On Catholic Dress: Sexuality, Status, Modesty and True Humility

On Catholic Dress: Sexuality, Status, Modesty and True Humility June 25, 2014

Back in February I had a post on modesty and dress, which I analyzed through the feminist lens of the “male gaze.”  This is a subject we have discussed regularly on Vox Nova (see here, here, here, and here).  I my last post there were a few interesting questions left open, in particular a suggestion in a follow up post at Gaudete Theology linking modesty and humility.   However, for one reason or another I never went back to this.

As one of the regular contributors to Vox Nova, I monitor our blog email address.  (There is a connection, please be patient!)  This includes going through our junk mail, as over the years we have ended up on a wide variety of mailing lists.   One in particular is the  “E-pistola” mailing list from the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX).  I have no idea how we got on this list, and I very rarely look at it.  However, from time to time an article catches my attention:  a few days ago it was one entitled “How Catholics Ought to Dress.”  My presumption before reading it was that the author would conflate mores from one specific time and place with timeless truths.  Or to quote Shaw:  the author would “think that the customs of his tribe and island are the laws of nature” (Caesar and Cleopatra,  Act II).

To a certain extend this was true, but there were a couple arguments I thought it was worth addressing.  Moreover, there was an aside, almost an off-hand comment, that got me thinking about the the link between modesty and humility.  So be forewarned:  this post is long, and changes directions about 2/3 of the way through.

The bulk  of the argument was directed towards women:

An even further consideration for men and women is to dress properly according to their nature, or respectively, according to their masculinity or femininity….For the ladies, to dress like a man (such as wearing pants) is improper and contradicts a woman’s God-given femininity….Therefore, so-called “woman’s pants” (usually worn out of pleasure or commodity) are not the proper garb of a Catholic (or Marian-like) girl or lady, either in the parish, domestic or social life.

For the life of me, I still cannot see how wearing pants, any kind of pants, is an affront to “a woman’s God-given femininity”.    One could, perhaps, make the argument that given a certain social milieu, the act of wearing men’s pants might be an act of rebellion against gender roles that crosses a line into denying womanhood on a metaphysical level.  However, this is and pretty much always has been a strawman argument, despite the author’s ominous warnings about “proponents of unisex clothing.” (I don’t know any, do you?)  Does such a warning apply to Gap jeans worn because they are fashionable?  No.  Women’s pants, as a socially constructed category, are women’s:  by their design and marketing society clearly perceives them as such.  Women who wear them are not trying to communicate their rejection of their femininity, nor are trapped in a social order that rejects gender differences.  Definitions of what constitutes “feminine” have shifted, and to cling to previous mores as though they were part of natural law is pointless.

To challenge this argument on a deeper level,  let’s invert it:  is it improper and would it contradict a man’s God-given masculinity to wear a skirt, even a so-called “man’s skirt”?  For example, to make this personal:photo1

(personal photo of author.)

Yes, I am wearing a kilt.  (It is along story, suffice it to say I like it.  The picture was taken by one of my students who begged me to wear it to class.)  A kilt is, by definition, a man’s skirt.    I do not feel less masculine wearing a kilt, and indeed, the socially constructed meaning of a kilt (thank you Braveheart!) makes it a statement of hyper-masculinity:  only “real men” wear kilts.   This construction of masculinity is equally problematic, but that is the subject of another post.   The fact remains that no one, including the traditionalists of SSPX, see this as in any way a betrayal of masculinity.  Indeed, a quick Google search produced a fair number of conservatives arguing that kilts (and cassocks!) are not skirts and therefore do not violate any prohibition against cross-dressing.

So why this fundamental asymmetry? Again it could be argued that men and women are different, and different rules need to apply.   I agree that men and women are different.  However, I am suspicious of any argument that start with this premise but then proceed to draw universalist conclusions that support a social order that is at its heart, unchristian, since it is an order that defines men as normative and dominant, and women as marginal and subordinate.

To be fair to the authors, they do suggest standards of modest dress for men as well as for women.  However, the argument is shorter, less passionate, and completely obscure:

For men, [modesty] means they should not wear tight-fitting clothes or in general, go shirtless in public (and especially for fathers, even around the home in front of their children).

Can someone help me out here?  In certain specific contexts this might make limited sense, but as a general rule I cannot make any sense of this.  What kind of lasting harm have I done to my children by going shirtless around the house?  My wife and I often joke about our efforts to “warp” our children, but this was never part of the plan.  And what does this have to do with masculine identity?

The author of this article makes one other argument that, though not well developed, I think is important and worth exploring further:

[A] quick rule of thumb is to dress in a dignified manner that will evoke respect. For in addition to providing an edifying example, our dress also defines who we are in society. Thus the appropriateness of a mother’s or father’s dress (particularly in the privacy of home life) can positively or negatively impact the formation of their children—this important aspect is not only contingent upon the modesty of the clothes worn by the parents, but even by their quality, that is, dressing shabbily versus well within one’s means.

I think this is an important point:  there is more to modest dress than prurience.   As I argued before, dress is communication, and with it we communicate a great deal more than sexuality.  By our appearance we attempt to define our position in society and our relationships with others.    I see this with my students on a daily basis.  For the women, it is usually obvious, but even the men, who claim to not care how they look, spend a great deal of effort in cultivating and shaping their “casual” look.  Consider, for instance, the young men who spend twenty minutes and use expensive hair care products to look as though they just got out of bed and ran a hand through their hair.    I do it myself:  part of wearing a kilt is a deliberate choice to “play dress up” and to self-consciously position myself in various ways among social norms. 

Our task, as Catholics, is to position ourselves, to “define who we are in society”  with our dress.  And, ideally, our paramount concern should be to identify ourselves as Christians.     There can be no hard and fast rules of any specificity: like any language, clothing and dress are multivalent and continually evolving.  Twenty years ago, if I saw a young man in Carhartts and a flannel shirt, the question was whether he was a blue-collar construction worker, or a middle-class youth affecting the grunge look.   Today I asked my son if anyone still wore grunge, and he looked at me with derision.  In the same way, there are no timeless rules for “christian dress”, or even universal rules for religious habits.

However, I think that as Catholics, while we must speak within the current social milieu, we should maintain a critical and self-conscious stance regarding the values that society regards as normative.  We should not automatically accept the prevailing definitions even if we choose to accept them:  indeed, at times we should contest them, either by ignoring them or subverting them.  Here I part company with the author of the article under discussion.  While he insists that women challenge certain prevailing standards of dress (at least if they involve pants) he seems to uncritically accept the other standards.  Thus he writes “dress in a dignified manner that will evoke respect”, and one should not dress “shabbily” but rather “well within one’s means.”  Whose respect?  Respect for what?   Were I to wear a suit from Armani or Savile Row (expensive, but not exorbitant for a senior faculty member at an exclusive liberal arts college) I would command at least superficial respect because I am positioning myself as economically successful, a professional who is a member of the upper middle class (and of the upper class, at least by courtesy).   I would be dressing within my means and positioning  myself by my economic class.

However, I do not think that this is an appropriate message to communicate.  Scripture is clear that this is not how we are to judge people:

My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? (James 2:1-4)

If we are not to apply these worldly standards to others, then it also follows that we should not evoke these standards for ourselves.  In the past, when I quoted this passage, someone came back with Matthew 22:11-13 on the man thrown out of the wedding for his inappropriate dress.  Given the nature of the parable, I take this as symbolic and not prescribing specific rules of dress.   James, on the other hand, is dealing with concrete social interactions.

At this point it is worth looking at the example of the two Francis’s.  Francis of Assisi must have understood on a deep level the meaning of clothes as communication.  His father was a wealthy cloth merchant and the latest fashions would have passed daily through his shop and his son’s hands.  Upon embracing the gospel life, Francis made this manifest in his dress.  He stripped himself of the finery he wore (positioning himself among the urban elite) and dressed (or rather, was dressed by an alarmed bishop)  in the rough tunic of a peasant gardener.   He continued this practice, commanding his brothers:

And let those who have already promised obedience have one tunic with a capuche and if they wish to have it, another without a capuche. And those who are driven by necessity can wear footwear. And let all the friars wear cheep clothing and they can patch these with sack-cloth and other pieces with the blessing of God. (Later Rule, Chapter 2)

Nor was this restricted to his friars:  the laity were also supposed to communicate their identity as brothers and sisters of penance by dressing in ways which communicated this fact to others.  From the Rule of 1221, the earliest known rule for what would become the Secular Franciscan Order:

The men belonging to this brotherhood shall dress in humble, undyed cloth, the price of which is not to exceed six Ravenna soldi an ell, unless for evident and necessary cause a temporary dispensation be given. And breadth and thinness of the cloth are to be considered in said price. (Chapter 1)

For both religious and laity, St. Francis wanted them to use the message of their dress to challenge the prevailing social norms.

Consider also the dress of Pope Francis:  a simple, white cassock, plain black shoes, a modest pectoral cross.  Gone is the elaborate dress and pomp which used to define the papacy:  Francis, by his dress, communicates that while he is not poor, his intention is to live a simple life in the midst of the antique splendor of the papacy.  In dressing this way,  I suspect that Pope Francis scandalized the papal chamberlains—he certainly upset more than a few conservative Catholics who insist that the Pope has to dress in a certain way.  But he clearly understands that his dress communicates the gospel message more effectively.

