The Blessed Virgin's Guide to Catholic Modesty

February 19, 2013 | 1 comment

You want to see a ruckus in Catholic cyberspace? All you have to do is link together the words Catholic and modesty or, better, Blessed Virgin and pants. Simcha Fisher, who writes for the National Catholic Register, rode on the skirt-tails of "Pants!" to Catholic blogging superstardom a few years back with a couple of hysterical posts on the subject (here and here). The administrator at the Catholic Answers Forums tells me that she sometimes fantasizes about banning the subject of women's clothing as a topic of conversation on the forums because there are few topics more likely to start flame wars.

Some years ago, Catholic Answers published a free outreach magazine named Be. I was in the customer service department at the time, and I well remember when the cover story was on Tara Lipinski, the American Olympic figure skating champion whose Catholic Faith was so important to her that she had a skating routine dedicated to her favorite saint, Therese of Lisieux. The cover image was of Lipinski performing that routine. Returned copies from subscribers displeased with the image poured into customer service, even though Lipinski's costume was quite modest by competitive figure-skating standards. One woman was so upset with the image that she inked in sleeves and leggings on Lipinski's arms and legs.

Then there are the Catholic women who appear at Catholic events on matters of faith. Some report having been chastised for wearing business attire that included slacks, or for wearing makeup (not necessarily for wearing too much makeup, but for wearing any makeup), or for wearing a sleeveless dress with a modest neckline to a formal evening event (bare shoulders being considered taboo). One speaker told me how wearing an otherwise modest skirt that fell past the knee turned into an embarrassing moment for her when the photographer for the event apparently did not know his trade well enough to realize that you do not aim your camera up at speakers seated above you on a stage.

And who is the authority who is pressed into service to dictate modesty for Catholic women? The Blessed Virgin Mary. Google "Marian modesty" and you will get nearly ten million results, in which people purport to speak for the Blessed Virgin on what Catholic women these days should wear. The most well-known page on the subject modestly styles itself "The Marylike Standards for Modesty in Dress (as set down by the Vatican)." In this Guide to Modesty, our Blessed Mother, previously unknown to be a fashionista, speaks through an anonymous "cardinal vicar" during the reign of Pope Pius XI to declare among other things:

  • "Marylike dresses have sleeves extending to the wrists; and skirts reaching the ankles."
  • "Marylike dresses require full and loose coverage for the bodice, chest, shoulders, and back; the cut-out about the neck must not exceed 'two fingers breadth under the pit of the throat' and a similar breadth around the back of the neck."
  • "Marylike dresses also do not admit as modest coverage transparent fabrics—laces, nets, organdy, nylons, etc.—unless sufficient backing is added. Fabrics such as laces, nets, organdy may be moderately used as trimmings only."

Don't bother looking for guidelines for modest pants for women, because "the Blessed Virgin Mary will never approve of these pagan styles which are so contrary to Christian tradition on modesty."

But what might the real Blessed Virgin—as distinguished from the straw woman some Catholics have created in their own image—have to say about modesty? At Fatima, an apparition approved by the Church, our Lady is reported to have said, "Certain fashions will be introduced that will offend our Lord very much." Curiously, she is not very specific. She does not even distinguish between men's and women's fashions. Going on this dictum alone, she might have in mind men's saggy jeans and not be commenting upon women's fashions at all.

Perhaps we should look instead to images of our Lady:

Here she is at La Vang, in Vietnam. In this 18th-century apparition, our Lady appeared to Christians being persecuted by the local government. She comforted them and told them to boil nearby leaves to heal those among them who were ill. Our Lady of La Vang has received favorable recognition from the local bishops and from two popes, and there are parishes named in her honor throughout the Far East. Note the culturally correct "pagan" pant legs peeping out from beneath our Lady's long robe.

If Our Lady of La Vang is too exotic for you, let's look at an apparition closer to home, this one having received approval from the local ordinary of the diocese in which the apparition occurred.

The cyberspace guardians of Catholic women's modesty sometimes appear to believe that our Lady would not dream of setting foot outside the heavens without her customary veil. Therefore Catholic women must go forth and do likewise, especially in church. But here, in the apparition known as Our Lady of Good Help, in which our Lady appeared to a young Belgian immigrant to the United States to request that the seer teach local children their catechism and how to approach the sacraments, we see our Lady without her customary veil. In the apparition, the seer Adele Brise described our Lady as having "long, golden, wavy hair [that] fell loosely around her shoulders." Of course, our Lady appeared to Adele in a Wisconsin forest, not a church, but surely the Mother of God could be expected to have known that the image of her appearance would find its way into church statuary.

