Monday, March 18, 2013

Modesty, Once and for All

It seems like we hear a lot about modesty nowadays. And yet, as much as everyone’s talking about it, nobody really seems to know what it is. In the absence of a clear definition, many well-intentioned Catholics turn to non-Catholic definitions of modesty, largely protestant definitions that I’ll refer to here as “false-modesty”. Somewhat oppressive, the definition of false-modesty varies pretty widely in severity among individuals, but always focuses almost entirely on women and takes a stark, black-and-white approach to what one should and should not wear.

The fundamental problem with false-modesty, however, is that it too closely resembles the world’s view of sexuality. Let me put it this way: as a good friend of mine once put it, “Our culture says, ‘look at that woman because she’s a sex object’ but the culture of false-modesty says, ‘DON’T look at that woman because she’s a sex object.”

Put a different way, false-modesty twists true modesty so that its focus is on the negative. It commands a person, especially a woman, to cover up because either her body is evil and lust-provoking, or at the very least, the people who are looking at her body are evil and lustful.

This is simply wrong, however. The Church has always regarded the human body as a beautiful thing to be expressed, glorified, and yes, even shown off (with grace and humility and in the right context), as exhibited in St. Peter’s Basilica. A huge percentage of Pope John Paul II’s writings speak of the beauty of the body and human sexuality. Even the Bible attests to the beauty and glory of the woman’s form, saying in the Song of Songs, “Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins, which feed among the lilies.”

Not exactly what Solomon meant...
If this is all true, however, then where does modesty fit in? How do we live out modesty while still glorifying our bodies and ourselves in a deeply Catholic way?

Before we can answer the question of modesty, however, we must first look at why we must not be immodest. The fundamental problem with immodesty is not what it shows, but what it doesn’t show. Put differently, immodesty is sinful because it distracts from the dignity of the person inside, not because it shows too much skin.  For instance, many saints have stood naked in public and yet have managed to maintain a holy modesty. Lady Gaga, on the other hand, could wear a nun’s habit and still be totally immodest.

So what does it mean to be immodest? How can a person know whether they are being modest or not?

Pope John Paul II writes in ‘Love & Responsibility’ that:

“Immodesty is present only when nakedness plays a negative role with regard to the value of the person, when its aim is to arouse concupiscence, as a result of which the person is put in the position of an object for enjoyment… There are certain objective situations in which even total nudity of the body is not immodest, since the proper function of nakedness in this context is not to provoke a reaction to the person as an object for enjoyment, and in just the same way the functions of particular forms of attire may vary. Thus, the body may be partially bared for physical labor, for bathing, or for a medical examination. If then, we wish to pass a moral judgment on particular forms of dress we have to start from the particular functions which they serve. When a person uses such a form of dress in accordance with its objective function we cannot claim to see anything immodest in it, even if it involves partial nudity. Whereas the use of such a costume outside its proper context is immodest, and is inevitably felt to be so. For example, there is nothing immodest about the use of a bathing costume at a bathing place, but to wear it in the street or while out for a walk is contrary to the dictates of modesty.”

So, according to JPII’s teaching, modesty can never be determined by the question “what are you wearing?” Instead, modesty can be figured out by asking the questions, “Why are you wearing it and where are you wearing it?” 

Didn't know that, did you?

Let’s break that down slightly:

Firstly, the modesty of anyone is directly determined by the motives of the person. If a person is wearing something because it makes him or her feel beautiful and self confident, and if that person is carrying themselves with humility and dignity, they are probably justified in wearing whatever it is they’re wearing. 

Secondly, modesty is determined by the particular situation. For instance, a tasteful, modest ball gown can be totally immodest if worn in the middle of a county fair.

Now I recognize that this is a lot to take in. Catholicism’s definition of modesty is a very cerebral and, dare I say, liberating outlook. Still, it’s important for Catholics to do their best to grasp the Church’s teaching and apply it to their own lives. Hopefully this post will have begun you on the journey to a healthier and more Catholic approach to modesty.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. This is a WONDERFUL post putting modesty into context. Thank you!