Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Modesty, Charity, and NFP

It must be the season.

First we had a debate over breastfeeding modestly in public, then a debate over NFP and responsible and generous parenthood, and now it's apparently time to tackle the subject of modesty in dress again.

I've been over the modesty debate before. I don't need to dredge up my thoughts on the matter again, and am not planning to get into the specifics. Of course, I reserve the right to change my mind. :)

But in reading the linked post and especially the comments thread that followed, I had a thought that I wanted to share.

In last week's NFP/Responsible and Generous debate, people kept saying one thing over and over again. I'll sum it up here:

We have to be very careful when talking about responsible parenthood. We have to be especially careful not to mention any hypotheticals, even in the abstract, lest we hurt people. We can say, very generally, that financial matters (which we mustn't define) may (though not necessarily) sometimes (though not always) be among the reasons (but not prominent among them) for individual couples (though probably nobody we know) to choose to use moral means to postpone temporarily adding to their family (though this isn't at all the only choice or the best choice and if they choose otherwise we should call them humble and heroic and then shut up already). Anything more specific than that, even in the abstract, is really just an excuse to bash poor people or suggest they shouldn't have children.

It's possible that the above is just a wee bit hyperbolic.

But what I want to know is this: why is it unjust, unkind, and uncharitable to mention any specifics, even completely hypothetical abstract what-if ones, when discussing prudential concerns and NFP--but it is never seen that way when we're talking about modesty?

After all, we could just as easily insist that the only thing good Catholics may say about modesty is: Catholics ought to practice modesty in dress out of respect for God's creation of their bodies and out of charity toward others. Period. End of sentence, end of discussion, end of debate.

But that's not how it is, is it? People feel completely free to declare whole categories of clothing to be always and everywhere off-limits. People don't hesitate to label clothing styles in the abstract as immodest, and to cast aspersions on those who choose them. A call to be charitable in that realm is seen as mushy relativism, as if charitably suggesting some people may not know better, or indeed, may not own other clothing, is just condoning the dangerous immorality of the world, and failing to warn our brothers and sisters (mostly, our sisters) just how close to Hell that blouse with the sleeves four whole inches above the elbow is dragging them.

Nobody ever says that sneering at crude tee-shirts or faded jeans is tantamount to beating up on the poorly-dressed.

In fact, there's this notion out there that the things Pope Pius XII or Saint Pio said about modesty rise to the level of infallible Catholic teaching, and that only the hardest hearts would disagree. There's this idea that measuring our neighbor's sleeve-length and skirt-length with our eyes is a morally necessary act. There's the idea that "two fingers below the collarbone" is the gold standard for a woman when she's buying shirts or blouses, and that she's bound under pain of sin to wear nothing that dips any lower.

[My objection to that has to do with my very small hands. Whose "fingers" set the standard? If I use my fingers to measure the space below my collarbone and shop accordingly, I'd be stuck wearing turtlenecks most of the time. Which give me a headache, can't be worn 11.5 months out of twelve here in Texas, and would still get me in trouble with the modesty police because my somewhat well-endowed figure would be pretty apparent in the fabrics turtlenecks are usually made of. But I digress.]

In fact, in most of these debates about various aspects of moral living, people feel extremely free to discuss the hypothetical and the not-so-hypothetical. I recall the breastfeeding debate, where the questions, "Is it possible to breastfeed in public modestly? If so, how? Is breastfeeding at Mass by definition immodest?" etc. went off into all sorts of very specific tangents about what sort of covering ought to be used, when the mother should remove herself from the presence of others, and how it was sometimes the case that even if the mother was wearing a nursing dress, draped in a shawl, covered in a blanket, seated behind a strategically positioned pillar, and swathed in gauzy ribbons held at a distance by blind volunteers from the Knights of Columbus, she still couldn't nurse modestly at Mass because somewhere in church some man would know what she was doing and what body part was involved and would probably sin in thinking about it all.

