St. Valentine and religious misappropriation


Illustration by Julia Poage, staff illustrator

Arguments on cultural and religious appropriation are a popular topic at Trinity and have been featured multiple times in the Trinitonian. Questioning the circumstances in which one can wear dreadlocks or adopt some other cultural practice, particularly if that culture has experienced oppression, is an important conversation to have. But, if I am to be entirely honest, the specifics of this ethical question are beyond me. What if you have been adopted into the culture, or are an anthropologist doing field research, or it’s done out of respect and appreciation? I feel generally unqualified to address these topics and would be much happier to leave it to our anthropologists and sociologists.

It seems to me, however, that there is one clear line that ought not be crossed: taking some tradition and appropriating it in a way that is entirely antithetical to its original purpose. This is what I feel has happened to St. Valentine’s day, a long-standing holy day in the calendar of the Catholic Church.

Few facts are known about the historical St. Valentine, but all sources agree he was martyred and beheaded by the Romans around A.D. 270. His skull is on display for veneration in Rome to this day. Most accounts show St. Valentine as a priest or bishop, so he was likely celibate. There are various accounts that the then-emperor of Rome had banned marriage on the basis that unmarried men would make better soldiers; other sources contend that it was simply a licentious and polygamous society. The common theme among these stories, however, is that St. Valentine promoted the Christian view of marriage and chastity, helping young couples get their marriages blessed in the Church.

St. Valentine’s day, as a holy day, was officially added to the Catholic calendar by Pope Gelasius I. Whether or not St. Valentine was martyred on February 14th is unverified. The common theory is that Pope Gelasius added the celebration of St. Valentine to counteract the still-prevalent Roman celebration Lupercalia — a fertility festival that featured whipping the crops and the women and pairing couples for sex through a random drawing. The pope’s idea was to retain a celebration of romance, marriage and chastity while removing the fornication and brutality. This holy day has long been a celebration, for Catholics, of God’s blessing on human love, marriage and sexuality — all in light of the sacrifice that true love incorporates, as shown by St. Valentine’s actions and ultimately by Christ’s death on the cross.

It is a frustration to me, then, when one of my church’s holy days is misappropriated, year after year, as a time to sell sex toys and celebrate casual sex. For non-Catholic couples to celebrate St. Valentine’s day with a romantic date is one thing. For the Trinitonian itself to encourage “healthy, casual sex” throughout much of last week’s “Love and Sex” issue is quite another. Catholics love romance and sex — just look at how big our families are — but we also love marriage and sacrificial love, and St. Valentine’s day is our celebration of bringing all those things together. To take some of those things without the others is a direct contradiction of the original intent of St. Valentine’s day, and a misappropriation of our religious tradition.

The article from the editors’ desk last week expressed how difficult it was for members of the Trinitonian to talk about love, and how much easier it is to simply talk about sex. The editor even issued a challenge to Trinity: to “get emotionally naked” with someone. In response, I am extending an invitation: come to Mass or to Alpha and talk to us about love. We would be more than happy to tell you about the one who died naked on a cross for love of us, to tell you about the saints who spent their lives loving him, and even to speak of the love we hope to give to our future spouses and to the community around us.