Modesty in Speech & Thought


The Victorians pretended sex did not exist; the moderns pretend nothing else exists.

-Archbishop Fulton J Sheen

Seven years into marriage I’m somewhere right between remembering my own struggles for chastity and worrying about my children’s.  In keeping with my personal motto “It’s never too early to fret” I have read with interest the many recent blog posts about what form sex education should take in a Catholic family.  These articles all advocated premarital abstinence, but disagreed on the tone and scope this teaching should take.  I think this ground has been sufficiently covered by others and I could add little to that conversation.  There is another issue though, that I feel needs greater attention.  That is, the importance of modesty in the pursuit of chastity.

By modesty here I do not mean the rules of dress.  I am speaking of modesty in speech and thought and I believe many well-intentioned young Catholics are not exercising this virtue when it comes to the discussion of sex.

We live in a hyper-sexualized culture.  Young people are bombarded every day from their televisions, their computers, their acquaintances, and even the signs in the mall and the flyers in the mail box with suggestive images and ideas.  As a result it is no wonder that we focus a great deal on continence in teaching morality.  As young Catholics cling fiercely to chastity against the immense pressures of the world, there is almost a mirror-like fixation with sex amongst those rejecting society’s obsession.

Many young people commit much study to sexual ethics, and also to contemplation of the nature of marital relations.It seems more are familiar with The Theology of the Body than any other spiritual reading, and specifically with the portions that deal directly with sexuality. High school and college students discuss amongst themselves what married couples can do when, and often fall into an attitude of “I can’t wait to get married because then I can finally have sex.”  The promise of sex in marriage is being used almost as a bribe to keep single people chaste until then. Just you wait, it’ll be worth it, wink wink.  This attitude puts the act of sex over marriage in terms of priority, desiring it for itself although within the proper relationship.  It can also lead to unreasonable expectations about sex within marriage.

Furthermore, it can drown out the quiet call of a religious vocation, or convince someone that they are being robbed of something they were promised if they remain single.  The impression is that the celibate are missing out on an essential part of the human experience.  Yet sex is only one part of one direction a life can take.  Additionally, fixating on sex, even when acknowledging its true nature, is a near occasion of sin because it leads one to dwell on the very thing that is such a powerful temptation.

So let’s pull out the Catechism of the Catholic Church and take a look at the two virtues at issue.  Regarding modesty, the Catechism says:

Modesty protects the intimate center of the person. It means refusing to unveil what should remain hidden. It is ordered to chastity to whose sensitivity it bears witness. It guides how one looks at others and behaves toward them in conformity with the dignity of persons and their solidarity.  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…. It keeps silence or reserve where there is evident risk of unhealthy curiosity. It is discreet.

Concerning chastity:

People should cultivate [chastity] in the way that is suited to their state of life. Some profess virginity or consecrated celibacy which enables them to give themselves to God alone with an undivided heart in a remarkable manner. Others live in the way prescribed for all by the moral law, whether they are married or single.” Married people are called to live conjugal chastity; others practice chastity in continence. (all emphasis my own)

To combine the two, it is important that we refuse to unveil what is not suited to our station in life.  I am not espousing ignorance.  In this day and age I believe it could be incredibly dangerous.  As parents we have a responsibility to arm our children with the information they need to succeed in the fight for chastity and continence and to prepare them for marriage should that be their vocation.  However, whatever form this sex education takes, it should be learned and then set aside.  Sex is sacred.  It is sacred in the context of the individual couples who exchange love in this way, but the concept of it should also be treated as something sacred and not meant for idle contemplation.  This is entirely different from treating sex as dirty, shameful, or embarrassing.  We avert our eyes and dare not approach it too closely because its full beauty is only for those initiated into its mystery.