If charity compels us to keep these sorts of debates in the abstract, maybe it's time to retire the modesty debates once and for all. We'll just agree to say, "We should dress modestly," and leave the details up to the individual properly-formed conscience, the person's spiritual adviser, and the person's spouse/mother/other close friend who can be trusted to tell the person if he/she is venturing out dressed like a gigolo/tart.

Anybody out there agree?


Deirdre Mundy said...

Sounds good to me! =) When I taught Catholic school, there was a "longer than the fingertips" rule on shorts. But some girls with long arms and short legs were at a HUGE disadvantage-- they couldn't find anything that fit the rule AND was attractive...

I personally like the idea of leaving criticism up to a relative/friend. As someone with the fashion sense of a slug (I get accused of dressing too much like an old lady) I appreciate the advice!

Also, if part of the point in modest dress is NOT to distract other churchgoers, wouldn't wearing an ankle-length skirt over jeans qualify as much as wearing a skirt that is slightly abopve the knee?

Histor said...

Dressing like a gigolo? Last I checked, the complaint about men at mass was that they dressed like panhandlers.


Red Cardigan said...

Ahh, but Histor, are panhandlers dressed immodestly?

Inappropriately for Mass, maybe, but immodestly?

Oremus said...

Is it fair to say the women's volleyball (beach) uniforms are IMMODEST?! It is pretty bad when they are smaller THAN UNDERWARE and your 4yo says something to the effect why do we have to see their butts~~

You can not assume that everyone's conscience is informed and running.
Aren't we facing what is a crisis in our church regarding catechesis? Don't assume anything. But say it with charity.

Histor said...

"Is it fair to say the women's volleyball (beach) uniforms are IMMODEST?! It is pretty bad when they are smaller THAN UNDERWEAR and your 4yo says something to the effect why do we have to see their butts~~"

All I can say is: Pick your battles. Practically the entire U.S. government approves of those uniforms. So let's just concentrate on observing modesty in church, and let the modesty for Olympic competitors come later.


Oremus said...

The lines are not set and drawn by the church anymore. We see/hear more secular and nothing from church officials and you can forget most parents because that line has been crossed sooo many times in the society it is the norm In their minds, something is wrong with the priest or whomever is doing the complaining.
So I see the battle being one in the same.

Histor said...

The difference between modesty in church and modesty outside of church is that in a church, you can cast the argument as "Do your clothes show respect to God, Who is physically present in church?" Outside of church, you don't have that, and the argument becomes "Wear better clothes, because I think yours are inappropriate." You can guess what answer that usually gets.

To recap: Getting people to dress modestly outside of church requires either a) having some kind of authority over whomever you're trying to persuade or b) exceptional skills at forcibly dressing people. Getting people to dress modestly inside of church just requires you to convince someone that it matters what clothes you wear to visit Christ.

Two different battles in the same war, you see.


P.S. Re the USA Women's Volleyball team - my mother, for one, would solve the problem by eliminating female sports. Perhaps that's the solution to their immodesty, perhaps not.

Oremus said...

Let me be more specific, in regards to our Catholic youth and young people who dress this way.

The article that Red linked to the priest had every authority to address it in his parish and to expect compliance.
But here is where, and I don't know if it is the case, compliance vs conversion comes in.
Those kids, and the kids in our parish can be given a "dress code" and that will solve some....at the church during mass. They still dress and have the same attitude outside of mass. Now, in my opinion, it has created a wedge for these people who really do not know any better.
So, solution? Fr addressing it AND having classes or speakers come in and speak about modesty, what it is, what it means and how our society is NOT modest.
Maybe they will turn a deaf ear or maybe not. I would hope that most women/men do not want to be looked upon as an object of lust or temptation.
If the priest is the one issuing the problem regarding dress, and him alone, I could see a lot of division.
That is just my perspective.

And when they take it to heart it is just not a "church" issue anymore. Then they see the volleyball players as "undressed" and say something. Or if they make it that far in their own talents, and are offered a "string" to cover themselves, they can say NO THANKS.
And we can write letters and complain.
To me it is the same battle and it goes hand in hand.

