Aside from a blackout in the third quarter and an impressive come-from-behind by the 49ers in the second half, one of the more memorable moments of this year’s Super Bowl was Beyoncé’s halftime show performance. Apparently Beyoncé’s pants were confiscated by Superdome security and she chose to simply perform without them. This got me thinking about our culture and the challenge of communicating the virtue of modesty in the 21st century.
I’m sure Beyoncé was under pressure to answer charges that she was lip-synching during the President’s inauguration, but is a faux nightgown the best way to draw attention to one's singing abilities? I doubt it, since several websites referred to Beyoncé’s performance with the adjective “sizzling.” Certainly this is amusing evidence our culture views women as objects; like pieces of meat and not as persons who are intrinsically valuable. I mean, what else besides meat and women does our culture ever describe as “sizzling?”
Help Wanted: An Apologetic for Modesty
The performance also made me feel the need for Catholics to develop and promote an apologetic for modesty in a culture that shrugs its collective shoulders at the charge of immodesty and says, “What’s the big deal?”
One danger is that if we simply criticize immodesty without providing compelling reasons to be modest, people will just assume we are prudes who have a strange, irrational fear of the human body. The other danger is arguing that immodesty is wrong only because it has negative side effects for women, such as loss of self-esteem or a tendency to attract men of less than stellar character.
I think some defenders of modesty are afraid to couch their arguments in religious terms for fear that the virtue of modesty will be seen only as a strange religious requirement to appease an arbitrary God. After all, what’s wrong with showing people the human body?
This attiude is shared by nudists in San Francisco who are protesting the city’s new nudity ban. They make the argument that we were all born nude, so why not allow nudity to continue into adulthood? Well, we’ve also been defecating into our clothes since we were born, but I don’t think that makes public defecation something that should be celebrated.
For those of you who think I may be overreacting to behaviors that are isolated in San Francisco, remember that homosexuality was once something that you find "only in San Francisco.”
I think our defense of modesty should be rooted in valuing the human person as a whole being and a refusal to either objectify people or to let them objectify themselves. We will have to talk about how the human body is not a neutral visual object like a desk but instead causes other people to have deep hormonal and chemical reactions upon seeing it without clothes.
I know chastity speakers like Christopher West and Jason Evert have been working on this issue for many years. I hope that their articulation of principles found in works like Pope John Paul II’s Love and Responsibility can help our culture to have a balanced view of the human body that is neither lascivious nor legalistic.
One of my favorite quotes on the subject is attributed to John Paul II (though I haven’t found the original source), who said, “The problem with pornography is not that it shows too much of a person but that it shows too little.” The same can be said about immodesty which turns a person into a body whose purpose is to arouse, as opposed to a unique and unrepeatable person whose purpose is to be loved.
We really need this apologetic, because even some Catholics just don’t get it. I once visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem where you are allowed about ten seconds inside the shrine built over Jesus’ tomb. As our group prepared to enter, the Eastern Orthodox priest guarding the tomb was yelling at a woman in our group in a foreign language while holding a piece of fabric.
“What’s his problem?” she asked.
I told her, “He wants you to wear the wrap because your skirt is too short.” In case you think the man was overreacting, I think it’s fair to say that when you visit Jesus’ tomb your hemline should not be flying “thigh high.”
The priest, struggling to find the words in English, finally said, “Gesu (Jesus)! Clothes!”
In learning to defend modesty, we must cultivate the attitude that the human body is not something shameful to hide but something powerful to control that is capable of helping or harming others. The human form is like a nuclear reactor that must be shielded so that it creates electricity without causing harm to anyone via its powerful emission of radioactive energy.
If you would like to learn more about discussing the virtue of modesty, I recommend this past Catholic Answers radio show with Leah Darrow.