As so often happens when I am meditating upon a topic, the sermon this evening at Mass seemed to speak directly to me.  It was the final installment of a series on the seven deadly sins, on lust.  Father suggested that if we gave as much time to studying the lives of the saints and their examples of chastity as we did consuming tempting media we would be a long way towards possessing the virtue. Studying the Catholic idea of sexuality is certainly not comparable to soaking up trashy TV.  One is laudable, one is not. If you are unmarried it is appropriate to learn enough about sex to treat it with proper reverence, part of which would be the mental habit of refocusing the mind on topics that can help you grow in holiness where you are now and disregarding things outside your province. It is also proper to reflect on the gift of sexuality and its role in all our lives as a fundamental part of human nature. Still, one does not study sex to avoid temptation, one studies chastity. I suspect that many of us have not balanced our reading of experts on sexuality with reading from the experts, the saints, on continence. We have not shown sufficient “reserve where there is evident risk of unhealthy curiosity.”  We have not been discreet.  We have not been modest.

As parents we could nurture these virtues in several ways: by respecting as far as possible the natural modesty children feel in discussing sex with their parents, and in speaking modestly ourselves to emphasize that we treasure the intimacy of our sexual relationship. We should provide information honestly, clearly, but simply, and age appropriately, reminding them that today their vocation is to be a student, or a child. We should maintain a balance in our discussions of sin and virtue, remembering that lust and its opposing virtue are only one pair of seven. And, in encouraging our children to hold out for and look forward to marriage we should not incite them to anticipate it in thought. After all, they may never be called to that state, and heaven knows there is always plenty of work to be done on the state we are in.

image: Shutterstock

Caitlin Marchand


Caitlin Marchand is a home schooling mother of 4 and a graduate of Christendom College. She enjoys writing in her spare time and blogs at

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  • MK

    CCL put out a chastity curriculum years ago that started in the early grades. The entire focus of it was to teach children to value others as persons and not regard them as objects for use. This is the whole key in JPII’s Love & Responsibility and it can be referenced constantly throughout the day as children interact with each other. Every interaction with another person should be considerate and respectful, thinking about what you want to do or say and how it may affect the other person. It is so helpful to foster this attitude of loving care and concern towards other persons in children, the earlier the better so that they can form a habitual disposition to love others as themselves.

    Children may tend to go on and on about their interests and not pause to consider whether the person they are speaking to is genuinely interested in what they are saying, or if they are just listening out of politeness. If the child is not sensitive to the other person’s feelings, what starts as an enthusiastic desire to share something can become a selfish habit of indulging a desire to talk about their own interests, with no regard for the feelings of the listener.

    Where there is another person present, your first thought should be about loving them, wanting and acting to bring about their good. I always think of my son when he would lure his sisters into playing legos with him, he would promise not to attack their town and for a while they would play nicely together, but it would always end with his lego people attacking their towns and they would scream and cry. He liked to play battles and they liked to just play peacefully in their towns, but since he did not have a brother to battle with, he saw his sisters as potential objects for use: he would mislead them about the nature of the game they would play in order for him to enjoy playing the way he wanted to. I would explain to him precisely why this was wrong (even beyond the lying) and that he was *using* his sisters to obtain enjoyment for himself with no regard for their feelings or their good. The girls, for their part, allowed themselves to be used by believing what they wanted to believe despite all of their past experiences playing with him, because they wanted to play the way they wanted to play. I think this parallels the attitudes in many older boys and girls when they “date”.

    There are countless examples you could think of, but if you can manage to make this point to your children, and help them to form the habitual disposition of showing true thoughtfulness and consideration for whatever person they interact with, with an eye towards being “gift” to that person (as JPII says), bringing God’s love to that person through words and actions, it will go a long way towards preparing them to be a gift to their spouse: mind, body and spirit. In this way, (as they get older) they won’t be focused on “getting” in marriage, but rather “giving” of themselves, totally and sacrificially.

  • As one who writes on this topic frequently here at Catholic Exchange, well done!
    One of the problems I’ve found with writing about the Theology of the Body is contrary to popular beliefs…. it’s primarily focused with the interior life. Yet most people nowadays have no clue what contienence means (hint: it’s a lot more than simply not having sex), no clue about the benefits of fasting, they avoid talking about confession like the plague, etc.

