by Father Charles Mangan
Inarguably, the kinds of dress for both men and women have changed dramatically, especially in the past five decades. Much of today's prevailing “high fashion” is meant to accentuate or expose particular body parts rather than to conceal them - the traditional reason for clothing.
Acknowledging that some styles in contemporary fashion would have been deemed “immodest” or even “obscene” even a few years ago, one must ask: are these ways of dressing still immodest at the beginning of the Third Christian Millennium? Or, do changing values admit these various types of clothing?
To give an intelligible answer, one first must look at the norm which for centuries guided Christians in the manner of dress: the notion of modesty.
Modesty in the strict sense is the virtue that regulates one's actions and exterior customs concerning sexual matters. Specifically, modesty guards the virtue of chastity, is its “external protection” and controls one's comportment so as to avoid unlawful sexual arousal in oneself or others. In this essay, we shall confine ourselves to the theme of modesty in dress.
(Many think modesty to be the humility of one who is not interested in self-promotion and fame. This is a different understanding from the one that is presented here).
Modesty is counted as one of the Twelve Fruits of the Holy Spirit; “these perfections that the Holy Spirit forms in us as the first fruits of eternal glory” are listed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control, chastity” (no. 1832).
To choose to dress modestly infers that one is deliberately avoiding by his dress to cause sexual excitement in himself or his neighbour. Hence, one who dresses modestly shuns clothes that are known or reasonably expected to effect sexual arousal in oneself or others.
Has the Church encouraged the practice of this virtue? Yes. Only a few of the stirring exhortations offered by some holy members of the Church are now presented. (We remember that these counsels apply to men as well as to women).
Saint Paul (c. 67), in his First Letter to Saint Timothy, wrote: “Women should adorn themselves modestly and sensibly in seemly apparel, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly attire but by good deeds, as befit women who profess religion” (2:9-10).
Saint John Chrysostom (c. 347-407) spoke out against immodestly in dress. “You carry your snare and spread your nets in all places. You allege that you never invited others to sin. You did not, indeed, by your words, but you have done so by your dress and your deportment and much more effectively than you could by your voice. When you have made another sin in his heart, how can you be innocent? Tell me, whom does this world condemn? Whom do judges in court punish? Those who drink poison or those who prepare it and administer the fatal poison? You have prepared the abominable cup, you have given the death-dealing drink, and you are more criminal than those who poison the body; you murder not the body but the soul. And it is not to enemies you do this, nor are you urged on by any imaginary necessity, not provoked by injury, but out of foolish vanity and pride.”
It has been said that Jesus Himself appeared to Mother Mary Rafols, a Spanish sister, and delivered a message about modesty. In some writings dated 1815, we read: “The offenses that I (Jesus) have received, and those that I shall yet receive, are many; especially the offenses of woman, with her immodest dress, her nakedness, her frivolity and her evil intentions. Because of all this, she shall accomplish the demoralization of the family and of mankind.”
Pope Pius XII (1939-1958) addressed the urgent necessity of cultivating modesty several times during his nearly twenty year long pontificate. Here are a few relevant quotations.
“How many young girls there are who see nothing wrong in following certain shameless styles like too many sheep. They would certainly blush with shame if they could know the impression they make, and the feelings they evoke, in those who see them.
“The good of our soul is more important than the good of our body; and we have to prefer the spiritual welfare of our neighbour to our bodily comforts If a certain kind of dress constitutes a grave and proximate occasion of sin, and endangers the salvation of your soul and others, it is your duty to give it up O Christian mothers, if you knew what a future of anxieties and perils, of ill-guarded shame you prepare for your sons and daughters, imprudently getting them accustomed to live scantily dressed and making them lose their sense of modesty, you would be ashamed of yourselves and you would dread the harm you are making for yourselves, the harm which you are causing to these children, whom Heaven has entrusted to you to be brought up as Christians.
“There is a limit which no type of fashion, however licit, should exceed: beyond which fashion becomes the cause of ruin to the souls of those who adopt it and for the souls of all who come into contact with it. The rights of souls is above those of fashions. Christian girls, think also of this: the more elegant you will be, and the more pleasing, if you dress with simplicity and discreet modesty.”
Father Charles Mangan
Fr. Charles Mangan, a priest of the Diocese of Sioux Falls, S.D., is currently assigned to postgraduate studies at the Marianum in Rome. This article is taken from the July-August, 2000 issue of SOUL Magazine. © 2000. The Blue Army. Reprinted with permission from SOUL magazine. Info: call toll-free: 866-513-1917. Website:www.bluearmy.com