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Modesty Is a Direction Not a Line

December 5, AD2016

hearing, obstinate, avoid, denialI get frustrated when I see this seemingly endless discussion in certain Catholic circles about how women should dress. How long should the skirt be? Are skinny jeans appropriate? How much cleavage is allowed?

I also remember my sisters describing shopping for wedding dresses and the saleswoman assuming they were Mormons because they didn’t want a strapless gown or too much cleavage. They were really annoyed when only shown dresses with tiny sleeves that looked more like extended shoulder pads because that was the Mormon minimum but looked horrendous on them due to their shoulder shape.

On Twitter I get sent a lot of “ask a priest” questions and about once a week the theme is modesty: is jogging as a date modest? Does listening to this song go against modesty? What about this hand gesture?

Problems with the modesty line

Unfortunately so much of the discussion I hear or the phrasing of the questions I read is based on a misunderstanding of what modesty is. Modesty is not a line where your skirt can’t be more than 13.5 inches above your ankle and your cleavage can’t be more than 0.25 inches. If we impose such legalism and exacting standards, no wonder people are stressed out about it: no wonder it’s one of the top questions I receive.

Having a line for modesty creates several other problems. First of all, it doesn’t take into account situations and personalities. For example, I think we would all agree that it is immodest for a priest to wear spandex outer garments while performing priestly duties but when I mention that I wear spandex bike shorts while cycling 50 to 100 miles a week. I doubt in that scenario that many would consider that immodest. As well, the clothes you wear around the house, and especially in the privacy of your bedroom could very likely be immodest outside.

Second, it doesn’t take cultural considerations into account. Cross-cultural studies have shown that different cultures have very different standards of behavior and dress. Some are extreme like the Marshall Islands where female toplessness is the norm. But even in cultures we might think were little more familiar with, radical differences can appear: for example in friendly conversation in Puerto Rico people touch 180 times an hour while in London they touch zero times. A Londoner might assume a Puerto Rican was hitting on them or even being inappropriate, when he was just following norms where he is from.

Third, it forgets the essence of modesty as a virtue. Virtue is always something positive: it is not simply that we avoid doing evil but we actually do something good. Christian morality is not centered on not breaking rules but on imitating Jesus through virtue. If we want to promote Christian modesty, we need to understand it as a virtue not simply as a set of don’ts regarding dress and behavior with people of the opposite sex.

The real definition

Instead of being a line, modesty is a direction. It has to do with respecting your own body and respecting others both in mind and body. As such it is the part of the virtue of chastity regarding those things not directly related with the marital act. It is most often talked about regarding clothing but also refers to how we act or treat others, and our words. A young man who ogles a young woman dressed overly provocatively sins against modesty just like she does. Or a man who speaks in a way some might dismiss as “locker room talk” sins against modesty with his language.

The direction modesty points is the direction of greater respect for our body and mind and those of others, especially in the sexual arena. Instead of asking “Is this skirt to short?” we should ask “Does this skirt this short respect my dignity and the dignity of those who’ll see it?” Instead of asking “Does this joke pass some arbitrary line for crudeness?” we should ask if the joke shows respect for the human person and for human sexuality.

One of the challenges of this is the need to form a conscience so people will know what is respectful and what is not. When you have a line that a skirt can never be more than 2 inches above the knee, even a robot can tell if the rule is broken but if we have a rule that a skirt should be respectful of human and sexual dignity, the person needs more formation to understand what dignity is and what leads towards it and away from it.

Advantages of the real definition

There are several advantages of viewing chastity as a direction rather than a line. I want to explore three of the most important briefly: marital chastity, positive action, and peace of soul.

With this definition, “marital chastity” or “marital modesty” actually makes sense. It is about showing proper respect for our body and for those will meet: if someone alone with their spouse, covering up is no longer needed to show respect. In fact, it can be modest to accentuate one’s own sexuality in ways that would be completely immodest inappropriate elsewhere. In marriage respect is shown in self-giving to the other.

