Editorial by Rev. Fr. Sebastian Wall, Prior of St. Andrew's House, Carluke, Scotland
After the last balmy days of July this year, the warm weather, the long days are possibly over. Nonetheless, I like, once a year, to remind our faithful of the concept of Christian modesty, particularly regarding how they dress to church but also how they dress generally.
The Catholic concept of modesty seems like the perfect antidote to pop culture’s objectification of women (and, increasingly, of men, too). The trouble starts when the broad and nuanced idea of modesty becomes reduced to a set of policies and the sense of value, freedom, and community gets lost in formalism. It is more important to be humble, to value people for who they are and not what they look like, to cultivate inner beauty and a strong mind, and to lead others confidently.
In the Creation account, God breathes into the dust of the earth to make the first person. This is the essence of man. We are dust and spirit. It’s a mystery, a gift, and a good - not a shameful - thing. We are often told that clothing arose originally simply to protect us from the elements but the true beginning of the need to cover ourselves is Original Sin. What had been perfectly ordered in God’s creation now requires an effort of understanding and will. We cannot simply deny that there are natural reactions to facts of biology and anatomy, we now need to rein them in. We really can acknowledge that another person is beautiful and attractive in a wholesome, respectful way, that’s part of how a healthy couple begins, but the moment we treat natural attraction as a licence to think or act inappropriately is the moment that lust can take root.
This is not controlling the reaction of others to ourselves. If we wear, say and do the right thing, we are not necessarily safe, respected, and well thought of. The truth is that even if we are above reproach, we still don’t have insurance against someone else’s harmful thoughts or behaviour. We are responsible to one another to be honourable in all ways. But that does not entail that we are responsible for each other’s behaviour.
Priests have written much in the past about modesty. But it seems, over the centuries that the only things we agree on are that 1) it seems important and 2) we don’t know what it looks like, because standards of modesty ebb and flow. When we look at what the Apostle teaches in the early Church (I Tim. 2), it seems that he is more concerned about the flaunting of wealth and the early Church’s preference for simplicity. Which implies that modesty should be seen in the context of the relationship restoration that is so central to Catholicism. If our goal as members in this Kingdom is to treat one another honourably, then it follows that we should steer clear of flaunting anything: besides square inches of skin, perhaps our wealth and accomplishments, too.
It is wrong too that women are inherently predatory, seductive, or dangerous - and, conversely, that men are helpless, animalistic, or out of control. Indeed, the inherent freedom of self-forgetfulness is lost by viewing ourselves through others’ eyes, which is actually self-objectification. It casts us as objects in our own lives, not as agents of change, which is what we, as children of the God of restoration, are called to be. Being a Catholic woman doesn’t mean putting a Catholic twist on the things that our culture expects of them. It means upgrading to something better. We need a compelling alternative. Otherwise, our solution is just to submit ourselves to rules, all the while feeling perhaps not a little resentful.
When Sacred Scripture talks about modesty, it doesn’t create a set of culturally-bound standards and leave it at that. It praises a woman’s strength and inner beauty, acknowledging these traits as timeless and godly - values that have survived countless debates on outer ‘modesty’.
With every good wish and blessing,
Rev. Sebastian Wall (Prior)