05 March 2013

Modesty These Days

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.


QV said...

Having been asked to respond in a spirit of prayer and charity, I offer the following comments. I find this to be a typical piece of reasoning in post-conciliar times regarding traditional norms of modesty. The principal aim appears to be justifying the abandonment of more traditional norms by harping on the undisputed and obvious fact that all such norms are contingent and involve the exercise of prudence. This, of course, no reasonable person denies. But you will notice that no concrete prudential reasons are given for why relatively recent customs are no longer reasonable—or at least excessively stringent—and just how in the world the new “norms” are. How, for example, are women’s pants, low cut blouses, shorts, etc., consistent with the virtue of chastity and the 6th and 9th commandments? In logic we call fallacies of this sort “ignoratio elenchi,” missing the point. No one is contending that norms of modesty may never vary. What we would like to know is how cleavage, pants, tight-fitting clothes, and shorts, are reasonably consonant with the virtue of chastity. Can anybody tell me? I’m just looking for an objectively reasoned argument whose whole force doesn’t rely on the premise “norms of modesty are contingent.”

thetimman said...

Well, I will make a start. First, let's take the dresses/skirts v. pants for women thing. I'll start with stating that dresses look better and I believe are more appropriate for general attire for ladies in everyday situations. It is more fitting in terms of drawing attention to the feminine, and works in most non-vigorous exercis-y situations.

But that speaks to something different than modesty, does it not? If one considers only the point of modest attire, loose-fitting pants on a woman can qualify. If charity demands that we extend the best motives to others, then why would pants on a woman violate modesty per se?

Also, though I know you are seeking to encapsulate in a short expression a way of thinking that welcomes needless novelties as "postconciliar"-- I get it-- I think if others will join this discussion it might be too easy to fall back on it too much.

So, there you have my question, from one who agrees that skirts are more fitting attire, why cannot pants be modest?

Long pants said...

I'll bet the Taliban started down their path with just such a conversation.

thetimman said...

Very droll.

QV said...

Timman. If you wish to dispute women wearing pants, then we may do so. But let’s be clear. The kind of fashions that appear to be justified by the sort of reasoning in “A Modest Proposal” would—and the author seems to acknowledge as much—shock the saints of all previous generations. I know you don’t really think all our dear author is trying to justify is women wearing pants, but some people might. And to his question, “Would a woman in today’s secular society be more virtuous by dressing like a resident of rural Italy in the 1960’s,” I answer yes, without a doubt. In fact, if you compare the average female dress in the USA today to that of the 1990’s, 1980’s, 1970’s, it is decidedly worse, much worse. And it continues to get worse. Just take a brief tour of a college campus in the dead of winter and you will, I hope, be shocked. And forget about when it gets warm. This, like it or not, is the context in which all arguments about norms of modesty occur. We’re not talking about natives in Ubuntu. Our standards continue to degenerate, and yet all I hear are arguments telling us how all these things are contingent. Harping on contingency and cultural variation does not help us to discern when a culture’s norms are totally corrupt, as ours today are.

Now, on to women dressing like men. First, just to make the issue as clear as possible, we are talking about the objective order, not whether or not a particular person is culpable. Charity has nothing to do with it. I concede that most women’s consciences are formed by Vogue rather than Padre Pio. No one is judging particular people—that is reserved to God. We are only making general judgment about the objective order. That being said, I would have to look at some concrete examples of the sort of pants you mention in order to make a reasoned judgment. When engaging in practical reasoning, as we are told we must do, it is helpful to remember that such reasoning does not live on “possibilities” but on concrete situations. May we all assume at least that jeans are out? I’ve not seen a pair that doesn’t count as “tight-fitting.” But come to think of it, I haven’t seen any pants that a woman would take pride in wearing that don’t highlight the “hindquarters.” Please remember, women generally like to look attractive in whatever they choose to wear. Old lady’s pants might pass the “hindquarters” test but college girls aren’t interested in looking like Betty White. What makes dresses more “femininely appropriate” is that they are beautiful without unduly displaying the female physique. Good looking pants, I’m sorry to say, just don’t do this. And this gets us to your point, which is that “old lady’s pants” are modest but silly or just plain ugly. Not a moral issue, right? But remember, we are talking about the virtue of modesty. A virtue is acquired by constant practice and, according to spiritual authors, involves asceticism and mortification. Women like to wear pants for the same reason that men like to wear shorts, because they are more comfortable. Giving in to our inclination to comfort and slovenliness does not engender virtue. You ask, in a very pre-Conciliar spirit, if such things, while not virtuous, are nevertheless permitted. I can tell you this, given human nature (which hasn’t changed in spite of that ubiquitous Conciliar “modern man”), if you go down this path, you are ignoring the advice of every spiritual author worth taking seriously. One final point. Contemporary women’s fashions are imbued with feminism, which aims at destroying the natural and divinely instituted distinctions between men and women. It is just plain wrong (but is it sinful? you ask, again, in a pre-Conciliar spirit). Women wearing pants, even if they look like Betty White, is as perverse as men wearing dresses (and please don’t mention kilts). Male and female he created them.

thetimman said...