Being modest in public even seems like it might lead to a little more romance or even sexiness in the appropriate context of marriage. In A Return to Modesty, Wendy Shalit notes that Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods in New York – where women always wear monochromatic long sleeve shirts and ankle-length skirts outside – seem to support more lingerie shops than otherwise similar neighborhoods. That’s not what we would first expect but when we think about it, having shown respect for their body by not displaying it to everyone, they are more able to show the respect of revealing it to the one this is respectful for.

As Christians we are always moving towards positive action. Christianity is not defined by simply not murdering, stealing, or committing adultery but defined by actually growing in virtue and becoming like Jesus. Nobody says Mother Teresa was a great Christian because she didn’t break the 10 Commandments but because she went above and beyond the call in her imitation of Jesus. If modesty is just a line, once you are modest, you cannot grow in modesty. Modesty is then like a class with a pass/fail grading system rather than one you and strive for an A in. Yet as Christians we are not just called not to step over a line but to show the utmost respect for her own body and the bodies of others.

Defining chastity simply by a line often leads to a lot of scruples when someone gets close to the line. Scrupulosity seem present in a large percentage of the questions I get on modesty. When we define modesty as a direction, there are less scruples because people generally know which direction they’re going. Of course, this assumes what I said above about forming the conscience.

An extension of the problem of scruples is remorse. Sometimes someone will wear a certain piece of clothing or do a certain act thinking it is respectful, then compare it afterwards to an abstract standard of modesty and realize they failed so then they have remorse. However, if the standard is respect it is much easier to realize the attempt to be respectful: then they can correct it next time to be more respectful but they can know no sin was involved because of the lack of awareness.

Conclusion

Modesty is abstract line for everyone but a virtuous direction. It is not about scruples or guilt. Instead, modesty is a direction in which we show as much respect for ourselves and others as we can.

Since modesty is part of chastity, chastity is also a direction not a line. It involves all said so far plus the marital act and precursors like kissing.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

We love Jesus because he loved us first. Fr. Matthew wants to help you experience Jesus and become his apostle. He is a priest with the Legionaries of Christ ordained in 2013, and lives in the Washington DC metro area where he studies at STL and helps out with a few ministries. Fr. Matthew is also one of the top priests on social media with over 35,000 Twitter followers. Originally from Calgary, Alberta, Canada, Fr. Matthew has worked throughout North America.

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  • Al

    Father,

    Thanks for mentioning this forgotten virtue. Women who dress modestly are considerably more attractive than those who do not since they convey confidence, holiness, and virtue. Men who are not attracted by such qualities seem unworthy of a lady’s time anyway.

    Also, it seems good to recall that any deliberate placing of another into a near and unnecessary occasion of sin is itself sinful, and that is what immodest dress very easily does. Is losing your salvation really worth getting that guy to notice your body?

  • Redcross Knight

    Father,

    You are absolutely correct and clear in your explanation of modesty as a direction and not as a line. Does it respect “my dignity and the dignity of those who’ll see it?” is such a helpful question. If I had ‘Man and Woman He Created Them’ and ‘Love & Responsibility’ handy, I’d provide citations from St. John Paul to back you up.

    For now, the Catechism will have to do: “Modesty protects the
    intimate center of the person. It means refusing to unveil what should remain
    hidden. It guides how one looks at others and behaves toward them in conformity with the
    dignity of persons and their solidarity. . . . 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.” (2521, 2524)

    (Or, if those accusing you of being a modernist would like an older source, here’s G.K. Chesterton: “the book I read repeated for the millionth time that modesty must be meaningless because the amount of clothing varies among various races. As if any theologian or moralist of standing ever said that the divine plan of the universe dictated a particular length of skirt! All they dictated was decent acquiescence in whatever was regarded as a reasonably unobtrusive length of skirt.” [‘All I Survey,’ 1933])

    Do your actions incline others to view you (or someone else) as an instrument of sexual pleasure, instead of as a person? Do they subordinate your personhood to your sexuality? Those are the real questions.

