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The Genesis of Modesty

IMPRIMATUR: Bishop Cornelius K. arap Korir, Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Eldoret, Kenya.  Granted on the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lady, September 8, 2016.

By Hugh Owen

Nowadays, in Byzantine Catholic Churches, as well as in the other Churches of the Catholic Church, many ancient traditions and customs have been called into question, and many of the faithful have been led to believe that most of the "old ways" of doing things are "old hat," and no longer apply in our day and age.  One of the "old ways" of doing things that is widely regarded as "old hat" is the "old way" of dressing--both the old standards for dress in general, and in particular the standards of dress for divine worship.  In this article we will consider whether the traditional Catholic standards of "modesty" are "old hat" or still valid-subject to change according to fashion, or divinely ordained and timeless.

Before addressing the subject of modesty, it will be important to distinguish between customs, or "old ways" of doing things, that were wrong according to the Gospel-and which therefore needed to be changed-and "old ways" of doing things that were required by the Gospel and which must be maintained.  One "old way" of doing things that was not according to the Gospel was the long-standing practice of segregation in Catholic churches in many parts of the United States.  Two generations ago, in many states of the union, Catholic churches were completely segregated according to color.  It would not take much reading of the New Testament or of the Church Fathers to know that this practice contradicts the teaching of Our Lord Jesus Christ as it was understood in the Church from the beginning.  In the letter of St. James, the Apostle strongly condemns any kind of discrimination in the Church based on wealth or social status, which certainly included racial discrimination.  Thus, the abandonment of segregation should be celebrated by all Catholic Christians as a victory for the Gospel.

Unfortunately, the old custom of segregation according to race is (rightly) so repulsive to people today that many Byzantine Catholics and members of other Churches within the Catholic Church are tempted to regard most of the customs that were practiced at the same time as equally dispensable.  But this is illogical-and extremely dangerous.  It is illogical because the mere fact that two customs prevailed in the same Catholic community at the same time (and that one of them was evil) does not prove that the second custom was also evil and dispensable.  It is also dangerous because if the second custom accorded with the teaching of the Gospel as it has been handed down from the Apostles, the rejection of that custom will do great harm to the souls of the faithful.  In short, one must learn to ask the vital question: "Is this or that custom in accord with the Gospel as it has been understood in the Church from the beginning?"  If the answer is "Yes," that custom must be defended.  If the answer is "No," it can be changed for good reason-as long as the new practice is also in accord with the Gospel as it has been handed down from the Apostles.

One final question must be answered before the subject of modesty can be properly addressed.  "Is it possible for a bad custom to become accepted in a Catholic community for an extended period of time, and, if so, how can one know that it is wrong and abolish it?"  On reflection, it will be easy to see that this question has already been answered.  The custom of segregation by race prevailed in many parts of the United States for many decades with the approval of most pastors and lay faithful.  But this practice contradicted the Gospel as it had been understood in the Church from the beginning.  Therefore, a minority of Catholics armed with the Truth and inspired by the grace of God could, and did, abolish that evil custom.  With this necessary leg-work behind us, we can move on to think about modesty.

Modesty Safeguards Chastity

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

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 . . . Modesty is decency.  It inspires one's choice of clothing.  It keeps silence or reserve where there is evident risk of unhealthy curiosity (Catechism of Catholic Church, 2521-2522).

The teaching of the Catechism reminds us that modesty safeguards chastity, and a survey of the Holy Scriptures on modesty confirms this truth.  The first mention of clothing in the entire Bible occurs in the book of Genesis after the Fall of Adam.  Before the Fall, Adam and Eve were clothed in the glory of God.  This is why the Byzantine Vesper Verses for the Feast of the Transfiguration liken the glory of Jesus on Mt. Tabor to the original glory of Adam:

Through your transfiguration, You returned Adam's nature to its original splendor, restoring its very elements to the glory and brilliance of your divinity.  Wherefore we cry out to you, the Creator of All, "Glory be to you."

According to St. John Chrysostom, when Adam and Eve sinned against God in Paradise, they lost the grace of God that had illuminated them with glory, and became aware of their nakedness.

