Introduction: Debates on modesty pop up in the Catholic blogosphere as surely as dandelions in spring. This essay was my contribution to the discussion, and was recently republished at Catholic Answers’ chastity outreach site, Chastity.com.
You want to see a ruckus in Catholic cyberspace? All you have to do is link together the words Catholic and modesty or, better, Blessed Virgin and pants. Simcha Fisher, who writes for the National Catholic Register, rode on the skirt-tails of “Pants!” to Catholic blogging superstardom a few years back with a couple of hysterical posts on the subject (here and here). The administrator at the Catholic Answers Forums tells me that she sometimes fantasizes about banning the subject of women’s clothing as a topic of conversation on the forums because there are few topics more likely to start flame wars.
Some years ago, Catholic Answers published a free outreach magazine named Be. I was in the customer service department at the time, and I well remember when the cover story was on Tara Lipinski, the American Olympic figure skating champion whose Catholic Faith was so important to her that she had a skating routine dedicated to her favorite saint, Therese of Lisieux. The cover image was of Lipinski performing that routine. Returned copies from subscribers displeased with the image poured into customer service, even though Lipinski’s costume was quite modest by competitive figure-skating standards. One woman was so upset with the image that she inked in sleeves and leggings on Lipinski’s arms and legs.
Then there are the Catholic women who appear at Catholic events on matters of faith. Some report having been chastised for wearing business attire that included slacks, or for wearing makeup (not necessarily for wearing too much makeup, but for wearing any makeup), or for wearing a sleeveless dress with a modest neckline to a formal evening event (bare shoulders being considered taboo). One speaker told me how wearing an otherwise modest skirt that fell past the knee turned into an embarrassing moment for her when the photographer for the event apparently did not know his trade well enough to realize that you do not aim your camera up at speakers seated above you on a stage.
And who is the authority who is pressed into service to dictate modesty for Catholic women? The Blessed Virgin Mary. Google “Marian modesty” and you will get nearly ten million results, in which people purport to speak for the Blessed Virgin on what Catholic women these days should wear. The most well-known page on the subject modestly styles itself “The Marylike Standards for Modesty in Dress (as set down by the Vatican).” In this Guide to Modesty, our Blessed Mother, previously unknown to be a fashionista, speaks through an anonymous “cardinal vicar” during the reign of Pope Pius XI to declare among other things:
- “Marylike dresses have sleeves extending to the wrists; and skirts reaching the ankles.”
- “Marylike dresses require full and loose coverage for the bodice, chest, shoulders, and back; the cut-out about the neck must not exceed ‘two fingers breadth under the pit of the throat’ and a similar breadth around the back of the neck.”
- “Marylike dresses also do not admit as modest coverage transparent fabrics—laces, nets, organdy, nylons, etc.—unless sufficient backing is added. Fabrics such as laces, nets, organdy may be moderately used as trimmings only.”
Don’t bother looking for guidelines for modest pants for women, because “the Blessed Virgin Mary will never approve of these pagan styles which are so contrary to Christian tradition on modesty.”
But what might the real Blessed Virgin—as distinguished from the straw woman some Catholics have created in their own image—have to say about modesty? At Fatima, an apparition approved by the Church, our Lady is reported to have said, “Certain fashions will be introduced that will offend our Lord very much.” Curiously, she is not very specific. She does not even distinguish between men’s and women’s fashions. Going on this dictum alone, she might have in mind men’s saggy jeans and not be commenting upon women’s fashions at all.
Perhaps we should look instead to images of our Lady:
Here she is at La Vang, in Vietnam. In this 18th-century apparition, our Lady appeared to Christians being persecuted by the local government. She comforted them and told them to boil nearby leaves to heal those among them who were ill. Our Lady of La Vang has received favorable recognition from the local bishops and from two popes, and there are parishes named in her honor throughout the Far East. Note the culturally correct “pagan” pant legs peeping out from beneath our Lady’s long robe.
If Our Lady of La Vang is too exotic for you, let’s look at an apparition closer to home, this one having received approval from the local ordinary of the diocese in which the apparition occurred.
The cyberspace guardians of Catholic women’s modesty sometimes appear to believe that our Lady would not dream of setting foot outside the heavens without her customary veil. Therefore Catholic women must go forth and do likewise, especially in church. But here, in the apparition known as Our Lady of Good Help, in which our Lady appeared to a young Belgian immigrant to the United States to request that the seer teach local children their catechism and how to approach the sacraments, we see our Lady without her customary veil. In the apparition, the seer Adele Brise described our Lady as having “long, golden, wavy hair [that] fell loosely around her shoulders.” Of course, our Lady appeared to Adele in a Wisconsin forest, not a church, but surely the Mother of God could be expected to have known that the image of her appearance would find its way into church statuary.
Our Lady didn’t speak much in Scripture. One of the most significant of her few recorded statements is to the servants at the wedding at Cana, regarding her Son: “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5). In this, our Lady always refers us to her Son’s Church, which is his mystical body on Earth. That Church has this to say about modesty:
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 (CCC 2524).
More importantly, modesty is a virtue that encompasses much more than clothing choices:
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 (CCC 2522).
When it comes to Catholic modesty, especially when the Blessed Mother is pulled forward for her opinion and example, there often is a conflation of two different concepts: imitation and mimicry. Imitation is using someone or something as a model for one’s own actions; mimicry is to attempt to create an external, superficial resemblance to something or someone else.
Too often in discussions of modesty, it seems that those advocating for using the Blessed Mother as a role model confuse mimicry with imitation. Perhaps that is why you sometimes hear of Catholic women who don’t cover their heads in church or elsewhere, or who choose to wear pants, or who do not cover every square inch from neck to toes, denounced as “immodest” for not following some perceived “Marian code of dress for Catholic women.”
We are not called to be mimics of the Blessed Mother, dressing as would be appropriate for a first-century Palestinian peasant woman (e.g., long veils, skirts to the floor, sandals). We are called to imitate the Blessed Mother in her virtues. In terms of modesty, that might mean dressing in a way that is appropriate to one’s culture and circumstances, not drawing undue attention to oneself either in one’s dress or undress, remaining circumspect about one’s own choices, and not denouncing the reasonable choices of others.
Note: A version of this essay originally appeared on the Catholic Answers Blog (2/19/13). It is republished here with permission.