In the long, protracted, and altogether hideous debate over whether or not a Catholic woman can ethically wear pants (yeah, that happened, and it will happen again), a few people tried to make their voices heard above the crowd shouting, "Harlot! How dare you let me know you have legs!" and "Pig! How dare you notice my bottom when I'm wearing a skin-tight latex micro skirt"
In response to these foolish extremes, a more nuanced and difficult debate sprang up: These are difficult times. Things have gotten so stupid, so wretched, that the question of skirts vs. pants is important because it's about more than clothing: it's about whether nor not we're willing to stand out. If wearing long skirts means being a little self-conscious, having to work a little harder, being a little chillier, standing out of the crowd -- well, that's a good thing. You should stand out.
After all, when the Church was awfully cozy and friendly with the secular world, that's when all the rotten seeds were sown. When Catholics blended in nicely, that's when no one wanted to tattle on the molesting priests, because we had everything set up so nicely, we were all getting along so well.
Now the corruption is out in the open -- the corruption in the Church, and all around it, too: in entertainment, in family life, in science, and in every aspect of modern life. Now, surely, is the time to say, "Yes, we are different. We look different because we are setting ourselves apart. It's become normal for mothers and children alike to dress like strippers; it's become normal for men to watch porn. It's become normal for everything gross and indecent to be made into entertainment. So, listen, Catholics: even if your privates are all adequately covered, can't we do better than that? What about a return to femininity and gentility? What about watering this parched modern society with a little grace and beauty? If the comfort and practicality of pants are normal, then no: we're not normal. We're in the world, but not of it. We are a people set apart."
On the other hand. There is an equally compelling argument saying, "Yes, but what about evangelization? There is a certain segment of the population who will simply not approach a woman wearing a long skirt. They cannot. They have been raised to believe that modesty is the same as repression, repression is the same as Christianity, and Christians have nothing to offer but prohibitions, shame, and scolding. Even if this is not what is in your heart when you wear that cover-up, that's the message that some people will hear." So if you stand apart, you are very effectively depriving them of contact with the truth. Might as well lock up the Churches and put password protection on the Bible. Standing apart means being inaccessible, and that's exactly what Christ told us not to be.
This is a dilemma that reaches beyond what women wear on their lower halves, of course. Every non-cloistered Catholic makes these decisions every day: how to be in the world, but not of the world? Do we gather our children in to teach them at home and make them better children, or send them out to meet non-Catholics, and make the world a better place? Do we produce art and literature and movies that educate the world about the Bible and the saints, or do we infiltrate the secular creative world to put goodness, truth and beauty back on center stage? Do we stand out against the world, or do we step forward to draw it in?
My answer? It's not a dilemma at all. Yes, we should hold ourselves to a higher standard than the rest of the world. We should do more than merely refrain from making it worse -- we should try and make it better.
At the same time: yes, we should be accessible to the thoroughly secularized crowd, who have an especially urgent need to hear the Good News from someone who looks like them.
How can these both be true? Simple: there are many vocations within the Church. Some people are called to make demands on themselves that will set them apart, incurring both admiration and contempt from their peers. Some people are called to blend in, to be a witness from the inside out -- a calling which has demands of its own. One vocation is not inferior to another, any more than a vocation to be a hermit is better than a vocation to be a teaching nun. The world needs us all. What we don't need is other people discerning (or disparaging) our vocations for us.
Of course, there's a danger here. It's pretty easy to use the word "vocation" as an excuse to do whatever's easiest. If we follow a vocation of standing out, are we actually reaching people? Do we have reason to believe that we're making a positive difference by being different? Or do we assume that simply being different is virtuous in itself? (If so, that sounds more like pride than courage.) Is our main message to the world, "Here is something lovely that you can achieve, too, with the aid of the Church?" Or is it, "Here is what a Christian looks like: not you."
Or if we're stealth evangelists, showing the world that being Catholic is, in some ways, the most normal thing you can be -- what kind of reactions do we actually get from people? Do people even realize we're Catholic? Or if they do, do they assume, from all external appearances, that we don't actually believe any of that archaic nonsense about birth control and transubstantiation? Do we convey the message, "It's okay, you can be a Catholic and still be yourself?" Or is it more like, "Don't worry, God doesn't expect you to do anything hard?"
Remember St. Benedict: when he was young, he followed a genuine calling to live as a hermit in the wilderness. And he lived happily and painfully, contemplating God's goodness and mortifying his flesh. It was clearly his vocation . . . until God gave him a new vocation, and he had to take charge of a vast and unruly community of brothers. Following one sort of vocation prepared him to follow the next one.
Following your vocation means using your natural talents; but talents are only put to use when you stretch yourself, challenge your laziness and pride, and ask yourself with brutal honesty from time to time: what am I achieving? Does it come a little too easily? If so, it may be time to listen more closely to what we're being called to do.