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?