Modesty and Responsibility II


I was young, I went through a phase of being very scrupulous. (Is it just me, or was
anyone else ever young
and scrupulous?) I remember knowing that
God wants us to dress modestly. I didn’t
understand why, or the differences in
male and female nature that made modesty important. But I knew it was a rule, and it had
something do to with men being attracted to women. But I couldn’t figure out where the line was. Was it bad
for men to be attracted by the sight of a woman? Was I supposed to make myself completely
physically unattractive to them? 
Fortunately, that seemed unreasonable even to me, and my inborn teenaged
girl’s desire to feather my hair and experiment with fashion and make-up
overwhelmed my early scrupulosity.

But they were
good questions. Does dressing modestly
mean completely obliterating every trance of femininity in our appearance? How completely are we supposed to be hiding
our bodies, anyway? Should the burlap
bag, or the shapeless plaid jumper, be the next big fashion trend?

late Pope John Paul II is still my “go to” guy when it comes to issues of
sexual morality. His book Love and Responsibility is amazing on
many, many levels. The discussion on
modesty is one of my favorite parts. He
says that modesty is about inspiring a reaction to the “person” and not just to
the “parts.” It is about presenting that
person as a good in and of herself, and not just the body as a possible object
of enjoyment.

says that “Shame is the tendency, uniquely characteristic of the human person,
to conceal sexual values sufficiently to prevent them from obscuring the value
of the person as such.” But modesty isn’t just about what we’re
concealing. It’s about what we’re
revealing. In deflecting attention away
from the “sexual values,” we are hopefully turning that attention toward the
deeper attributes of the person. As JPII
says “The spontaneous need to conceal mere sexual values bound up with the
person is the natural way to the discovery of the value of the person as such.”

says, however, that we conceal those sexual values “only to a certain extent,
so that in combination with the value of the person, they can still be a point
of origin for love.” In other words, God
created men to be created to be attracted to the female form, and vice
versa. And when we fall in love with
each other, the male and female shape of our bodies is not completely
irrelevant to the process.   If you don’t
believe me, think about all of the deeper traits and characteristics you’re
looking for in a spouse. Now what if,
while walking through an enchanted forest, you found all of those attributes in
a talking cardboard box?   What level of
“attraction” would you experience?

goes on to say, in what I find one of the most illuminating passages of the book,
that the “accentuation of sexual values by dress is inevitable, and is not
necessarily incompatible with sexual modesty. 
What is truly immodest in dress is that which frankly contributes to the
deliberate displacement of the true value of the person by sexual values, that
which is bound to elicit a reaction to the person as to a ‘possible means of
obtaining sexual enjoyment’ and not ‘a possible object of love by reason of his
or her personal value.’”  

refreshing is this? The virtue of
modesty in dress doesn’t require us to completely hide the fact that we’re
women. That wouldn’t be possible, nor
would we want to if we could. We’re
women. We have women’s parts. We don’t have to pretend that we don’t. We just need to avoid dressing in such a way
that those parts are the first – or only – thing people notice when they look
at us.

other words, we don’t need to wear the shapeless plaid jumpers.

thought it was interesting that, in last month’s comments, several men who
clearly understood the virtue of modesty also pointed out that women don’t need
to dress “dumpily” to be modest. This is
something that a lot of women don’t understand.

I admire any woman who makes it a priority to dress modestly. She’s trying to please God, and that earns
points in my book any day of the week. I
do think there are some women who take it too far. There could be a lot of reasons for
that. I suppose in some there may be an
inordinate fear of sexuality, or of any level of attractiveness to the opposite
sex. Some, as I said, may be very
healthy and well intentioned, but taking their understanding of modesty to an
extreme conclusion. If a little cover-up
is good, then a lot of cover-up must be better.

as my friend Johnette Benkovic says, putting on make-up in the morning is an
act of charity. The point is that the
rest of the world has to look at us. 
There’s nothing wrong with wanting that to be a pleasant experience.

more important, we carry the image and likeness of God in our bodies. That’s a very, very good thing. We want the way we dress to reflect
that. When we take a healthy (as opposed
to excessive or immodest) pride in our appearance, we are demonstrating to the
world that we respect ourselves, and the Lord who created us.

month’s comments, and the comments of many good guys I’ve heard from over the
years, show that good, God-following men don’t want women to dress like
nuns. They want nuns to dress like nuns,
of course. But not the women they date,
or the women they work with or spend time with. 
Men appreciate women who take pride in their appearance. Not excessive pride, of course. Nobody likes to wait for hours while a vain
woman primps and paints and sprays. No
man likes to hear “does this make me look fat?” 
And a woman who will never ride a bike – or a convertible – because it
might “mess up her hair” is not a lot of fun to be around.

a woman who dresses appropriately – and attractively – is doing a favor to the
men around her. And that’s a good thing.

are still a lot of unanswered questions about modesty. What exactly constitutes modest attire? How can we who are not so visually oriented
tell how those who are visually
oriented will react? Is there one single standard for modesty everywhere at all
times, or is modesty to a certain extent culturally conditioned? What is men’s responsibility in all of this?

like modesty gets three columns.




  1. Patricia-345841 October 21, 2009 Reply

    I'm going to by that book. Thanks for the article.

  2. Denise-464246 October 20, 2009 Reply

    I think we can be both feminine and modest. a pretty lace chemise under a low cut top leaves a little to the imagination, but covers that which is inappropriate to bare. lace is very sexy, don't you think???