    You can’t really talk about the Wednesday audiences unless you talk about these things.
    And considering that my column on modesty was set to come out in a few weeks, looks like I will have to make sure I don’t cover it the same as you did. 🙂

  • Caitlin Marchand

    I think this may be part of what Pope Francis meant when he said we cannot focus only on the hot button issues of the day. In a sense we have allowed secular society to shape our priorities. Partly this is necessary, we absolutely must fight to counteract prevailing attitudes contrary to God’s law. But things have been pulled out of context. We focus so much on the sexual aspects of personhood that they have lost their relationship to the whole. A Christian should be a person who possesses or strives for all the cardinal virtues, prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude, and all the theological virtues, faith, hope and charity. Each of these bolsters the others each of these grows the whole person. I agree, we can’t just stick our fingers in our ear and pretend sex doesn’t exist. But I think we’re focusing on it to the point almost of excluding other aspects of a whole balanced person. So maybe it would be better to say, not that we should avoid thinking about sex, (although I still think that’s part of learning chastity and continence), but that we need to actively think about other things. This is similar, I think, to what Mr. Tierney says in his comment below, that we need to talk about the true nature of continence and the many tools to develop it, such as fasting and confession, and look at the Whole person’s interior life.

  • Caitlin Marchand

    Thank you for your comment. My Dad will be so pleased. I sent him my essay for feedback when I wrote it and he said “you know I think you should Kevin Tierney on Theology of the Body.”
    I confess I don’t know as much as I would like about TOB because I find I need a guide through John Paul II prose (I once spent half an hour on one sentence in Person and Community, a selection of his essays) and I’m leery of many of the interpretations. Could you suggest a few good sources? Or is it best to stick with the original text?

  • Well I’m quite humbled, and tell your dad your work has my seal of approval heh.

    As far as a few good sources, I’m really of the opinion that we should ignore a lot of the “Experts” and return to the Scriptures. Not just the Gospels, though that’s an essential start. Go back to the Prophets as well. JPII built off of this stuff, and if you don’t read the Scriptures, none of it makes sense. I really think that’s what I bring to the table that’s unique to the discussion. I’m not really giving anything new, but I’m showing a lot more how to tell this story through the lens of Scripture.

    Once we’ve done that, we can go to the source documents itself (his wednesday audiences) and then various sources. I really suggest those like Dawn Eden, since she covers the Wednesday audiences in a very unique way. I’d also suggest sources like Kevin O’Brien (frequently on EWTN with his Theatre of the Word) who covers a lot of the stuff without even explicitly mentioning it. There’s also sources like Fr. Jose Granados in “Called to Love.” There are also bloggers like Karee Santos with “Can We Cana” who I’ve actually done a lot of work with after first clashing with, and I think she’s showing how to really present a proper presentation in marriage prep classes.

    I don’t want to say you have to avoid Christopher West or Fr. Thomas Loya under all circumstances. You shouldn’t. Some of what they write is interesting and worth digesting. We just need to remember how fallible they are, and to never take anything they or any expert says as Gospel, but to always be willing to check it.

    In the end remember that JPII isn’t presenting anything new and is just another interesting way to present that which the Holy Catholic Church has always presented.

  • I would recommend the work of the Theology of the Body Institute. Veteran presenter Christopher West has logged more miles and years on the work of JPII than anyone else out there and is *completely* trustworthy. His catechetical works bear the imprimatur and nihil obstat (while none of the “critiques” of his work do) and he has the public support of many of the successors of the Apostles. If you Google “Naked Without Shame” and the “Gift Foundation”, you come across an excellent and free download of an incredibly thorough audio presentation by West from 2002. Highly recommend starting there.
    As it is, I think you would be surprised to find just how *little* TOB content young people really are exposed to and how few really engage the content deeply. In my experience, I have seen “Theology of the Body” used more as a buzz-word for chastity talks that never end up really covering JPII’s content directly at all. And it is important magisterial content. JPII *has* enriched the Church with something “new” despite claims to the contrary. His is a unique “lens” through which so much truth is brought to light in an unprecedented way.

  • “The creepiness and obvious sexual repressive/expressiveness of certain facets of the TOB set is pretty obvious.”
    I would call this a “hasty generalization.”
    As to whether we should be thinking about the truth and meaning of human sexuality, I would say obviously yes, given that there is a magisterial document that bears that name and given that the false distortions of human sexuality represent the most grievous plague our culture faces, and given that the pontiffs of the last 50 years have supplied us with magisterial resources and insights to help illuminate the lives of the faithful.
    It’s not a question of *not* thinking about it (or shouldn’t be). We *have* to “think about it” because it’s at the deepest core of our being a human person. It’s a question of *how* we think about it. The proper answer to that question involves integrating modesty of speech and thought with the truths of the human person, as I see it. Another “both/and.”

