St. Perpetua’s Non-Silence

“We want to talk to you about same-sex marriage.” We were still in the first week of a summer course that I was teaching to a group of international students, when two young women from the Netherlands approached me with this request. Fearing this might be a conversation loaded with land mines, I demurred.

I have on too many occasions entered discussions on a sensitive topic mistaking it for the sort of philosophical discussion one has about, say, the nature of moral virtue in the thought of Aquinas. Discussions about such “academic” issues can get heated – oddly – but they still usually retain the outward demeanor of a disinterested “philosophical” discussion. Such is not the case when the issue is, say, abortion.

Sometimes, when you are going through your list of killer arguments, responding to all objections in fine Socratic or Thomistic fashion (my, aren’t I smart!), you suddenly get the very clear intuition (probably twenty minutes too late) that the person you are talking to has had an abortion. Or she tells you outright: “I had an abortion.” At that point you realize, if you have any sense at all (and I can’t claim to have much), that this isn’t just a disinterested philosophical argument; no, you’ve entered into the struggle within a person’s soul, and you had better tread lightly.

In most cases, both parties undoubtedly needed to have spent a lot more time building up mutual respect and trust before they ventured together into such troubled waters. You don’t have to say “You’re a baby killer” for someone to hear that message.

So too, it seems to me, with any discussion of same-sex sexual activity or same-sex “marriage.” People on both sides often have a great deal of themselves invested in the question, and it can be difficult to say anything that might not be misconstrued or misunderstood by the other side. In such circumstances of anger, pain, and mistrust, one can do tremendous damage where one should have fostered reconciliation and mutual understanding.

The Enlightenment notion that we can all just sit down, put our emotions and prejudices aside, and discuss these things rationally, with pure undiluted reason, is an illusion and a dangerous one. It’s important in such situations, therefore, to show great care.

St. Perpetua Comforting her Father by Antonio Ridolfi, 1857 [Museo Cassioli, Asciano, Italy]

So it was that when these two young women approached me, I demurred. We would have to get to know one another better, I told them; there would have to be safety for both parties in the discussion; we would have to be ready to look past what the other person’s words might mean to discern the true intentions behind those words; and we would have to care enough about the issue – and about each other – to be patient with a process that might have to unfold over hours or weeks.

But this wasn’t the question these young women wanted to discuss at all. As it turned out, they were serious Catholics (yes, from the Netherlands) who accepted the Church’s teaching. What they wanted to discuss were the laws in the Netherlands requiring every teacher in the schools to teach young people, even in the elementary grades, that same-sex marriage is good. What I thought was to be a discussion about same-sex marriage turned out not to be that at all; it was instead a question about the freedom of conscience and the limits of state power.

Providentially, we happened to be reading “The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity” in class that day, an account largely written by Vibia Perpetua herself before her death in 203 A.D. The issue for Perpetua was whether she would light an incense candle to the emperor, swear allegiance to him as a god, and then do obeisance to the gods designated by him.

One of the major protagonists in Perpetua’s account is her own father, who repeatedly importunes her to take the deal she has been offered. She could say one thing in words but believe another, he tells her. The Roman authorities weren’t interested in religion, only politics. They didn’t care about what gods you had as long as you obeyed the emperor and his deputies. Perpetua had an infant of her own. Think of the child, her father begged her. And yet she would not submit.

Many students in class had seen Martin Scorsese’s movie Silence. “Why not just step on the picture of Jesus?” I asked them. “That’s all. Just go along. Step on it. God won’t be injured. You can tuck your crucifix away in your pocket. Would that really be so wrong?”

What would you have done in Perpetua’s situation? Was she an amazing, strong woman who refused to be cowed by her male overlords (emperor, governor, father)? Or was she a stubborn fool who should have taken the good deal offered her? How bad would it have been to light the candle? Wouldn’t God have understood? It was just a candle, after all.

Or was it? If the candle was so unimportant, why insist on lighting it under threat of torture and death? Perhaps because in the end, this wasn’t merely about lighting a candle or stepping on a picture; it was about showing that you accept the ultimate authority of those in power. Such people don’t care what you do in private as long as you show in public that you accept their will and agree to bow to the things they say you must.

“Think about Perpetua,” I told them. There are legitimate authorities in government, and we need them to help us nurture and protect the common good. But there are also those who merely want to rule you. With the latter, one must at crucial moments ask: “What part of myself am I willing to surrender?” “To what divinities will I bow?” and ultimately, “Who is my God?”

These were not questions that I could answer for them. It’s part of the dignity of the human person that we must each face those questions ourselves.

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.