Holiness Counters Immodesty

As we approach summer, we are likely to see increased attention to the subject of modesty in Catholic publications.  We will hear talks about what swimsuits are permissible, the length of skirts, and so on.  Then fall will come, and we will forget, and then we will repeat the circle of life next spring and summer by again wringing about modesty.

This endless merry-go-round annoys me not just as a writer, but as a Catholic who loves to learn about these things.  For all the time we spend talking about modesty, we certainly aren’t becoming any smarter about the subject.  To remedy this, I’ve attempted to write about modesty from the perspective of St. John Paul II’s Catechesis on Human Love.  This understanding of modesty is far more focused on the interior life of a Christian.  We make the same choices about modesty we should have made to begin with, the only difference is that now we have a better understanding of why we make them.

Another example of this is with the topic of custody of the eyes.  If you read most TOB scholarship, they will tell you custody of the eyes is unnecessary to the Christian.  It only applies to the man “bound by lust.”  In some of the more troubling statements, it is viewed as a hindrance to holiness.  Yet, if we are honest with ourselves, it is hard to fault these writers.

For most people, custody of the eyes doesn’t accomplish much.  They might avoid looking at porn, but they are no less dominated by lust.  Many use custody of the eyes as an excuse for thinking about the body in a very Manichean and Puritan way, where prudery is mistaken for holiness.

To counter this we shouldn’t be looking to explain away custody of the eyes.  We should be looking to properly understand it from the Biblical perspective.  In the General Audience of September 10, 1980, St. John Paul lays out the central truth behind custody of the eyes:

A look expresses what is in the heart. A look expresses, I would say, the man within. If in general it is maintained that man “acts according to his lights,” (operari sequitur esse), Christ in this case wanted to bring out that the man looks in conformity with what he is: intueri sequitur esse. In a certain sense, man by his look reveals himself to the outside and to others. Above all he reveals what he perceives on the “inside.”

When looked at from this perspective, custody of the eyes says more about us than what we are looking at.  What we look at, and the way we look at something, shows the world what goes on in that head of ours.  When Sirach says “turn away your eyes from a shapely woman” (Sirach 9:8), it is done within the context of adultery, specifically a man seeking out a harlot. Even before he touches a harlot, he has told the world he cares little for the oath he made to his wife.  To emphasize how serious the author is, infidelity with your wife was often used as a literary device to portray idolatry.  (Genesis  28:9, 1 Kings 11:1, The entire Book of Hosea, etc.)  This theme is further reinforced in the Wisdom Literature by wisdom (God) and harlotry (idols) being portrayed as two women who a man forsakes everything to seek out.  (Proverbs 2) By the act of looking out, one could tell the persons priorities.

In the Sermon of the Mount, Christ takes this timeless truth and gives it even newer meaning:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.    (Matthew 5:27-29)

It was not enough to say you were fulfilling the letter of the law by not committing adultery.  Christ recalled his audience to the spirit that was behind that law, and no doubt had the wise sayings of Bin-Sirach in mind here.  If you were lusting after a woman, you were seeking to be united to her.  You were telling the world that if you had it your way, you wanted to be free of your oath of fidelity to your wife.  Christ’s entire point in this section of the Sermon of the Mount was that everything begins in the heart, and is then carried out by our actions.

Adultery begins the moment you seek to be united to one who is not your spouse.  The look you give that person comes from that adulterous thought, and if it is carried out further, you are simply completing the action that already began in the heart.  If you are doing these things, then you aren’t living as a Christian should.

In order to live as a Christian, we need to have a transformed heart.  It isn’t enough to simply avoid the evil, but to seek out the good instead (Isaiah 1:16-17).

How does this translate to custody of the eyes?  Contrary to the assertion of some, we don’t simply continue looking as we have always looked; only now we “look properly.” We set our eyes upon something entirely different.  As a married man, the day I made my commitment to my wife, that was the day I stopped seeking out other women.  Instead, I looked only towards her.  Even the single person shouldn’t go out seeking everyone on the street, but rather only seeking the one they have prayerfully considered as being revealed to them by God.  (And even then, he can’t look upon her as a husband does his wife, and vice versa.)

When we come across an immodestly dressed person, we don’t look away out of constant fear of sin.  Provided we are in a state of grace, we are a new creation.  Instead, we look away because our eyes are focused instead on the good.  Our eyes are focused only on Wisdom and that which helps us obtain Wisdom better.