And the eyes of them both were opened: and when they perceived themselves to be naked, they sewed together fig leaves, and made themselves aprons (Genesis 3:7)

Having lost the glory of God in which they had been created, Adam and Eve sought to clothe their naked bodies with fig leaves.  But God was not satisfied with these "aprons," and provided Adam and Eve with full-length garments made of animal skins, skins which required the sacrificial death of animals-a foreshadowing of the future sacrificial death of Our Lord Jesus Christ.  Thus, right at the beginning of human history, God clothed the first man and woman in a way that safeguarded their chastity.  This is reflected in the iconography of the Byzantine tradition which always portrays Adam and Eve after the exile from Paradise clothed in garments that covered them from their shoulders to their knees, and, in Eve's case, from her shoulders to below her knees.  This is true of Byzantine iconography from the first millennium until today, from Russia to Eastern Europe, and throughout the Byzantine world.

In man's original state, clothed in the light of glory, Adam and Eve's bodies and souls existed in perfect harmony with the Divine Will.  But after the Fall, their bodies and souls grew disordered, and the passions which were meant to serve the soul became rebellious.  Thus, God had to teach man to discipline his mind and his body to maintain right order within himself so that he could live in God's friendship.  The Ten Commandments required God's people to maintain a high standard of chastity and the Mosaic Law mandated strict punishments for those who violated the sanctity of marriage through fornication, adultery, or sexual perversion.

Under the Old Covenant, women had rights that they did not enjoy in most other societies.  For Hebrew women, the modest clothing of a woman's body was not only a safeguard against lust and un-chastity but a sign of her dignity.  When the prophet Isaiah prophesied against Babylon, he personified her as a woman and predicted that she would fall from her position of power and prestige into abject slavery. In the ancient world, only slaves and prostitutes bared their legs or uncovered their thighs.  Knowing this, one can appreciate the horror of Isaiah's warning to Babylon:

O daughter of the Chaldeans . . . thou shalt no more be called tender and delicate. Take the millstones, and grind meal: uncover thy locks, make bare the leg, uncover the thigh, pass over the rivers. Thy nakedness shall be uncovered, yea, thy shame shall be seen (Isaiah 47:1-3).

No woman of Israel would deliberately expose her legs or her thighs to public view.  Immodesty of that sort was only forced upon slaves and prostitutes. Thus, modest dress gave witness to the unique dignity of women in Hebrew society and distinguished them from Gentile women who were often treated like chattel.

The First Bible Dress Code

According to the Holy Scriptures, dress has another important function besides safeguarding chastity: it safeguards the distinct and complementary roles of men and women in the family and in society.  The first "dress code" in the Bible can be found in the book of Deuteronomy.  There, Moses warns the people that it is an "abomination" for a man to wear women's apparel or for a woman to wear man's apparel.  An "abomination," in the Bible is not just a sin.  It is something deeply offensive to God. The offensiveness of men wearing women's clothes or vice versa flows from the fact that God created Adam and Eve as man and woman from the beginning, equal in dignity but with distinct and complementary roles.  Our Lord Jesus Christ, the "last Adam," came to earth through the "New Eve," the Holy Theotokos, but even though she is "higher than the Cherubim and more glorious than the Seraphim," the sinless Virgin Mary respected the headship of her husband, St. Joseph.  Three times the Lord directed the Holy Family to move quickly to escape mortal danger, and each time the direction was given to St. Joseph and obeyed unquestioningly by the Blessed Virgin.  In this way, Our Lord showed that the ideal Christian family is not one of unisex equality, but one in which husband and wife, equal in dignity, carry out their God-given, distinct but complementary roles within the family.  Just as Eve was created from Adam's side to be her husband's help-mate and the heart of her home, so Adam was created to be the spiritual leader of his wife and children and the head of his household.  This was the ideal fully realized in the Holy Family of Nazareth and reflected in the distinct forms of dress adopted by the Lord Jesus, St. Joseph, and the Holy Theotokos.

Throughout the New Testament, St. Paul and the Apostles make clear that men and women who rebel against God's plan for the sexes reap nothing but misery.  In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul writes of people who refuse to recognize God as Creator and to thank Him properly, whose hearts become darkened and who reject the natural forms of sexual relationship for homosexual relations.  He writes:

For this cause God delivered them up to shameful affections. For their women have changed the natural use into that use which is against nature. And, in like manner, the men also, leaving the natural use of the women, have burned in their lusts one towards another, men with men working that which is filthy, and receiving in themselves the recompense which was due to their error.  And as they liked not to have God in their knowledge, God delivered them up to a reprobate sense, to do those things which are not convenient; being filled with all iniquity, malice, fornication, avarice, wickedness, full of envy, murder, contention, deceit, malignity, whisperers, detractors, hateful to God, contumelious, proud, haughty, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, foolish, dissolute, without affection, without fidelity, without mercy. Who, having known the justice of God, did not understand that they who do such things, are worthy of death; and not only they that do them, but they also that consent to them that do them (Romans 1:25-30).

