Where modesty comes from, and why it’s still essential today

Modest dress once gave witness to the unique dignity of women. Does it still, or is modesty just an outdated custom?
Thu Nov 12, 2020 - 9:30 am EST
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Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part essay. Part two can be read here.

November 12, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) — Nowadays, in Latin and Byzantine Rite Catholic Churches, as well as in the other Churches of the Catholic Church, many ancient traditions and customs have been called into question, and many of the faithful have been led to believe that most of the “old ways” of doing things are “old hat” and no longer apply in our day and age. One of the “old ways” of doing things that is widely regarded as “old hat” is the “old way” of dressing — both the old standards for dress in general and, in particular, the standards of dress for divine worship. In this article we will consider whether the traditional Catholic standards of “modesty” are “old hat” or still valid — subject to change according to fashion, or divinely ordained and timeless.

Before addressing the subject of modesty, it will be important to distinguish between customs, or “old ways” of doing things, that were wrong according to the Gospel — and which therefore needed to be changed — and “old ways” of doing things that were required by the Gospel and which must be maintained. One “old way” of doing things that was not according to the Gospel was the longstanding practice of segregation in Catholic churches in many parts of the United States. Two generations ago, in many states of the Union, Catholic churches were completely segregated according to color. It would not take much reading of the New Testament or of the Church Fathers to know that this practice contradicts the teaching of Our Lord Jesus Christ as it was understood in the Church from the beginning. In the letter of St. James, the apostle strongly condemns any kind of discrimination in the Church based on wealth or social status, which certainly included racial discrimination. Thus, the abandonment of segregation should be celebrated by all Catholic Christians as a victory for the Gospel.

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The old custom of segregation according to race is (rightly) so repulsive to people today that many Byzantine Catholics and members of other churches within the Catholic Church are tempted, unfortunately, to regard other customs that were practiced at the same time as equally dispensable. But this is illogical —and extremely dangerous. It is illogical because the mere fact that two customs prevailed in the same Catholic community at the same time (and that one of them was evil) does not prove that the second custom was also evil or dispensable. It is also dangerous because if the second custom accorded with the teaching of the Gospel as it has been handed down from the apostles, the rejection of that custom will do great harm to the souls of the faithful. In short, one must learn to ask the vital question: “Is this or that custom in accord with the Gospel as it has been understood in the Church from the beginning?” If the answer is “yes,” that custom must be defended. If the answer is “no,” it can be changed for good reason — as long as the new practice is also in accord with the Gospel as it has been handed down from the apostles.

Modesty safeguards chastity

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

Chastity means the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being. Sexuality, in which man's belonging to the bodily and biological world is expressed, becomes personal and truly human when it is integrated into the relationship of one person to another, in the complete and lifelong mutual gift of a man and a woman. The virtue of chastity therefore involves the integrity of the person and the integrality of the gift (CCC, 2337).

Adam and Eve were created in a state of perfect integrity in which their passions and appetites were completely subordinated to reason and their reason to the will of God. In their original state of integrity, Adam and Eve possessed perfect chastity. With the Original Sin, however, our first parents lost the gift of integrity. Their passions and appetites no longer remained subject to reason, nor did their reason easily submit to the will of God. Under these conditions, chastity could not be preserved without the extra safeguard of modesty, which the Catechism defines as “refusing to unveil what should remain hidden,” adding that modesty is

ordered to chastity to whose sensitivity it bears witness. It guides how one looks at others and behaves toward them in conformity with the dignity of persons and their solidarity . . . It inspires one’s choice of clothing. It keeps silence or reserve where there is evident risk of unhealthy curiosity. (Catechism of Catholic Church, 2521-2522)

A survey of the Holy Scriptures on the subject of modesty confirms this teaching. The first mention of clothing in the entire Bible occurs in the book of Genesis after the Fall of Adam. Before the Fall, Adam and Eve were clothed in the glory of God. This is why the Byzantine Vespers verses for the Feast of the Transfiguration liken the glory of Jesus on Mt. Tabor to the original glory of Adam:

Through your transfiguration, You returned Adam’s nature to its original splendor, restoring its very elements to the glory and brilliance of your divinity. Wherefore we cry out to you, the Creator of All, “Glory be to you.”

According to St. John Chrysostom, when Adam and Eve sinned against God in Paradise, they lost the grace of God that had illuminated them with glory and became aware of their nakedness.

And the eyes of them both were opened: and when they perceived themselves to be naked, they sewed together fig leaves, and made themselves aprons. (Gen. 3:7)

Having lost the glory of God in which they had been created, Adam and Eve sought to clothe their naked bodies with fig leaves. But God was not satisfied with these “aprons,” and He provided Adam and Eve with full-length garments made of animal skins, skins that required the sacrificial death of animals — a foreshadowing of the future sacrificial death of Our Lord Jesus Christ, who merited for Adam and Eve and for all of their children a share in His perfect chastity.

Thus, right at the beginning of human history, God clothed the first man and woman in a way that safeguarded their chastity. This is reflected in the iconography of the Byzantine tradition, which always portrays Adam and Eve after the exile from Paradise clothed in rough animal skins that cover them from their shoulders to their knees. The importance of modesty in dress for our first parents receives even greater emphasis in the icons of the Resurrection, which show the Risen Lord rescuing Adam and Eve from Hades, fully clothed from head to toe.

In man’s original state, clothed in the light of glory, Adam’s and Eve’s bodies and souls had existed in perfect harmony with the Divine Will. But after the Fall, their bodies and souls grew disordered, and the passions that were meant to serve the soul became rebellious. Even though Adam and Eve continued to be “one flesh” with the blessing of God after the Fall, their desire for each other was no longer perfectly ordered as it would have been in the original state of integrity. As their children and grandchildren began to populate the Earth, the need for modesty grew even more urgent. Thus, God had to teach man to discipline his mind and his body, to maintain right order within himself, so that he could live in God’s friendship. The Ten Commandments required God’s people to maintain a high standard of chastity, and the Mosaic Law mandated strict punishments for those who violated the sanctity of marriage through fornication, adultery, or sexual perversion.

Under the Old Covenant, women had rights that they did not enjoy in most other societies. For Hebrew women, the modest clothing of a woman’s body was not only a safeguard against lust and unchastity, but also a sign of her dignity. When the prophet Isaiah prophesied against Babylon, he personified her as a woman and predicted that she would fall from her position of power and prestige into abject slavery. In the ancient world, only slaves and prostitutes bared their legs or uncovered their thighs. Knowing this, one can appreciate the horror of Isaiah’s warning to Babylon:

O daughter of the Chaldeans ... thou shalt no more be called tender and delicate. Take the millstones, and grind meal: uncover thy locks, make bare the leg, uncover the thigh, pass over the rivers. Thy nakedness shall be uncovered, yea, thy shame shall be seen. (Is. 47:1–3)

No woman of Israel would deliberately expose her legs or her thighs to public view. Immodesty of that sort was only forced upon slaves and prostitutes. Thus, modest dress gave witness to the unique dignity of women in Hebrew society and distinguished them from Gentile women, who were often treated like chattel.

  adam and eve, catholic, modesty

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