A Modest Proposal

I would like to suggest the reason why I believe there may be a discrepancy between the way saints in previous times enforced the norms of modesty, and why the Catechism of the Catholic Church does not seem to promote those standards, at least not explicitly.  This is a follow-up on my previous post, and especially on the comments which were pretty heated.

The catechism states “the forms taken by modesty vary from one culture to another.”  By extension, I would say also that these forms can also vary with time.  Even the solutions provided by the saints vary, though clearly they are all very strict, at least the ones presented in the comments from my last post on this subject.  But if St. Pio required eight inches below the knee for skirts, this is more than twice as strict, so to speak, as what was indicated by Pius XII.  This tells me that the solutions are pastoral.  In effect they are contingent applications of an unchanging principle.  Such contingent applications do, in fact, depend on many things, not excluding the person doing the enforcing.  What St. Pio might successfully accomplish by his strictness in an area of Southern Italy prior to or preserved from the sexual revolution, is different from what I might successfully accomplish now in secular England.

Beyond this, I think it is fair to say that such contingent applications because they attempt to apply precise general standards to something concrete are again subject to limitation. Would a woman in today’s secular society really be better off dressing like a resident of rural Italy in the 1960’s?  Would she be more virtuous for that reason? One would be challenged to imagine the perfect standard.  Wouldn’t that be first century Palestine?  The point is that unless the Church herself offers some universal standard binding the consciences of the faithful, then no one else can impose such an obligation.

This is not to say that modesty is purely subjective, as Christopher West seems to suggest, but it is a matter that is never entirely independent from the realm of prudence.

Hard and fast rules are great for maintaining uniformly high standards of external comportment, and might successfully help cultivate the interior virtue of modesty when there is an organic relationship between such standards and the rest of Catholic life. However, in my opinion, hard and fast rules in matters that require the virtue of prudence also have an inherent liability.  Prudence deals with contingent and changeable realities insofar as they effect decisions in ways that we cannot foresee before we need to make them. In the end, no one can dress someone else, or set absolute standards for everyone, without creating a culture like that of Islam or the Puritans.  Prudence requires some measure of liberty and therefore of non-uniformity.  To what extent the exercise of modesty is going to be weighted in favor of rules or of prudence will always be a matter of debate. In other words, standards will always differ from time and place.

I would submit that the real impetus of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council that I have defended in my writing largely pertain to this area of prudence and the necessity in modern times for Catholics to have sufficient liberty to think on their feet.  I am not taking about license or some amorphous conciliar spirit.  What I am talking about is the liberty of an informed conscience to make contingent judgments in a way that is most pleasing to God and best suited to the salvation of souls.  Enforcement and coercion have a place, especially in respect to the common good, but in religious matters nothing can replace the free process of conviction and the personal encounter with Christ.

I believe all this is confirmed by the proper interpretation of Blessed John Paul II’s Catechesis on Human Love, popularly known as the Theology of the Body.  Under the influence of grace, men can learn to look at a woman without that look being dominated by lust (cf. TOB 58.7).  Be clear on what I am and am not saying.  I am not saying that one may gaze on a woman not his wife in order to enjoy her sexual values, as though to do so was the exercise of a virtue or some kind of theological or mystical contemplation, as Christopher West and Father Loya suggest.  Mortification of the eyes will always be necessary, and no one will ever be able to live chastity without profound humility and dependence, not on oneself, but on the victory which only Christ can bring.

But I am saying that the attempt to practice virtue can excessively dominated by fear.  This is why I believe Christopher West is off the mark when he says that the problem with the teaching of chastity within the Church is puritanism and angelism, that is, contempt for the body.  On the contrary, I believe that the problem more frequently found among the devout is an imbalance between an adherence to rules, which is necessary, and the legitimate domain of prudence.  And the reason for this, I believe, is a religion dominated by fear rather than by love.  The fear of God is necessary, but we all know that love casts out all servile fear (cf. 1 John 4:18).  Where morality is dominated excessively by fear and by externalism you have the sins of the devout: woodenness, hypocrisy, rash judgment, lip service, and a lack of charity in which the spirit of the law is killed by its letter.