You make many good points, and I agree with your general premise and most of the specifics.

With as much tact as I can muster here, I think the type of skirt or pants that flatter or "unduly" flatter a woman's physique is often a function of just how attractive the woman is, yes?

A skirt that all would agree is modest still would highlight certain feminine characteristics of form. Certain non-disgustingly immodest pants can be non sack-like and still do the job, modesty wise.

I agree about the function of clothing in maintaining the distinction between the sexes, but even here you fall back upon the prudential and situational. Men used to routinely wear tunics-- should this style return, because modesty would be best served by it? Certain parts of the man are also less covered by pants.

Which gets us back to the original question. Is a skirt immodest, for example, because it hits the knee but not an inch below? Does it have to cover the ankle? Can an upper arm be exposed, though the arm is not, in moral theology, considered to be a private part?

I am reading a devotional book this Lent and in it a woman who had been condemned to hell appeared to her friend and said it was because she dressed to please men. What does that mean, exactly?

Anonymous said...

Do you guys hear yourselves?

QV said...

Touché. I told you not to mention kilts so you brought up tunics. Very clever. I’m glad we agree on so much, so I’ll take a shot at the things we don’t. First, tunics aren’t dresses (I once heard a story from a learned professor that Gloria Steinem absurdly protested in a public meeting at being told what to do by men in “dresses”—read cassocks). What’s a dress? You’ve put your finger on a very important point that ought to be dear to your readers. It is tradition. Taken in total abstraction from context, that is, from culture, practice, and the intentions of people, it is indeed impossible to distinguish between tunics, dresses, kilts, and cassocks—apart from their obvious physical differences. They are all just pieces of cloth. But placed within their human context, they have very definite meanings. Now, and I can only speak to Roman practice, ancient men and women very definitely did not wear the same thing. Women’s tunics were not the same, not at all, as men’s. They were significantly more modest, and men never wore them. In fact, the distinction between men and women’s clothing is, outside of decadent, modern western society, fairly universal. (And please, let’s not get distracted by citing counter-examples. I’m speaking here of moral, not physical, universals). Dresses are, at the very least, the sort of thing that women wear. Just like a cassock is the sort of thing a priest (or a seminarian, if he’s allowed) wears. If you Timman, started wearing a cassock or a dress, would it be immoral? Not if you were masquerading at a traddy-nerdy All Saints Day party or playing a weird joke. But if you were serious, I should think it would. Now, if we consider our Catholic traditions, or even the best of pagan ones, where will you find decent women dressing like men? You won’t. Why? Because it wasn’t until fairly recently that the modern fashion industry, allied with women’s liberation, free love, gender-bending, and anarchism, have sought to “undermine culture norms” by crossing clearly established boundaries. This bears upon a very important point: women are subject to stricter norms of modest dress because men are the lovely ******** that they are. Like it or not, men have a wandering eye. It is indisputable that modern women’s fashion, pants included, is part and parcel of women’s lib (i.e., violating the 6th and 9th commandments). As for particulars, I won’t debate inches of this or that being exposed or numbers of fingers and pits of throats. I’ll just say that we most certainly do know what is modest (we have pictures of these things) and everything else becomes increasingly morally uncertain. In these cases, the sure bet is the safest way. Dresses, as a rule used to cover the ankle. No doubt about it, that is modest. As they started getting shorter, some people drew the line at the knee. I think it is reasonable place to draw the line, but to be safe ladies, give yourselves a few more inches. As for arms, I’m glad women have them. They’re great for holding babies. But please, don’t show us men so much of them that we start wondering about what lies east of Eden. Would I like tunics to come back in style? Absolutely, yes. But only if women can’t wear them. Hey! What a great strategy to get women back in dresses. Are you with me Timman?

thetimman said...

Did Joan of Arc wear male clothing?

Because of a specific task to perform?

QV said...

Did Blessed JPII kiss the Koran?

Junior said...

QV said:

"Women’s tunics were not the same, not at all, as men’s"

Just like women's pants and men's pants today.

Dan said...

If anything, this discussion is a reflection upon how degraded culture has become. In some cases it has become so degraded that what was thought repulsive a mere generation ago is, by dint of constant exposure, beginning to be accepted. This is true of anything: music, art, literature film, attire, architecture, etc. It takes a lot of effort to say, "If it was ugly forty years ago it is still ugly today." Conversely, if it was beautiful seven centuries ago it it is still beautiful today.