    As someone who is scrupulous myself, I appreciate you talking about this. I also appreciate you talking about the virtues as a kind of insight into reality–developing them puts us into deeper contact with reality and makes us more free and spontaneous. It’s so rarely heard! You’re doing a great job here with moral catechesis.

    (If I had one small criticism to make, it would be that your brief discussion of marital chastity–if read a certain way–could make people think that the lustful eroticism of the wider culture is acceptable within a Christian marriage. Marital chastity allows delight in sexual values precisely because it subordinates them to the value of the person. Eros saturated by virtue, or “true erotic spontaneity,” as St. John Paul calls it, will be fairly different than what we call “sexy” today. But that’s more about what you *didn’t* say, than what you did say–and no one can say everything all the time! Thank you for a great piece!)

    • I accept that criticism. I tried to give the example of Orthodox Jews to show that distinction a bit. There is no sin in being sexually attracted to your spouse and really enjoying sex, only when you reduce them from a person to an object of your desire do you run into sin.

      The term “sexy” can refer to either but I agree to often it means sinful desires in our culture; however, if a husband tells his wife looks “sexy” I’m going to assume he’s using a proper understanding unless by his actions or talking to him, he seems to reduce his wife to an object.

    • Vladimir Putin

      The following concept is not correct:

      “only when you reduce them from a person to an object of your desire do you run into sin”

      One can be treated both as an object and still treated justly in accord with nature contemporaneously.

      You depart from Tradition (and its’ proper development) which understands concupiscence differently. The evil is located in concupiscent drives contravening right reason as opposed to when drives are in accord with reason. The ‘treating as an object’ concept merely intersects with, but is not coterminous with, this concept of scientific Tradition.

  • HHP

    Subjective? Hardly. The law of Love places a special obligation onto the Christian to not stumble others or take away from the message of the Gospel. “All things are lawful,” but not all things are profitable. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up.”
    1 Corinthians 10:23. See also Romans 14: 13-23, Matthew 18:17.

    Formation of a good conscience is a start, (CCC 1783) and notice what actions and omissions can lead to errors in judgment, see 1790-92.

    “Christians should take care not to use their liberty to the hurt of others, or to their own reproach.” Dint become a stumbling block!

  • DamianD

    Of course Modesty is more a direction than a mere “line” — that’s because Modesty, being a virtue (or, more specifically, a Fruit of the Holy Spirit), entails far more than modest dress; it entails modesty in conduct, comportment, speech, posture, etc.

    However this article is essentially a straw man. For that fact does not mean we should neglect the clear lines any more than we should neglect the clear lines annexed to the other virtues. Indeed, charity is more than not gossiping. And yet our speech must abide by the clear *line* of rejecting gossip for the sake of the virtue of charity.

    So too there are clear *lines* that should *usually* (with the obvious reasonable exceptions/modifications) be followed with respect to modest dress. One example: Women should not be showing knees and shoulders in public. Period.

    This is a simple point that any Catholic parent worth his or her salt knows how to teach his or her children. I am disappointed to see an LC miss it so entirely!

    As an aside: Pagan cultures that tend to dress in an objectively immodest fashion need to be *evangelized* gently in order to encourage them to dress modestly; as all the missionaries traditionally have always done. Only in these extreme modernistic times do we forget that.

    • james

      ” Women should not be showing knees and shoulders in public. Period.”

      You have a dirty mind. Period.

    • > Women should not be showing knees and shoulders in public. Period.

      Please provide proof. When I go cycling in the summer, for example, I see many women with exposed knees as the standard clothing stops just above the knees.

      Here’s an example of a young woman who’s an example of living the faith for other young women and her knees are definitely exposed… You might recognize her, if not her story is here: http://aleteia.org/2016/11/29/simone-biles-highlights-catholic-faith-in-new-autobiography/ https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/9e605454bbf1465bb896e8bd870572bb03884a059531a6ff3abb02b1f806c5c1.png

    • Nick

      “Let those same parents prohibit their children from public athletic
      events and gymnastics competitions, or at least, if their daughters must be
      involved in them, that they take care to exhibit clothing which is fully in
      keeping with modesty and that their parents never permit them to wear
      immodest clothing.” A Papal Decree Concerning Modesty, His Holiness Pope Pius XI, 12 January 1930

    • Nobody has explained WHY such is immodest. Please explain how it is disrespectful.