Some will dismiss this as a pie in the sky idealism; something impossible to achieve in today’s sexualized world.  If they acknowledge it as relevant, it is only for those in the monastery.  Yet the call to holiness is a call all of us must answer (Lumen Gentium, 5:39).  As far as the pervasiveness of immodesty and sexualized behavior in the world, they fail to appreciate the distinction between seeing and looking.  Even the greatest of saints will eventually come across immodesty.  Even if they do not seek it out, it is inevitable.  In such cases, how should we react?

A classic case of this mentality is St. Nonnus of Edessa.  One day he encounters the prostitute Pelegia attempting to seduce future clients.  While he sees this going on, he doesn’t focus on her.  Yet at the same time, he doesn’t forget her.  He returns to his chamber and wishes he was as devout in serving God as she was in serving the flesh.  In his words “a single day’s adorning of a harlot is far beyond the adorning of my soul.”

St. Nonnus uses this event as a way to double down on his faith.  He begins to become bolder and more eloquent in his preaching.  Eventually the prostitute Pelegia hears this preaching and is drawn to him.  Instead of using makeup and sexuality to gain his attention, she uses the tears of repentance on his feet after hearing the Gospel message Nonnus preaches.  She was then baptized and chose a life of penance for her misdeeds.  Today she is known as St. Pelegia.

When we see immodesty, we shouldn’t be drawn to it.  Nor should we seek to ridicule those who are trapped in immodesty.  We should instead use it as an opportunity to transform our heart.  We should turn our eyes away from the situation, and instead focus them on God and grow in holiness.  Holiness is the only way to battle immodesty in this world and achieve real victories.  You never know the impact this holiness might have on others.

Kevin Tierney


Kevin Tierney is the Associate Editor of the Learn and Live the Faith Section at Catholic Lane. He and his family live in Brighton, MI. Connect with him via FB  or on twitter @CatholicSmark.

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  • Kelsey Fletcher

    Nice change of pace about how to approach and think about immodesty. Thank you! 🙂

  • This is quite insightful. God bless you for this post.

  • Emily

    Here is a link to the modesty section of the Conversation with Women website. Two young college women have written about modesty. Their point of view is refreshing and give me hope! http://www.conversationwithwomen.org/category/modesty/

  • Elleblue Jones

    Based on what I’ve seen online I believe Christians are doing much better in regards to modesty. There is a renewed understanding among Protestant women about how modesty really serves them and their identity as women. I don’t believe Catholics are doing half as well based on my experience at mass. As a society we have lost the ability to act and dress according to the event or activity.

  • laurettas

    Kevin, what a wonderful article. I was going to highlight my favorite part, but as I began to do it, I realized that it would be most of your article!. As I read your article, the Scripture verse about perfect love casting out fear came to mind. When we begin to love as God does, we discover that we don’t need to fear those who are immodest, but have compassion for them, and pray for them as Nonnus did. And to use the attention we gave them to examine our own conscience to see if we need to work on our own holiness.
    And, it seems that the love you have for your wife has helped to give you that ability as well. Ah, the remedy for concupiscence that marriage brings comes from the fact that loving your spouse puts your heart in right order because you don’t want to do anything to hurt her. Perfect.

  • Riki

    There’s the story of an Italian Monsignor in the 1950′ – I forgot his name – who was at a dinner table with guests – don’t remember anymore on what occasion. Next to him sits a woman with a deep décolleté. After the food and dessert came the fruit plate, he presents the plate to the woman but she doesn’t want any fruit to which the Monsignor said to her :
    “Mais prenez tout de meme (this word needs un accent on the first e) une pomme, madame, quand Eve a pris la pomme elle avait vue qu’elle était nue = but take an apple, madame, when Eve took the apple she saw she was naked. He spoke the French words with an Italian accent. Rita Biesemans :0)

  • catherine sien

    beautiful article. thank you mr. kevin tierney. God bless you,

  • Provided the “don’t need to fear them” means we don’t seek them out of course. 🙂 The interpretation most TOB commentators give on St. Nonus is still dangerously wrong.

  • laurettas

    I guess it would depend on why you sought them out. If it was for pure reasons, no problem!

