(Well, incomplete, anyway.)
“Purity requires modesty, an integral part of temperance. Modesty protects the intimate center of the person. It means refusing to unveil what should remain hidden. It is ordered to chastity to whose sensitivity it bears witness. It guides how one looks at others and behaves toward them in conformity with the dignity of persons and their solidarity.” (CCC §2521).
I promised a friend that I would write an article about modesty. She was offended by the seeming preponderance of modesty talks that are directed toward women that tell them that “men are visual creatures and so women must cover up to prevent their brothers from sinning.” This message bothers her (and should bother you, too) because this limited understanding of modesty can lead us to some worrying conclusions: a) that men can’t control their lusting, so women have to eliminate the possibility through how they dress; b) that modesty is primarily about dress; and c) following from a and b, that modesty is specifically a women’s issue.
When the Catechism of the Catholic Church discusses modesty (in paragraphs 2521 to 2524), clothing is mentioned just once, “It inspires one’s choice of clothing (§2522), and women are never singled out. While our attire is certainly one aspect of modesty, the CCC makes it clear that modesty as a virtue encompasses the entire person, and, indeed, his or her relationships with others. Modesty is a virtue of protection, in that it defends both the modest person’s purity, and the purity of those with whom we interact. While on the one hand, it is degrading to suggest that men (or all people for that matter) are slaves to our baser lusts, the reality of The Fall is that our lusts do often war against our desire to do what is right (cf. Romans 7). There is a sense in which modesty (as with the Cardinal Virtue of Temperance, of which modesty is a daughter virtue) is about reigning in our passions and strengthening our wills against them.
Ultimately, though, modesty isn’t about wearing too much or too little (though again, this is certainly part of it). It’s about the dignity of the person, of our own dignity, and of the dignity of others as subjects, rather than objects. If humility can be defined as not thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought, modesty could conversely be defined as not thinking more lowly of ourselves and others than we ought. Made in the very image of our Creator, we must never use others for our gain, nor should we present ourselves in such a way that lowers our own dignity and projects a message that others can or should desire to use us. This projection of ourselves, our “image”, so to speak, includes our comportment, our actions, our speech, and, yes, our wardrobe. Being civil with others, patient with their faults, polite and well mannered, discreet with regard to secrets and confidences, refusing to gossip, and dressing appropriately are all dimensions of what it means to be modest. They are all aspects of “refusing to unveil what should remain hidden,” as the Catechism puts it (§2521).
There’s a scene in one of the later episodes of Firefly where Kaylee, the ship’s mechanic, is trying to figure out why Simon, the rich doctor-turned-fugitive, still speaks and behaves so well-mannered. She insists that such formal manners “don’t mean nothin’ out here in the black” of space. Simon objects, saying that they do, in fact, mean more out in the lawless places, and tells her that his politeness, his manners, his “proper” behaviour, is the only way he has of showing her how much he really likes her. Simon, you see, understands what modesty means. In our world of increasing decadence, the virtue of modesty is the clearest sign that we have of our love and respect for others.
Clearly, modesty isn’t “just a women’s issue”. In fact, for men, it used to be referred to as “chivalry”. Far from letting it die, it’s time for a new generation of Ladies and Gentlemen in the truest sense of those terms, to rise up and present themselves in such a way that men and women everywhere will be reminded of their dignity as human beings, created in God’s image, and not simply as carnal brutes with impulse-control problems.
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