St. Paul's warning obviously pertained to men as much as to women.  The fourth century North African apologist Arnobius-the teacher (according to St. Jerome) of the Church Father Lactantius-articulated the view of all of the Church Fathers that men must shun women's clothing and feminine mannerisms.  He wrote of men who:

Though in the form of men...curl their hair with curling pins, make the skin of the body smooth, and they walk with bare knees. In every other type of wantonness, they lay aside the strength of their masculinity and grow effeminate in women's habits and luxury.

Thus, from the beginning of human history, the Bible's dress code has safeguarded chastity as well as the distinct and complementary roles of man and woman.

The New Testament Teaching on Modesty

The teaching of Our Lord Jesus Christ on modesty brought the Mosaic law to fulfillment.  Whereas the Mosaic law focused on external behavior, Jesus focused on the interior disposition of his hearers. As Creator, He knew what most psychologists recognize today, that men-much more than women-are attracted by what they see.  That is why Jesus emphasized that: "whoever looks at a women to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matthew 5:28). That is also the reason why the New Testament gives more dress guidelines to women than to men.  In St. Paul's first letter to St. Timothy, Chapter Two, he writes that women ought to appear:

in decent apparel: adorning themselves with modesty and sobriety, not with plaited hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly attire.

According to some commentators, the word translated "apparel," the Greek word katastole, meant a long flowing dress that fell from the shoulders to the ankles.  Certainly, it would have been a loose-fitting garment that extended below the knees.  From the time of the Apostles, the Fathers of the Church consistently upheld the same standard of dress for Christian women.  Writing in the second century, St Clement of Alexandria wrote:

By no means are women to be allowed to uncover and exhibit any part of their bodies, lest both fall-the men by being incited to look, and the women by attracting to themselves the eyes of the men. Clement of Alexandria (circa. 195 AD), 2.246.

St. Cyprian, third-century Bishop of North Africa, wrote:

self-control and modesty do not consist only in purity of the flesh, but also in seemliness and in modesty of dress and adornment.

In our Byzantine Catholic Churches, special reverence is shown to our own Eastern Fathers, among whom St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil the Great hold a special place.  Of all the Doctors who preached on the duties of Christians in the family and in society, none holds a higher place than St. John Chrysostom, great preacher of Antioch and Patriarch of Constantinople.  St. John preached with great fervor on the importance of modesty.  According to Butler's Lives of the Saints:

He was especially indignant at the immodest dress and conduct of women and their use of purple, silks, and jewels. He observed that "their veils were not worn as modest coverings and symbols of penance, but rather they wore thin veils in ways to attract the eyes of others." St. John referred to these as, in some respects, "worse than public prostitutes: for these hide their baits at home only for the wicked: "but you", he said: "carry your snare everywhere, and spread your nets publicly in all places."

"You allege that you never invite others to sin. You did not by your tongue, but you have done it by your dress and deportment more effectively than you could by your voice. When you have made another to sin in his heart, how can you be innocent? You sharpened and drew the sword. You gave the thrust by which the soul is wounded.

"Tell me whom does the world condemn? Whom do judges punish? Those who drink the poison, or those who prepare and give the fatal draught? You mingled the execrable cup; you administered the potion of death. You are so much more criminal than poisoners, as the death which you cause is the more terrible; for you murder not the body, but the soul.

"Nor do you do this to enemies: not compelled by necessity nor provoked by any injury; but out of a foolish vanity and pride. You sport yourselves in the ruin of the souls of others, and make their spiritual death your pastime."

It will be worthwhile to carefully study these few paragraphs, which sum up St. John's views on the importance of modesty. In the first place, he condemns as "worse than prostitutes" women (but it could be men) who wear certain styles of clothing which attract attention to themselves as objects of lust.  He rejects the common excuse that these women (or men) do not "invite" others to have lustful thoughts or to act on their lustful desires, arguing that a person who dresses in a way that excites lustful thoughts when he or she could avoid doing so is guilty of the effects of his or her immodesty.  Finally, St. John exposes the root of immodest dress as pride and vanity-the desire to draw attention to oneself and away from God and other people-without regard for the spiritual harm that immodesty inflicts on other people.

