Susanna Spencer has a masters in theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is a writer and the theological editor for Blessed is She, and writes on her own blog Living With Lady Philosophy. She is a homeschooling mother of four and lives with her family in St. Paul, Minnesota.
I received an email from a good friend a couple of weeks after the publication of my essay on three Doctors of the Church and their explanations of modesty. He raised a number of good points, which lead me to desire to explain a little more about my understanding of the virtue of modesty in dress.
First, I will sum up the views of St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Francis de Sales and St. Alphonsus Liguori from the previous essay, though I recommend to get the full picture to head over and read it. When considering whether an act is moral one must evaluate the act itself, the circumstances in which it is performed, and the person’s intention in performing the act. Dressing to fit with one’s state in life, the activity one is participating in, the fashions of one’s society, and with a pure intention are all essential aspects of being modest. Simplicity and cleanliness in dress are also important parts of virtuous dress since they are part of humility, temperance and respect for others.
I ended my essay explaining that our society’s fashions made certain forms of dress morally acceptable, which have not always been understood to be so. Modest dress changes according to fashion. For example, St. Alphonsus Liguori wrote about a particular fashion of his time where women “uncovered their breasts.” Since it was an already established fashion, he said that if a woman dressed that way without any impure intention, without forming lust within herself or intending to lead others to lust after her, then it was morally permissible. He also explained that while it was permissible for her to dress revealingly with pure intentions, the person who invented the trend of uncovering breasts was culpable for instituting a fashion that could lead people into sin—though this too changes with the creators intentions.
Similarly, in our society, there are many fashions that might be more revealing than what was once considered morally acceptable. For example, because it has become normative, one cannot look at a woman in a bikini and presume that she is acting immodestly. She may have no lustful intentions whatsoever. She is simply going for a swim or working on her tan wearing what is fashionable.
That being said, there is a difference between what is permissible, and therefore not sinful, and what is best for a person truly desiring to grow in virtue. Dietrich von Hildebrand, a 20th-century Catholic philosopher, talks about the morally conscious person in his essay “Responsibility” in the book The Art of Living. The morally conscious person is aware of his or her responsibility to the world around him or her. This person sees the beauty and value of those he or she encounters and of all of creation. When a person is awakened to this responsibility of responding to all with seriousness and gravity, not in a scrupulous manner, but in confidence certain of one’s call, while always recognizing that there is a higher being.
Hildebrand compares this morally conscious person to those who are heedless and thoughtless, not caring for anyone but themselves nor caring about the demands of goodness and beauty. There is also the person who acts out of a moral pride, only concerned with one’s own insight, not willing to accept correction or instruction from others. However, there is also the morally unconscious person, who is unaware of his or her responsibility, sees beauty and goodness in things, such as fitting in with society, but has not taken the time to examine whether or not these things are good for him or her individually. This person floats through life influenced by some good things but never really committing to seeking a morally conscious life of virtue.
If we are to strive to be the morally conscious person, then we are awakened to the values and disvalues of the world around us. We can look at certain fashions in dress of our society and recognize that while they might be permissible for us to wear, they do not help us grow in virtue. If I want to live out the virtue of chastity and encourage it in others, there are certain fashions that could hinder this growth in myself. However, I might be at a point in my growth in virtue that these fashions do not distract me from chastity—or God may have given me a special grace to be free from lustful feelings. For this reason, it is better never to presume that someone is intending to lead others into lust with his or her clothing—we do not have the ability or authority to judge someone’s heart.
At this point I think it would be helpful to define what exactly lust is. St. Thomas Aquinas explains that “the sin of lust consists in seeking venereal pleasure not in accordance with right reason” (Summa Theologiae, II-II, Q. 154, Art. 1). The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines it similarly saying, “Lust is disordered desire for or inordinate enjoyment of sexual pleasure” (§2351). The sin of lust, as Christ explains it in the Bible first occurs in the heart, when one desires sexual pleasure excessively and in a way that is outside of the marital act (see Matthew 5:28). Seeing a person dressed attractively, noticing that this is the case, and appreciating this person’s beauty is not an act of lust. Having feelings of attraction without any desire to engage in sexual acts is not lust. Desiring to dress in a way that accentuates one’s beauty does not mean the person is intending to lead others into lust nor being motivated by lust. This can be done with pure, innocent intentions that expect respect from those one encounters.
A Christian seeking to live a morally conscious life and grow in virtue can dress in accord with the fashions of the day and still dress to protect one’s own virtue and that of others. If we want to rise about the level of doing what is simply permissible and strive toward what is best, that which will lead us to sanctity, we have to be deliberate and conscientious about all of our choices and acts. The way we dress is part of that. “Be extremely prompt in turning away from all that leads and lures to impurity, for this evil works insensibly, and by small beginnings progresses to great mischief,” St. Francis de Sales advises (Introduction to the Devout Life, III.8).
The way we dress sends a message to other people, and therefore in order to be truly modest, we need to be honest in what we wear. As Christians we are encouraged to dress simply and nicely, without excess. This may mean we have to navigate the extremes of fashion in our society, and we do have an advantage in our society that there are wide varieties of clothing options available to us. As a woman, I have appreciated the way that designers cater to body type. I am always able to find clothing that covers all the places I would like covered and still dress neatly and in a way that compliments my body. I shop for and purchase all of the clothing for my family, and have been able to find without too much trouble tasteful, stylish, and appropriate clothing for my husband, daughters, and sons.
Modesty and preserving purity are important parts of living virtuously. When we are truly virtuous, we will find them freeing—something we do not become anxious over, but something we live out without fear or scrupulosity. My last thought is that when it comes to modesty in dress, none of us know the intention of the wearer of items of clothing. The best thing we can do for ourselves and others is to focus on our own purity of heart, never knowingly tempt others, and stop raising our eyebrows at the way other people dress.