I believe that what Blessed John Paul was actually doing in the Catechesis on Human Love was to recognize the limitations of rules and negative precepts in matters of sexuality and showing that it is far better to complement a reasonable set of contingent rules with something that will help men make better and more serene judgments–judgments that proceed from a positive conviction about that meaning of the human body, marriage and sexuality, rather ones that proceed primarily from fear.

I would ask the commenters to consider this post thoughtfully and prayerfully and to respond in the comments in the same manner, no matter how vehemently you may agree or disagree with me or anyone else.  I will not tolerate any personal attacks.  There was no commenter in the last post who was not deeply concerned about the observance of the virtue of modesty.  Make sure your comments reflect that fact, or please abstain from commenting at all.  Thank you.

10 thoughts on “A Modest Proposal

  1. Since the Vatican has dress code guidelines for tourists, isn’t that in a way setting a minimum standard for modest dress by the Church?
    In Christ,

  2. ” In the end, no one can dress someone else, or set absolute standards for everyone, without creating a culture like that of Islam or the Puritans. Prudence requires some measure of liberty and therefore of non-uniformity. To what extent the exercise of modesty is going to be weighted in favor of rules or of prudence will always be a matter of debate. In other words, standards will always differ from time and place.”
    This above quote of Father Angelo’s sums it up nicely. That is always my concern — that we begin to go back to Puritanism or completely covering ourselves as Islamic women are required to do. No one really agrees where that LINE must be drawn in the sand. Admittedly we are all stuck in some form of relativism. One person’s idea of modesty is not another person’s idea of modesty. On top of it, people are so poorly catechetically (sp) formed that many women lack the interior modesty required to discern proper exterior modesty. I don’t know how we fix all of that. Father, do you think it would be helpful for Rome and/or the USCCB to at some point at least state some basic guidelines for dress? (Like that of the Vatican?) Or, do you think it would do more harm than good?

  3. Jen, what happens to the women who do not conform to ‘some basic guidline for dress’? I would hope the Church would spend its energies cleansing itself of homosexuals, pediphiles, misogynists….bullies!

  4. Marie – I absolutely agree with you! Perhaps one reason modesty has not been addressed more is that there are too many other weightier issues that must be dealt with. And you’re also right that a plan of WHAT to do when one doesn’t conform would need to be established. Since we can’t even get priests and bishops to understand the gravity of letting wayward and scandalous politicians receive Communion, how can we expect any kind of guideline to be enforced with modesty issues?

    I suppose it would have to be only a suggestion and let the ones who care to adhere, adhere. Maybe others would follow suit.

    Marian – the link you provided seems very reasonable to me! But, it can only be a suggestion I think. If someone chooses to NOT follow it, you can only speak to them and that’s it. It’s not a ‘binding’ law so that becomes the difficulty. As we all know, when people don’t HAVE to do something that’s uncomfortable, they won’t.

    Several years ago while seeking spiritual direction from Fr. Angelo, he said, “Jen, you just have to live your life.” Those words come back to me all the time. In other words, you have to live as you know you must. You cannot jam it down anyone else’s throat. You cannot demand it of others; you can only live it personally. If others are so drawn, they may ask you and they may do the same but it won’t be because you demanded it of them in any way. It’s Good News, to be honest.

  5. I think I would have to respectfullly disagree. Anything we can do to encourage modesty is praiseworthy and a step in the right direction even if some see it as a small step. I am glad that the Vatican has implemented a dress code, and I commend the priest in the link for taking a stand and I guess I will leave it at that.
    In Christ,

  6. Marian – I’m glad the Vatican implemented a dress code, too! They have people coming from all different countries and they have lots of seminarians, etc. I would EXPECT a dress code. I’m not sure a typical parish priest can demand it in the same way. But, I love that link you provided. I think if parishes posted such requests like in that link, you might see more people dressing modestly and appropriately. Then, as more began dressing in a certain fashion, others might start as well. it could start a trickle effect! But, I just don’t know how a priest could really ‘enforce’ it. At least not in this decade. Perhaps I’m wrong.

  7. Pingback: The Disparaged Virtue of Prudence | Mary Victrix

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