On Modesty in Dress
By John Mallon
© 1995, 2005 by John Mallon
Ah, yes, Summer’s here. I was never big on the Modesty Police, but I can tell you no immodestly dressed woman ever escapes my attention. I have never been very good on custody of the eyes, but one such spectacle (at Mass, no less) a few years ago gave me occasion to reflect on my own responses and the virtue of modesty in dress. It occurred to me that if I were in a conversation with an immodestly dressed woman, in my distraction I would find myself not conscious of her as a person, first and foremost, but rather, I would be thinking of her anatomically—as an assembly of body parts with varying degrees of attractiveness to me according to size and shape.
This is not because I am “sexist,” but because I am male. Next, I wondered what different effect a modestly dressed woman would have on me—all things being equal—same face, same figure, same woman. It occurred to me that I would perceive her and her various physical attributes as comprising a whole person, and I would be more conscious of her as a person whose beauty inclined me to respect and reverence her, and be more interested in who she is than what she looks like. My eyes would be more likely to want to look into hers in a spirit that would heighten my own sense of dignity rather than roving and darting and having me feel debased worrying about being caught “gawking.” In other words, she would be focus, not parts of her.
There is a lesson here about the meaning of virtue and about the four Cardinal Virtues and their opposites: the Seven Deadly Sins. Virtue works out of, and leads to, integration and wholeness helping us to realize our dignity as human beings made in God’s image. Sin works out of, and leads us to disintegration and fragmentation of ourselves and to forget our dignity as human beings.
Any one of the Seven Deadly Sins have an element of idolatry in them. They take something basically good and turns it into a god which in turn enslaves us—as all false gods do. But we end up not only sinning against God and others, but against ourselves in a very poignant way. We take something that is merely part of ourselves and let it take control and dominion over our whole selves. This can, if unchecked, come to rule and obsess our whole lives.
Sexual attraction, a very good thing, becomes lust, a very bad thing, because personhood is subtracted from the situation. When a beautiful person is reduced to an assemblage of attractive body parts, that is fragmentation. We do not fall in love with isolated body parts, however obsessed we may be with them. We fall in love with and marry persons. Immodesty in dress distracts from a woman’s personhood as well as that of the man who finds himself evaluating her body parts instead of engaging her personality.
Virtue, in the ancient Greek sense referred to the essence and fullness of what something is in its fullest potential. The lack of reverence for human dignity through traditional virtue explains why loneliness is a greater epidemic today than AIDS. This is due to the prevalence of the fragmentary colliding of bodies which obscures the engaging of personalities which leads to love.
So virtue, far from being a path to prudishness, is the outline of health and human happiness—wholeness—being fully human—i.e. holiness. Virtues are the signposts at various crossroads of human nature just as the Ten Commandments are the Owner’s Manual for the human person. They indicate how we are made so we may realize and become what we already are.
It is this spiritual principle of fragmentation in lust versus union in love which lies at the heart of all Catholic teaching on sexual morality. For example, in per-marital sex, the marital act is fragmented due to the lack of God’s sacramental blessing in marriage which accomplishes the union of two souls so that they can become one flesh.
In the case of artificial birth control, the marital act is cut off from God’s creative participation by refusing Him free access to use us and our love to bring new life into the world. The married couple united in love is the image and likeness of God the Holy Trinity—not only an image of what God is but what God does. There is a circumincession of love from which proceeds a whole new person. God loves so much He just wants to keep on creating new souls to love. Artificial birth control effectively places a “keep out” sign in front of God preventing our marriage from being His playground. Our love suffers as a result. Less replaces more, fragmentation replaces union.
The modestly dressed woman is usually more attractive and stimulating to a man to behold because she inspires an attraction which stimulates an Eros of the heart, rather than lust of the eye and body. This allure of womanly mystery draws the man to the whole woman, and is infinitely more delicate and exciting because she excites the whole man in a high and beautiful way that evokes respect for her and God’s creative power, as opposed to a fragmented and debased attraction of which, whether he admits it or not, a man feels vaguely ashamed.
Mallon is Contributing Editor to Inside the Vatican magazine
This article originally appeared in the August 13, 1995 issue of The Sooner Catholic, The newspaper for the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City. It appears in the unpublished collection by John Mallon, "For the Real World.")
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