In the modesty post below this one, a commenter asked why I write about this issue so often. I answered off the top of my head--interested in the topic, try to avoid what I see as the extremes, saw it crop up in a few places last week, have teenage daughters, etc. But as I was doing some chores this afternoon I pondered the question further: is there a reason why what might be called "Catholic trivia" topics intrigue me so much?
Now, by labeling the modesty debate "Catholic trivia" I don't mean that modesty itself is a trivial thing. It's a virtue, and virtues aren't trivial to the Christian life. But what ends up being at the point of trivia is the way this issue gets hashed out again and again, with people--myself included--offering specifications and parameters and helpful hints and further reflections and examinations and dissertations on exceptions to general rules, etc. ad infinitum.
In general, I think that's kind of a healthy, natural thing for us to do. The Church says, in effect, "Be modest," and leaves it up to us to discern the details (though the discussion of it here is fruit for much reflection). Clothing is only a part of what "be modest" means, but it's not an insignificant part.
But where things start to resemble trivia is when the argument breaks down along the usual battle lines. On one side, you have what might be called the traditionals/conservatives, and on the other, the liberals/progressives; one side is characterized by the "Popes and saints have declared that women are immodest unless they are covered up to two fingers below the collar bone, their arms to their elbows, and their skirts to eight inches below the knee!" argument, and the other by the "I have great legs and an awesome gluteal region, so why shouldn't I wear shorts to Mass if I want to?" argument. Of course, there are many variations; the "we should dress like the Blessed Mother," is one, and the "God doesn't care what we wear," is another--but the lines are drawn between these two extremes.
Since I'm not a proponent of either of these two arguments, why do I want to enter these discussions to preach a path of moderation? Chances are the people on the extreme sides aren't going to listen, anyway. So what makes me do it?
Here's the thing: I've seen a lot of nice, friendly, kind, peaceful Catholics get sucked into these kinds of arguments, ending up convinced by one side or the other--just long enough to get hurt. And, redhead that I am, I get mad when people get hurt by other people who are trying to be a magisterium of one.
On the one side, you have those Catholics who believe that the Church is going to Wake Up and Listen to the Holy Spirit one of these days, and get around to ordaining women, sacramentalizing abortion, and celebrating gay weddings, among other things. The rest of us are guilty of the grave sin of Intolerance, and it is the duty of these Catholics, so they think, to chastise us for these sins lest we fall into the fiery pit--if they believed in it, of course, but it's probably metaphorical. Anyway, though, whether they are talking about why female permanent deacons would be a good idea, or chiding the modesty-discussers with their lack of charity in not seeing that that woman who shows up at Mass to lector or cantor or Extraordinarily Minister while falling out of a skin-tight strapless sundress is honoring God as best she can, they are convinced that they've figured out the right, best way to please God by never, every judging anybody (except rad-trads, of course, but they don't count). They are a magisterium of one--they certainly don't need anyone else telling them the right way to be a follower of Christ.
On the other side, you have those Catholics who believe the Church is going to Wake Up and Listen to the Holy Spirit one of these days and get around to suppressing the quasi-heretical Vatican II Council and its so-called "mass." The rest of us are guilty of the sin of Indifference, and it is the duty of these Catholics, so they think, to chastise us for these sins lest we fall into the fiery pit--which is real, and eternal, and the likely destination of most of us, a fact which somehow is more productive of a feeling of satisfaction than of sorrow. Anyway, though, whether they are grudgingly admitting that opening up the E.F. Mass was a good idea (which didn't go nearly far enough, of course, and did you notice Father's distressing lack of shoe-buckles last week?) or castigating the modesty-discussers with their brazen desire to bare nearly two-thirds of an arm in open defiance of popes, saints, Our Lady of Fatima, and, more importantly, themselves, they are convinced that they've figured out the right, best way to please God by always, always judging everybody against what they know to be His standards (but not the liberals, of course, because they're beyond hope already). They, too, are a magisterium of one--they certainly don't need anyone else telling them the right way to be a follower of Christ.
The thing is, people who set themselves up as a Magisterium of One have a way of someday following through and becoming a church of one--or if not of one, at least of a few others who, while quite possibly still going to Hell for not being exactly right, are somehow perhaps less damned than everybody else. But before they do that, they can trouble the souls and consciences of many around them, by insisting on their personal dogmas above and beyond anything the Church has ever taught, and performing private excommunications against anybody who fails to measure up to their standards.
So every time one of these debates opens up, I see that sort of dynamic forming, and I want to be a voice for those caught in the middle, just to remind everyone (again, myself included!) that we already have a Magisterium. Which has not issued, and probably never will issue, a Definitive Ultra-Perfect Catholic Standard of Dress on the one hand, or open bikini churches for the surfer crowd on the other.