Dress for both men and women has changed dramatically during the last fifty years. Much of what is worn today is meant to expose rather than conceal the human body. For centuries, Christians have looked to the virtue of modesty as it applies to vesture in order to judge what is appropriate.
The Catholic tradition has given us a valuable definition of modesty, which is the virtue that regulates one’s actions and exterior customs concerning sexual matters. It controls one’s behavior so as to avoid unlawful sexual arousal in oneself or others. Modesty is one of the Twelve Fruits of the Holy Spirit, which are perfections that the Holy Spirit forms in us as “the first fruits of eternal glory.”
To dress modestly is to avoid deliberately causing sexual excitement in oneself or one’s neighbor. One who dresses modestly shuns clothes that are known or reasonably expected to effect sexual arousal in oneself or others. Modesty in dress pertains to both genders.
Pope Pius XII (1939-1958), in harmony with the Magisterium and orthodox spiritual authors, addressed the necessity of cultivating modesty. “How many young girls there are who see nothing wrong in following certain shameless styles like so many sheep. They would certainly blush with shame if they could know the impression they make, and the feelings they evoke, in those who see them.”
“The good of our soul is more important than the good of our body; and we have to prefer the spiritual welfare of our neighbor to our bodily comforts . . . If a certain kind of dress constitutes a grave and proximate occasion of sin, and endangers the salvation of your soul and others, it is your duty to give it up . . . O Christian mothers, if you know what a future of anxieties and perils, of illguarded shame you prepare for your sons and daughters, imprudently getting them accustomed to live scantily dressed and making them lose their sense of modesty, you would be ashamed of yourselves and you would dread the harm you are making for yourselves, the harm which you are causing to these children, whom Heaven has entrusted to you to be brought up as Christians.”
Women are incredible creatures. By being able to bring human life into the world, women participate in the divine life of the Blessed Trinity more intimately than men could ever do. In short, women are sacred tabernacles of the Most High God, cooperating with the creator in populating His heaven for all eternity.
Because of the woman’s dignified status among God’s creatures, women have grave responsibilities. Through their roles as wives and mothers, women help bring about the perfection of the human race in Christ. To that end, one can even say that women dictate the moral conscience of society. When moral standards among women falter, society falters as well. This is painfully evident in our society today. The “women’s liberation movement,” which has made contraception, abortion and same sex unions matters of “choice,” has brought our civilization to the brink of judgment and hell.
The importance of woman’s dress cannot be overemphasized. For the last 2,000 years, the popes have repeatedly implored women to dress modestly, emphasizing that immodest dress can be a proximate occasion of sin. Dressing immodestly can allure men into committing sins of unchastity. Women have a moral obligation to avoid enticing men with immodest apparel. When a woman deliberately dresses immodestly (that is, dressing “to attract” instead of dressing “attractively”), she is committing sin and separating herself from God. The sin may be venial or mortal, depending on the degree of her immodesty, as well as other circumstances.
Women often complain about how men treat them (without respect, as objects, etc.). But women must remember that men are very visual creatures, and a woman’s body language usually dictates how a man will treat her. If a woman dresses with dignity and carries herself with grace, most men will approach that woman with respect and honor. On the other hand, if a woman dresses like a man (pants, short hair, etc.), a man will treat her like “one of the guys.” If a woman dresses immodestly (short skirt, tight jeans, cut-off shirts), a man will often view her as a sexual object and no more.
Men and boys not only have a responsibility to dress modestly but they also are to encourage to whatever extent they can the women and girls of their acquaintance to dress modestly, even avoiding those who do not when they themselves are tempted to sin because of their immodest clothing. But it must be admitted that the sight of unclothed (even partially) bodies of women and girls has generally inspired lust and desire more than the bodies of men and boys.
(Sources: Scripturecatholic.com, ncregister.com and catholic.org)
Read more in the “Why Do We Do That?” series from Deacon Mike Fritz.