Monday, October 25, 2010

Cautionary Tales: The Naked Truth

What is modesty? The saints, the fathers, the doctors of the Church, all wrote at length on it. It has long been a greater issue with women's apparel than with men's, as it is believed that men are more susceptible to improper sexual thoughts. So the question might be posed: what rules does a woman follow to be modest by Christian standards?

One day, someone asked the Pope -- Pius XI, who ruled from 1929 to 1939 -- and on January 12, 1930, in a very explicit instruction issued to the bishops of the world, he told them.

We recall that a dress cannot be called decent which is cut deeper than two fingers breadth under the pit of the throat, which does not cover the arms at least to the elbows, and scarcely reaches a bit beyond the knee. Furthermore, dresses of transparent material are improper. Let parents keep their daughters away from public gymnastic games and contests; but, if their daughters are compelled to attend such exhibitions, let them see to it that they are fully and modestly dressed. Let them never permit their daughters to don immodest garb.

The directive of Pius XI was reiterated by his successor, Pius XII, in 1956, speaking through his Cardinal Vicar, when he said: "There always exists an absolute norm to be preserved."

More recently, in a Notification on June 12, 1960, Guiseppe Cardinal Siri expressed concern over the wearing of men's clothing by women, specifically trousers. He was especially disapproving of trousers that were form-fitting on women.

To respond to the above, one would be curious as to what that "absolute norm" would be, especially since no basis in Objective Truth is cited in the above application of the norms, and the ability to incite the senses is often conditioned by the culture in which one is raised. There was a time in Europe when a woman showing her bare ankle was considered scandalous, a factor unmentioned in the papal decrees. (So, at some point, bare ankles became acceptable, right?) What's more, a man who was raised in the South Sea Islands, or in some parts of Africa, may not be given to impure thoughts when seeing bare-breasted women, especially if he has seen them all his life. Further, to bar women from wearing pants assumes that pants, by their essential nature, are inherently male garb. Given the whole of history (and we're dealing with millennia here, and all parts of the world), this is a relatively new concept, especially in the West.

Perhaps modesty is like its nemesis, pornography; we know it when we see it. Modesty may also be conditioned by time or place. A sleeveless evening gown which may be very becoming, and nothing more, may be just distracting enough when worn in Church. And so the woman might veil her hair -- her "crowning glory," as my mother used to say -- because one honors the mystique of that which is veiled, much as the priest veiled the ciborium before returning it to the tabernacle after Communion. We don't worry much about veiling our women in this part of the world, do we, fellas?

It is also helpful to hear from young men and women themselves, those who are learning to come to grips with the discovery, the mystery that is human sexuality. Amanda of would remind us that these are not theological truths, so much as a guide for us, a reminder that what is being covered is reserved for a higher purpose, and that the mind should consider such outfitting accordingly.


(Video courtesy of Gloria.TV. Photos courtesy of Skirt/pullover ensemble by Clare R. All photos used without permission or shame.)

POSTSCRIPT: Personally, I can always count on Wikipedia to do justice to the topic.


Mercury said...

Interesting enough, when I was not living my faith and carelessly living an unchaste life, I knew immodesty and I knew modesty when I saw it.

Now that I have discovered this whole issue on the ultratrad side of the spectrum, I see "immodesty" everywhere. Before I knew that people cared, I would have never been bothered by say, a woman in a one-piece bathing suit, or a tank-top and jogging shorts, or a ballet outfit, or, God forbid, pants.

So now all these things that were once neutral in my sight and mind are suddenly "sexualized" because I am constantly wondering "well, is that really modest enough ... I mean, I *could* lust in this case".

It's nauseating, but I just wanted to point out that it seems some people who are hypersensitive to the issue will sexualize things that even an unchaste young man doesn't.

I mean, can it really be healthy to see a picture of my grandma and grandpa at the beach in their swimsuits and wonder what St. John Chrysostom would have thought, or what St. Jerome would have thought of my sister's volleyball uniform?

I wish thoughts like that would go away ... thanks, radtrads!

David L Alexander said...


I wouldn't blame any particular group in the present day for the origin of a papal decree. But before you blame them for anything else, please consider the comments of a priest of my acquaintance on this subject.

Stay tuned ...

Mercury said...

Well, the pope's decree is what I'd expect a pope in 1930 to say. People may well have been scandalized then by things that wouldn't scandalize anyone now.

But let's also remember that the standard he mentions would themselves have been scandalous in 1900.

By the way, I think John Paul II goes into great detail on the issue in "Love and Responsibility" - I need to read the book, but I've read excerpts from it on several issues, including this one.

And what our priest friend said - he's facing exactly the same issue I am talking about, it seems. Most people simply do not consider normal swimsuits of gym clothing sexual. It takes a special sort of mindset to come up with attitudes like he describes. I think some people are professionals at being scandalized - they look for it.