Our Lady didn't speak much in Scripture. One of the most significant of her few recorded statements is to the servants at the wedding at Cana, regarding her Son: "Do whatever he tells you" (John 2:5). In this, our Lady always refers us to her Son's Church, which is his mystical body on Earth.  That Church has this to say about modesty:

The forms taken by modesty vary from one culture to another. Everywhere, however, modesty exists as an intuition of the spiritual dignity proper to man. It is born with the awakening consciousness of being a subject. Teaching modesty to children and adolescents means awakening in them respect for the human person (CCC 2524).

More importantly, modesty is a virtue that encompasses much more than clothing choices:

Modesty protects the mystery of persons and their love. It encourages patience and moderation in loving relationships; it requires that the conditions for the definitive giving and commitment of man and woman to one another be fulfilled. 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 (CCC 2522).

When it comes to Catholic modesty, especially when the Blessed Mother is pulled forward for her opinion and example, there often is a conflation of two different concepts: imitation and mimicry. Imitation is using someone or something as a model for one's own actions; mimicry is to attempt to create an external, superficial resemblance to something or someone else.

Too often in discussions of modesty, it seems that those advocating for using the Blessed Mother as a role model confuse mimicry with imitation. Perhaps that is why you sometimes hear of Catholic women who don't cover their heads in church or elsewhere, or who choose to wear pants, or who do not cover every square inch from neck to toes, denounced as "immodest" for not following some perceived "Marian code of dress for Catholic women."

We are not called to be mimics of the Blessed Mother, dressing as would be appropriate for a first-century Palestinian peasant woman (e.g., long veils, skirts to the floor, sandals). We are called to imitate the Blessed Mother in her virtues. In terms of modesty, that might mean dressing in a way that is appropriate to one's culture and circumstances, not drawing undue attention to oneself either in one's dress or undress, remaining circumspect about one's own choices, and not denouncing the reasonable choices of others.

Michelle Arnold is a staff apologist at Catholic Answers.
True Devotion To Mary
Considered by many to be the greatest single book of Marian spirituality ever written, True Devotion to Mary, is St Louis de Montfort's classic statement on the spiritual way to Jesus Christ though the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Comments by Members

#1  Carl Grillo - Columbia, SC, South Carolina

First of all, the so-called “Marylike Standards on Modesty in Dress,” were NOT issued by the Cardinal Vicar of Pope Pius XI. They were compiled by a Roman Catholic priest in the 1950s by the name of Father Bernard Kunkel as general guidelines to promote modesty among Catholic women.

There was an Instruction, issued by the Sacred Congregation for the Council [named after the Council of Trent by Pope Saint Pius V], on the problem of modesty, both inside and outside of Church, in accordance with the 1917 Code of Canon Law; which required Bishops to report to the Holy See on the state of modesty in dress in their Dioceses. The Instruction was issued as a result of these Diocesan reports to the Holy See.

The Instruction recalled, inter alia, that: “…a dress cannot be called decent, which is cut deeper than two fingers’ depth beneath the pit of the throat; and [the skirt of] which scarcely reaches a bit beyond the knees.”

This “specificity” sometimes evokes mockery and sarcasm on the part of some; this type of reaction can only come from the evil spirit of impurity which attempts to suffocate the virtue of chastity by means of buffoonery.

The point of the Instruction is that skirts must not be too short, and necklines must not be too plunging.

The photo of Tara Lipinsky, which appeared on the inside cover of "Be" magazine some years ago, was offensive to Catholic piety and morals: “…in sports and gymnastics, ballet and dance; there exists a certain nudism which is neither necessary nor appropriate.” [Pope Pius XII]

See also, Pius XI, Encyclical, "Divini illius Magistri," Dec. 31, 1929, where there is much against a Naturalism which takes no account of the consequences of the Fall "transmitted by the first parents to all their posterity."

And especially with regard to girls, the Pontiff stated:
"...but also in gymnastic games and exercises in which special care should be taken for Christian modesty, since it would be highly indecent to show or display themselves to the eyes of all" (Denz 2215); Pius XII, "To Teachers from the Order of Discalced Carmelites" (AAS, 33 [1951], 736): "The ancient Greeks and Romans, to be able to refer to things pertaining to chastity, used a particular word; "aidoia," things to be in awe of, they called things which must be treated reverently."

October 20, 2013 at 8:40 am PST

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