What modesty means to a Catholic woman
“nun and waterfall” by xinem is marked with CC BY 2.0
I didn’t hear the phrase “modest is hottest” unironically until I was a young adult sitting in a mostly Baptist church group. As part of an announcement for a beach trip the group leader said, “and remember ladies, modest is hottest”. I was honestly surprised, this phrase wasn’t common in my life and in this instance it was directed only at the women and only their clothing. I attended this group weekly for over 2 years and, in all the time I was there, I never heard a lesson on modesty. It was only ever brought up to police women’s clothing and bodies.
I’m no stranger to a good modesty lesson. I was raised in the Catholic faith and attended faith formation classes as a child. As a preteen and teenager, I was in youth groups at my church. As an adult, the way I dress has been compared to a Sunday School teacher on more than one occasion and I’ve been corrected on being a show-off more than once. Even though I generally dress modestly, I know that there is more to it than just how much skin is showing. To me and to the Catholic Church modesty has never been only focused on what women wear, but rather on how everyone presents themselves to the world.
What is Modesty?
Modesty, as its core, is about presenting yourself authentically to the world. It’s about neither seeking nor shying away from attention. It requires thoughtful actions in regard to how we dress, speak, and behave.
To better understand this we can look directly at the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
“Purity requires modesty, an integral part of temperance. Modesty protects the intimate center of the person. It means refusing to unveil what should remain hidden. It is ordered to chastity to whose sensitivity it bears witness. It guides how one looks at others and behaves toward them in conformity with the dignity of persons and their solidarity.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2521).
Yes, there are some callouts regarding clothing specifically, however modesty is so much more than that.
Pope Francis himself has tweeted that “Modesty is a virtue that is essential for anyone who wants to be like Jesus, who is meek and humble of heart.” (@Pontifex Twitter).
He doesn’t compare what we wear to what Jesus wore, but instead talks about the attitude we have and how we can be more like Jesus in our hearts. Both the Catechism and the Pope look to behavior, towards ourselves and others, when discussing modesty.
The Catholic Church focuses on modesty as a whole. Instead of focusing solely on clothing it also discusses behavior and speech. The Church reminds us to be meek and humble and to treat others with dignity. It is the responsibility of all Catholics to evaluate how we seek attention and how we stray from modesty. Do we fish for compliments or boast excessively? Do we wear jewelry specifically designed to grab another’s eye and show off our wealth? Do we wear clothing that is inappropriate for the current setting? Do we talk loudly and excessively because we think our own opinion is the most important? Perhaps most importantly, do we criticize the way others dress, act, or speak out of charity and kindness or because we believe we are better than them or that they should be shamed?
Why Is Understanding the Catholic View of Modesty So Important?
In the Catholic Church, evaluating our dedication to modesty is not based on how we look; it’s based on our heart and motivation. Covering up more isn’t meaningful if we don’t accept why we are called to do so. If we only dress to prevent the sin of other’s then we do nothing to evaluate our own sin. Worse, if we use modest dress as a way of being better and standing out from others then we can never be truly being modest. Modesty is about internal motivation. The external acts only come after we change internally and choose to pursue humility and meekness as we are called to do.
As I mentioned earlier, I was taught young what modesty truly was. The people who were taught different meanings and reasoning for modesty viewed themselves, their responsibilities, and their bodies so differently than I did. We may have dressed the same, but we felt so differently about how we were perceived in the world. While they often feel judged or uncomfortable, I am able to walk through the world with my own style, the freedom to choose modesty for myself, and the unerring belief that someone else’s sin is not my fault. I also know that the way I speak and act is just as important as the way I dress. Sometimes modesty means I wear a higher collar shirt or a longer dress, but it also leads me to accept praise with grace and to share my accomplishments without being boastful. By truly evaluating how I was failing in modesty I was able to figure out how I was seeking out attention and correct myself.
Living a truly modest life isn’t always a walk in the park. It is easy to give into prideful temptations, the need for attention, and the modern world telling us that modesty is overrated. While it may be difficult at times, God calls us to live our lives modestly and reap the rewards that come with following him. It’s time for us to stop complicating the message and live the modest life God intended.