape as a crime of sexual violence, she said. “Rapture was also a spiritual notion being spiritualized and also eroticized.”

Miller looked at the medieval women mystics. One was the 12th-century Hadewijch of Antwerp, who used “a lot of the courtly love literature of the time to talk about her relationship -- the soul’s relationship -- with God.

“In the courtly love literature,” she said, “we have the first romanticization of love itself being disseminated in literature -- and taken up in spiritual literature as well. It became a kind of cultural standard.”

The trouble is and was, said Miller, what people like Hadewijch and Teresa of Avila did with courtly literature.

“Within courtly literature, Hadewijch writes a lot of love poetry,” said Miller, “and it’s always a very combative relationship between God and the soul. She uses images of violence, combat, war, destruction and annihilation -- but it is always very exciting and erotic at the same time, because it is a love relationship.”

Teresa of Avila’s writings exhibit this same eroticism, she said. “There is violence within this relationship to God -- a violence that gives Teresa pain not only in her soul, but also physically in her body. She attempts to resist oftentimes, but ultimately she says, well, you can’t fight against God, might as well just accept it because it’s going to happen anyway.”

Is Miller stating that women mystics are saying violence is what women expect? “That’s my point. Yes,” Miller replied. “I don’t want to blame Teresa or Hadewijch and say, ‘Look, you’ve done these horrible things,’ but rather try to understand that within their context this language and relationship is the only way they can even talk about eroticism.

“One of my main critiques is not critiquing the mystics, per se,” she said, “but critiquing contemporary scholars who pick up that language and valorize it and say, ‘It’s OK today because it was written by a woman. And we have to reclaim women’s voices,’ so that whatever women said it must be pure as the driven snow and not need to be critiqued at all.”

On the contrary, argues Miller, there is a need to step back and understand that these mystics lived in a structured and highly patriarchal context in which women did not have a sense of self. They were trying to make sense of their lives within a patriarchal box, almost incapable of imagining a life outside their box, and trying to come to terms with that reality.

Miller said that some are reading women mystics today only for the eroticism and saying, “This is great! Women didn’t hate their bodies, they really weren’t anti-sex, weren’t a bunch of prudes.” Meanwhile, she said, some are “glossing over the violent aspects of it.”

“I’m trying to say, ‘Wait a minute. We can’t just uphold these women in what they said and did as models for us today.’ They were and are very problematic in some of the ways they presented their relationship.

“It’s not so much that I have a conclusion,” said Miller, “but what I want people to think about -- and it is very intriguing to me -- is that at the same time that rapture was shifting from rape as theft to rape as violation of a woman’s sexual autonomy, we find this discourse in romance literature and also spiritual literature, which suggests that women might actually consent to this violence.

“Not only consent,” said Miller, “but see it as the pinnacle, the height of the relationship between the soul and God -- violence against the woman, violence against the soul. Battering the soul, the annihilation of the soul -- battering the woman. All this, I think, serves an ideological function.

“A thousand years later when you go into court and the question is, ‘Did she consent to this?’ we have this cultural phenomenon of spiritual literature and regular literature that says women would consent, that it’s not such a far-fetched idea.”

What the mystics gave off, she said, is a sense “that violence is OK -- because this is the way it is. Like saying today that rape is OK, because that’s the way it is.”

Taking that same critique to current society, Miller argues, “What we have to realize is that even if we get rid of pornography, get rid of degrading sexual advertising, we’re not going to get rid of the problem. For, one thing Hadewijch and Teresa of Avila do tell us is that this model or construct of eroticized violence goes so much deeper than we realize.”

Arthur Jones is NCR’s editor at large. His e-mail address is ajones96@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, September 7, 2001