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The Blessed Virgin’s Guide to Modesty

If you want a ruckus in Catholic cyberspace, link the words Catholic and modesty—or, better, Blessed Virgin and pants.

Simcha Fisher, a freelance writer who contributes to the National Catholic Register, galloped to Catholic blogging superstardom a few years back with a couple of hysterical blog posts on the subject of pants-wearing women (available online at her blog, “I Have to Sit Down,” hosted by patheos.com). The administrator of the Catholic Answers Forums (forums.catholic.com) says she fantasizes about banning the topic of women’s clothing because there are few things more likely to start flame wars.

Some years ago, when I worked in Catholic Answers’ customer service department, the apostolate published an outreach magazine called Be. It ran a story about 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, Théresè of Lisieux. The cover photo showed Lipinski performing that routine. Although her costume was modest by competitive figure-skating standards, subscribers displeased with the image inundated customer service with returned copies. One woman was so upset that she inked in sleeves and leggings on Lipinski.

Then there are the Catholic women who appear at events on matters of the 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 (bare shoulders!) with a modest neckline to a formal evening event. One speaker told me how wearing an otherwise modest skirt that fell below the knee turned into an embarrassing moment for her when the event photographer apparently didn’t realize that you do not aim your camera up at speakers in skirts seated above you on a stage.

The head-covering-at-Mass kerfuffle

I’ve had some experience myself with the controversies over women’s clothing choices, in my case dealing with head coverings worn to Mass (a subset of the Catholic women’s modesty debate).

The first time I wore a head covering to Mass was soon after my conversion in 1996. A friend invited me to a diocesan-approved Tridentine Mass. As a by-the-by, she told me that women usually wore head coverings of some sort to the Mass, that she had a spare chapel veil if I wanted to wear one, but that it was no big deal if I did not. Many women in the congregation wore chapel veils and other head coverings, but no one insisted on it.

If there was a general custom, I was willing to honor it. I borrowed the chapel veil. It did not make me feel any different to wear it, but I was not aware at the time that promoters of wearing a veil claim it is supposed to promote a “humble hiddenness.” For me, it just seemed like a nice thing to do, both for the personal novelty and out of respect for the congregation I was visiting.

Some years later I became an apologist and learned that one of the dramas of ecclesial life in conservative Catholic circles is whether or not women should “veil.” Some promoters are mild and gracious, citing a personal “call” and a desire for humble hiddenness while refraining from claiming the practice is mandatory. Some promoters are quite insistent that women need to do so, citing Scripture and Church Fathers. Unfortunately for them, their arguments go against current canon law and normative practice.

Marian modesty

Since Catholics tend to rely on finding an authority to cite when seeking to convince other Catholics of Catholic teaching, an authority on women’s modesty has to be found. In this ruckus, the person usually relied upon to dictate modesty for Catholic women is the Blessed Virgin Mary, whose example is cited for both clothing choices and head coverings in church.

Do a Google search on “Marian modesty” and, as of this writing, you will get more than ten million results in which people purport to speak for the Blessed Virgin on the subject. One of the top hits is a page that modestly styles itself “The Marylike Standards for Modesty in Dress (as set down by the Vatican)” (salvemariaregina.info/Modesty.html). 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 (see sidebar) 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 on modest pants for women, because, according to these standards, “the Blessed Virgin Mary will never approve of these pagan styles which are so contrary to Christian tradition on modesty” (emphasis in original).

The problem is that none of this is authoritative. Even if one of the cardinal vicars in the time of Pope Pius XI had something to say on this issue, no one seems able to produce the original document or identify which vicar. We have no idea how authoritative such a statement made by him might be. On the face of it, it has no more authority than then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s complaints against rock music, given as personal opinion in 1985 when he was prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Whatever the level of authority the words may have had at the time, there is certainly no evidence that they are binding today as ecclesial law upon Catholic consciences.

How Mary is dressed in apparitions

We shouldn’t be hasty, though, to dismiss the Blessed Virgin and what she might actually have to say about modesty. Where might we find guidance from her on the matter? Let’s look at the possibilities, in ascending order from least to most authoritative. We could start with approved apparitions.

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.” She is not 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, super-low-riding jeans.

In an eighteenth-century apparition at La Vang in Vietnam, our Lady appeared to Christians who were 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. If you look closely at popular images of Our Lady of La Vang, you can see culturally correct “pagan” pant legs peeping out from beneath her long robe.

If Our Lady of La Vang is too exotic for you, let’s look at an apparition closer to home: Our Lady of Good Help, which has been approved by the ordinary of the diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin, where 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. But in this 1859 American apparition—in which our Lady appeared to Adele Brise, a young Belgian immigrant, to request that she teach local children their catechism and how to approach the sacraments—we see our Lady without a veil. Adele described our Lady as having “long, golden, wavy hair [that] fell loosely around her shoulders” (shrineofourladyofgoodhelp.com).

Of course, our Lady appeared to Adele in the forest, not in a church, but surely the Mother of God could be expected to know that the image of her appearance would find its way into church statuary. And let’s not forget that one of Our Lady of Good Help’s requests was that Adele teach children how to approach the sacraments, which ordinarily are celebrated in a church.

Scripture and the Catechism

Our Lady doesn’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 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

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).

It seems that those advocating for using the Blessed Mother as a role model for modesty conflate mimicry and imitation. 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. 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 of skin from neck to toe, denounced as “immodest” for not following some perceived Marian code of dress.

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 virtue. 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.

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