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Modesty is a perennially hot topic in Catholic circles, especially
in the summer time. I work for a Catholic young adult outreach, and
every summer we receive numerous questions from young adults relating
to modesty and fashion issues. Unfortunately, in our culture this issue
spans all ages and circumstances. When the summer heat and the fashion
beat turn up the temperature in clothing styles, many Catholics –
particularly women – are left frustrated and confused as to how to
build a stylish wardrobe without compromising Christian standards for
modesty.

I definitely know the feeling. I have five sisters, and
all of us love cute clothes, fashion, and the mall. But I’m sure many
of you ladies can relate to how my sisters and I often feel:
discouraged and/or frustrated by the fact we could spend hours wading
through clothes we could never wear, looking for that one outfit that
is stylish and modest – an increasingly difficult balance to achieve
these days.

All of us Catholics, men and women alike, feel the
effects of living in our godless culture. The secular media, a
pervading relativistic worldview, and widespread moral degeneracy have
warped our sense of decency, beauty, and goodness on so many levels.
And in the midst of this moral wasteland, the Church, speaking in the
name of Christ, calls us to practice modesty in the way we dress and
behave.

One of the principal difficulties many Catholics have
when it comes to modesty is that it’s hard to find a balanced,
trustworthy, and practical guideline to follow. That’s why I’m so
grateful to Bishop John Yanta of the Diocese of Amarillo, TX, for
writing a very helpful and challenging pastoral letter on this topic a
couple weeks ago, entitled “Modesty Starts with Purification of the
Heart.”

In this pastoral letter, Bishop Yanta discusses the
moral responsibility each of us has to practice modesty; he challenges
us with the principles that should govern our clothing decisions; and
he offers practical advice for how to implement modest standards in our
lives with the help of grace and growth in virtue. Following are a few
of my favorite principles discussed in His Excellency’s letter.

Our moral responsibility:

Bishop
Yanta begins his letter on modesty by explaining the moral
responsibility we have to live up to Christian standards of behavior
and dress. He goes so far as to say that the clothes we choose to wear
and the act of wearing them are in themselves moral decisions and moral
acts; thus, not something we should take lightly:

“To live our
daily Faith as children of God (baptism), disciples of Jesus, and
temples of the Holy Spirit, we are faced with moral choices constantly,
many times a day. Conscience can either make a right judgment in
accordance with reason and the divine law, or on the contrary, an
erroneous judgment that departs from them (CCC #1799). Dressing or
putting on one’s clothes is a moral act and wearing them is a moral
act.”

Different occasions require different approaches

I
very much appreciate the fact that Bishop Yanta acknowledged that there
are different forms of appropriate dress based on different
circumstances and situations. This is an important distinction since
there is sometimes a danger in Christian circles to turn
modesty/clothing discussions into a laundry list of “thou shall nots”,
thus deterring some people from ever investigating the principles of
Christian modesty.

His Excellency writes: “There are different
appropriate modes of dress for different occasions, e.g. in the privacy
of our home, with our spouse only or with our children in our home, at
work or school in mixed company, at the lake or swimming pool, grocery
shopping, at church, etc.”

So what is modesty?

Unfortunately,
many women have misconceptions about what modesty really means. Some
think it’s a pseudonym for unattractiveness. Others consider it guy
repellent. But in reality, the converse is actually true. The meaning
and purpose of modesty is inseparable from the life of virtue, because
the way we present ourselves through dress and behavior should be an
outward reflection of the inner condition of our hearts. And in this
lies the core of Bishop Yanta’s address on modesty.

The Catholic
Church teaches us that modesty is adorning our bodies in a way that
reflects who we really are: the living tabernacles of God and the
temples of the Holy Spirit. Through our clothing and behavior, we
should radiate God’s beauty and glory to the world. While the Church
has never taught that we have to wear burlap sacks masquerading as
baggy jumpers in order to be modest, She does require us to dress in a
way that veils the special mystery of our bodies that should be
reserved for our spouse alone.

One
of my favorite definitions of modesty to share with teen girls is from
chastity speaker Jason Evert, who wrote in his book If You Really Loved
Me:

“So
what is modesty? It is not about looking as ugly as possible. It's
about taking the natural beauty of womanhood, and adorning it in a way
that adequately reflects her true identity. She is a daughter of the
king of heaven, and her outfits, posture, and mannerisms don't distract
from this. She's aware that her body is a temple of the Holy Spirit,
and that her body is sacred.”

The heart of the matter

In
his pastoral letter, Bishop Yanta stresses that the core of modesty is
not what’s hanging in our closet, but instead what resides in the inner
sanctum of our hearts. When a person practices modesty of dress and
behavior, it is a reflection of a pure heart – something very beautiful
in the eyes of God and in the eyes of the beholder.

The
Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “Purity requires modesty, an
integral part of temperance. Modesty protects the intimate center of
the person. It means refusing to unveil what should remain hidden. It
is ordered to chastity…. It guides how one looks at others and behaves
toward them in conformity with the dignity of persons…” (#2521).

To
live this kind of purity and have it overflow to the way we dress, His
Excellency reminds us that cultivating a life of virtue is a necessary
prerequisite:

“The four cardinal virtues are in play here….The
wise person is guided by wisdom, the highest of riches that guides us
to be prudent (doing and saying the right thing), justice (respects the
dignity of other persons), fortitude (courage to go against popular,
suggestive, provocative styles), and temperance (insures mastery over
sensual temptations as occasions of sin)….”

How do we grow in
these virtues? Practice, forming good habits, the sacraments, lots of
prayer, accountability and encouragement from good Christian
friends…all these things are vital. And ultimately, “just doing it”
really, really helps.

Remember the goal

Very few things
in this life come close to the radiant beauty that shines from within.
But at the same time, this purity that shines forth through modesty is
always going to be a difficult struggle in the world and times we live
in. It definitely helps to find encouragement in each other. It helps
to have pastoral insight from a spiritual Shepherd like Bishop Yanta.
And it helps to remember the goal we’re striving so hard to attain: the
reward that God promises to a pure heart:

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” – Matthew 5:8

Recommended Reading:

Catechism of the Catholic Church, sections on modesty. See especially Section #2521-2524, 2533

Bishop John Yanta’s Pastoral Letter, “Modesty Begins with Purification of the Heart.


Stephanie is the coordinator of NextWave Faithful ™, a youth and young adult division of Family Life Center International .
She has been a frequent guest on several Catholic programs, including
EWTN Radio's Faith & Family, which she currently co-hosts with her
father, Steve Wood, and EWTN Television's Life on the Rock and The
Journey Home.


Stephanie hosts the first worldwide radio show for Catholic youth, NextWave Live , which airs weekly on the EWTN Radio Network.She also writes a monthly e-Newsletter for teens and young adults. She can be reached at Stephanie@catholicmatch.com

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