Modesty is a perennially hot topic in Catholic circles, especially in the summer time. I work for a Catholic young adult outreach, and every summer we receive numerous questions from young adults relating to modesty and fashion issues. Unfortunately, in our culture this issue spans all ages and circumstances. When the summer heat and the fashion beat turn up the temperature in clothing styles, many Catholics — particularly women — are left frustrated and confused as to how to build a stylish wardrobe without compromising Christian standards for modesty.
I definitely know the feeling. I have five sisters, and all of us love cute clothes, fashion, and the mall. But I’m sure many of you ladies can relate to how my sisters and I often feel: discouraged and/or frustrated by the fact we could spend hours wading through clothes we could never wear, looking for that one outfit that is stylish and modest — an increasingly difficult balance to achieve these days.
All of us Catholics, men and women alike, feel the effects of living in our godless culture. The secular media, a pervading relativistic worldview, and widespread moral degeneracy have warped our sense of decency, beauty, and goodness on so many levels. And in the midst of this moral wasteland, the Church, speaking in the name of Christ, calls us to practice modesty in the way we dress and behave.
One of the principal difficulties many Catholics have when it comes to modesty is that it’s hard to find a balanced, trustworthy, and practical guideline to follow. That’s why I’m so grateful to Bishop John Yanta of the Diocese of Amarillo, TX, for writing a very helpful and challenging pastoral letter on this topic a couple weeks ago, entitled “Modesty Starts with Purification of the Heart.”
In this pastoral letter, Bishop Yanta discusses the moral responsibility each of us has to practice modesty; he challenges us with the principles that should govern our clothing decisions; and he offers practical advice for how to implement modest standards in our lives with the help of grace and growth in virtue. Following are a few of my favorite principles discussed in His Excellency’s letter.
Our Moral Responsibility
Bishop Yanta begins his letter on modesty by explaining the moral responsibility we have to live up to Christian standards of behavior and dress. He goes so far as to say that the clothes we choose to wear and the act of wearing them are in themselves moral decisions and moral acts; thus, not something we should take lightly:
“To live our daily Faith as children of God (baptism), disciples of Jesus, and temples of the Holy Spirit, we are faced with moral choices constantly, many times a day. Conscience can either make a right judgment in accordance with reason and the divine law, or on the contrary, an erroneous judgment that departs from them (CCC #1799). Dressing or putting on one’s clothes is a moral act and wearing them is a moral act.”
Different Occasions Require Different Approaches
I very much appreciate the fact that Bishop Yanta acknowledged that there are different forms of appropriate dress based on different circumstances and situations. This is an important distinction since there is sometimes a danger in Christian circles to turn modesty/clothing discussions into a laundry list of “thou shall nots,” thus deterring some people from ever investigating the principles of Christian modesty.
His Excellency writes: “There are different appropriate modes of dress for different occasions, e.g. in the privacy of our home, with our spouse only or with our children in our home, at work or school in mixed company, at the lake or swimming pool, grocery shopping, at church, etc.”
So What Is Modesty?
Unfortunately, many women have misconceptions about what modesty really means. Some think it’s a pseudonym for unattractiveness. Others consider it guy repellent. But in reality, the converse is actually true. The meaning and purpose of modesty is inseparable from the life of virtue, because the way we present ourselves through dress and behavior should be an outward reflection of the inner condition of our hearts. And in this lies the core of Bishop Yanta’s address on modesty.
The Catholic Church teaches us that modesty is adorning our bodies in a way that reflects who we really are: the living tabernacles of God and the temples of the Holy Spirit. Through our clothing and behavior, we should radiate God’s beauty and glory to the world. While the Church has never taught that we have to wear burlap sacks masquerading as baggy jumpers in order to be modest, She does require us to dress in a way that veils the special mystery of our bodies that should be reserved for our spouse alone.
One of my favorite definitions of modesty to share with teen girls is from chastity speaker Jason Evert, who wrote in his book If You Really Loved Me:
“So what is modesty? It is not about looking as ugly as possible. It's about taking the natural beauty of womanhood, and adorning it in a way that adequately reflects her true identity. She is a daughter of the king of heaven, and her outfits, posture, and mannerisms don't distract from this. She's aware that her body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, and that her body is sacred.”
The Heart of the Matter
In his pastoral letter, Bishop Yanta stresses that the core of modesty is not what’s hanging in our closet, but instead what resides in the inner sanctum of our hearts. When a person practices modesty of dress and behavior, it is a reflection of a pure heart — something very beautiful in the eyes of God and in the eyes of the beholder.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “Purity requires modesty, an integral part of temperance. Modesty protects the intimate center of the person. It means refusing to unveil what should remain hidden. It is ordered to chastity. It guides how one looks at others and behaves toward them in conformity with the dignity of persons” (#2521).
To live this kind of purity and have it overflow to the way we dress, His Excellency reminds us that cultivating a life of virtue is a necessary prerequisite:
“The four cardinal virtues are in play here. The wise person is guided by wisdom, the highest of riches that guides us to be prudent (doing and saying the right thing), justice (respects the dignity of other persons), fortitude (courage to go against popular, suggestive, provocative styles), and temperance (insures mastery over sensual temptations as occasions of sin).”
How do we grow in these virtues? Practice, forming good habits, the sacraments, lots of prayer, accountability and encouragement from good Christian friends all these things are vital. And ultimately, “just doing it” really, really helps.
Remember the Goal
Very few things in this life come close to the radiant beauty that shines from within. But at the same time, this purity that shines forth through modesty is always going to be a difficult struggle in the world and times we live in. It definitely helps to find encouragement in each other. It helps to have pastoral insight from a spiritual Shepherd like Bishop Yanta. And it helps to remember the goal we’re striving so hard to attain: the reward that God promises to a pure heart.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” — Matthew 5.
Stephanie is the coordinator of NextWave FaithfulTM, a youth and young adult division of Family Life Center International. She has been a frequent guest on several Catholic programs, including EWTN Radio's Faith & Family, which she currently co-hosts with her father, Steve Wood, and EWTN Television's Life on the Rock and The Journey Home.
Stephanie hosts the first worldwide radio show for Catholic youth, NextWave Live, which airs weekly on the EWTN Radio Network. She also writes a monthly e-Newsletter for teens and young adults. She can be reached at Stephanie@catholicmatch.com.
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