    • Nick

      I’m certainly not trying to lecture you Father and please know that I say this with all respect to the great dignity of your office.

      St. Thomas says “But those women who have no husband nor wish to have one, or who are in a state of life inconsistent with marriage, cannot without sin desire to give lustful pleasure to those men who see them, because this is to incite them to sin. And if indeed they adorn themselves with this intention of provoking others to lust, they sin mortally; whereas if they do so from frivolity, or from vanity for the sake of ostentation, it is not always mortal, but sometimes venial.

      I promise you that men are provoked to lust by women’s volleyball uniforms, swimsuits, gymnastic uniforms, ballet uniforms, and tennis uniforms. Perhaps, knowing that they are in the company of a priest, men do not speak perversely around you but I have heard all kinds of things. Some of these female athletes are as young as 16 and I have heard perverted comments spoken of them by men as old as 60. I can just imagine what all the teenage boys are thinking. Perhaps we should remember our Lord’s words “But he that shall scandalize one of these little ones that believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone should be hanged about his neck, and that he should be drowned in the depth of the sea.”

      Also, I would like to point out that men who are not trying to keep modesty of their eyes and not trying to live chastely are more desensitized to immodest dress. This is why Pope Pius XII states “the garment must not be evaluated according to the estimation of a decadent or already corrupt society, but according to the aspirations of a society which prizes the dignity and seriousness of its public attire.” A faithful Catholic man, fighting every temptation to look at a woman with lust, is much more aware of immodest dress and the danger it poses to the welfare of his eternal soul.

      Going back to St. Thomas and applying it to the situation of Simone Biles… Let’s say that by the cut of her uniform she had no intention to provoke others to lust but nevertheless, lust was provoked by her frivolity or by her vanity for the sake of ostentation so it is at least a venial sin.

    • james

      ” Let’s say …”

      – by the frosting and cream on a magnificent cake a baker and chef provokes in one the sin of Gluttony and the “faithful Catholic” man succumbs to temptation and overindulges on a daily basis to the point where his health is endangered.

      – by the third round of a prize fight the Catholic fan is enflamed and each punch is mentally directed in Anger to someone he has a severe grudge with …

      – by the luxurious description of the mattress or chaise lounge the faithful Catholic is tempted and becomes more prone to inactivity and Sloth …

      – by the display of wealth and comfort the faithful Catholic is prone to Envy to the
      point where his vote and opinion are swayed …

      – by the taxes he pays the faithful Catholic Covets the unearned benefits of those
      who need them …

      – by taking an assumed high moral ground a faithful Catholic becomes like the
      Proud Pharisee in the temple and sees himself without sin.

    • Nick

      “By the frosting and cream on a magnificent cake a baker and chef provokes in one the sin of Gluttony and the “faithful Catholic” man succumbs to temptation and overindulges on a daily basis to the point where his health is endangered.”

      St. Thomas says that “gluttony denotes, not any desire of eating and drinking, but an inordinate desire.” Therefore a baker can provide their customers the magnificent cakes without venial sin. Now if the baker knew the man was eating the cakes daily without sharing and that this was causing harm to the man then the baker should be able to listen to his conscience and not provide the cake for it would be contributing to another’s spiritual harm. The same should apply for perverse “marriages.” On the contrary, the vice of lust contains ALL desires for any woman that is not your wife so provoking lust is always sinful.

      “By the third round of a prize fight the Catholic fan is enflamed and each punch is mentally directed in Anger to someone he has a severe grudge with”

      This is always a sin for the Lord said “But I say to you, that whosoever is angry with his brother, shall be in danger of the judgment. And whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council. And whosoever shall say, Thou Fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.”

