I've been reading a forum discussion on modesty of dress, particularly dressing modestly for Mass. As we all know, this is a huge problem, especially in summer months, when so many men show up for Mass dressed in shorts and sandals, wearing tank tops, 'muscle' shirts, or tee shirts with obscene messages on them. Clearly, we must all do our parts to speak to our sons and nephews about the serious need to dress appropriately for Mass, so that our girls won't constantly have to avert their eyes and guard their minds against improper thoughts.
No, the discussion as usual has centered around that perennially favorite hot topic, "What Women Should/Shouldn't Wear to Mass."
I don't mean to trivialize anyone's sincere concerns about modesty. Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, after all, and it is possible to make the choice to dress in such a way as to be committing the sin of immodesty. If we desire to use our bodies and our clothing to inflame or incite someone else to commit sin, then we are being immodest.
I think most people would agree with what I said just above. Unfortunately, most discussions of modesty I've participated in have had a tendency to disregard the question of intent, and instead have focused on three separate issues: 1) What is appropriate to wear to Mass; 2) What articles of clothing are always and everywhere immodest, and 3) What reason do we have to violate the clear guidelines and standards of the Church?
Let's tackle these in reverse order.
What reason do we have to violate the clear guidelines and standards of the Church?
People who take this approach point to various times and places where various guidelines concerning dress have been given. One oft-quoted phrase was that of Pope Pius XII who, in the 1940s, was asked his opinion of what women teaching in Italian schools should wear to preserve their modesty. He replied "Below the knee, halfway down the arm, and two finger widths below the collarbone." Since this is considerably less 'coverage' than that afforded by the habits of the nuns teaching in Italian Catholic schools, one could speculate that the Holy Father was making it clear that the lay teachers could be dressed quite modestly and appropriately without needing to wear a habit-like garment; yet this quote is pulled out of context and used as a kind of "always and everywhere" statement of what Catholic women should wear.
Another example given is that of Padre Pio, who refused to hear the confession of any woman whose skirt wasn't at least eight inches below her knee. Setting aside the silly image of the good saint holding up a tape measure and frowning at some poor woman whose skirt only dropped 7.75 inches below the knee, we have to admit that it is no longer customary for a woman to wear skirts this long all the time; and as hemlines have risen and fallen considerably since Padre Pio's day, it's doubtful that he'd take issue with Pope Pius XII's less detailed "below the knee" idea.
Still others point to the guidelines required at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome: no miniskirts, no shorts, and covered shoulders. While these minimal guidelines seem quite sensible to me and to many others, the fact of the matter is that they have never been universally imposed; and that is the crux of the matter.
You see, there are no "clear guidelines and standards of the Church." I think most people would agree that it's a good idea to dress modestly for Mass, both for men and for women, but specific guidelines about appropriate and inappropriate dress are properly the decision of the local church authority: the bishop, and the pastors of the churches under his guidance. What will constitute modest dress may vary widely by geographic locality and local culture and custom; there simply isn't one definitive, enforced standard, no matter how hard we may try to create one.
Which brings us to the second question.
What articles of clothing are always and everywhere immodest?
If you've begun to suspect that this might be a trick question, you catch on fast. The fact of the matter is that, as I defined above, modesty is more a matter of intentions than of specific articles of clothing. Few people place an infant in a tiny shirt and diaper with the idea that allowing her to show so much skin might be immodest; many moms of girls find cute dressy one-piece pantsuits for baby's first Christmas, because baby's at that age where she thinks it's hysterically funny to pull her skirt up over her head. But baby isn't being immodest; she's not capable of immodesty.
Are there pieces of clothing out there that reasonable people might find immodest? Sure. But what is immodest on one person won't always be immodest on every person, making it hard to define what exactly constitutes immodest clothing.
A spaghetti-strap sundress may be cute on a five-year-old; it's less cute on an eighteen-year-old, and unless the eighteen-year-old actually looks about twelve, chances are this dress won't be her best choice for Sunday Mass. But is the dress, itself, actually immodest? Possibly, but only if it has been designed to be revealing and arousing no matter who wears it; and few pieces of clothing actually match that description.
