H/T to Elena at Tea at Trianon, who linked to this very thoughtful article on modest standards of dress for modern Catholics. Nothing gets as contentious on a Trad Catholic blog as modest attire talk. You might recall such a fracas in this space before. <ahem>
This article, written by a Catholic priest, makes some very fine points about applying prudential standards from earlier eras to today's situation. Moreover, he has a sensible approach to the so-called Theology of the Body, recognizing its limitations and distortions without tossing the baby out with the bath water.
You can draw your own conclusions. The self-portrait above by Vigée Le Brun is purely gratuitous-- one of my favorites.
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 [be] 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.
Father adds the following postscript, to which I wholeheartedly agree:
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. ...Make sure your comments reflect that fact, or please abstain from commenting at all. Thank you.