  • Precisely. We need to realize that in the Wednesday audiences, JPII repeated the timeless truth and offered nothing new. What is that truth? The Incarnation impacts every area of a Christian’s life…. including but not limited to the bedroom. And if you are only focused on the bedroom aspects, you really are missing a lot of the most beautiful stuff.

  • Karee Santos

    Thanks for mentioning me, Kevin! Caitlin, as for JPII’s prose, it does take some getting used to. Some easier places to start might be his book Love & Responsibility as well as shorter documents like The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World (Familiaris Consortio) and Letter to Families (Gratissimam Sane). Once you get the hang of his style, the more complex works like TOB become much more accessible.

  • Hi, Caitlin–when taking on the Theology of the Body corpus, I would strongly caution against taking an attitude that there is nothing “new” to be found in it. One might as well say that there is nothing “new” to be found in *anything* written by JPII–after all, all he ever wrote about were already-existing truths, right?
    Rather, the uniqueness of the TOB corpus is its lens of “Thomystic” Personalism, originating with JPII and therefore *never* applied before to the Scriptural texts analyzed in TOB.
    And it remains a simple statement of fact to observe that the TOB corpus itself is meant to both set the stage for and include a “re-reading” (as JPII says) of the great encyclical Humanae Vitae, which is precisely where JPII “landed the plane” (at the end of the catecheses)–so as to offer encouragement to the faithful that living the “ethos” of that great encyclical was not only possible, but attainable for all, particularly the married.

  • Adding to Karee’s words, also start with the beginning of the Papal Magesterium on Marriage: Leo XIII’s Arcanum and Pius XI’s Casti Conubii. They outline the teaching on marriage in an accessible way, and serve as the foundation for later developments, especially Humanae Vitae. (One could say HV was simply applying the teachings of Casti Conubii to the modern question of the birth control pill and other modern forms of contraception)

    I know this is the way Fransiscan University of Stuebenville handled it back in the day. (Around 2004, a friend shared with me the course material) That’s probably the best way to handle it. It shows that there is nothing new in the documents, they are essentially restatements of past teaching in a modern context, and the audiences aren’t a modern revolution, but rather rather simply a development of perennial Catholic teaching.

  • Karee Santos

    Casti Connubii is great (extremely straightforward, I think). So is Evangelium Vitae (by JPII).

  • Give Arcanum a read if you haven’t already. 45 short paragraphs, and like all of Leo’s work, very crisp. (He was probably one of the greatest writer popes, and his command of the Latin language was second to none)

  • To explain my use of “‘Thomystic’ Personalism, above, I outline that in this post:

  • Caitlin Marchand

    I have read (and loved) Love and Responsibility. What a great book! Still I was really glad to read it in a class setting along with a fabulous professor. Oh for the days of college! Thanks for all the suggestions. I have a lot of work to do 🙂

  • Caitlin Marchand

    I see your point, but I don’t think you’re actually in disagreement, rather it is a question of word choice. By saying “nothing new” Mr. Tierney means that all the truths of TOB and other such things find their origin in scripture and tradition. They are developments or fleshing out of what has always been there. The Church possesses the fullness of truth. Of course this does not mean we can’t, look at those truths in new ways. However, as a history major I was taught to always start with the primary texts. That doesn’t mean you can’t read secondary texts, but you need to know your source material before you can entirely rely on other people’s interpretations of it. We need to know it thoroughly ourselves in order to judge the merits of the secondary sources and also in order to fully grasp the message those sources are seeking to share. So we begin by knowing the Gospel, then we read the words of JPII himself, and then we read others as they bring their own unique insights to interpreting him. But you say something like this when you say that TOB included a re-reading Humanae Vitae. Each “new” thing must find it’s root in the “old” and we should not ignore the old, or primary sources, because someone else, however worthy, has done the work of reading them.