  3. Robert-3483 October 11, 2009 Reply

    The Catechism of the Catholic Church, Holy Scripture, and the work of Wendy Shalit (A Return to Modesty – Discovery of the Lost Virtue), show that the practice of modesty is much like the practice of virtue of prudence, temperance, fortitude, justice, faith, hope, and love. Modesty also ties into male honor and the Jewish tradition of tznuit.
    1832 The fruits of the Spirit are perfections that the Holy Spirit forms in us as the first fruits of eternal glory. The tradition of the Church lists twelve of them: "charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control, chastity."
    2521 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 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.
    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.
    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.
    2533 Purity of heart requires the modesty which is patience, decency, and discretion. Modesty protects the intimate center of the person.
    Galatians 5:15+ (New Jerusalem Bible) —
    I could wish that those who are unsettling you would go further and mutilate themselves. After all, brothers, you were called to be free; do not use your freedom as an opening for self-indulgence, but be servants to one another in love, since the whole of the Law is summarized in the one commandment: You must love your neighbor as yourself. If you go snapping at one another and tearing one another to pieces, take care: you will be eaten up by one another.
    Instead, I tell you, be guided by the Spirit, and you will no longer yield to self-indulgence. The desires of self-indulgence are always in opposition to the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are in opposition to self-indulgence: they are opposites, one against the other; that is how you are prevented from doing the things that you want to. But when you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law.
    When self-indulgence is at work the results are obvious: sexual vice, impurity, and sensuality, the worship of false gods and sorcery; antagonisms and rivalry, jealousy, bad temper and quarrels, disagreements, factions and malice, drunkenness, orgies and all such things. And about these, I tell you now as I have told you in the past, that people who behave in these ways will not inherit the kingdom of God.
    On the other hand the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness and self-control; no law can touch such things as these. All who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified self with all its passions and its desires. Since we are living by the Spirit, let our behavior be guided by the Spirit and let us not be conceited or provocative and envious of one another.
    Navarre Bible Commentary (Gal 5) —
    17-21. The fall of Adam and Eve left us with a tendency to seek created things for our own pleasure, instead of using them to lead us to God. The desires of the flesh make their appearance, urges which are at odds with God and with all that is noble in our personality. But when grace enters our soul and justifies us, we share in the fruits of the Redemption wrought by Christ and we are enabled to conquer our concupiscence and life according to the flesh.
    The vices referred to in vv. 19-21 have their roots in something much deeper–life "of the flesh". And, St Augustine asserts, "it is said that someone lives according to the flesh when he lives for himself. Therefore, in this case, by 'flesh' is meant the whole person. For everything which stems from a disordered love of oneself is called work of the flesh" ("The City of God", 14, 2).
    This is why we find included in the "works of the flesh" not only sins of impurity (v. 19) and faults of temperance (v. 21 ) but also sins against the virtues of religion and fraternal charity (v. 20).
    "Significantly, when speaking of 'the works of the flesh' Paul mentions not only 'immorality [fornication], impurity, licentiousness […], drunkenness, carousing'– all of which objectively speaking are connected with the flesh; he also names other sins which we do not usually put in the 'carnal' or 'sexual' category — 'idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, envy' […]. All these sins are the outcome of 'life according to the flesh', which is the opposite to 'life according to the spirit"' (John Paul II, "Address", 7 January 1981).
    Therefore, as the Apostle says, anyone who in one way or other obstinately persists in his sin will not be able to enter the Kingdom of heaven (cf. 1 Cor 6:9-10; Eph 5:5).
    22-25. When someone lets himself be led by his instincts he is said to be leading an "animal life"; whereas, if he acts as his reason advises, he is leading a rational, human, life. Similarly, when one allows the Holy Spirit to act, one's life becomes life according to the Spirit–a supernatural life, a life which is no longer simply human but divine. This is what happens when a person is in the state of grace and is mindful of the treasure he bears within.
    "Alone! You are not alone. We are keeping you close company from afar. Besides…, the Holy Spirit, living in your soul in grace–God with you–is giving a supernatural tone to all your thoughts, desires and actions" (St. J. Escriva, "The Way", 273).
    The soul then becomes a good tree which is known by its fruits. Its actions reveal the presence of the Paraclete, and because of the spiritual delight they give the soul, these actions are called fruits of the Holy Spirit (cf. St Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, I-II, q. 70, a. 1).
    "Those blessed fruits enumerated by the Apostle (Gal 5:22) the Spirit produces and shows forth in the just, even in this mortal life–fruits replete with all sweetness and joy. Such must, indeed, be from the Spirit 'who in the Trinity is the love of the Father and the Son, filling all creatures with immeasurable sweetness' (St Augustine, "De Trinitate", 6, 9)" (Leo XIII, "Divinum illud munus", 12).

  4. Jim-397948 October 10, 2009 Reply

    Nothing wrong with dressing nice…I will wear jeans to Mass on Saturday and not on Sunday…There is unspoken dress code at my church not to wear jeans on Sundays if you are over the age of Thirty, By the way, I go to St. Gabriel's in Saddle River, New Jersey.

  5. HectorJulio-180820 May 23, 2008 Reply

    Some say sequels are not as good as their predecessor. This is one of those great exceptions. Thank you much and I´m eager to see the third part.
    God Bless

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