As a Secular Franciscan, I have made a deliberate choice to not dress so as to earn respect, or at least not the kind of respect society ordinarily associates with clothes.  I have chosen to dress shabbily and not within my (considerable) means.  I buy what the Salvation Army thrift store has to offer.   In this regard, what the world wants me to say, I refuse, for the most part, to speak.     I claim no special holiness for doing so, and I try not to look down on others who have made different choices.  As Francis himself said to his brothers:

I admonish and exhort them, not to despise nor judge men, whom they see clothed with soft and colored clothes, using dainty food and drink, but rather let each one judge and despise his very self. (Later Rule, Chapter 2)

However, what I do want my fellow Catholics to do is to not simply dress the way the world expect you to.  Challenge and interrogate the assumptions implicit in clothing standards.  You may upset some people.   My sister regularly excoriates me for not dressing professionally, an angry student occasionally makes a comment about me being an “aging hippie” on a class evaluation,  and one of the reasons advanced for my removal from diaconate formation was that my casual dress was inappropriate for a representative of the Church.  (The example of St. Francis seems to have been lost on them.)   And you will have to compromise:  whatever the ideal, we live in a complex and sin tainted world.  Or, to put it bluntly, if your boss says you have to wear a tie, prudence dictates you wear one.   But in whatever circumstance, do not simply go along with the world.   Do not use dress to preen and call attention to yourself and your sociio-economic standing.   Jesus called on his followers to be plain spoken,

But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.  (Mt 5:34-37)

In the same way, to the best of your ability let your dress speak simply and from the heart.

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  • The underlying element is power. Start with a concept of the military uniform which begins with ‘sameness’ and quickly makes distinctions, for stripes, stars, ribbons, medals and the ritualization of status. The church uses this same scheme, though less dramatic. In business, one should avoid the temptation to ‘out-dress’ the person of higher status with thicker pinstripes, more powerful ‘power ties’ and more noticeable cufflinks, etc. In the feminine arena the power agenda has traditionally been waged with the sense of seduction. Thus, low cut blouses, higher high heels and red dresses, bright lip stick, etc. The shift to pants (according to SSPX) is less tolerable because it shifts the arena from competition among women to competition between women and men. Of course, the evolving discussion of appropriate business dress for women is a struggle for how to display power in women’s fashion (i.e whether to use the element of seduction or more traditional male power motifs).

    I could go one with myriad examples, but in my opinion the gospel speaks of power in love, forgiveness, concern for the other (which means not tripping them up or seducing them) and building up your brother and sister as opposed to ‘lording it over them’.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Appropos your argument, it is worth noting that in the business world, for both men and women certain kinds of clothes are referred to with the adjective “power”: power suits, power ties, etc.

      I would go further than you and suggest that the person of high status should also avoid the temptation to “out-dress” the people below him or her.

      • That would be so like the Poverello who, if he met someone who looked more poor or disheveled than he, would exchange his clothes with them.

    • There’s definitely a profound element of power in the modesty debates.

      1 I have visited websites of Traditionally minded Catholic women (women who prefer the EF form.) In one of these websites, the writer (a woman) gave advice to young women about a peculiar problem. Young women had been writing to her, complaining that, before and after Mass, men (complete strangers) were coming up to them and telling them how they should dress. The women were all horrified and humiliated at this, These men were complete strangers. The blogger was equally horrified at this behavior.

      2 I have noticed that men who complain about women dressing modestly are the same men who complain when women do not “doll themselves up.” It strikes me that, if these men are really serious about avoiding sexual temptation (and having women dress in a way that is not tempting) then they should be happy when women go outside without makeup or jewelry, and in jeans and a t-shirt. Quite the contrary; they just start complaining again and once again tell women how to dress.

      It seems apparent to me that the underlying element in both of these scenarios is power. The men in the first and second scenarios are asserting power and dominance over women they have never even met. This is “lording it over them” and it is completely contrary to the Gospel.

      (As a fun aside, the Traditional Catholic blogger did start a post where the women could tell men how they should dress.)

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        Emma, could you share the link to the website with this story? It is fascinating.

        • I’ll see what I can do. I read it a few years ago, so I’ll have to do some digging.

        • Cojuanco

          It’s Seraphic Singles if the post is what I think it is. Mostly it’s for predominantly Catholic singles (men were recently allowed to comment) though the author has been married for a while. Apparently did some academic work zonks ago on Lonergan, for those of you who like Jesuit academics. It’s an interesting look into the sentiments of a non-American traditionalist, and shows us that some of the things typically associated with traditionalism have more to do with American culture than actual tradition or Tradition.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          I found some interesting things at Seraphic Singles, but not this discussion. I hope someone can find a specific link.

        • Yeah, it is Seraphic Singles, but I haven’t been able to find that specific post. I’ve found other posts on the blog about modesty (and a comment from a woman who had to defend her shoes to men who disapproved) but not the specific post to which I’m referring. I do remember that she suggested responding, “Really? My dad bought this for me,” or a similar comment.

          It was akin to Simcha Fisher’s “pants pass.” The joke was that any woman who wanted to wear pants could get a pass signed by their husbands (or fathers if unmarried) if they wanted to wear pants. I loved the woman who commented saying “Oh woe is me! I am a widow, and my father is dead! Who will sign my pants pass?” (Simcha was a responding to a post on Catholicity that told women that they shouldn’t buy their own clothes. Their husbands and fathers should buy them for them. Because, as you know, when husbands buy clothing for their wives, they buy modest, nonsexual clothing. Though for what it’s worth, that just made me laugh. Even in the SSPX, the average man does NOT want to buy clothes for his wives or daughters.)

          I’ll keep looking. I did find the post where the women tell men how to dress.

          Like I said, there are a lot of posts on that sight about the modesty debate.

      • Agellius

        Frankly, I think it strikes you as an issue of “power and dominance” because that’s what you’re looking for. I don’t see it that way in the slightest. (For the record, I have never told a stranger how to dress or not dress. And my wife wears no makeup whatsoever.)

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          As my students are wont to say: “check your privilege.” Since you are never on the short end of this power structure, it is easy to dismiss such concerns cavalierly. You may not do or think such things but that does not mean others do not.

      • Cojuanco

        If that blogger is who I think it is, first let me say this is a small world.

        Second, in the comments thread in that post, it was pointed out that this obsession with women’s dress seemed to be a peculiarly American phenomenon – most non-American trads seemed to be less obsessed about it. Sure, one should dress modestly, but that can take a wide variety of forms, not just the restrictive de facto American code.

        As someone who kinda sorta prefers the EF, in my experience, here in Southern California, trads furthermore are not obsessed about this to the extend belied in the SSPX letter. Ditto with the South. The sentiment is that this sort of stuff are the doing of a bunch of overly obsessive Midwesterners and Northeasterners.

        I think this might be due to cultural factors among Anglo-American trads (who have a disproportionate voice in this sort of thing) than a trad thing generally.

      • Mark VA


        I think what you are describing is, what I like to call, the “Guardian” phenomenon.

        In my experience, it may operate with equal force in a traditional, as well as in a progressive setting, and usually involves a self-appointed lay person, or a small like-minded lay group, that “guards” the parish from some perceived threats.

        In the traditional context, the “Guardian” will usually focus on the dress, traditional sanctuary protocol and behavior, and sometimes may make a comment about the observance of the dietary laws with respect to the Holy Communion.

        In the progressive context, the “Guardian” may focus on the parish protocol to stand and not kneel during the Consecration, and to take Holy Communion standing and in hand, not on the tongue while kneeling. She or he may also patrol the catechism classes and examine the curricula, to ensure that nothing contrary to their interpretation of the Vatican Two teachings is introduced (for example, the “banned” Baltimore Catechism material).

        In both settings, I believe it is the responsibility of the parish priest to be aware of these self-appointed “Guardians”, and to patiently guide them away from their zealotry toward a more mature expression of the Faith.

        • Cojuanco

          Which is difficult when those guardians are the most active in the parish, or are big donors…

  • It occurs to me that this focus ‘on Catholic dress’ is another example of what Pope Francis terms ‘our obsessions’. We miss the point of the gospel and get trapped in minutia. I’m really surprised that the critics didn’t focus on veils and headscarves (a sign of submission more than modesty) instead of pantsuits for that is truly the ancient distinction among the sexes. I don’t ever recall seeing an image of Jesus wearing pants.

  • Agellius

    I don’t agree with everything you said but it was well said, and I especially like your idea of not automatically accepting the world’s standards of appropriate dress. The fact that something is fashionable doesn’t automatically make it appropriate for a Christian to wear; nor should something’s being unfashionable make us afraid to wear it.

    Regarding Pope Francis, I think it should be born in mind that Jorge Bergoglio is not the Pope, and the Pope is not Jorge Bergoglio. By this I don’t mean that I’m a sedevacantist, I mean that the office and the man are two different things. As a rule, it seems to me that the man can’t conform the office to suit himself, but rather it should be the other way around, for the most part, because the office is not his property, but belongs to the whole Church. So while he personally may wish to dress as St. Francis instructed his friars to dress, as Pope he has to dress like the Pope. In other words, he should not only do what he personally thinks good and efficacious, but also have respect for the wishes and expectations of those he shepherds, in terms of how they expect the Pope to act.

    In saying this, I don’t mean to say that the plain white cassock is inappropriate for everyday dress. I do mean that in my opinion, there is no conflict between wanting to show solidarity and sympathy with the poor, and dressing as popes traditionally dress. There is a time and a place for everything.

    As a secular Franciscan the way you dress (the way you describe it anyway) makes perfect sense, but I can also see the sense in what the SSPX article counsels, i.e. dressing as well as you’re able within your means. Dressing down is not a virtue in its own right. It can be appropriate for the purpose of sending a message, as in the context of the Franciscan order. But generally I think that dressing up has become a lost art and that it’s unfortunate. Just as we Catholics, unlike some varieties of Protestant, don’t shun alcohol and dancing on the ground that created things are meant for our enjoyment, in moderation; so also with our physical appearance, IMHO. There’s nothing wrong, indeed there’s something right, with wanting to make ourselves pleasant to look at.

    • dominic1955

      Exactly. I believe it is in the introduction to Nainfa’s book on prelatial dress in which it says that the truly humble prelate dresses the way the Church has mandated that he dress, through long standing custom and prescription. “Dressing down” because they think all that stuff is too high-falutin’ isn’t humility at all.