Oremus said...

And we have more influence in the world than we realize.
Because if we are Christians, living the Christian life, that is appealing and we attract others and what we wear inside and outside of mass means a lot.

Influence sometimes is more powerful than authority.

Maria said...

I agree with you, Red. Let's end the modesty debates. I never get involved with them because I generally can't type for laughing so hard at the entire situation. Do people honestly think that the folks perusing conservative Catholic blogs are dressing like strippers at Church? Really? It boggles the mind.

As to the entire issue of discussing "hot topics" and hypothetical situations, I think it is fine to discuss it. The main problem comes when we use those discussions of hypotheticals to make sweeping generalizations (often unintentionally) and in doing so seem to imply that this generalization is what the Church teaches. Actual Church teaching is actually very limited on a number of these hot topics, and the Church often does leave the final decision in particular cicumstances to a person's conscience.

Interestingly, I was talking to a friend who has his doctorate in moral theology and teaches at a very conservative seminary about the whole NFP/Prudence/Generousity issue this past weekend. In response, he told me about an old Irish priest who was his Canon Law professor. The priest was always warning his students to not extend Church teaching beyond the Code. "Never more than the Code, lads! Never more than the Code!" was his refrain in class.

This struck me as just right. We should work at forming our consciences by reading Church teaching, the saints, and works of theology, and we should discuss how best to live out our Faith in our society together, but we should be careful not to extend Church teaching beyond its bounds. We don't want to be like the Pharisees who used the Law to create big burdens to place on others' backs.

Anonymous said...

Red, your summation is spot-one; hilarious!

One thing I like about St. Pio is that I find him to be a bit of a crank. A little bit harsh, brusque, and sometimes downright...not nice. It's so refreshing. (Funny how no one's ever heard anyone tell him to "remember to be charitable!", especially when he'd throw you out of the confessional if you couldn't speak the only 2 languages he'd hear confessions in: Latin or Italian. That's not church teaching and no matter how you slice it, it's definitely not nice. And I find that funny.)

But all these admonitions of his were not church teaching; they were his interpretation of church teaching and, to be fair, they were in a time and place that were very different from ours. And I do get images of "Celebrity Saint SmackDowns", What Not To Wear



OK, so St. Gianna might not have worn those pants into church - but I also highly doubt that the "PS" on St. Pio's sign said: "But, hey, if you want to wear any of those forbidden clothes outside of mass, not a problem; you're looking good!"

Here's the thing that's a common denominator these days: Both men and women dress like slobs. I don't think you can be a "modest slob", and it is worse when you show too much flesh. Catholics are such bad dressers, in general, that if we upped our fashion sense, just a teensy bit, we'd be modest and look fabulous to boot. To drape oneself in those horrid, oversized, outdated rags that some do is just as immodest as wearing too little. To dress cleanly, elegantly and beautifully is the better, more excellent thing to do; that's how we should be modeling ourselves to the rest of the world.

eulogos said...

My only comment is not on clothes, but on conflict. I saw discomfort with conflict in Cardigan's comment on the NFP thread.

Maybe it is because I went to a college where all the classes were sit around the table and everyone talks affairs, and the center of the program was the spirited discussion in seminar, but I like heated discussions. In college we called everyone by his title and last name during seminar, ie Miss Ferwerda, Mr. Lederer, Miss Shifter, Mr. Green\, which helped keep the discussion respectful. But to disagree, and to argue one's points forcefully, was the order of the day. I didn't see anything in the whole NFP discussion which exceeded the limits of polite discussion. And I think getting into particulars aids people in their own moral calculus. Moral theology books surely get into particulars. So long as no one gets into a named other person's particulars, unless the other person brings them up first, and even then, very gently. Other than that, in my opinion, discuss away, argue, dispute and refute, it is what blogs are for.
Susan Peterson