Modesty, Distraction, and Humiliation: More on the Bare Shoulder Controversy

Modesty, Distraction, and Humiliation: More on the Bare Shoulder Controversy June 9, 2019



The dust is still settling in the case of the priest embarrassing a woman at Mass which I wrote about earlier this week. The uproar was so great on Twitter that the priest who tweeted about it deleted his account and wrote a self-pitying screed for The Wanderer claiming he’d been persecuted. Everyone has an opinion and a story to tell.

By and large, people were not surprised at the story of a priest humiliating a woman in a shoulder-baring dress. In fact, they started chiming in with their own stories of humiliation at Mass. Here are a few examples I saw posted publicly:

“An elderly parishioner took offence at my beautiful but modest sleeveless silk dress one very hot summers day. She told me I shouldn’t come to church on my night clothes.”

“This happened once when I was a kid. Father going blithely about, mumbling something we all hoped was Latin with his back to us. Turned around to say”Dominus vobis -MRS. ( whoever it was), I hope you don’t plan on coming up for Communion like that.” She left, and I don’t know if she ever came back.”

“This happened to me at my son’s First Communion! I have never forgotten how that priest stole the whole day from me. The way he spoke to me in front of my kids and of course all the other parents. For a dress cut high on the shoulder!”

I myself have been embarrassed during the liturgy a few times, by a priest and by members of the congregation; I’ve mentioned this before. I’ve seen it happen to other people as well– once a priest humiliated a mother because her baby babbled softly during his homily. I watched her do the Walk of Shame to the back of the church, her face rigid to keep from crying.

Apparently, humiliating and embarrassing other people is business as usual for some at Mass. Based on my completely unscientific survey of people who read and comment on my blog, as well as my own experience, the main offender for humiliating people at Mass is the priest (with sour old church ladies taking second place). The bully can victimize anyone, but overwhelmingly often the target of the bullying is female. The main excuse for the bullying is what the woman was wearing, though anything the woman was doing is fair game as well.  People think this is a perfectly appropriate activity to perform while in the Lord’s house, beseeching His mercy and revisiting His death on Calvary– on which occasion, if you recall, Christ was naked as a jaybird. A woman’s modesty in dress, and her doing just the right thing so she’s not distracting, is such a severe issue, it’s considered perfectly valid to sin against charity by tormenting and embarrassing her at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Because if you don’t embarrass her, the woman might distract someone, or somehow cause them to commit a sin. That seems to be how the reasoning goes.

While this discussion was going on, this exact same week, a friend of mine who is an observant Jewish woman was having her own troubles. This friend is extremely conscientious about her clothing: she keeps her knees, elbows and collarbones covered in loose garments at all times and even wears a special yoga skirt when she works out. When she is out of the house, she hides her hair under an opaque scarf. Some female members of her congregation wear wigs over their natural hair to meet modesty requirements, but she feels more comfortable with scarves.

This strict dress code isn’t enough to keep people from bullying her for what they think of as immodesty. There is apparently a fringe practice in her religion, of removing women’s faces from photographs because women’s faces shouldn’t be seen. This practice is becoming more and more mainstream in her community. People have photographed the orchestra she plays with only including the male musicians and excluding the female ones, for modesty’s sake. They have given her a hard time. This week, adding insult to injury, someone stole one of the photos of her in a head scarf to use for his own campaign: bullying Jewish women who wear wigs for modesty into getting rid of the wig and only wearing a scarf instead. She was so angry that she took a photo of herself in a friend’s wig and posted it publicly to Facebook; then she took several of herself in beautiful scarves for good measure.

And I’ve heard of similar things that happened to my female Muslim friends, and demands just as unreasonable being made of my female Christian friends.

It seems to me that no amount of covering or hiding is ever going to be enough. To the eye that objectifies human beings, the very existence of a woman is a stumbling block and a distraction– no matter what she wears, no matter what she does. To the eye that wants to bully and find fault, fault will always be apparent. To the eye that seeks distraction, anything we do is a distraction. The only thing a woman could do to please such an eye is to disappear.

Just last night, I went to the vigil Mass for Pentecost Sunday.

In the silence and reflection before Mass, in a very crowded curch, two old men sitting inches from my back were loudly discussing a fishing trip. The whole congregation could hear them. “NEVER BUY A PONTOON!” one of them said.

It was distracting in the extreme– far more distracting than a shoulder. You can look away from a shoulder, but there’s no tactful way to block it out if someone is bellowing PONTOON in an echoing room.

Nobody told the men to stop or did anything to embarrass them. They went on talking until the opening hymn drowned them out.

At Holy Communion, I noticed that a policeman was sitting in the front in his uniform. As he got up, I saw that he was packing heat. He had two holstered pistols at his sides in full view; he wore them up to the altar and received the Lord.

A gun is not like a woman’s shoulder. Shoulders are attached to the body; they can’t be locked in a car or put away in a gun safe. Women’s shoulders serve plenty of neutral or even beneficial purposes in life– bearing burdens, a place for a friend to cry on, standing shoulder to shoulder in solidarity, keeping her bra from falling off. A gun’s only job is to kill, injure or intimidate. Even if you do something noble such as protecting the innocent with your gun, you still do that good deed by killing, injuring or intimidating. Shoulders might be a bit distracting to a person already full of lust, but guns are guaranteed to draw the attention of everyone in the room. And there’s a far more direct line between guns and a grave violation of “thou shalt not kill,” than there is between shoulders and “thou shalt not covet.”

No one chided the man for bringing guns into the House of God, or tried to stop him from receiving Communion.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more stark contrast in my life than the contrast between what I saw happening to women in my online conversations this week, for being distractions and for being visible, and what I didn’t see happening to men on Saturday.

Maybe we’re not the ones who are the problem.

(image via Pixabay) 



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