      As to Pope Francis, he is the Supreme Lawgiver in matters disciplinary-he can change what a pope wears if he wants to. He was very smart in not changing it too much as the white simar (its NOT a cassock…) has become a very obvious symbol of the papacy. However, its really not much “simpler” than what Benedict XVI or St. JP II wore before. Looking through pictures of him from the time he was elected until recently, his fascia is still usually watered silk (if that isn’t fancy, I don’t know what is), he wears the greca, and he’s even wore French cuffs! He hasn’t pulled out all the stuff he could, but its not like he had an old cassock pulled out of the Vatican dumpster bleeched white.

      Having been in the seminary and now in the funeral business, I really do think dress shows respect for yourself, your peers, your institution and the person who died (in the case of funerals) or who died and rose (Jesus in the Eucharist). My seminary formators (no Trads they…) made it known that if you are going to be a representative of the Church, you owe it to the people to dress the part. That doesn’t mean silk cassocks and buckled shoes to go grocery shopping, but it means dress professionally. As a priest, that means at least the black clerical shirt and pants, usually a black jacket too. If you get invited to something nice, repect the invitation by wearing something nice. A rabbi or cassock with cuffs isn’t going to kill you. The religious we were around had similar rules. I really don’t think it is too much to ask people to wear something decent, something somewhat dressy if they are going to a funeral or going to Mass. Its not being put upon to wear something like khakis and a polo, or a blazer and slacks or even nice jeans and a button down shirt. I also most often shop at the thrift stores for my clothes. Unless you are out in the middle of nowhere, you can find really nice things there. I get most of my French cuff shirts there, some of my nice leather soled shoes and even a couple nicer wool suits.

      I’m what would be considered a “Traditionalist” and while I would agree with the SSPX modesty thing in general, without having read it I can bet its probably largely just a rehash of an old sermon by Cardinal Siri and some old pamphlets about “Marylike” dress. Modesty doesn’t need to be frumpy or a Catholic version of puritanism. The pants thing is also somewhat of an over-reaction. As much as I respect Cardinal Siri, I do think the whole women wearning pants thing being a sleight against their feminity is off base. Personally, I don’t know why women don’t wear dresses more often, I loved the cassock and would wear one today if I could. Modesty and respectful dress is something we owe our fellow men, and we really aren’t put upon to step up to it.

  • Agellius

    “As my students are wont to say: “check your privilege.” Since you are never on the short end of this power structure, it is easy to dismiss such concerns cavalierly. You may not do or think such things but that does not mean others do not.”

    Nevertheless, simply asserting that it’s a matter of power and domination doesn’t make it so, even if you are a member of the alleged victim group.

    • dominic1955

      Last time some joker told me that I said, “No thanks, I think I’ll keep it on me.”

      What is that but a power play in and of itself, and thus highly hypocritical the way its often used? Its a more polite equivalent of saying, “You’re a white male (or whatever), so by that fact alone, you have nothing to say here. Shut up.”

      • LM

        Think of it another way. Within religious groups that emphasize “modest dress,” men often tell women that if they dress in accordance with their standards that they will be free from sexual violence. Conversely, if women don’t dress modestly, they will be ill-treated and will only have themselves to blame. However, in reality modest dress won’t protect a woman from sexual assault. For example, the rates of sexual harassment and rape are extremely high in countries like Egypt, India, and Iran, despite the fact that the women in these nations dress very conservatively. To me, this illustrates that rhetoric about “modest dress” tends to be a way to reduce women to object that only exist to please men, whether it’s giving birth or being an object of lust. One could argue that the obsession with “skirts only” that we see in some corners is a cheap ploy to make “access” easier for would be assailants.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Agellius, you are correct, simply asserting that it is about power and dominance does not make it so. And Dominic1955 is correct that it can be used as a way of shutting down discussion. However, given the long history of men oppressing women and denying them things “for their own good” because they were contrary to male constructed notions of femininity—the vote, education, personal autonomy—I think I (along with TauSign et al.) have good grounds to assert that this obsessive interest in women wearing pants is about power and dominance. You clearly disagree, but I think the ball is in your court to frame a convincing argument to the contrary.

  • Melody

    David, I like the kilt picture. That’s cool!
    Kind of ironic if your attire was a factor in your no longer being in deacon formation, since St. Francis was a deacon (at least that’s what I’ve read), If he had lived today he might have been weeded out of formation, along with those seven guys in Acts.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      The criteria for deacons have changed considerably since the Apostolic period: with some reason since their duties have changed considerably as well. So yes, the seven guys from Acts probably would not make the cut today. I guess the question is whether the changes were for the better or for the worse. I would say both.

  • I think it’s also worth distinguishing between communicating about ourselves or communicating something about the role that we are playing at any given moment. We don’t think that way in the modern society; we tend to focus on the individual.

    This is especially true in the world of religious ritual or religious dress. Many religious traditions incorporate masks into their worship or rituals. I think that there is a wisdom in that because it forces us to look past the person and to see the persona (character, archetype, etc) instead.

    It adds another layer to how a person dresses, even in a Catholic standard. What are we communicating, not just about ourselves, but about the role or part we are playing in society at that given moment?

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Thank you, that is a good point. In my closet I have a navy-blue pin stripe suit, quite conservatively cut. I found it at a thrift store when I was doing lobbying work against the death penalty. I even refer to it as my “lobbying suit.” It was a costume I wore when I was playing a particular role.

  • Julia Smucker

    All kinds of interesting stuff here. I still think too much ado is made (both favorably and not) over the minutiae of papal dress, but I can (almost) overlook that here. Just a couple of comments related to my own experience:

    1. The SSPX dress code is so similar to a Conservative Mennonite one (down to the headgear!) that, even if I were totally convinced by their arguments, there is no conceivable way I could conform to it without a heavy dose of irony. Kind of funny to think about, though.

    2. I especially love your St. Francis illustration – a standard for socio-economic modesty, if you will (which, mind you, ought to go along with sexual modesty, consistently applied). Having said that, a different cultural example springs to mind which may muddy the waters a bit, as observed by a former colleague in Burkina Faso: in North America, how you dress reflects how you think of yourself; in Africa, how you dress reflects how you think of whoever you are going to see. In BF it is a nonverbal yet direct compliment to visit someone in your nicest clothes. But then, to your point, in a cultural context where one’s dress is primarily understood as self-expression, I agree that we should think seriously as Christians about what message we’re sending.

    • re: Julia Smucker [June 26, 2014 9:28 pm]: 1. The SSPX dress code is so similar to a Conservative Mennonite one (down to the headgear!) that, even if I were totally convinced by their arguments, there is no conceivable way I could conform to it without a heavy dose of irony. Kind of funny to think about, though.

      Julia, I don’t know much about Mennonites. Still the groups that are most visible (and caricatured) by non-Mennonite Americans, such as the Old Order Amish, certainly display aspects of clothing as identity and clothing as markers of social boundaries and expectations. The added layer of the preference for horse-drawn transport over cars and trucks adds yet another layer of community balance and control.

      When you say […] “there is no conceivable way I could conform to it without a heavy dose of irony.”, I am reminded of my mother, who wore what was essentially a nun’s habit during nursing school. Soon after she graduated in the early 1970’s the old order collapsed. For her to go to work today dressed in her school uniform would be beyond anachronistic, almost drag-like in its audacious and highly ironic social commentary. Similarly, I find the SSPX dress code(s) similarly audacious. Not only are contemporary standards of dress criticized, but indeed contemporary standards are inverted so that God is pleased by what is considered displeasing or even demeaning by many people!

      Are the dress codes and vehicular restrictions of very conservative Mennonite communities similar to SSPX dress codes so far as both are very deliberate inversions of worldly standards for the purpose of creating an stark and alternate standard pleasing to God?

      • Julia Smucker

        An interesting and thought-provoking question, Jordan. I suppose the answer would be a qualified yes: there are some definite parallels, but they are complicated by some distinctly different rationales. More conservative in the Anabaptist spectrum equals more ascetic, so in their case much of the reasoning behind this “stark and alternate standard” resembles David’s Franciscan approach, with simple (often called “plain”) dress as a sign of humility, in a way that doesn’t need to distinguish between sexual and economic modesty as it is both at the same time.

        Also, after Anabaptism came to the Americas, it eventually became a very complex and fragmented network of various groups, some of which have split over a host of dress-related minutiae such as the style of women’s head coverings (which range from a token doily-like apparatus pinned atop the head to the full Amish covering tied with strings), whether men could wear two suspenders or only one (a second suspender, as the argument goes, being unnecessary for holding pants up and thus a vain adornment), and whether anyone could wear buttons (as they are mass-produced). Traditional Anabaptist modes of dress are primarily a distinction from “the world”, and are quite effectively perceived that way from the outside – but they are also often a distinction from each other.

        Also apropos of this discussion, where Anabaptist standards of modesty are rigorously enforced, it is typically done in equal measure for both genders, and is hardly the better for it: one prominent Mennonite missiologist I know was once kicked out of his mission assignment for wearing a tie. (To be clear, this really isn’t the world I grew up in; any such horror stories I can tell are all second-hand.)

        I suppose the moral of this story is that humble simplicity can take on its own forms of legalism, and Mennonites know this well (those of us, like me, who don’t have direct experience with this have at least heard the stories). But I would add that we who are living – and dressing – more like “the world” should take this lesson with a grain of salt, as our more immediate temptation is to conform to that worldly standard of “if you’ve got it, flaunt it” – whether the “it” refers to one’s body or one’s money (and there too, both are easily accomplished at the same time, with Red Carpet photos offering some of the most flamboyant examples).

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Julia, thank you for the illuminating comments. With regards to Mennonites, my understanding is that they have well articulated dress codes for men as well as women. Is this the case and are they symmetric in a way that the SSPX article’s standards are not?

      Regarding Burkina Faso: a couple people above have also pointed out that dress is not only about respecting yourself but also about showing respect for others: the deceased at a funeral, Jesus in the Eucharist, etc. This is a good point, but I would again raise the question of interrogating whether we are using dress to show respect for the wrong reasons. The standard laid out by St. James is also applicable here.

