When we discuss the topic of modesty, contemporary Catholicism is hindered by the fact we begin from a flawed premise. We primarily treat modesty as something having to do with the exterior (the length of skirts, how much skin we show, etc), instead of what modesty says about us as persons made in the image of God. When we look at it from that perspective (as I attempted to do in my previous thoughts on modesty), it allows us to see modesty in a new light.
The most important thing it does is teach us that modesty is not a result of sin. This is something most if not all discussions about modesty (especially those centered around JPII’s Theology of the Body) get wrong. To them, the need to veil and cover up (their version of modesty) comes from a result of original sin, and the tendency of the human person to lust. Remove the problem of lust, and you remove the “problem” of modesty.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church presents modesty in an entirely different way. For Catholics, we should instead look at modesty in the following way (CCC2521-2524):
Modesty protects the intimate center of the person. It means refusing to unveil what should remain hidden…
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…
Modesty inspires a way of life which makes it possible to resist the allurements of fashion and the pressures of prevailing ideologies.
For the Catechism, modesty is something intrinsic to the human condition. When we practice modesty, we are doing something we were always meant to practice. The more we practice modesty, the more we grow in holiness. One of the greatest examples of this concept from the Scriptures is that of Mary.
When we look at the words of the Sacred Scriptures, we see Mary involved in many of the key events of salvation history, but seldom do we actually read her thoughts about being the Mother of God. We never see the thought process behind her fiat. Even in the lengthy instance of her speaking (The Magnificat), we only see her blessing God, instead of explaining to her cousin the joyous event which has occurred. When the shepherds tell Mary an angel spoke of her child’s true identity, we don’t have her response. When Simeon tells her that not only is Christ the Messiah, but that this has very painful ramifications for her, we still hear nothing.
We should not imply from this silence that Mary was an automaton, who had no feelings. St. Luke’s Gospel tells us instead on two different occasions that Mary “pondered these things in her heart.” (Luke 2:19-51) Her first tendency was not to broadcast herself to the world, but rather to veil those thoughts within her heart, where she could converse about them with God.
The desire to ponder all things within the heart from the start is the beginnings of modesty. Just because we can do something does not mean we should. Mary could have broadcasted her thoughts on all these events, and nobody would blame her. She might even have become quite the celebrity for doing so. Yet then it would have been about her, instead of about her Son. As the Mother of the Redeemer, she was also His first Evangelist. Making things all about you and your thoughts probably doesn’t make a very good representative for a Gospel whose primary message is a willingness to cast off what is rightfully yours, live humbly and lay down your life for people who can’t wait to drive nails into your flesh.
How does this translate into understanding modesty in the modern world? First and foremost, it requires that every thought, every action, and every choice be pondered within the heart in discussion with God before we take action. This spirit influences our choice of clothing by making us question if what we wear is an accurate representative of who we are as a human person, a royal creation meant to rule the cosmos with Christ.
This understanding of modesty is contrary to everything the modern world preaches, especially in matters of physical appearance. We value action above words, and words above thoughts. Whether the bikini or the flashy suit, the modern world prizes being provocative with our fashion. The Catechism tells us that modesty makes it possible to resist the temptations of fashion and ideology.
Why does the temptation of fashion and ideology have to be resisted? Fashion and ideology aren’t inherently sinful. They are to be resisted for the same reason Mary resisted broadcasting all her feelings on being Theotokos to the world: they were distractions from what we should really be focused on. We should be focused on the gifts which God gave us that we share with the world. God gave Mary a great gift in bearing the redeemer, and she in turn presented Him to the world, not her own thoughts. I don’t want my appearance being a testimony to my physical figure (or lack thereof) or my thoughts. My thoughts constantly change, and my physical figure will be a fat slob one year, cut and chiseled another, and finally old and wrinkled. Yet during all of those changes, the fact that I belong to Christ should never change. The virtues that He infused within my soul are what should catch people’s attention, not something that I will wear and discard in a few years.
This is what the message of modesty is about. It isn’t about the measurements of one’s skirt or how loud your power tie is. It is recognizing both of those things are ultimately fleeting, and that we should instead be identified by what is really important: making sure nothing we do (whether clothing, thoughts, or actions) gets in the way of bringing Christ to the world.