In this Crisis Magazine classic, Benjamin Wiker says we have an obligation not to be unnecessarily distracting to others at Mass.
As I have not received nearly enough hate mail of late, I thought it best to write something else on modesty, this time modesty at Mass (see my first article, “Drawing a Hemline: Sexual Modesty and the Pursuit of Wisdom”). I realize, of course, how delicate this subject is, but I also know that I am not the only one disturbed by immodesty. I am certain that more than a few priests grind their teeth every week in anticipation of having to minister to the inadequately dressed.
First, we had better be clear about what is meant by immodesty. Immodesty is — and here I hope to quash any gainsaying — the opposite of modesty. Modesty is a sub-virtue of temperance, the virtue concerned with “desires for the greatest pleasures,” as St. Thomas Aquinas said. We are animals, Aquinas noted, and as animals we have a natural desire to preserve ourselves as individuals “by means of meat and drink,” and as a species “by the union of the sexes.” Simply put, like all animals, we naturally desire food and sex — not in the raw, contemporary sense of uncontrollable appetites that must be sated at all costs, but in the ancient, sane sense of desiring to preserve ourselves by nutrition and our species by procreation. Modesty is concerned not with the sexual act itself, but with the public presentation of our sexual nature.
In this article, I am concerned mostly with the immodesty of women rather than that of men at Mass for three reasons. First, we live in a time when women’s fashions, especially miniskirts and skintight blouses, happen to be more immodest than men’s. Such was not always the case. For example, in Chaucer’s “Parson’s Tale,” we hear of “the horrible disordinat scantnesse of clothyng” of the men, who “thurgh hire shortnesse ne covere nat the shameful membres, to wikked entente.” This particular jeremiad by Chaucer’s good parson concerned the tight hosiery worn by the men of the day that left nothing about either the “privee membres” or “the hyndre part of hir buttokes” to the imagination. But today, unless men start wearing bicycle shorts to work and to Church, mainly women partake of such public immodesty. I have yet to see a man in spandex shorts inside a church, but I have seen myriads of miniskirts — worn even by women having their children baptized — and more than a smattering of spaghetti-straps.
The second reason I shall focus on women is that, to be frank, I am an incurable heterosexual, and I have no idea how immodest fashions on men might affect women. I can only assume that if men took to wearing bicycle shorts to Mass, they might have the same effect on women as miniskirts have on men.
Third, I think it is true, judging from human history and the sorry march of the naked and half-naked in movies and advertisements today, that women are able to affect men more powerfully by their immodesty than men are able to affect women.
There are several layers of difficulty in discussing immodesty in our culture. I’ve classified them according to the retorts undoubtedly already on the lips of my detractors as they read this article. The first is, “I have the right to wear whatever I want!” (also known as “Who are you to tell me what I should wear?!”). The second is, “But that’s what’s in fashion!” The third is, “That’s your problem, you dirty old man!” And finally, we have “Well, do you want us to go back to Victorian times, when even the glimpse of a lady’s bare ankle caused a scandal?”
I Can Wear What I Want
To refute the assertion that we have a right to wear whatever we want, imagine the following. Doing your best to concentrate on the great spectacle of divine grace that is about to unfold, you are dutifully and fruitfully praying before Mass — dutifully because you regard attending Mass as a holy obligation wherein you are bound not only to worship God but also to strive for the removal of the impurities that keep you from Him, and fruitfully because you have on this rare occasion penetrated the fog of sloth and distraction that normally envelops your tired soul and are truly feeling the loving presence of Christ.
Into the church I stride, hoofing it proudly down the central aisle right past your pew, sporting a set of antlers from Cervus elaphus, the North American elk. It is an impressive rack, just the kind that sets the does to nudging and whispering — twelve points, not counting the knobs. Be honest. No matter how deeply in prayer you had mercifully fallen, wouldn’t you be jolted completely out of the sweet arms of grace? Wouldn’t you, now kneeling amid the shattered pieces of your holy reverie, say to yourself, “Antlers! That idiot is wearing antlers!”