      • Julia Smucker

        David, your understanding about Mennonite dress codes is correct, as I mentioned in my response to Jordan (which I wrote before I saw your comment). But as I also said, an equal-opportunity legalism is not much of an improvement when it comes to that.

        I also want to clarify that I fully agree with you on the standard of St. James (a highly favored epistle among Mennonites, by the way), and I would not by any means want to use the above Burkinabe cultural example as an excuse for disregarding that. The underlying principles of respect and humility should be complementary, not contradictory. There is a danger in thinking oneself humble without considering the message other people will get and in the end insulting them, and there is a danger in convincing oneself that one is dressing out of respect for others while actually showing off. Either way, I suppose, the danger is in making it all about oneself. And I guess that’s the subtle danger of pride, as it can so easily masquerade as goods – like humility and respect for others – that are its opposite.

        As for the Eucharist, I can’t help thinking Jesus would be honored, not insulted, by a person coming in off the street in tattered clothes to adore him in the Blessed Sacrament.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          Thanks for the detailed information on Mennonite/Anabaptist practice. You are right that pride can lurk in the background of this, masquerading as humility. A worthy caution for every Franciscan!

          “As for the Eucharist, I can’t help thinking Jesus would be honored, not insulted, by a person coming in off the street in tattered clothes to adore him in the Blessed Sacrament.”

          I agree. Thinking of the parable with the wedding garment, I have always interpreted that as referring to interior disposition and not actual dress; however, I am not sure if I am on firm ground with this reading.

        • The parable you refer to is a likening of a wedding feast to the kingdom of heaven. It speaks of the ‘wedding garment’ being a requirement for entrance to the wedding event. In this context (according to the USCCB bible footnotes) the wedding garment signifies conversion/repentance and a new way of life as being the requirement for entry into the kingdom of God. To see it as a ‘dress code’ is to mistake the meaning.

          • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO


        • Julia Smucker

          I’ve always found that passage puzzling, but in any case, I’m pretty sure we’re missing the point if we use it as grounds to kick people out of church because of what they’re wearing.

          This actually makes me think of a friend of mine who once got a very odd and pharisaical lecture from a stranger (not even from the same parish) for praying in the adoration chapel with bare arms, so I know that does happen.

  • I need some help here. I went back to read the SSPX article for clarity. What is the author referring to when he states that he would rather see a woman wearing a miniskirt (against modesty) than a woman wearing pants (against nature)? I need some explanation of how pants are a sin against the feminine nature.

    Now I do agree that dressing ‘properly’ for an occasion (both sexes), showing respect and modesty is a good thing. But much of this has to be placed in context. Last year, a new associate priest was assigned by his pastor to serve in our local soup kitchen. I knew that the sage pastor was trying to expose him to a reality he was not accustomed to. This became clear when the new priest showed up dressed with worsted wool pin-stripe trousers that were at least $200 a pair. I knew him and stayed by his side for several weeks as he was clearly uncomfortable with the surroundings, But he continued to stick with his traditional garb. Finally, he began to open up to the volunteers and the soup kitchen patrons and finally switched to plain black pants. It was nice to see him loosen up a little as it dawned on him that less was more in that particular situation.

    Finally, do I see this ‘lack of modesty’ complaint centered around status, power and control? Absolutely, yes I do. (Especially, in the SSPX article which bordered on misogyny) ‘Power and domination’ is at the center of the issue as I mentioned in the beginning. It’s subtle, but it really is the foundational element of this particular dynamic.

    • dominic1955

      The idea is that pants are objectively male attire. They shoehorn that idea into the Thomistic sense of the degrees of sin and virtue. It would be like saying I’d prefer my friend to be out fornicating than commiting sodomy because even though both are mortal sins, fornicating is less severe of a sin in that its sex with the right kind of person in the right kind of way (thus natural) vs. sex that is possibly in the wrong way and with the wrong person (thus unnatural).

      I think its a real stretch to say pants on women are “unnatural” but that is basically the point they are trying to get across.

      A truly well dressed man (or woman) dresses to the occasion and sometimes that means dressing down. When I’d do ministry things you could get dirty doing, I’d put on the work cassock or the cheap cotton pants. Its the same in the lay world, its silly to put on white tie or black tie to to a casual BBQ at a friend’s house. Its likewise silly (and gauche to boot) to roll in with T-shirt and jeans to a black tie affair.

      • I had a chuckle last night as I discovered several unused Christmas cards from a box set. Two cards had nearly identical poses; one of St. Joseph cradling the infant Jesus in his arms and the other of the Blessed Virgin doing the same. Interestingly they appeared identically dressed except for the fact that Mary was wearing a headscarf. Oh well, so much for the SSPX author’s citation of ‘unisex clothing gender theory’.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          Clearly Christmas cards from a heretical, post-Vatican II source.

        • It’s very true, Jesus never wore pants in his life, yet no one accuses him of “sinning against nature.” To me, it’s basically the equivalent of 19th century Anglican missionaries in Africa who forced African converts to live in square houses rather than their ancestral homes. There’s nothing in Christianity (so far as I can tell) about the shape of one’s houses. Unfortunately, to be Christian, in their minds was to be European, specifically English.

          Part of the problem, as others have pointed out, is that we live in a Western bubble. We think of Christianity as a European religion, which would outrage the Ethiopian and Coptic Christians, who practiced Christianity when our pagan ancestors were practicing human sacrifice. Perhaps if we occasionally saw pictures of Indian men and women at a Mass in India wearing saris and traditional garb, or saw paintings of ancient Christian men in togas, we would think differently about the subject. It is a terrible thing for the Church (meaning in this case the faithful) to look at the basic social conventions of society and say, “That’s God’s will.” It might be, but more often than not it’s a human convention. It doesn’t mean we should get rid of it, it just means we should remember it’s not divine.

        • dominic1955

          Again, not that I really agree with it, but it doesn’t go both ways. The argument wasn’t against “unisex” outfits as much as it was against pants on women. Priests of the SSPX wear cassocks, pretty much always as far as I can tell. Priests of traditionalist orders in peace with the Apostolic See wear cassocks a majority of the time. Its been common in quite a few cultures for both men and women to wear something akin to this, or togas or tunics or saris or kilts or whatever. That’s never really seen as a problem.

          Pants, especially in the European context, were something that mostly Barbarians wore. Even granting their higher degree of practicallity for working and such, men started wearing them somewhat grudgingly. Women, not really until much later.

  • It’s worth pointing out that the most immodest thing a woman may wear might be her purse. If her purse has Prada and Chanel labels on it, she is bragging about her money and financial situation.

    It’s a shame that modesty has become conflated with how women dress when modesty used to mean humility. It still can, but unfortunately it’s become synonymous with how women dress.

    • Jordan

      I wouldn’t be so sure about handbags as a universal and everyday statement of material wealth. A few of my friends have at least one designer handbag, but won’t go everywhere with it. The purse might make a entrance when a display of wealth is necessary, but many times it’ll stay in the closet when people who are clueless about fashion like me come to visit. I’ve already indicated a lack of interest in a wealth display, so why bother trying again?

      In the vein of Matt Talbot’s recent posts, the geography of America increasingly dictates status in a manner much more permanent than designer clothes or accessories. Americans increasingly live, work, and marry within increasingly smaller endogamous groups based on location and group-consensus-based notions of perceived wealth. This stratification of American society says much, much more about American perceptions of wealth than one accessory.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        However, again with my students in mind, it seems to me that these small groups use clothing to signal membership. It is not sufficient: all the popped collars in the world do not an upper class preppy make, but they are nonetheless very important markers for indicating that a person belongs.

      • Julia Smucker

        But when is a display of wealth “necessary”?

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          This is the key question that I wish we could, as Catholics, get ourselves to ask again and again and again.

        • That is a very good question. I don’t think we ask ourselves that enough. We focus a lot about the sexual messages we can send with our clothes, but we fail to focus on the material messages we send with our clothes. Even if the person who buys the Prada handbag isn’t wealthy, why is it so important to have one? Why is it necessary to advertise to everyone, “Hey look! I have a Prada handbag!”

          I’m not saying it’s wrong to have an expensive handbag, but we do need to think about the material messages we send with our clothing at least as much, if not more so, than we think about the sexual messages. Do we buy Prada handbags because we serve Mammon? (The devil does wear Prada, of course.) Or do we take it for granted that there is nothing wrong with wanting to have the next fancy gadget and the hottest new fashion trend?

          (Oh, for the record, I do like to buy an issue of Vogue occasionally and peruse through the fashion spreads. I could never afford to buy anything (anything!) in the magazine, but I appreciate the art of fashion.)

        • Jordan

          As required by American law for right-hand car mirrors: objects in the mirror are closer than they appear. No person has a plano view of life and its effects; all view what is socially “normal” through distortion. Often this is distortion is wealth. The Angelic Doctor called this “concupiscence”.

          Spending your entire childhood speeding down the Interstate system with your ass planted in something German or Swedish tends to arouse concupiscent thoughts in the mind, such as this state of affairs is “normal”. “Normal” in the sense that, well, doesn’t every family have the means to have two luxury cars?

          The maintenance of the bourgeoisie illusion is through displays of wealth. Indeed, without these displays would the bourgeoisie know who they are? This is why “displays” of wealth appear necessary. But, David makes an excellent point [June 29, 2014 10:47 am]. I interpret his point as a reminder that for faithful people, “the necessary“, the unwarped perspective, is a life rooted in a sturdy belief.

        • Jordan is right, none of us has a firm grasp of what is “normal” and what is “abnormal,” because of concupiscence and our own narrow experiences.