I am often amazed at Catholics who, most likely in utter desperation, will, for example, praise to the skies some mindless piece of cinematic dreck merely because there are only two nude scenes in it rather than twenty, or that only five people's heads are being shown blown to pieces instead of a hundred. The fact that storytellers are conspicuous by their absence in Hollywood, and that today's films in general are amateurishly made is unknown to most people who have been brought up on the current rubbish and are unable to distingish between, say, a truly great film and what passes for "greatness" today. In other words, in so many areas we have come to accept what only a lifetime ago we would have scorned. "People can get used to anything", mused Dostoevskey,
"even cannibalism".

QV is perfectly correct to point what has become an acceptance of much lower standards.

As for this idiotic "Theology of the Body" only one thing can be said: there is very little doubt that it will one day be condemned by the Church in its totality. A "theology" that throws gasoline on raging hormones is not a theology that can possibly be tolerated by the Church; it will disappear when our beloved Church comes back to its senses. I am amused at those who are horrified by Christopher West. But why? He is merely carrying this theology to its logical conclusion. The good priest quoted in the article, who is still trying to make a silk purse out of the sow's ear of TOB, can be forgiven, a little. But he like the rest of us will need to face up to the fact that sometimes Popes make catastrophically stupid prudential judgments (as any reader of Church history will attest to) and TOB was one such judgment. But the damage it will do before it is condemned is something that makes me shudder.

QV said...

Junior: No. The comparison is inapt. As I said, the context is almost everything. Roman women never started wearing men's tunics in order to show that "gender" is a social construct to be altered at will, sometimes just for fun. Oh, but the Ancient Cynics used to fornicate in public, just to show that norms of modesty are contingent and variable.

Dan, nicely said. But personally, I don't know anything about TOB, just what Mr. West says. I'm not sure he and the Pope are on the same page, but Mr. West is definitely lacking in prudence.

Call me a prude. I embrace it. In the best sense of the word, you know, I aspire to be a preudomme.

SM said...

Styles change. St. Agnes would certainly be shocked by styles in the 1960s. But that I'm sure Rebecca (Old Testament) would be shocked by styles from the first century. We adapt to the styles of our age. Christ told us to be in the world, but not of it. To be "in the world," we have to live in it, dress in it. That doesn't mean that immodest attire doesn't exist now, but not all the clothes today are immodest.

QV said...

Hey Timman, I thought you didn't post anonymous comments.

Hey Anonymous, I can hear neither myself nor the Timman. Can you?

Why is anything being said here obviously, self-evidently absurd? Please enlighten us.

Methodist Jim said...

Anonymous comment at 16:20 = best comment on this site ever!

Anonymous said...

I'm curious what QV thinks of cultures other than the West where women traditionally wear pants. One of my sisters-in-law is Hindu, and I find their traditional dress (which includes pants) to be modest and very feminine. I think there is a false dichotomy in saying that such-and-such an article of clothing is "male" or "female." Such clothing, for example pants or dresses, can become either based on the culture. The Romans considered trousers to be barbaric and wore their togas - a form of clothing more more akin to women's dresses than they are to today's business suit. I do not think that they would not have understood QV's argument, though I do believe that they (and we) can readily see when a piece of _particular_ clothing is feminine (e.g. the Indian salwar kameez) or masculine (the Roman cassock).


Junior said...

The pope settled this question about a thousand years ago:


thetimman said...

QV, re: the Pope kissing the Koran-- yes, it appears he did. His level of culpability is contested by many. But are you equating that act with Joan of Arc's wearing of male clothing-- and further that her actions were sinful? Because that would be a new take indeed. The Burgundian/British pharisees used that attire as a dishonest weapon to persecute her.

Junior's post with the words of Pope St. Nicholas I seem apt. What say ye?

Marc said...

Where's the UCLX when you need him/her?


Pumps said...

More where that came from:


Jane Chantal said...

Well, as a fan both of modesty and of attire that is pleasing to the eye, this subject is endlessly interesting to me. (And darn, I wanted to be the first commenter to mention the salwar kameez.)

I’d like to put in a good word for the Vietnamese ao dai, imo a style of dress that is exemplary for its modesty, femininity, and visual appeal -- yet non-lust-inspiring (unless you’re some kind of weirdo):


As for me, I’d be satisfied – delighted, actually – to see a return to the fashion of the Regency period, i.e. the Jane Austen Heroine Look (not the much-caricatured décolleté version, needless to say).

