Joan Frawley Desmond, is the Register’s senior editor. She is an award-winning journalist widely published in Catholic, ecumenical and secular media. A graduate of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies of Marriage and Family, she lives with her family in California..
Here in California, people rarely dress up. Mark Zuckerberg reportedly wore a hoodie for the Facebook IPO (though he put on a nice suit for his wedding last year).
So when people glide into Mass wearing their gym clothes, flipflops and tank tops, most pastors judiciously ignore the spectacle and hope their parishioners will too.
Still, whenever our family attends the 5:30 p.m. Sunday Mass, I have wondered whether the profusion of mini skirts and tube tops might add up to a 'near occasion of sin," for some appreciative men in the congregation.. And that possibility, I think, is what bothered my old pastor back in Bethesda, Maryland. He was not shy about discussing inapprorpriate Mass attire during his homily -- while also nudging his flock to arrive on time, rather than cramming into the last five pew during the second half of the litrugy.
Thus, I was pleased, but not surprised to see my old parish, Our Lady of Lourdes, mentioned in a recent Washington Post story about "approrpriate" clothing for church services, especially during heatwaves. The Post's reporter caught one embarassed communicant. She was
in the Communion line at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church on Sunday morning, two things were on her mind: connecting with God and getting out of the humid sanctuary before someone mentioned her skimpy tank top and tight, knee-length running pants.
“I know I’m inappropriate, but I’m trying to save time. I know I’m in the wrong. My mother would not approve,” the 30-year-old said sheepishly as she made a beeline from Mass at the Bethesda church to the gym. “But would it be better that I not come?”
I know exactly which gym she was headed for, and I, too, struggled with the moral dilemma of whether to go to Mass in gym clothes, or make an adiditonal visit home to change clothes after church.
It's a real guilt trip when you have your mother making you feel bad, and your parish bulletin kicks in, too:
“Dignity & Decorum: Please try not to wear beach shorts, tank tops, and flip-flops to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Thank you.”
The Post's reporter sees two problems--an acceptance of risque behavior and lazy dressing habits.
In general, casual has pummeled formal everywhere in America, from airplanes to offices. But places of worship — where debates on modesty are not confined to the summer months — may be the final frontier for questions about what constitutes overly risque. And those questions have recently sprung to new life.
Interestingly, the Post's story mentions one campaign by evangelical groups who want to upgrade the dress code, as well. It's called Modest is Hotest. But it turns out the effort has met with resistance from some of its target audience.
“A woman’s breasts and buttocks and thighs all proclaim the glory of the Lord,” said Sharon Hodde Miller, a doctoral student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School whose critique of “modest is hottest” in the online evangelical magazine Christianity Today was one of the best-read of recent years. “Modesty is an orientation of the heart, first and foremost. It begins with putting God first. To look at an outfit and say if it’s modest or immodest, I’m not sure you can do that.”
My pastor would beg to differ. But, then, I also don't see him endorsing a campaign called, "Modest is Hotest."