          I want to point out that I actually don’t think there’s anything wrong with owning a Prada or Chanel handbag. I’m not a purse woman (unlike my mom, who buys three a year at minimum) but I am aware that with purses, as with anything else, you get what you paid for, cheaper purses are often that, cheaper. It can be a money saving device (in the long run) to buy more expensive items that will last. (I’m a jewelry and clothes woman in general. Especially earrings and necklaces.)

          I picked purses because I wanted to focus specifically on the material (wealth) messages that women send with their clothing and accessories.

        • I love this micro-thread beginning with Julia’s “But when is a display ‘necessary’?” I’ll certainly be thinking of that and the responses that follow, when I’m spinning down the interstate in my “non-European slightly less than luxury sedan.” Hopefully a handful of earthly saints can arise as a ‘sign of contradiction’. Even so, the concupiscence can be forgiven, but the indifference to and oppression of the poor is the scale tipper.

        • Andrew

          My wife is a T-shirt and jeans gal who happens to be the Corporate Treasurer of a California tech company. She has a set of Movado watches and fancy Coach purses to take to work, and clothes from Nordstrom’s to match, all of which come off as soon as she comes home in favor of the T-shirt and jeans and the Timex. For her, the display of wealth is “necessary”; it is her work uniform, because it connotes her ability to handle large sums of money effectively.

        • Julia Smucker


          Maybe I’m thinking like a Mennonite here (or a Franciscan, which in some ways is rather similar), but I’m having a hard time seeing how wearing expensive brands connotes an ability to handle large sums of money effectively. Aren’t there countless more effective ways to spend that kind of money?

          I’m not actually naïve enough to think your wife’s colleagues will see it the way I do, but maybe that’s all the more reason to witness to another way.

          Perhaps I should beware of my own tendency to judge, but for the sake of the discussion at hand, there is something so deeply disturbing about such a socially required “work uniform” that it leaves me all the more unconvinced of the necessity of displaying wealth.

        • Andrew

          Hi Julia

          Thanks for your response. I actually agree with much of what you have written here, and your response resonates with me strongly. Your line of thinking is the exact reason that I would not personally enter into my wife’s line of work. For the sake of discussion, however, I would like to propose a “Jesuit” counterpoint to your “Franciscan” objection, and to suggest that one can find God in all things, even displays of wealth.

          My wife is in Finance in the first place because she is fascinated by the workings of the economy itself — how money is handled, what instruments exist to manage it. She approaches money the way an engineer approaches machinery and electricity! And she talks about it all the time in those kind of terms.

          I have come to see that Finance IS her vocation. It is what God has meant her to be. I don’t pretend to know all the details of how she brings God’s kingdom about with her work, but I can see that it brings her “spiritual consolation”, in the way of Ignatian spirituality, so I conclude that it must be good in its own way.

          But I can also see that it is impossible for her to participate in the Finance community without paying at least lip service to the idea that wealth is good, hence the displays of wealth in terms of clothing. I have come to feel that such displays are not evil in themselves. It is really how one internalizes such wealth that matters. For my wife, who treats it like the work uniform, it is just something that she has to do in order to be able to do the work she wants and needs to do. It is her form of eating with the tax collectors, so to speak. I think that it is only when wealth, or the appearance of such, becomes something that you “have to have” to feel good about yourself, in essence trying to replace the peace of God with the satisfaction of riches, that it becomes a problem.

        • Julia Smucker

          Now you’re blurring lines in some potentially morally hazardous ways (and splitting hairs: indulging in “wealth or the appearance of such” is only problematic when it’s done to satisfy oneself, but not a problem when it’s done to satisfy the expectations of others?).

          There is finding God in all things, and then there is condoning all things. There is eating with tax collectors, and then there is conforming to social conventions for how a tax collector is supposed to behave. Conflating the former two provides an instant rationalization for anything at all, which I’m sure is not the purpose of the concept. And as for the latter distinction, when Jesus ate with tax collectors he challenged and transformed them; it was (not only in intention but in actual outcome) to their moral benefit, not his material benefit.

          That thought just led me down a comical yet intriguing thought experiment on what a different kind of scene that would be. Could Zacchaeus have said, “See, I will give half my possessions to the poor…” to a Jesus who had said (verbally or otherwise), “See, I’ve got a Rolex…”?

        • Andrew

          I think you have made some very good points, Julia, and I appreciate them in that they serve as a challenge to me not to fall too deeply into the trap of justifying my own lifestyle. Your objections to my tax collector reference, for instance, are quite apt. I do feel, however, that we are going down the same argumentative path that we did a few years ago with the Santa Claus thing , where you appear to insist on keeping free from the smallest taint of consumerism, whereas I seem to advocate for a more worldly-oriented faith that is sometimes overly permissive. I agree with you that my way runs the risk of condoning too much; on the other hand, I feel that your way may on occasion be too quick to condemn as Mammon anything that has the remotest relationship to material prosperity. Allow me to revise some of my comments in light of your criticisms.

          I think that “splitting hairs”, although probably a reasonable inference from what I wrote, is not really representative of my feelings on the issue of dressing expensively. I don’t mean to delineate certain circumstances under which material displays are morally suspect and others which are all hunky-dory. However, it is simply a fact that a great many people in the field of finance are very interested in wealth (which may range from simple greed to an honest belief that they are promoting the social goods of capitalism by their actions), and that they dress in a certain way to indicate that interest. It can be a good thing to witness against that tendency, but I’m not sure we are called to that kind of witnessing all equally and in the same way. My wife could take a courageous stand against all appearances of wealth, but the practical result of that would only be to shut her out of opportunities in her field.

          So what is she to do? She could work in another field entirely, of course, but that wouldn’t be living out her vocation. So she does what I think is the next best thing: she goes along with the dress code, but does her best not to let these trappings take hold in her interior disposition. Sure, she might enjoy owning a Movado watch, but it still comes off as soon as she gets home, and it is valued more for its function (i.e. street cred amongst her colleagues) than as an acquisition in its own right. Is the display of wealth “necessary”, in a philosophical sense, in that it does anything directly to further the Kingdom of God? I would have to say no. Is it “necessary” in a practical sense, in that it enables her to live out her vocation? I would say yes in this case. I would also say that its harmful effects are minimized to whatever extent she avoids it affecting her interior disposition. This is what I should have expressed when I talked about certain forms of wealth display being “not evil in themselves.”

          I also think that there are many more worse tendencies at work in the workplace (e.g. the tendency to evaluate self worth based on financial success, the tendency not to make enough time for family because of work, etc.), tendencies that are so truly destructive that one MUST make a stand against them. Compared to these, I am not sure in the final analysis that the sin of dressing up is that big a deal.

          Let me ask you a question, Julia, which will help clarify my understanding of your position. In your opinion, is it possible to work in the field of finance at all and still be a good Catholic? Is it possible to be wealthy and still be a good Catholic?

        • Julia Smucker

          Andrew, I agree that we are probably headed toward that same impasse as with the “Santa Claus” question, and that I lean toward erring on the side of purism regarding such questions, and you on the side of permissiveness. There may not be much more to add at this point, but I think the best answer to your question is the one Jesus gave, in two parts: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle…” and, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” It’s a fine line to walk, and one that calls for unrelenting vigilance against a self-justifying complacency toward the moral dangers involved.

    • I want to play devil’s advocate with this posting, slightly. I heard an interview with a woman who wrote the book “Overdressed: The High Cost of Cheap Fashion” and she asked a different question. “A lot say, ‘I can’t afford a $300 pair of shoes.’ However, I want to ask two questions. ‘Can you afford a $30 pair of shoes?’ and ‘Do you really NEED ten pairs of shoes?'”

      That may be another topic for discussion, not how expensive the items are, but how many items we need.

      I have not yet read the book, but it’s on my list.

  • Agellius


    You write, “given the long history of men oppressing women … I think the ball is in your court to frame a convincing argument to the contrary.”

    The idea that men wanting women to dress “modestly” (setting aside for now whether this is the correct usage of the word) arises from a desire to exert dominance over them, IMHO is simply counterintuitive. It seems intuitively true to me that if men wanted to dominate women, the main reason they would want to do so is for sex. In which case, why use their dominance to make them wear floor-length dresses, and bathing suits that at one time were less revealing than most evening dresses are today?

    It seems clear to me that when men urge women to dress “modestly”, it arises from a desire to protect them from being the objects of the unwholesome desires of other men, specifically because men know how men look at women.

    If you had said that men wanting women to wear tight miniskirts and skimpy bathing suits arises from a desire to exert power and dominance over them, that I would find intuitively believable.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Agellius, by your argument, the Taliban and other Salafist Muslim men do not want to dominate women because they want them to wear burkas instead of Victoria’s Secret. This, however, is clearly wrong. Dominance is more than sexual: it is about power. It is about the power to define identity and social communication. Sex is definitely part of it, but dominance is intended to control who can have sex with a woman, and by extension, who may see her “womanly charms”.

      • Agellius


        You write, “by your argument, the Taliban and other Salafist Muslim men do not want to dominate women because they want them to wear burkas instead of Victoria’s Secret.”

        That’s a non sequitur. I didn’t argue that the desire to have women dress modestly cannot coexist with the desire to dominate women. I argued that the one doesn’t follow from the other.

        It’s fallacious to conclude that because one group uses power and dominance to enforce modesty, therefore anyone who advocates modesty must be seeking power and dominance. That’s like saying that because some people steal valuable works of art, therefore anyone who loves a great work of art must have a secret desire to steal it.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO


        you wrote:

        “The idea that men wanting women to dress “modestly” (setting aside for now whether this is the correct usage of the word) arises from a desire to exert dominance over them, IMHO is simply counterintuitive. It seems intuitively true to me that if men wanted to dominate women, the main reason they would want to do so is for sex.”

        You are making a universal claim here, that dress codes arising from dominance are counter-intuitive; I provided a rather extreme example of exactly this. My point was that your intuition was wrong and that dress codes followed directly from dominance in this case.

        I still stand by my original argument, that a deep concern for the minutiae of women’s dress has less to do with sex than with power over women. It is not fallacious to look at these extreme examples and draw parallels with the situation under discussion and then draw the conclusion that similar motivations are in play.