I rather suspect that I’m far from the only female who, from sheer vanity if not for modesty’s sake, would welcome the opportunity to routinely wear clothing that obscures the contours of the lower limbs, and to do so without attracting stares. In fact, I’ll bet that a lot of women longingly regard such a prospect as The Impossible Dream, as en masse we desultorily serve out our more-or-less mortifying life-sentence of leg-exposure.

All that said, I’d like to request of any of the gents who are avid for the ladies to cover up from chin to toe, summer and winter, so that you won’t have to cope with temptation: back off, take a chill pill and repeat as necessary until you manage to civilize yourselves.

Wrt St. Joan, she of course not only intermittently needed to wear battle attire to accomplish her mission, but – her repeated requests to be confined in an ecclesial, rather than in a civil, prison having been denied -- she resorted to male attire in prison as it provided to her a greater sense of modesty and therefore of some small measure of increased safety from sexual assault by various males who had access to her cell.

QV said...

"I’d like to request of any of the gents who are avid for the ladies to cover up from chin to toe ..."

Who proposed this?

No one here has even come close to addressing my arguments.

I understand that dress is variable.

If I say it five more times, will you believe me? How about twenty times?

Citing exceptional or dead practices isn't an argument. It's what we call the fallacy of special pleading. For those of you who don't know what this means, here is a nice definition:

"The fallacy of Special Pleading occurs when someone argues that a case is an exception to a rule based upon an irrelevant characteristic that does not define an exception. People are most tempted to engage in special pleading when they are subject to a law or moral rule that they wish to evade."

QV said...

Timman. I'm not equating anything. You cited an exceptional case. So did I. Nothing about what we should or shouldn't do follows from either of them.

The quotes from Pope Nicholas don't seem to me to settle anything. Again, and I only repeat it because it hasn't apparently sunk in, anachronism is as bad in moral matters as it is in liturgical ones. There is no more similarity between femoralia and modern women's pants than there is between ancient deaconesses and modern wannabes. Besides, I haven't encountered this statement from the Pope in any moral theology manuals. It doesn't seem to have the authoritative and decisive role you want it too.

thetimman said...

UCLX? Is that you?

QV said...

Timman. I present the following and final post for your consideration. While many consider the moral theology manuals from which I cite to be worth less than the yellowing paper on which they’re printed, I don’t suspect you do. At the very least they are due the same respect you requested the original post be given.

(1) H. Peeters, OFM, Manuale Theologiae Moralis (Roma, 1944), vol. 2, pp. 262-263, n. 339. From the section entitled “On Clothing”
The author states that clothing relates to morality in different ways, the most important of which is the service of modesty. Clothing and apparel are permitted to be worn for protecting the body from inclement weather and for the enhancement of beauty, especially in the case of women (not merely during the marriageable age); but the rule of modesty always takes first place. If certain kinds of clothing are reserved to a special class of men (clerics, the military, etc.), they can and even must wear them. And if they are reserved exclusively to this class, than others may not wear them. And now I quote:

“Similarly, women’s clothes may not be worn by men nor men’s clothes by women, except for a grave reason (such as to escape persecution). But for a joke or in the theater, where there is no danger of confusing the sexes, it is licit.”

Here’s what he says about covering the body: “In the ordinary circumstances of life it appears that it is at least required (for both men and women) that the whole trunk and the majority of the arms and legs be covered.”

(2)And regarding your reference to “private parts,” I have found the following in Marc & Gestermann, CSSR, Institutiones Morales Alphonsianae (Lugduni, 1920), vol. 2, p. 540, n. 812:

“But theologians are accustomed to divide the parts of the body into three classes, according as they have greater or lesser tendency to excite inappropriate desires. (1) Virtuous parts: the face, hands, and feet; (2) less virtuous parts: the chest, back, arms, and legs; (3) non-virtuous (vicious?) parts: genitalia and the surrounding parts.”

Pumps said...

The manual nowhere addrssed pants, sir.

Anonymous said...

How did the comments section get so long? "Bare shoulders" appears nowhere in the text.

[Full disclosure: This was far too long to read, but a simple control-F allowed me to determine that the offensive phrase was nowhere to be found.]


SLPS Parent

Anonymous said...

Dear SLPS,

How long ago was the comment about bare shoulders was made? Are you really convinced that it was that funny or has your conscience been bothering you ever since?

I'm just saying...

Silent Observer

Anonymous said...

QV said:

"But you will notice that no concrete prudential reasons are given for why relatively recent customs are no longer reasonable—or at least excessively stringent—and just how in the world the new “norms” are."

As a priest of more than twenty years and the author of the piece cross-posted here, I know that teaching modesty the way I have suggested works. When it is done in the context of a broader catechesis and balancing rules with prudence, without entering into continual polemics over the rules, this leads to a much higher standard of modesty, without scrupulosity or a lack of charity.