Further, imagine that I shuffle proudly into the pew right in front of you, fully aware that I had attracted everyone’s attention. And there you are, stuck for the entire Mass, peering through my great rack at the priest. And there you are a bit later at the most holy part of the Mass, the elevation of the consecrated Host, framed for you by those same ridiculous antlers. And then, walking up to receive our precious Lord, you are not piously thinking, “My Lord and my God,” but either impiously cursing or uncontrollably laughing. Your chance to restore your soul is shot for the week.
On the way out, you decide to confront me. (Good for you!) “Why did you wear antlers to Mass?” you ask politely. “Surely you must know everyone was staring at you?”
Immediately, and with a dark and offended glare, I reply, “Who are you to tell me what to wear? I have the right to wear whatever I want!”
Wouldn’t your response be, “Where could you conceive of getting a right to wear antlers? Furthermore, what about my more sacred right — and duty — to concentrate during the Mass? Your display was utterly distracting!”
Let’s step back from our imaginary exercise and ask ourselves: Don’t we have a right not to be drawn away from the Mass? Don’t we also have a very serious moral obligation not to draw others away? If you were at the foot of Mount Sinai, and “the Lord descended upon it in fire; and the smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain quaked greatly,” and “as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder,” wouldn’t you be violating something great, terrible, and holy by dancing in front of people, waving your arms, or shimmying about in an effort to distract them? How much more should we avoid distracting others when God Himself, with a great, terrible, and holy love, becomes our food and drink?
Let’s return to the foyer of the church. I take off my antlers and say, “You are absolutely right, madam, and your miniskirt is every bit as distracting to all the men as my antlers are to you — only worse. Immodest dress is made to be sexually attractive. Why else do they call it ‘sexy’ if not to capture the effect it has on the opposite sex? Whereas there is no biblical commandment about staring at antlers, Christ has warned that ‘everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart’ (Matthew 5:28). This is the same Christ who said, ‘Temptations to sin are sure to come; but woe to him [or her] by whom they come!’ (Luke 17:1). If you knew that this very Christ were going to be here today, in person, awful in His power and purity, severe in His demands, steeped in the agony of the crucifixion, and blinding in His resurrected holiness, how would you have dressed? Well, madam, He was here. And I am fairly certain that any conscious attempt to distract or attract others from Him is a most serious offense.”
Short Skirts Are In
So they are, just as second-skin hosiery was the rage for men in Chaucer’s day and bustles and corsets were for women in the 19th century. But what is in fashion at any particular time generally reflects a particular culture’s beliefs and desires. We may always ask whether those beliefs and desires, and the fashions that develop as a result, are worthy. For example, corsets, which caused the near-asphyxiation of many women, should be judged as unworthy. Women were not made to have the waists of wasps, and the attempt to make them so was destructive.
Similarly, fashions may betray a culture’s belief that the overt expression of sexual desire be released from the confines of the marital bedroom and let loose in public. Miniskirts are the result of the sexual revolution. Whether any particular woman means to express her solidarity with that revolution or not, her abbreviated clothing speaks for itself.
It’s Your Problem
Am I a dirty old man? We are all dirty — stained with sin, covered with the soot of our continual struggle to climb the purgative hills of this life, soiled by backsliding, and smeared with repentant tears. Such is our condition in this life if we are at all honest about the state of our souls. We are all here to be cleaned, to be washed in the blood of the Lamb in a strange and frightening ritual that, if the veil God mercifully drapes over it were lifted, would drive us all to our knees in dread.
Yes, we are here to be cleaned, not to roll in the ever-more-choking dust of our culture. The culture is obsessed with sex, money, Persian-style luxury, frittering away precious time in shallow entertainments, catering to every cry of the flesh for the most trifling and ignoble pleasures, art that does not elevate, music that excites the savage beast, and a continual circus of violence in our re-paganized theaters. The Church must be a sanctuary of holy sanity, an island of retreat amid the swell and bluster of sensual degradation and intellectual dwarfism. The Mass must save us from mass culture.
When the vanities of this culture invade the Church, that is a sign of war. And that is why I am as opposed to immodesty as I am to pop music, seedy and utilitarian architecture, flagrant displays of wealth, and every other seepage from out there to in here. We should be evangelizing the culture, not the other way around. We should be making sorties promoting modesty from inside the Church, rather than carrying the indiscreet trappings of the culture within its gates.