      “By the luxurious description of the mattress or chaise lounge the faithful Catholic is tempted and becomes more prone to inactivity and Sloth”

      This goes along with my reply about the baker. Sloth does not denote any desire to rest, only an inordinate desire. Therefore, the mattress can be sold without venial sin.

      “By the display of wealth and comfort the faithful Catholic is prone to Envy to the point where his vote and opinion are swayed”

      The one displaying the wealth and comfort can be guilty of boasting, liberality, and vainglory. If a Catholic is swayed by these things they are guilty of greed, envy, and covetousness.

      “By the taxes he pays the faithful Catholic Covets the unearned benefits of those who need them”

      I don’t understand what you are saying. Paying taxes is not almsgiving.

      “By taking an assumed high moral ground a faithful Catholic becomes like the
      Proud Pharisee in the temple and sees himself without sin”

      If I thought I was without sin, like the Proud Pharisee, I would be guilty of pride. While the pride of the pharisee is not to be imitated, our Lord said “For I tell you, that unless your justice abound more than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

    • MamaK

      Hmm, I guess men did not lust before the invention of volleyball uniforms, swimsuits, gymnastic uniforms, ballet uniforms, and tennis uniforms? Can’t we all agree that it doesn’t take much to excite a man sexually (see “original sin”)? Showing ankles at one time was considered slutty. Can’t we all admit that this is a shared responsibility? Men need to work just as hard at custody of the eyes as women do at dressing modestly. I know a man who thinks dresses with buttons all the way down the front are sexy; another, who things women in boots are. I know women who get really turned on by a shapely male butt (maybe men should start dressing in traditional Arab attire to avoid this?). Women should dress modestly, but men, since they are the ones prone to the vice of lust, should work doubly hard to cultivate the virtue of chastity. Cultivating the virtues doesn’t rely on what others do; it develops from habitual acts of right behavior. Yes, being around immodestly dressed women might make it harder (just like working on Wall Street might make fighting against greed seem impossible), but it is something that is possible with God’s grace. No man should blame the culture or women for their inability to acquire this virtue. Should a glutton blame his vice on the superabundance of food choices in our modern world? Should a man prone to anger and impatience blame it on the plethora of dolts and morons who surround him? No excuses.

    • Nick

      Men and women are different, no doubt about it. When it comes to modesty, men typically do not have a problem with modesty in dress but rather modesty of the eyes. Women do not have a problem with modesty of the eyes but rather with modesty in dress. While both elements of modesty are present in both sexes, each sex predominates in one of them.

      For example, viewing pornography is largely a male problem, nobody would deny this. Then why is it such a big deal to admit that wearing immodest clothing is largely a female problem? Men and women wear (or at least should wear) different types of clothing. What does this clothing predominantly cover? Go to a mall during the summer and take note of the dress of all the men and women there. How much of their body is covered? Is there a drastic difference in the amount of skin exposed? What percentage of men have their ankles exposed? What percentage of women? Their knees? Their thighs? Their stomach? Their shoulders? Their chest up to the collar bone? Their back? Let’s be honest here and admit there is a problem. Modesty of dress is quantifiable.

      When God asks us during our judgement if we are we really going to reply like Cain- “am I my brother’s keeper?”

  • Mark McCann

    Thank you for sharing how modesty is a virtue – a positive, life-giving thing – rather than some set of legal restrictions. I appreciate also how true modesty makes a Christian more beautiful. My wife and children exemplify what it means to be modest as you wrote about it, and they are four of the most beautiful human beings on the planet as far as I am concerned! Great article!

  • TomD

    As a direction that one takes in life, modesty is respect for God’s creation. An immodest person shows disrespect for His creation.

  • Seamrog

    Great job with this article…thank you!

  • Guy McClung

    Padre Matt-Always enjoy your articles, thanks. I have five daughters-my words to them are do you want to say in public “I am these two breasts, two lips, all these legs, and this butt” or do you want to say “I am a person, an ensouled body, an embodied soul, made in the image of a loving God” ? P Matt: keep up the fine work. Guy McClung San Antonio TX