  • You don’t seek out immodesty for pure reasons though. That’s a contradiction in terms, and basically contradicts my entire article, and the example of St. Nonus. He didn’t seek out a courtesan. He managed to see her, didn’t keep his gaze upon her, and rather than her immodesty (which he didn’t deny), he realized the focus was on himself. He then used that interior renewal to convert her from her immodesty.

    I don’t need to fear an immodestly dressed woman as I walk down the street. Yet that doesn’t mean I should go looking for them, or if I encounter one, I should keep looking, hoping to find out some great truth.

  • laurettas

    My husband shared with me that, for him, if someone caught his eye, the best thing he could do was to go up to them and engage them in conversation. Once they became a “person” to him rather than an anonymous object, any inappropriate, random thoughts he might have would go away. Sometimes, if while looking at someone who catches our attention, we take our thoughts to prayer, we can begin to “see” someone in a different way. Just as by continuing to gaze at anything beautiful, sometimes while appreciating that beauty(in a pure way) we can come to see something of God. These are not things that are possible immediately but with time and training seeing purely becomes the norm and one can live life in a different manner than when the disorder controls us.

  • “If you read most TOB scholarship, they [sic] will tell you custody of the eyes is unnecessary to the Christian. ”
    Readers, please be aware that this claim is unfounded and ungrounded. There is no cadre of “TOB scholars” producing scholarship that calls custody of the eyes “unnecessary to the Christian.”
    Rather, any TOB scholar who knows the subject will tell you that purity of heart calls us to “see rightly” at all times. And in doing so, we are then capable of avoiding being dominated by concupiscence regardless of whether we encounter someone dressed immodestly or modestly. In both cases, God’s grace permits us to see the *person* without objectifying the person.
    E.g.: If a doctor can respond to God’s grace and avoid temptation when treating patients, dressed or undressed, so too can we receive God’s grace to avoid such temptation. This reality is independent of the question of whether and how we should “look away” when encountering another’s nakedness. Often there are many good/right reasons to look away in such circumstances, but doing so is firstly for the sake of the one who is seen rather than the one seeing, if the one seeing possesses the “mature purity” described by St. John Paul II…

  • Kevin O’Brien

    There’s absolutely nothing in the original Wednesday Audiences that encourages married men to approach attractive strangers and start chatting them up as a means of overcoming lust.

    It’s illustrations like these that help normal people understand that something is not quite right in the pop-Catholic “Theology of the Body” world.

  • Hey Lauretta! Just a word of encouragement to you and your husband–thanks for focusing on the dignity of the human person, just as Pope St. John Paul II has taught.

  • laurettas

    You are right, Kevin, there is not anything specific in the teaching about what my husband discovered to order his disorder. BUT there is much about seeing everyone as a PERSON with dignity rather than as an object for use. For my husband, that is what worked to help him accomplish that goal. Now, he didn’t go into explicit detail, but I can imagine that if he were walking down the street and glanced at someone who caught his eye, he would not chase her down to talk with her! But, in scenarios such as work or possibly in a store or at church, then it was appropriate for him to do so. And I am not saying that this is effective for everyone. I have a friend that this would very possibly not work for because his disorder is so very deeply ingrained, and he hasn’t been able to truly admit to it.
    I am finding it interesting that many are loathe to listen to those who have actually mastered their disorder to a significant degree and learn from them. Also, one needs to look at all that St. John Paul said and did in this area beyond his core TOB teaching. Removing the loincloths from the art in the Sistine Chapel says volumes–listen to it!
    As a woman who from my childhood has been the object of those with this disorder, I am quite passionate about this. It is time for us as Christians to get our acts together and allow God to order this disorder and return the harmony that should exist between man and woman. Right now this disorder has created a chasm between us that prevents so much good from occurring–and inflicts so very much pain.

  • CatholicReligionTeacher.com

    Great article, Kevin! Thanks!

    My students and I just went over some of this during our 8th grade Theology of the Body unit. I put together a visual called “The Purity Ladder” that you and other readers may enjoy and find helpful. I’ll link to it below.

    The Purity Ladder – http://catholicreligionteacher.files.wordpress.com/2011/08/the-purity-ladder-completed-pdf1.pdf

    Theology of the Body page where the ladder is linked – http://catholicreligionteacher.com/theology-of-the-body/

    In Christ,
    Greg Aitchison