Seems like just about everybody in the Catholic world has his or her own definition of what “modesty” is.
If we look it up in the dictionary, we discover that modesty is “the state or virtue of being unassuming and of humble behavior; lacking excess or pretentions; moderation, decency, decorum.”
Father Peter Stravinskas agrees. In his Catholic Dictionary he defines modesty as “the virtue promoting manners and harmony with others, enabling one to control conversations, dress, and external actions. A defect of modesty causes boorishness and coarseness, while excess in this virtue leads to excessive delicacy and fastidiousness.”
Another Catholic lexicographer concurs as well.
Donald Attwater, general editor of the classic lexicon, A Catholic Dictionary, tells us that modesty in part “is the virtue which enables a man to observe moderation in all things; e.g., in estimating his own worth, in seeking after knowledge, in deportment and in dress.”
While many people often associate modesty with attire only, these definitions rightly locate modesty within the broader context of temperance and prudence toward all things and in all undertakings. This greater understanding of modesty is important and is echoed by the explanation given us in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
The Catechism devotes four paragraphs to the subject of modesty (2521-2524), and it does so within the framework of its discussion of The Ninth Commandment. Here, the Catechism talks about the primordial battle that exists within man’s heart because of concupiscence, the effect of original sin, which creates tension between man’s spirit and his flesh.
The Catechism identifies concupiscence as lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and pride of life which leads to the movement of the sensitive appetite in a direction contrary to the operation of human reason. It talks about purity of heart and identifies the various ways in which purity is guarded and protected. It reminds that modesty is “an integral part of temperance,” that it “guides how one looks at others and behaves toward them in conformity with the dignity of persons and their solidarity.” Then, and only then, does the Catechism talk about modesty as the virtue which“inspire[s] one’s choice of clothing.”
And this is the point exactly.
Modesty does not exist in a vacuum.
It flows from something much deeper and infinitely more important than choosing appropriate clothing.
Modesty, true modesty, is a fruit produced by a proper understanding of who one is — a person created in the image and likeness of God who has inestimable dignity and therefore deserves true respect — and why one is — a creature of God created to receive love and to love back.
Our acknowledgment of this and our self-identification as that person becomes the fulcrum on which pivots our decisions, behaviors and choices — including what we wear, how we wear it, where we wear it, and when we wear it.
Failure to locate modesty in this context and the failure to communicate it in its fuller dimension may well be why so many people both young and old, simply “don’t get what the deal is with the way I dress.”
Given this understanding, however, are there guidelines that exist to help bring our selection of clothing into conformity with this broader view of modesty?
The answer to this question is “yes.”
Donald Attwater’s definition goes on to say this about dress and attire:
“…modesty in its commonest sense, with reference to deportment and dress, is a relative thing, varying from place to place and from age to age. Actions and words lawful and praiseworthy in the married are immodest for the single; social customs recognized in England are immodest in Spain; the dress of a Connemara fishing-girl is immodest in a drawing-room; the requirements of modesty in the Vatican or in church are more rigorous than those in Samoa or when sea-bathing. Modesty is allied to temperance and resides precisely in moderation according to the circumstances as recognized by a thoughtful mind and approved by a pure heart.”
Great insight. Great advice.
And an echo of Church teaching. The Catechism says this:
” [Modesty] protests…against the voyeuristic explorations of the human body in certain advertisements, or against the solicitations of certain media that go too far in the exhibition of intimate things (#2523)…The forms taken by modesty vary from one culture to another. Everywhere, however, modesty exists as an intuition of the spiritual dignity proper to man…Teaching modesty to children and adolescents means awakening in them respect for the human person” (#2524).
In the end, modesty means dressing in a way that conforms to our dignity as human persons and the respect due us because of it.
It means dressing in a way that does not bring inordinate attention to us, but rather dressing in a way that upholds our gender and adds beauty and form to the world.
It means dressing in a way that is appropriate to the occasion and our state of life in accordance with the age and the location in which we live.
It means dressing with moderation and temperance — wearing clothing that is not prurient nor prudish in its design — for virtue requires balance, as Father Stravinskas points out.
And finally, modesty means dressing in a way that brings glory to our Creator and helps others to glorify Him, too.
And in the end, that is our ultimate mission in all things, including what we wear.