First Published in ‘The Catholic Voice’, Ireland, April 2016
The Church Speaks on Modesty
So, what does the Church say to women regarding modesty? Are there any official guidelines concerning dress and what can and cannot be worn? Has She anything to say about fashion? The Church, being a good mother, has of course dealt with the question of modesty.
Let us look first to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Catechism deals with the subject of modesty, in section two under the Ninth commandment, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife”. It then speaks of purification of the heart quoting the sixth beatitude “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,” and goes on to talk of the ‘battle for purity’ reminding us that after baptism we must struggle against ‘concupiscence of the flesh and disordered desires’. Then follows paragraphs 2521 to 2524
2521 “Purity requires modesty, an integral part of temperance. Modesty protects the intimate centre of the person. It means refusing to unveil what should remain hidden. It is ordered to chastity to whose sensitivity it bears witness. It guides how one looks at others and behaves toward them in conformity with the dignity of persons and their solidarity.”
Modesty is an Essential Requirement for Purity
Here we are told that modesty is an essential requirement for purity. As it is the pure in heart who are promised that they shall see God, we cannot underestimate the importance of modesty. Given that we live in a pornographic culture where immodest fashions are the order of the day within all age groups, there is a need, particularly by the fathers of families, to focus on this most delicate of topics in order to help to bring those under their authority to a correct understanding of this virtue and gift of the Holy Spirit. This education concerns women and girls in a particular way, but men and boys must not be excluded from a proper understanding as we are all affected by immodesty in dress.
This paragraph of the Catechism also introduces the concept of veiling. In our Judeo Christian heritage, veiling was reserved for that which is Holy and Sacred. I remember one time putting up posters near the border during a general election campaign. I made a habit of calling into Churches along the way to say a quick prayer. In two of the Churches which were close to the border, I saw something which I had not seen before and which I believe used to be quite common. The tabernacles in these churches were covered by a cloth lace veil. The tabernacle should also have a veil on the inside as well, because the tabernacle contains He who is Holy.
The Body is the Temple of the Holy Spirit
In earlier years children were taught in school that their bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit and should thus be treated with great reverence and respect. It is from this concept of the body as a temple of the Holy Spirit that the teaching on ‘veiling’ or covering the body appropriately is developed. The bodies of the unmarried belong to God whereas the bodies of the married are given in marriage as a gift to the other spouse for God’s greater glory and to enlarge His kingdom. St Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians “For the wife does not rule over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not rule over his own body, but the wife does.” (1 Cor 7:4)
In this regard a married woman who dresses immodestly offends against both God and her husband and she gives bad example to her children and to her neighbours. This fact once again underlines the need for a clear understanding of what modesty is.
No Excuse for Immodesty
Now when one brings up the subject of modesty with regard to women’s dress one is apt to hear a comment like “we can’t all be expected to dress like the Amish or like nuns”. This comment in itself is very interesting for it shows that people recognise both the Amish and nuns as being modestly dressed. However let us entertain the false dichotomy for a moment. If a woman is reduced to two choices of what to wear, the one being an unfashionable though modest dress made of old potato sacks and the other being an immodest though fashionable blouse and short skirt, which one should she choose?
The answer will depend on whether or not she desires to serve God or self. If she desires to serve God, she will not offend Him with immodest clothing and will be humble enough to wear the potato sack dress in the sure knowledge that God looks first to her heart and her desire to please Him.
Now of course such a choice is improbable and with a little bit of effort it is always possible to find something modest to wear as long as one has the desire to please God in the way one dresses. It is always possible for modest dress to be stylish in keeping with our dignity as human beings. God did not give us our imaginations and creativity for nothing!
The catechism continues
2522 “Modesty protects the mystery of persons and their love. It encourages patience and moderation in loving relationships; it requires that the conditions for the definitive giving and commitment of man and woman to one another be fulfilled. Modesty is decency. It inspires one’s choice of clothing. It keeps silence or reserve where there is evident risk of unhealthy curiosity. It is discreet.”
The Mystery of Persons
Here we are given a very Catholic thought, ‘the mystery of persons and their love’. In treating of the subject of modesty and clothing we are in the supernatural realm of the mystery of our being. We are created as composite beings consisting of body and soul, in the image and likeness of God. This is a key to correctly understanding the virtue of modesty. We dress decently and discreetly on account of our great dignity as sons and daughters of the King of Kings. We were not created for the world of fashion, money and politics, we were created for the Heavenly Kingdom and it is with this Kingdom in mind that we should make all of our life’s decisions including how we dress. As the Catechism further explains,
2523 “There is a modesty of the feelings as well as of the body. It protests, for example, against the voyeuristic explorations of the human body in certain advertisements, or against the solicitations of certain media that go too far in the exhibition of intimate things. Modesty inspires a way of life which makes it possible to resist the allurements of fashion and the pressures of prevailing ideologies.”
2524 “The forms taken by modesty vary from one culture to another. Everywhere, however, modesty exists as an intuition of the spiritual dignity proper to man. It is born with the awakening consciousness of being a subject. Teaching modesty to children and adolescents means awakening in them respect for the human person.”
Once again the ‘spiritual dignity’ of man and ‘respect for the human person’ is mentioned. We will look at some specific Church documents in the next article.
© John Lacken 2015
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Author: John Lacken
Founder: Legio Sanctae Familiae – The Legion of the Holy Family