This is the Third installment of a five-part series on modesty. Check back each day to read the latest.
They Ask, Men and Women Respond.
So far we’ve discussed the ways a Christian man can mess up his request that a woman dress more modestly, and a way he can more successfully communicate what he is asking for, which is help. Now, let us consider when there is a group conversation about modesty. As before, acknowledging the standpoint is the key-starting place. God willed each person for his or her own sake, not to exist solely for the use or in relation to another person. We stand in relation to God. It is in God that we find our relationships to others.
Modesty is a fruit of the Spirit, part of the virtue of temperance. “The fruits of the Spirit are perfections that the Holy Spirit forms in us as the first fruits of eternal glory” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, CCC, 1832). If we are debating a lack of modesty in the culture, this approach will look markedly different then modesty —as the term is commonly used.
Temperance is subjective to the culture and the situation. Any virtue practiced is a matter of us acting for the good in the right moment to the right degree. Prudence guides this. To a degree modesty is culture bound: developed over time in a given culture, is largely related to etiquette, and is more common among educated or religious people. There are some basic standards based a given culture. I am not familiar with any cultures in which grown men and women do not cover their genitalia (though I do not claim to be an anthropologist).
If one talks about standards in culture, it is not unlikely that a reference to changing times will come up.
Cultural norms have shifted for both men and women. It does not focus solely on sexuality, but rather on what is decent or appropriate in public.
If discussing modesty with both men and women, exhorting them in the practice of virtue may be the best approach. There are many personal benefits to developing the virtue of temperance. To be virtuous is to have a habit of acting in a way directed towards the good. Difficult or painful at first, continuing to act in a way that is virtuous will develop the habit in the individual. In time, the virtuous actions will become enjoyable to the person practicing them. The acknowledgement of the initial difficulty recognizes and empathizes the position of the person attempting to change. This will help prevent frustration or encourage hope for he or she to continue.
So how would modesty be promoted then, as part of the virtue of temperance? Aquinas connects modesty in dress to temperance through praising the honesty and simplicity possible in one’s manner of dress. He writes that a lack of moderation in dress occurs in two ways.
- Dressing against custom, for example, dressing in a sexually revealing way in a place of worship, wearing white to a wedding in which you are not the bride, wearing loud, provocative clothing to a funeral.
- Using things that will produce an inordinate attachment. This can happen when one seeks glory (attention, praise), seeks pleasure through comfort (refuses to wear formal/business attire because it is uncomfortable), or obsessively thinking about dressing.
Practicing the virtue of humility can help overcome the search for glory or attention. Practicing contentment can help overcome the search for pleasure through comfort. And practicing simplicity will help overcome the obsession with how one is dressed.
Aquinas also acknowledges that that a person may be deficient in the virtue (may error in the opposite direction). The person may not pay attention or make an effort when it comes to how he or she should dress, or he or she may seek “glory from the very lack of attention to outward attire” demonstrating visibly how humble, simple, detached he or she is from worldly things.
It is not sinful to care about one’s clothing or dress according to custom. When Aquinas asks whether how women dress can be an occasion of sin, he states the importance of the woman’s intention. If she desires to dress so as to incite lust, she may be committing a mortal sin. If she does not have that intention, it may still be a sin, because it leads others to sin, but gravity varies based on her knowledge and intention. With this in mind, telling a woman she will go to hell for dressing immodestly is likely a flat our lie. Don’t try that approach.
And lest the woman feel the blame solely on her, Aquinas takes the time to blame the maker of the clothing and promoter of the fashion.
The rational explanation of virtue, how to grow in virtue, and how virtue involves the use of clothing for both sexes can go a long way in promoting it for people. It provides the foundation, the reason, and avoids the blame and inordinate focus on women often included in these conversations.
If a woman didn’t dress for men to begin with, it allows her a more general focus (to dress in moderation according to the situation) that will be healthier for her than to focus solely on dressing for men.