        You are welcome to try to convince me otherwise, but you would need to find another explanation for all these parallels, beginning with the asymmetry: the lack of real concern over modesty as a virtue for men. Note my discussion with Julia about modesty codes for Mennonites, where a whole different framework is involved and there are quite specific rules for men and women.

    • LM

      “It seems clear to me that when men urge women to dress “modestly”, it arises from a desire to protect them from being the objects of the unwholesome desires of other men, specifically because men know how men look at women.”

      Really? A couple of years ago, there was a fire at an all-girls school in Saudi Arabia, where the students made the mistake of running out of the building without their abayas and the religious police made them go back inside to get them, where they subsequently died. After all, we couldn’t have those firefighters thinking unwholesome thoughts about a schoolgirl who isn’t dressed head to toe in black. Such a thing might even lead to mixed swimming. This is what we call misplaced priorities.

      In neurotic, patriarchal, and purity obsessed cultures, the physical appearances of women are considered to be stumbling blocks for men and must be hidden at all costs. Much of the misogyny that one sees against women in religious contexts comes from a fear that all it takes is for the wrong woman to cross a man’s path to led him into sin. Obsession with female modesty among ultra-Orthodox Jews has gotten to the point where pictures of women, even little girls, are forbidden in their newspapers and magazines, and fathers cannot even attend the graduations of their daughters. The concept of “kol isha” states that it is immodest for a man to hear a woman singing, meaning that ultra-Orthodox women can only sing or perform in front of other women. Furthermore, if women are considered to be property and an extension of a certain man’s wealth, then society may see a need to hide wives away in the interest of promoting the common good or egalitarianism, as was the case in classical Athens after the reforms of Solon when “proper” women were confined to their houses.

      Going specifically into the Catholic tradition, we see how the Church Fathers glorified virginity and viewed women as temptresses and the font of evil. Thus we get this fun quote from Tertullian, “Do you not realize that Eve is you? The curse God pronounced on your sex weighs still on the world. Guilty, you must bear its hardships. You are the devil’s gateway, you desecrated that fatal tree, you first betrayed the law of God, you who softened up with your cajoling words the man against whom the devil could not prevail by force. The image of God, the man Adam, you broke him, it was child’s play to you. You deserved death, and it was the son of God who had to die!”

      Origen, who famously castrated himself, said that women were worst than animals, because they were full of lust. I think that this is obviously projection on Origen’s part, which is probably why he castrated himself in the first place. Jerome had nothing good to say about women or marriage, saying, “Thus it must be bad to touch a woman. If indulgences is nonetheless granted to the marital act, this is only to avoid something worse. But what value can be recognized in a good that is allowed only with a view of preventing something worse?” To Jerome, the only good thing about marriage was that it created more virgins. Otherwise, it was a waste of time and energy.

      Of course, I would be remiss if I left out Augustine of Hippo, who said, “I don’t see what sort of help woman was created to provide man with, if one excludes procreation. If woman is not given to man for help in bearing children, for what help could she be? To till the earth together? If help were needed for that, man would have been a better help for man. The same goes for comfort in solitude. How much more pleasure is it for life and conversation when two friends live together than when a man and a woman cohabitate?” According to Augustine, women only exist for men to have sex with and procreate with, presumably to create other men, preferably clerics. I mean, it’s not like women have their own lives or thoughts or anything like that, am I right?

      Much of this ecclesiastical misogyny is due to the fact that they put the virtue of celibate monks and priests up on a pedestal, which meant that women as a whole became the biggest threats to their “purity.” If men think women are an impediment to their spiritual progress, then they will insist on keeping women covered up or hidden away so they won’t be tempted. You see the same dynamic at work in Buddhist cultures as well, especially in the Theravada tradition, which also has an all-male, celibate hierarchy. Fear of a loss of male “purity” is also at work in the ultra-Orthodox communities, which I have mentioned above, as well as in Islam. The men who demand that women dress according to their ideals may say that they’re doing it to help women out, but it’s obvious they’re only doing for their own benefit, so they can put the responsibility for their sexual behavior (or misbehavior) on women. Plus, if a woman is dressed incorrectly (however that’s defined) it provides an easy excuse if something should happen to her. The primacy of Eve in the Fall means never having to say you’re sorry.

      • dominic1955

        “The primacy of Eve in the Fall means never having to say you’re sorry.”

        You’ve got to take up that beef with God, you can’t pin it on St. Jerome or St. Augustine.

        To answer David’s question above, I would say that I approach religion as a given. As a Catholic, the rulings and teachings of the Church, the Early Church Fathers, the major Scholastics and Doctors and Saints etc. cannot be waived off as so much dunderheaded primitivism. Especially the official teaching of the Church and how it interprets Scripture and Tradition.

        As such, when I take in the teachings (official and unofficial) on modesty, I really don’t care about people’s readings of it as “mysogeny” or about “power” and “dominance”. IF its really the case that God and His Church desire women (and men for that matter, because they do) then that is that. Them being “power” or “dominance” plays falls into irrelevance.

        That being said, something like modesty is not a thing that has anathema statements from Councils teaching on it. It is easy to conflate a time bound norm with the Eternal Teaching of the One True Church for people with a very time bound outlook on things. Its also easy to completely dismiss as so much nonsense to people with equally time bound outlooks in another direction.

        At least in the Trad churches I frequent, it seems the modesty codes are enforced by the women. Then men do not typically say much about it, maybe some comment about the way people are dressed in other churches. But, by and large, its a women’s concern.

        Personally, I think everyone is bound to practice modesty and all the rest of the virtues. I don’t think there is any hard and fast rules to what constitutes “modesty” and I think it is more counterproductive to get obsessive about it than it is to tolerate somewhat looser interpretations than your own. I also think that the rather frumpy dress of some modesty proponents completely works against what they are trying to advocate for as well.

        On the other hand, too many people (Catholics even) write it off as completely irrelevant. They chalk their choices to wear super short shorts and bare midrifs or pec and ab tight shirts as a “comfort” issue or a freedom issue. I think anyone who isn’t completely naive knows that in this culture, you want to show off the bodily goods you have and that is decidely sexual in nature. You’d have an argument if we were living amongst certain native peoples in tropical areas, but not here.

        • LM

          “As a Catholic, the rulings and teachings of the Church, the Early Church Fathers, the major Scholastics and Doctors and Saints etc. cannot be waived off as so much dunderheaded primitivism. Especially the official teaching of the Church and how it interprets Scripture and Tradition.”

          The problem is that much of what is said is dead wrong, not just in terms of ethics but from a scientific perspective. Women are not defective forms of men and neither are they the result of some “defect” in the “active force” of semen, as Thomas Aquinas said (“As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from a defect in the active force or from some material indisposition, or even from some external influence. – Summa Theologica). That’s just not how human reproduction works on a biological level. If nothing else, we can agree that this statement is empirically wrong.

          Furthermore, how much contact with women did any of the Fathers, saints, and popes have? Many of these guys lived in all-male, clerical-monastic worlds from the time they were pre-pubescent children. How would they know what women are really like, especially if they assumed a priori that women and stupid and evil and that they had nothing to learn from them? I would no sooner look to Augustine and Thomas Aquinas to teach me about the true nature of women than I’d look to Martin Luther on Judaism. If you can’t see how modest dress codes can be a power play, then there’s not much I can do you convince you otherwise, because you’ve already decided that no problem exists. I’d be curious to learn how you would explain why so many men get turned on by supposedly “modest” Catholic schoolgirl uniforms.

          With regard to modesty, I personally think that we need to decouple nudity from sexuality. It’s ridiculous when we have to bring out the fainting couch because three seconds of a nipple was exposed on television. To me, the nudists/naturalists seem to have the most sane ideas by accepting and embracing the human body, male and female, young and old, in all of its many permutations in social, non-sexual events.

        • dominic1955

          OK, I was unclear-my fault. I’m saying official teaching and received tradition. Even St. Thomas Aquinas was wrong about the Immaculate Conception, but he was a scholastic not an LDS prophet.

          Catholic school girl uniform is a fetish for some, I would say, because it fires up a number of triggers and I would assume different for different guys. However, there is nothing “modest” about the sexualized plaid skirt. The actual thing-not so much.

          There is no way to completely decouple nudity from sexuality. I would agree that many folks go to far in getting worked up about silly things, but there is no way in hell we can allow people to just go around completely naked. It became a trigger after Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit.

      • Regarding dominic1955 July 1, 2014 12:12 pm:

        I think anyone who isn’t completely naïve knows that in this culture, you want to show off the bodily goods you have and that is decidedly sexual in nature.

        Well if the purpose of all of this were merely for sexual attraction and gratification then perhaps your statement would be true. But the vast, vast, vast amount of ‘immodesty’ is geared towards control or esteem issues all of which are unhealthy and unhelpful. Seduction is not an avenue to healthy fulfillment, its a desire to overwhelm the other thru allurement. Think of the use of sexuality in advertising…its about control and manipulation. It could arise from personal or corporate agendas but the dynamic is about inducing others to behave as you want or to desire what you have. Not to have sex.

        Conversely, in the healthy sexual relationship power is inverted. People give to one another, they sacrifice for one another and they build each other up. Control and manipulation are anathema to such a relationship.

        I guess what I’m trying to say is that in God’s plan for sexual relations the loving couple doesn’t need a lesson on modesty because they necessarily live as such. However for those who need to hear the message of modesty and are frightened about their inability to handle ‘the immodest’ enticement…the real concern is not about defending themselves from others…but in controlling themselves rather than others, as they most often want to do.

        • dominic1955

          Sure, a person needs to control themselves-absolutely. No one would argue that this is incorrect. But the Church, as Mother and Teacher, has competence in this realm.

