Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Missing the Point on Modesty

One of the biggest regrets I had during the "Westian Wars" was that the debate was a bit too wonkish at times. There were endless debates over whether or not continence was a virtue, or just something nice, and both sides went to lenghty explanations from Aquinas to make their point. Don't get me wrong, I love me some wonkery, and those Westians really were freakin wrong. Yet I ask myself almost two years later: did the average person care? How did the stuff being presented help people to grow in holiness, save their souls, follow Church teaching, etc? For lack of a better explanation, my "side" still isn't really good at this.

I had this in mind when I read the following by one Mary Tillotson over at Ignitium Today. One could go pick up a copy of Theology of the Body Explained and find basically the same treatment of modesty: Catholics are spending too much time "fretting" about modesty. They also use a definition of modesty that, quite frankly, is just a load of crap.

Let's break it down. Dressing modestly isn't about sentiments or about how you feel about yourself. It really isn't saying "I respect myself." A lot of people dressing immodestly respect themselves, lead chaste lives, are a lot smarter than you are, etc. It also really has nothing to do with whether or not someone else is going to lust. Yes, we really should safeguard the dignity of others and not lead them into sin. Yet even if there was no lust in the world, modesty would still be an issue, and some people would still need to learn modesty.

So what is modesty? Modesty is having the externals of our life (our dress, our temperaments, our actions) reflect who we really are on the inside, and most importantly, what we are called to be. Man is God's most exalted creation, and a creation which was destined for heaven from the second of his creation. Even once man sinned, Christ came to make it possible so we could once again fulfill our original calling by His sacrifice being applied to our lives. If the way you dress and act doesn't reflect this reality at all times, you have work to do.

If you noticed anything from this definition, it is that none of us are going to practice this perfectly, and that we all have some room for improvement. Welcome to concupiscence and a flawed human nature. in order to do it, we are going to need frequent prayer, access to medicine to cure us of our flaws (the sacraments), and make real effort to practice the virtue of modesty. That's called growing in holiness.

This kind of talk never enters into modesty. Instead, it's entirely about lust, how much we do or don't cover up, etc. I'll be the first to say that a lot of the "modesty culture" promoted by Catholics (even my traditionalist brethren) can be damaging, because what they are teaching is not modesty, but repression. Yet the issue isn't to "stop talking about modesty altogether." Nor is it to adopt the language of repression, but use it within a "loving" standpoint.

I get what the author is trying to say. We need to look deeper at modesty and discover the true roots of modesty. I just think it would do better to actually talk about those true roots, hopefully as often as possible.

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