Jim Graves is a Catholic writer and editor living in Newport Beach, California. He previously served as Managing Editor for the Diocese of Orange Bulletin, the official newspaper of the Diocese of Orange, California. His work has appeared in the National Catholic Register, Our Sunday Visitor, Cal Catholic Daily and Catholic World Report.
Fr. Kevin Cusick requested recently via Twitter that women dress modestly for church (“please help the priest to protect the purity of men at holy Mass by choosing to dress modestly”) and was attacked viciously online by critics. I asked some Catholics leaders who have addressed the topic publicly to share their thoughts about modesty in dress.
Leah Darrow is a former New York City model and contestant on America’s Next Top Model turned Catholic speaker. She believes, “Modesty is more than just the length of a hemline. It’s about our conversations, how we treat people, and how we love others. Modesty protects our purity and the mystery of a person. In our society, it gets a bad rap. It’s actually quite attractive.”
Referencing the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2522-2523), she continued, “Modesty is decency. It inspires one’s choice of clothing. It keeps silence or reserve where there is evident risk of unhealthy curiosity. It is discreet.”
“There is modesty of feelings as well as of the body. It protests, for example, against the voyeuristic explorations of the human body in certain advertisements, or against the solicitations of certain media that go too far in the exhibition of intimate things. Modesty inspires a way of life which makes it possible to resist the allurements of fashion and the pressures of prevailing ideologies.”
Chris Stefanick has found that discussions of chastity and modesty are a particularly effective way of teaching the Gospel: “It provides me with an opportunity to discuss the longings we all have, and how we often try to fill them in the wrong ways.”
Even when addressing audiences in a secular venue, he has ample statistics to demonstrate that chastity and the modest lifestyle that goes with it leads to better health, happier marriages, greater financial success and more spiritual fulfillment. He said, “Despite the fact that I’m speaking against the culture, the reaction I get to my talks has been amazing. People don’t realize the positives of purity.”
Benedictine Father Gregory Pilcher, previously served as pastor of Holy Redeemer Church in El Dorado, Arkansas. When he was at the parish, the parish had dress code that allowed parishioners to wear casual clothes, provided they are “clean, neat and modest.” [his emphasis] He posted the policy on the parish website, in the parish bulletin and announced it from the pulpit.
He recalled one family in particular that refused to comply. Father was celebrating Mass one day and noticed a young woman in the congregation wearing a skimpy dress. He spoke to her afterward, requesting she wear clothes that “left more to the imagination.” She objected, saying she had worn the dress to other parishes without incident and that it was her right to dress as she wished. She returned with her parents, who joined in her protest.
In response, Father said, “I asked them if it would be okay if I wore only a bathing suit with the right liturgical colors and thongs to celebrate Mass. But my argument didn’t work; they insisted what I wore wouldn’t matter either.”
The family continued to attend Mass with the daughter wearing whatever she pleased, still annoyed that Father brought up the subject. They’d come to the 10 a.m. Mass every Sunday, “sitting there glaring at me.”
But despite the grief the one family caused, most of the 300 families in the community were supportive. In fact, he recalled, some of the parishioners were more outspoken and aggressive about the policy than he was.
Fr. Anthony Stubeda, pastor of Holy Family Church in Silver Lake, Minnesota, has requested church modesty from his small parish via a parish bulletin insert entitled, “Modest and Appropriate Dress for Mass and Other Church Related Activities.” Among other things, it declares that “dressing up for Mass is not out-of-date” and asks parents to monitor the dress of their children. It concludes, “Blame Adam and Eve! Ever since their fall, nakedness has been a spiritual issue. We are not living in Paradise where sin and temptation do not exist and nothing can harm us and others; we are living in a world where temptations and sin are a reality.”
Recognizing it can be a sensitive subject, Fr. Stubeda has used humor when addressing it. He said, “When the issue arises, I tell our parishioners, we like seeing you in church — just not so much of you.”
But the impetus for requesting modest dress often does not come from him, he noted, but from the parishioners themselves, particularly parents. He said, “They get concerned that people wear clothes to church that are too informal and too revealing. They ask me to say something, and I do.”
He continued, “Our society has changed in regards to its attitudes on dressing up. That said, it’s not going to hurt anyone to wear a pair of long pants for the time it takes to go to Mass. I tell people, ‘We want you here; we just want you to be respectful and dress appropriately.’”