          I don’t like when people name themselves Morality Police and decide to tell people that they are dressed wrong. If anyone needs to say anything, it should be a friend or a priest, not some random busybody. But, yes, modesty does need to be preached and some people need to be told that they aren’t living up to it.

  • Evagrius

    I recall a certain post on here wherein a Catholic woman,claimed that the dress of most trad men was due to their latent homosexuality. I wonder would a post saying the opposite have gotten posted here?

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      The dress of most homosexual men was due to their latent traditionalism? 🙂

      • Evagrius

        Ha, I teed myself up for that one.

        But seriously the post I was referring to is here- http://www.patheos.com/blogs/voxnova/2011/07/08/sola-skirtura-and-sexual-woundedness/

        I was also incorrect in my original assertion regarding homosexuality. Still I find quotes like this problematic:

        I saw in this subculture, or at least in this particular member of it — a shrinking from ontological maleness, a way of being a man that seemed gerry-built upon opposition to accepted standards of masculinilty, a self-professed orthodox Catholicism veering towards Traditionalism, and some deep-seated sexual problems — strike me now as disturbingly emblematic of a certain type of Catholic man.

        Perhaps it is just me but I see this type of critique all over the place, as well as in the Catholic milieu. i just can’t help but see that as too one sided.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          Well, that post is a bit old, but feel free to engage with the author here. I only take responsibility for what I write, however.

    • Jordan

      Or, “the dress of most trad women is due to their latent lesbianism”? I think that an attempted proof of either proposition would be interesting.

      Catholic traditionalism is très gay (a nasty and malignant homophobic homosexuality actually), but I don’t think that dress or vestments alone is the reason. Male homosexuality in traditionalist culture is a much more varied, and entangled, question.

      • Mark VA

        Jordan, et al:

        I think that there are some hints of a fixation on Traditional Catholicism and its “sins, transgressions, and skeletons in the closet”, in many of the above posts.

        I understand that for some, Traditional Catholicism is a terra incognita, which may also function as a handy focal point for all sorts of loony conjectures. To be fair, some Traditional Catholics speculate about the Novus Ordo Catholics in a similar, skewed way.

        In both cases, I believe it is the lack of a sustained contact, dialogue, and basic familiarity with the respective liturgical settings, which may provoke such poorly thought out opinions (for example, I know many adult, life long Catholics, who know only the EF, or the OF).

        I believe a greater measure of charity and moderation of opinion would make this conversation more informed.

      • dominic1955

        I know of the types of people being referenced, but my parish (and many of them I’ve frequented) are pretty blue collar and unaffected. Nasty homophobic homosexuality camp is certainly not something that immediately springs to mind…

      • Jordan

        MarkVA [July 1, 2014 9:36 pm] and dominic1955 [July 2, 2014 12:47 am]: Guys, look, I lived as a devout trad for 15 years, so I can walk the walk. Anyway, a healthy serving size of the traditionalist clergy is digging dudes, even if they’re not telling. I’ve met some closeted laity as well, but the real reason why I escaped traditionalism is the obnoxiousness of some traditionalists, especially the sanctimonious ones. Read David Berger’s Der heilige Schein for more information on this subject (book is still auf Deutsch, sadly.)

        Game over with the denial. Traditionalism needs to acknowledge homosexuality in its clerical and lay ranks. I know that this admission is one of the worst fears of traditionalists, and especially the really homophobic contingent. But the wound will only fester until it’s lanced. Silence about sexuality is really a power/control issue not unlike dress codes, as a false and potentially malignant uniformity is a thin veneer for the potential for massive disorientation brought about by the truth.

        • Matk VA


          Thank you for your kind response. That this issue exists in the traditionalist setting, and most likely always has, should be neither shocking, or news.

          However, in the traditionalist context, this matter is usually considered private, and not a subject for public commentary. I believe that the sanctimonious “holier than thou” individuals, as well as the budding activists, should learn to appreciate the wisdom of this boundary. Besides, there are many other more fertile fields for us Catholics to plow.

          Thus it seems we’ve come to an impasse: your preference for ending this silence, and my preference for this remaining a private issue, are both exercises of power and control (and if there is a third position, then it too will be an exercise of power and control, by default). Perhaps we’ve come to this point because there is an underlying lack of trust among us.

          Christ said that the Truth will set us free – so how do we proceed, Jordan?

        • Jordan

          MarkVA [July 4, 2014 6:54 am]: All people of faith, and good will, should agree that outing is not the solution. Any person, clergy or laity, Catholic or not, is absolutely entitled to privacy. To talk about sexuality is certainly not to talk about individuals. But is that possible, given that sexuality is inherently a personal question?

          I agree that forcing an open discussion of homosexuality and sexuality in general in the traditionalist community is a power/control issue. Still, there’s a delicate balance between power/control and a genuine compassion. A traditionalist priest who is in severe existential and psychological distress over his homosexuality will certainly not contact one of his parishioners to talk about the issue, as human weakness could possibly lead to the entire congregation knowing about the priest’s sexuality. Should he find a spiritual advisor? Should he even seek psychotherapy? Who can he really trust?

          The Truth will set us free, but only if we act in abundant compassion towards human frailty. Is leaving our spiritual fathers and also the distressed laity alone to suffer psychologically an act of abundant compassion?

  • Agellius


    We seem to be arguing on different tracks. I’ll try to clarify my end at least.

    I wasn’t arguing about the pants issue, and my point was not that power and dominance must always be about sex. My point is simply this: That Christian men arguing that women should dress more “modestly” (again setting aside whether that’s the correct word) is not about power and dominance in any intuitively obvious way.

    As far as I can see, the argument seems to run something like this: “Back when women dressed ‘modestly’, they were deprived of the vote and were rarely college educated, etc., therefore men who want women to dress that way must also want to disenfranchise them, etc.” Or, “Women are forced to dress modestly in some Muslim countries, therefore men who want women to dress that way must also wish that they could stone them for noncompliance.” This reasoning is obviously fallacious.

    As to Muslim societies — say, the Taliban in particular — it does appear on its face that power and dominance (P&D) is a big issue, since P&D are exerted over women in many ways besides dress. But to say that the wearing of burkas **per se** is about P&D, again that doesn’t ring true to me. Dictating how they dress, sure, that might be about P&D. But given that dress is dictated, and granting that it’s done out of a desire for P&D, dictating that they wear burkas rather than, say, sheer negligees, does not on its face indicate P&D as its primary motivation. Surely there’s a religious and moral element involved in that particular CHOICE of dictated dress.

    Now if they changed the laws so that women could be educated and hold jobs, and vote, and wear tight miniskirts and bikinis without legal or religious penalties; and if men limited themselves to argumentation and persuasion in their efforts at getting women to dress modestly, in this scenario — which resembles the situation among modern Western Christians — I’m no longer seeing P&D. At least not on its face. If it’s there it must be subtle, in which case the onus is on those who are still seeing it, to show me why I should believe it.

    Regarding the apparent lack of concern for modesty in men, I think it boils down to the fact that women don’t find the way men dress to be a constant source of temptation. Maybe they do, but if so then I wonder why you don’t find Christian women pleading with Christian men to dress more modestly, in anywhere near the numbers in which you find men making that plea, if at all. You can’t expect men to make that argument if women aren’t even making it.

    • dominic1955

      Also regarding the apparent lack of concern for modesty in men, I’d say its because the vast majority of men’s clothing is modest. If I put on a suit, the only skin you see is my hands and my head. Even if I put on jeans and a T-shirt you still only see my arms from about mid bicep. Shorts and a t-shirt in men’s wear generally goes to the knee and is fairly baggy.

      When men do not dress properly, say for Mass, its usually not in the immodest degree (at least not sexually) but rather in being sloppy. Also very rarely do you have some guy that would wear black or white tie to Mass outside of some special situation, thus you really don’t have any immodesty in being conspicuosly overdressed either.

      No doubt there is men’s clothing out there that is immodest, but I think I can speak for a good number of men in saying I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing it.

      • Agellius

        “Also regarding the apparent lack of concern for modesty in men, I’d say its because the vast majority of men’s clothing is modest. … No doubt there is men’s clothing out there that is immodest, but I think I can speak for a good number of men in saying I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing it.”

        Exactly. Most men, having ogled at one time or another, would sooner die than be on the receiving end of the ogling. Which convinces me that most women have no clue of the extent to which they’re ogled. If they had, they might wear burkas voluntarily.

    • Matk VA

      I agree with your posts, Dominic1955 and Agellius.

      I would also like to add that forcing an issue to be discussed exclusively in terms of power and dominance is, in itself, an exercise of power and dominance.

      I think that one of the common causes of these “Catholic tangents”, is lack of meaningful contact and communication among the various groups of Catholics. This causes an inability to distinguish between the norm, and the outliers. We scatter too much, and not gather enough.

      • Agellius

        “I would also like to add that forcing an issue to be discussed exclusively in terms of power and dominance is, in itself, an exercise of power and dominance.”

        I agree. It’s also a failure to give people the benefit of the doubt that they mean what they say.

    • “I’m no longer seeing P&D. At least not on its face. If it’s there it must be subtle, in which case the onus is on those who are still seeing it, to show me why I should believe it.”

      Well of course its subtle, as most evil is, until it reveals itself in full force. As in the recent case of the young man who went on a killing rampage, because he couldn't find women who would submit to him sexually as he clearly thought he was entitled to. Obviously, this young man had concocted a notion that women were meant to serve his sexual needs and they were most unjust in not fulfilling his desires. Thus he lashed out at others. Extreme?…of course; but he was merely distorting what he regarded as a cultural norm.

      Speaking of violence related to sexual matters, why do we need a convention (that the Pope is heralding) to confront the use of rape as an instrument of war and intimidation? Is that about immodest behavior?

      “Regarding the apparent lack of concern for modesty in men, I think it boils down to the fact that women don’t find the way men dress to be a constant source of temptation.”