Back to Victorian Times?
As C.S. Lewis said, when you are lost, retracing your steps to find your way back to the proper trail is actually progress. For example, why shouldn’t we want to go back to a time when it was safe to walk the streets at night, when our children were not gunning each other down at school, and when men were fighting over women rather than fighting for the right to marry other men?
But returning to the old days is not the issue. There need not be a golden time to which we must refer when trying to reform ourselves morally. The pagan Romans of the early Christian era were just as morally degraded as we are. The Romans’ “good old days” were those of the fifth century B.C., when the famous Twelve Tables of the law commanded that all deformed babies be exposed, and those of the second century B.C., when Cato the Elder instructed farmers to sell slaves too enfeebled by age to work, so as to avoid having to pay for their maintenance. The Christians came to form the Romans into Christians, not to reform them into “old Romans.”
This has always been true for Christians, who are called to a severe standard of holiness in any age. When Christianity baptizes a culture — whenever and wherever that culture may be — the holy waters act not like a comfortable bath but like an acid that eats painfully away at the culture’s cherished sins. That is why Christians of all times are called to be martyrs, for to be a martyr means, first, to be a witness and, second, to take up the cross. We are called to be witnesses to severe holiness, not to blend in with the culture so as not to be noticed — and that includes how we dress. Further, if we are truly witnesses, then we will experience the weight of the cross and the sharp pain of the nails by going against the grain of the culture — and that means that we might be mocked for being out of fashion.
That is why we should not only dress modestly inside a church but outside as well. If what we wear speaks, then it ought to shout loudly and visibly in the near-naked public square that Christians think differently about the body and sexuality from Planned Parenthood, Dr. Ruth, Hugh Hefner, MTV, Madonna, and Dear Abby. We are commanded not to hide our light under a bushel, and certainly a woman cannot hide her modesty under a miniskirt any more than a man can hide his under a pair of bicycle shorts. So it is not a question of going back to Victorian times but of going forward to better times of our own making.
Modesty, then, is not the gnarled offshoot of some happily bygone age. It is, and always was, one of the twelve fruits of the Holy Spirit. These, the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us, “the Holy Spirit forms in us as the first fruits of eternal glory.” “Purity requires modesty [emphasis added],” the Catechism continues, as “an integral part of temperance,” one of the four cardinal virtues. Far from restricting us, “modesty protects the intimate center of the person. It means refusing to unveil what should remain hidden.” Modesty veils sexuality, not because sexual desire is evil but because the culmination of sexual attraction is properly the privacy of the intimate union of male and female, who become one flesh. With regard to public life, theCatechism says that modesty “inspires one’s choice of clothing.” May these words inspire us all every Sunday (and all the days in between).
My Modesty Guidelines
As I do not think I can skirt the issue (so to speak), I will end with guidelines for achieving modesty at Mass. Although I have used the examples of bicycle shorts for men and miniskirts for women, there are obviously many ways for both sexes to be immodest. Further, while all immodesty is inappropriate at Mass, not all inappropriate clothing is immodest. Antlers are not immodest — they suit the Elks Club quite nicely — but they are inappropriate at Mass. Garish beachwear is likewise inappropriate at Mass, even when it is modest.
At Mass, one obvious rule for both men and women is that clothes should cover the body (which is their function) but not cling to it. That which is skintight — whether pants for men or even a long dress for women — is to the eye, and hence to the imagination, a second skin. Clothes that act as a second skin are too close to revealing the first skin and are therefore immodest at Mass.
Second, how about a knees-to-neck rule? Everything between the knees and the neck should be covered — on both men and women. This frees us from all niggling nit-picking about the exact status of every possible item of clothing. Plunging necklines, rising hemlines, bare midriffs and backs, short shorts, and so on are all taboo. That does not mean that some clothing that violates the knees-to-neck rule might not actually compromise modesty, but the knees-to-neck rule, combined with the loose-clothing rule, would certainly eliminate all immodesty. Drawing the line a little too broadly is better than drawing it too close to an occasion for sin. Better to filter out than let a philter in.
So, see you Sunday. My antlers will be in the trunk of my car, just in case.