  • Yes and Amen! Very well-said.

  • And most importantly, when we read it in light of the older sources, we can know when the newer ones (myself included) have gone off track. That’s why I view the past few years productive. We aren’t debating what this or that scholar said about this or that source anymore. We are going to the actual sources themselves, recognizing that any interpretation of said sources are by their nature flawed, and then asking “how can we apply that source to our modern day life and applications?” Not in ivory tower academic discussions, but in real life.

  • Caitlin–I offer this linked post in that same spirit–seeking communion, going to the source, and trusting in God’s grace–God bless!

  • Kevin O’Brien

    Fantastic article, Caitlin. The sex-obsessed pop-Catholics who are trivializing the Theology of the Body should all be required to read this.

  • Caitlin–do you really believe there are “sex-obsessed pop-Catholics who are trivializing the Theology of the Body”? I hope not. It is precisely that kind of belief that is doing harm to the Body of Christ and is creating unneeded factions among fellow Catholics.
    Not only do we need to take a step back and actually *listen* to each other, when we speak we also need more voices of reason and charity in the conversation–and it seems to me you are striving for precisely that approach.

  • Hello Caitlin,

    Wanted to bring to your attention my latest article here at CE, just posted today, on the importance of the interior life when discussing these topics.

  • Fortunately for we Catholics, there are no “sex-obsessed pop-Catholics” out there “trivializing Theology of the Body.”

  • Caitlin Marchand

    When I wrote my piece I was speaking from my experience on the “front lines” of the battle for the dignity of sex, my years in college. This is a time of life when we all tend to be a little fixated on sex, the secular world in one style and young Catholics in another. I do believe many young people are mistreating TOB and similar texts, not by studying them at all, but by studying them to the exclusion of other areas of spiritual study or by studying them in a spirit of unhealthy curiousity about sex instead of to gain a fuller understanding of human nature, which includes our sexual nature as one piece of a larger whole. Do I think there are well intentioned Catholics who mistreat sexual topics either by holding wrong opinions or by choosing a style of discussing even correct opinions that is inappropriate? Yes. Some have done so by using language and imagery that implies sex is dirty, shameful or essentially evil. Others have done so by, as I describe in the piece, speaking indiscreetly or immodestly of what should remain veiled and reverenced sometimes by what we leave unsaid better than our words. I realise there is much controversy about various interpretations of TOB and that this article can be used as part of that conversation, but I did not write it as a critique of any school of thought or condemnation of any writer, because frankly I have not read enough of them to have an informed opinion about that. Rather, I hope it serves as a suggestion that we each examine our attitudes and treatment of the topic to make sure we are using proper modesty and discretion.

  • Caitlin Marchand

    The Catholic Bubble is so small sometimes 🙂 My Dad, Frank C. Turner, has worked with you several times I believe. I am glad you enjoyed my piece, thank you!

  • And thanks for writing it, as I agree with the idea that modesty of thought and speech is vital–not only to the presentation of the truths of the human person, but also to the very discussions in which we consider the facts of what TOB teachers and presenters are offering. We definitely have to listen to each other and seek real communion with each other and not succumb to the temptation to objectify anyone (which is something said in reference to the years of “controversy” and not to your posting here).
    I probably take a slightly different view regarding how TOB plays out in a collegiate Catholic context, though perhaps we mean something very similar. My thought is that most references to “TOB” in such environs are so superficial as to be all but disconnected with any authentic TOB content (more like TOB is the buzz-phrase catch-all for anything chastity- or sex-related). In that sense, it seems then that there are very very very few young Catholics engaging authentic TOB content either directly or through specific presenters. This, in effect, means that Catholics of this description are doing *neither* thing well–neither wrestling with authentic TOB content (which is itself a form of “spiritual reading” in my view) *nor* wrestling much with any other forms of enrichment to their spiritual lives.
    This is also why the “controversy” has got to go away (and it thankfully is, for the most part, as authentic presenters like Christopher West continue such apostolates with episcopal support) so that our energies are spent bringing the fullness of what the Church can offer our young folks (which includes but goes well beyond the TOB corpus itself). Let’s pray we can as a “communion of persons” make this a reality. God bless!