      …as men certainly do, if I might complete your thought. But what exactly are men tempted to do when they spy an immodest exhibition? Well, have sex of course. Does this imply forming a relationship, making a commitment, accepting responsibility? No, no, no…it means using a person for one’s selfish end. And how does this happen, well one tries to seduce them (manipulation) or force them (intimidation) or take advantage of them in their vulnerability (abuse them). Even in the case of true mutual consent, we are speaking of two individuals taking advantage of each other to satisfy their own desires.

      Angellius, back in the 70’s I came across a book that truly enlightened me and clarified some important issues. As it turned out, it became a ‘feminist classic’ long before the category existed and thus may make some people uncomfortable to take up and read. At any rate, it has a full discussion delineating sexual issues versus power issues. It’s still available on Amazon and the title is Against Our Wills: Men, Women and Rape by Susan Brownmiller.

  • Ronald King

    Very interesting. Modesty seems to be a set of beliefs based on the reaction and projection of internal responses of the observer to the “object” being observed. Modesty in that sense seems to be a result of internal conflict aimed at preventing or controlling what the observer considers humiliating or sinful. If so, then it develops from fear and fear tends to lead to control.
    What we wear and why we wear it seems to express where we are on the path of love of God, self and others and how this path conflicts with our identity in this world which is formed through the indoctrination of values and beliefs being imposed upon each of us from competing systems, the church and the state. In my opinion each wanting to control us through the fear of expulsion if we do not conform.
    It seems to me that modesty can only develop through awareness of what we are dependent upon for our self worth and to discern whether that belief or object is created from love or fear. Go to a nude beach and start there to observe what happens.

  • I want to be clear that in all of my remarks I never meant to conflate ‘traditionalism’ or those who prefer EF over OF Mass as more prone to the issues discussed in this post. It simply doesn’t register as a relevant matter for me. Also, I strive to practice and teach the virtue of modesty in my own life. I’m an elder parent with a young teenage daughter and am well aware of the many dynamics that are swirling around a young girls mind as she works through her own journey to maturity. And I’ve also raised a son who is now in his mid 30’s.

    Now David asked a question and asserted a response in the original post to which I agree: ”So why this fundamental asymmetry? Again it could be argued that men and women are different, and different rules need to apply. I agree that men and women are different. However, I am suspicious of any argument(s) that start with this premise but then proceed to draw universalist conclusions that support a social order that is at its heart, unchristian, since it is an order that defines men as normative and dominant, and women as marginal and subordinate.”

    Do we really have to argue with this remark? As faithful Catholics do we really need to defend some of the anachronistic and erroneous arguments that Church Fathers made simply because they were piously asserted along with truly inspired matters. Do we have to proclaim that sin entered the world ‘through a woman’ and proceed to enable a culture of distrust and suspicion that continues to see women as less noble and having less dignity? Are we blind to how our Lord Jesus, loved and respected women and treated them with compassion and dignity in the midst of his own cultural circumstances?

  • Agellius


    You write, “As in the recent case of the young man who went on a killing rampage, because he couldn’t find women who would submit to him sexually as he clearly thought he was entitled to. Obviously, this young man had concocted a notion that women were meant to serve his sexual needs and they were most unjust in not fulfilling his desires.”

    Was that really it? I thought he was just mad because women didn’t like him the way he thought he deserved to be liked. As a result of this rejection, he got angry and developed the urge to exert P&D. But I didn’t watch the video so I could be wrong.

    You write, “But what exactly are men tempted to do when they spy an immodest exhibition? Well, have sex of course. … And how does this happen, well one tries to seduce them (manipulation) or force them (intimidation) or take advantage of them in their vulnerability (abuse them).”

    I would say that most of the time, at least in case of men who are sincerely trying to live as Christians, it’s not so much a temptation to have sex as to imagine having sex. And in the imagination it need not involve seducing or raping or abusing someone. Of course some men may take their fantasies in that direction, but fantasizing about sex need not take that tack.

    In any case, you seem to be arguing in favor of my thesis: Granting for the sake of argument that when men fantasize about sex, those fantasies must involved P&D, in that case, dressing in ways that are designed to encourage men to think about sex, encourages them to imagine scenes of P&D. Whereas dressing more modestly could help prevent men’s thoughts from turning in that direction. It would seem to follow, in that case, that men who argue in favor of modesty are arguing not in favor of P&D, but against it.

    • Ronald King

      The young man you are referencing had a mental illness which appeared to develop in response to being bullied, humiliated and socially isolated while at the same time going through the hormonal and physical changes associated with sexual development. It seems from my perspective that projection and narcissism defended him against the pain of not being able to fit in with his peers. There is obviously much more to this.
      Dressing more modestly will not prevent males from their fantasies about sex. These fantasies are a natural consequence of how we are created. What we are taught about these sexual fantasies will determine whether or not we develop a mature response to our sexuality.

      • Thanks for pointing this out…and I shouldn’t have used a specific example involving someone’s mental illness in my comment. Mea culpa.

    • Julia Smucker

      Agellius, I agree with you in that women have a responsibility not to objectify ourselves; in fact, to take it one step further, a healthy modesty is not only morally mature but also much more genuinely empowering than the popular lie that sexual objectification equals liberation (an idea that invariably makes me think of Ariel Levy’s nuanced counterpoint in this interview with Stephen Colbert).

      At the same time, men are equally responsible to show modesty in the way they think, speak and act toward women. The problem with some exhortations to modesty (not that this is in any way a problem with modesty itself, properly understood) is when men are more easily let off the hook, excused by some appeal to a baser masculine nature (i.e. “men will always be men” and simply can’t help themselves), an assumption as demeaning to men as it is to women. That’s what leads to the double standard David is pointing to, and at worst it leads to victim-blaming in cases of sexual violence.

      For the simple reason that all human beings have moral agency, the responsibility must be shared, even though this may look different in some ways between the sexes. Women owe it to themselves, and to men, to present themselves as full human beings rather than mere sex objects. And men owe it to themselves, and to women, to exercise self-control in thought and behavior.

      • Mark VA

        Amen, Julia, words of wisdom.

        And if I may add, I believe men and women should forsake the competition within their respective groups for the “places of honor”, or for an aura of (ostentatious) modesty, as well.

        As Saint Paul wrote, we should work out our own salvation, with fear and trembling.

        • Julia Smucker

          Amen back at you, Mark – a point repeatedly hammered home by St. Paul and by Christ himself. If we are supposed to “outdo one another” in anything, it is in giving honor rather than getting it (cf. Romans 12:10 ff).

      • Ronald King

        In all my decades on this planet I have never heard “…that sexual objectification equals liberation…)

        • Julia Smucker

          That’s essentially the premise of sexual liberalism. See here for a recent example (and a good explanation of its connection to economic liberalism as well).

        • Ronald King

          Thanks for that link Julia. I will reflect on it and how it fits in with my experiences since coming into this world in 1947. As I look back males and females had been objectified and this was the core of their suffering. The social revolution of the ’60’s and ’70’s was a reaction to that history of objectification. It was the surfacing of rage in response to being used. However, an object starts to become real with the expression of its most powerful repressed feelings and states this is who I am and this is what I stand for. If there is not movement beyond that state of mind then the object is deluded into thinking that she/he has been liberated

        • Thank you Julia for the Bella Knox link. Quite interesting how the ‘frat-boy porn consumer’ resembles the elders in the NT story of the woman caught in adultery, who is brought to Jesus asking for his opinion on the law and punishment for her behavior.

          Ronald wisely remarks: “However, an object starts to become real with the expression of its most powerful repressed feelings and states this is who I am and this is what I stand for. If there is not movement beyond that state of mind then the object is deluded into thinking that she/he has been liberated.”

          To this I would add that that this is not only the object’s (victim’s) struggle. The Church tells us that they also benefit from the conversion of the community in recognizing and removing ‘structures of sin’ (and promoting the common good) that the BK link’s author is referring to.

      • Agellius


        I agree.

  • Mark VA

    Jordan, you wrote:

    “Is leaving our spiritual fathers and also the distressed laity alone to suffer psychologically an act of abundant compassion?”

    What you wrote rings true and thoughtful to me. I believe that charity demands that all human problems and frailties be compassionately addressed – in a proper venue.

    I believe it is the Bishops, and those designated by them, who need to provide compassionate and effective guidance in certain matters. No one should feel abandoned to suffer alone. To do this, trust and the lines of communication between the laity, priests, and the Bishops must be simple and open at all times. We the laity should stay focused on charity towards all, and keep our noses out of others’ business.

    What I wrote are truisms, but often truisms are all we’ve got.

  • Agellius

    I happened to come across the following this morning in an article in First Things, which seemed apropos of this discussion:

    “Today … postmodern cultural theory teaches that social norms and cultural ideals are nothing more than the extruded, solidified manifestations of the primitive, primeval dimensions of the human psyche: sexual desires, will to power, a lust for domination, and so forth.”


    “Every gimcrack cultural theorist today has internalized this mode of analysis: What seems like a noble cultural ideal or elevating vision of the good life is, in fact, the intellectually sublimated form of a desire for domination, or a class interest, or the metaphysics of presence. Thus the critical platitude of our postmodern age: Culture is an artificially solidified, socially sanctified, and rhetorically disguised expression of the desires of the powerful.”

    R.R. Reno, Empire of Desire, First Things, June/July 2014.

    Very interesting article, basically about the ascendance (to a position of power and dominance, you might say) of the attitude that “Life is better, more humane, and more just to the degree that we succeed in relaxing the grip of traditional morality over our interior lives so that our desires can be more freely satisfied ….” Those who disagree, believing instead that the lower desires “need to be subjected to the disciplining power of cultural norms that guide our desires into stable forms, the virtues”, are accused of being obsessed with power and dominance.

  • Ronald King

    Agellius, I would be interested in your opinion of mirror neurons and the possible effects they have on human development and the formation of social systems.

    • Agellius


      Well, as soon as I have one, I will be sure to let you know. ; )

      • Ronald King

        Now that was funny:)