But there is another aspect to Chrysostom's teaching on this subject, which flows from his exalted view of marriage.  He takes quite literally the teaching of St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians that a husband should love his wife "as his own body."  Any husband who takes this teaching to heart will lay down his life for his wife every day, doing all that he can to show her that she is precious in his sight.  But he will also express his special love for her "as his own body" by encouraging her to dress modestly, by showing that he appreciates the fact that she saves her body for him and does not share it with the whole world by dressing immodestly.  For her part, in the light of St. Chrysostom's teaching, a Christian wife delights in belonging to her husband, in knowing that she has a faithful provider and protector, a spouse who will lay down his life for her again and again.  Such a wife will want to show by the way that she acts and dresses that she belongs to her husband.

But the implications of Chrysostom's beautiful teaching on modesty extend even beyond the marriage relationship to the modesty of children and young adults.  In the light of his preaching of the Gospel, it is easy to see that young men and women should regard themselves first and foremost as "temples of the Holy Spirit," and only secondly as future spouses and parents if God calls them to that vocation.  However, in the light of Chrysostom's teaching, young men or women who discern that God is calling them to Holy Marriage have a special reason to dress modestly.  The young man dresses modestly because he knows that his body belongs in a very real way to his future spouse.  He does not want to share it with the whole world.  The young woman also dresses modestly because she knows that her body belongs in a very real way to her future husband.  When two young people marry who have lived with this attitude they know a joy that cannot be compared to any worldly enjoyment-the joy of giving and receiving the total gift of themselves!  But nothing safeguards this joy like the practice of modesty before marriage.

Is Modesty Old Hat?

If one looks at the standards of dress for men and women throughout the history of the Church, it is apparent that today's fashions clash violently with the standards of modesty that prevailed from the time of the Apostles and Church Fathers until about fifty years ago.   From the time of the Apostles until then, pants, sleeveless or low-cut dresses and short skirts for women have never been tolerated in Catholic society, much less in the house of God during divine worship.  Nor have shorts, sleeveless shirts or other casual forms of dress for men ever been tolerated in the house of God.

It is worth noting that the Holy Theotokos has appeared on earth numerous times from the first century until the present time, and always in the same modest attire, clothed in a long dress.  If the Holy Theotokos wanted to endorse the fashions of the modern world, surely she would have varied her style of dress at least once or twice in the last two thousand years.  But from one end of the world to the other, from the time of the apostles until now, the Holy Theotokos has always abided by the guidelines set down by St. Paul two thousand years ago.  Our Lord Jesus Christ has also appeared numerous times, but always in dignified attire that completely covers his upper and lower body.

Some might object that the old standards of modesty were oppressive to women (and men), as the segregation of churches according to race was oppressive to minorities.  But it is hard to see how this analogy applies. We have seen that the Biblical dress codes as upheld by the Church Fathers were designed to safeguard chastity as well as the distinctive roles of men and women in the family and in society.   If the old standards of modesty were oppressive and ill-suited to their purpose, then the abandonment of those standards should not have contributed to gender confusion or to sexual immorality.  But what do we see?  In reality, the abandonment of Biblical standards of modesty has been accompanied by a meteoric rise in the percentage of Catholics who are confused about their sexual identity, who approve of homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle, and who practice or tolerate fornication, contraception, abortion and divorce.*

Is it really possible that the abandonment of Biblical standards of modesty has played no part in the explosion of sexual confusion and immorality within the Catholic community, especially in Europe and North America?  Can Catholics violate the rules handed down from the time of the Apostles and maintained for almost two thousand years with impunity?  Isn't it time that we abandoned this destructive experiment and returned to the guidelines handed down to us by our fathers in the Faith?

What is right cannot be determined by taking a poll.  It can only be determined by consulting the Word of God as it has been understood in the Church from the beginning.  When that is done, it becomes apparent that modesty is not "old hat." It is an essential safeguard of chastity and healthy sexuality.  To embrace that safeguard gives life.  To discard it is suicidal.


*According to Gallup Poll surveys between 2006 and 2008, American Catholics are even more approving of sexual immorality than non-Catholics.  When asked if the following practices are morally acceptable, the following percentages of Catholics surveyed said "Yes": Sexual relations between unmarried man and woman? 67 per cent; Divorce? 71 percent; Homosexual relationships?  54 percent.



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