Modesty in Speech

The mother was relating to me the vulgar things that her daughter’s friends (high-school seniors) were saying to one another on a recent car trip. I’ll spare you the details.

Ever so calmly she explained: “They try to out-gross each other.”

“Out-gross each other?” was my startled reply.

“Yes, out-gross each other! It’s really disgusting.”

But among this particular group of boys and girls, taunting and mocking one another with vile and vulgar comments was apparently the norm. As shocking as this was, what was more shocking was that this mom saw no reason for much-needed correction. The mother was mute, and the children were oblivious that in any way their discussion was an offense against the virtue of modesty in speech. Immodest speech had become “normal.”

At about the same time this mom was telling me the “out-grossing” tales of the seniors, a friend who pulled her daughter from a sex-education class was telling me of another event that involved high-school freshmen who had still managed to retain some sense of what modest speech means. When presented with a ninth grade sex-ed program, the freshmen were repulsed by what they were forced to hear and to see. They described the material presented to them as “graphic” and “gross” and regretted that this information was forced upon them. This second group of children was still innocent enough to be mortified. But one had to wonder how long it would be before the inhibitions of these freshmen (welcome to high school!) were torn down through sex education and they become desensitized in the same way their senior counterparts had been. At some point one needs to look at whether these programs are doing more harm than good and identify the point where sex education becomes perversion.

Sex education is perverse when it destroys the virtue of modest speech. In a culture in which anyone can now say just about thing to anyone anywhere, it is easy to forget that our Faith requires us to practice reserve and temperance with respect to all issues, including sexual ones. The reserve and temperance inherent in modest speech is needed to grow in chaste living. The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality (TMHS), published by the Pontifical Council for the Family, tells us that “the practice of modesty in speech…is very important for creating an atmosphere for the growth of chastity…” (56; emphasis mine). Immodest speech undermines a child’s purity. “Purity requires modesty” (CCC 2521). It is hard to think of a quicker way to sexually activate generations of children than by violating modest speech through sex education and sex “safety” programs. Such violations tear down innocence and the natural barrier of modesty God put in place to protect children and their purity.

Modest speech does more than just protect children. It shows respect for their dignity and value as human beings. John Paul II (then Karol Wojtyla) in his book, Love and Responsibility explained that “sexual modesty…protects the value of the person. But there is more to it than that. It is a matter not just of protecting but of revealing the value of a person” (p. 179). We cannot strip modesty from speech without stripping dignity from children. If we are to uphold dignity, then we must uphold modest speech.

To violate modest speech, even in an academic setting, even for what one perceives to be a “good” reason, is to violate a child’s right to privacy. Long before principles of modesty in speech were being routinely broken in co-ed car rides, long before promiscuity became a huge problem for our youth, long before computer networks became littered with filth, that privacy was being systematically violated in the classroom in the form of something called “health or “safety” education, and even in some catechetical programs. For years, a verbal undressing has been slowly working its way into classrooms of both public and Catholic schools.

Unless it has been destroyed, we all have an intuitive sense of modest speech. This sense of modesty is why freshman boys instinctively laugh uncomfortably and girls squirm when direct sexual material is forced upon them. This modesty is why some “safety” programs attempt to use videotapes to “break the ice” with young children on intimate topics. Videotapes break ice and purity with ease. Involving breathing baptized children in such a task might take more brazenness than most of us could muster.

Ironically, our Catholic children may be most vulnerable in programs designed to ensure their “safety.” There are some who believe that that we are free to lose respect for modest speech in certain education programs in the name of “safety.” For this reasons sex education, even in some Catholic schools, may go into graphic detail. Where and when this is done, Rome’s teachings on modesty have been violated. The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality guides us: “Traditions of modesty and reserve in sexual matters…must be respected everywhere” (144).

The need for modest speech is sometimes abandoned at adolescence when some catechetical programs and confirmation retreats introduce intimate details of sex education. To this, the Council’s cry is one of foul play. Even during adolescence “intimate aspects of sexual information, whether biological or affective” are not to be part of catechesis. The imparting of such information belongs to “individual formation within the family” (TMHS 133). It is true that at adolescence trustworthy persons can provide general and broad catechesis on morality and sexual ethics, but without explicit detail.

Some experts contend that principles such as modesty in speech must be abandoned in light of our corrupted culture. This logic asserts that the nature of our secularized sex-crazed culture compels us to break with traditions of modest speech. We might be lured into such twisted thinking. But Rome has blown a whistle and thrown yet another flag on that play: “explicit and premature sex education can never be justified in the name of a prevailing secularized culture. On the contrary, parents must educate their own children to understand and face up to the forces of this culture, so that they may always follow the way of Christ” (TMHS 143; emphasis added). Despite the state of our culture, every child has a right to privacy and dignity, and we adults must see to it that this privacy and dignity are protected, and where need be, restored.

The virtues of modesty, purity, and chastity can all be communicated without going into graphic detail. If we don’t know how to do that, we might start by reading what the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality have to say on these topics. If we sincerely want to restore modesty, purity and chastity to our children and our culture, then we must restore modest speech to the classroom.

© Copyright 2006 Catholic Exchange

Mary Anne Moresco writes from Monmouth County, New Jersey.

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