Are sleeveless tops immodest? Again, not necessarily. They may be, if you're wearing one amidst a group of people who never bare their arms in public; the sight of 'arm flesh' may seem like a forbidden pleasure to them, and if you know that, and wear it anyway, you may be crossing the line. However, it would be hard to argue that the average American is going to be inflamed with passion at the sight of a bare arm; partly because sleeveless tops are quite a common article of clothing, but also since so many of the women who will wear sleeveless tops look positively dreadful in them. There is nothing particularly titillating about the sight of a pale, flabby, fleshy middle-aged arm hanging out of a sleeveless top; but that brings us to the third question.
What is appropriate to wear to Mass?
Previous generations had this whole question so much easier, didn't they? Clothes were relatively expensive, so most people had two separate and distinct categories of clothing: everyday clothes, and Sunday Best.
Even after World War II, when synthetic fabrics made more clothing options available, the average woman had three or four categories of clothing: 'house' clothes, 'street' clothes, 'evening' clothes...and Sunday Best.
There was some overlap, of course. A 'street' suit, which was often a nice skirt and jacket, hat and gloves optional, could be worn to Church as well. And a tea-length evening dress might look nice at Easter or Christmas, for that extra-special touch. Or, one's Sunday Best dresses might be pressed into service for an afternoon out, or for dinner with one's husband at a nice restaurant. But one's everyday, around the house clothes were clearly too casual to wear to Church, or indeed, even to the grocery store.
We live in a casual age, in a casual society. "Business Casual" has almost become the new "dress code;" one is seldom required, at least in the societal echelon to which I belong, to dress much more nicely than that. The kind of dress I buy to wear to a wedding was once the kind of dress women wore every Sunday, complete with stockings, closed-toe shoes, gloves, and a hat. The kind of dress a woman might wear just out to dinner might be seen at a formal occasion, if then; people go out to eat dressed in the same everyday clothes they wear for everything else.
I think many of the people who bristle about "modesty" at Mass are really upset about the declining standards of dress in general, and about the trend to push the envelope toward more and more casual clothing. Are sleeveless tops really 'immodest' in the sense of being likely to inflame passions or cause impure thoughts? Or are they, generally speaking, just representative of our falling standards of dress, of the trend toward more and more casual clothing for every event of our lives?
I really do think it comes down to a concern about dressing appropriately for Sunday Mass, not dressing immodestly. After all, the people who raise 'modesty' concerns about a sleeveless top or a nice pair of slacks might find it hard to raise these same concerns if the woman wearing these articles of clothing is sitting beside them at daily Mass; we tend to accept that people will come to daily Mass wearing what they need to wear that day. It's only on Sunday, when we gather as a community of the faithful for our chief act of worship of the week, that some people find the casual, even sloppy nature of some of the clothing to be deplorable; but let's be honest, here: that's not about modesty, for the most part. Because if it were about modesty, if it were about offending our Lord, then it would be equally offensive to show up for daily Mass dressed that way, wouldn't it?
Is it right to expect that people will make some special effort in their manner of dressing for Sunday Mass? I think it is. We are gathering as a community, as a family, to participate in the act of worship which our Lord instituted. Our attendance isn't optional on Sunday as it is every other day of the week; we make a special effort with the flowers and the music and even, in many places, the incense on Sunday. Why not dress up a little, too? It's not a bad idea.
But it's not mandatory, either. We don't know whether the jeans-clad man beside us is wearing the best thing he owns, do we? We don't know whether the woman in the sleeveless top is clueless about how her arms look, or if she's suffering terribly from hot flashes, and thinks it's better to go sleeveless than to drip with perspiration. It's pretty hard to judge the hearts and motivations of those who sit around us at Mass, and it's pretty petty of us to try.
There's nothing wrong with wanting to see people dress nicely at Mass, either. But we can only really make those decisions on our own behalf, or on that of our family. If we are motivated by respect for God and love for our fellow man, then we may certainly make the effort to see to it that we, and our spouses and children, make a little more effort in our dress on Sunday morning than we do on Saturday night. But we may not judge others for not doing so. This is one of those times when we may lead by example, or not at all. It would be uncharitable of us to place a heavier burden in this area on our fellow Catholics than the Church herself chooses to place.