Why was "modesty" never part of my Catholic vocabulary?

I have noted an abundance of threads about modesty. I find this curious. In my own life, I have never even been aware of modesty as an issue, let alone an issue of seemingly considerable importance to many people.

To explain where I am coming from, I am a cradle Catholic. On my mother’s side of the family, we have been Catholic since shortly after being emancipated from slavery. On my father’s side, we have been Catholic for four generations.

I was born and raised in New York City, historically one of the most Catholic cities in the US. I was baptized as an infant and confirmed as a child; I received the sacraments of reconciliation and Holy Communion. As a family, we attended church every Sunday and holy day of obligation. My brother and sister and I were all altar servers. We prayed and read the bible at home. My parents have always subscribed to both America and The Tablet.

The only way in which I arguably “missed out” in terms of a Catholic upbringing was that my siblings and I were all sent to public schools rather than Catholic schools (I don’t regret this, as NYC has excellent specialized high schools). The reason for this was that my parents have always, as a matter of principle, chosen to teach in public high schools. (When they were first married, they lived in the UK, where my dad was studying. During this time my mom taught at what they call a “public” school, which is actually a kind of private school (such as Eton), for the reason that she was able to work there despite not being a qualified teacher. This experience confirmed their belief in the injustice of a two-tier education system in which the rich are able to buy a superior education for their children.)

My parents have always been very active in the parish, mostly in ministries concerned with social justice, such as the food pantry and teaching English to migrants. They are long-standing members of Democrats for Life of America. In 2007, in obedience to the Church, they terminated financial support for Amnesty International, while continuing to support many of AI’s aims, e.g. as National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty national action team volunteers.

My question, therefore, is this: why was “modesty” never part of my Catholic vocabulary? Please don’t misunderstand me. I was never encouraged to be positively immodest. But my clothing choices have always been essentially the same as those of a majority of western women. Indeed, the only Catholic I know who practices what I would call modesty is a young woman who is a Chaldean Catholic refugee from Iraq. I have observed that she will cover up with a large scarf in the presence of a man who is not a relative. However, I assume that this is more a cultural practice than a strictly religious one. Most of those posting about modesty on CAF, however, seem to be Latin Rite Catholics from the United States. That is why I find it so puzzling that I have never met anybody with this particular concern in real life.

I am not here to debate modesty as such. I am more curious to learn how it is that I managed to go through so much of my life without knowing that this is such an important concern for many Catholics.

7 Likes

The concept of modesty was more common among mainstream Catholics before Vatican II, and a little more “fringe” / conservative after Vatican II, I think.
What were your growing up years – before or after Vatican II?

3 Likes

I was a kid before the internet, and we were taught about modesty, but I don’t remember a particular emphasis on it.

2 Likes

My growing up years were the 1990s/2000s, so long after Vatican II. Even my parents have no recollection of the pre-Vatican II Church.

It’s the emphasis that I find peculiar. There was a thread recently where someone was saying that when a child is seven is “time to start thinking about modesty”. This seemed really odd to me. But, reading through some threads, I get the impression that for many Catholics the issue of modesty is kind of a defining aspect of their faith, like abstaining from alcohol and wearing the head/face covering would be for Muslims or eating kosher would be for Jews.

I heard about it pretty constantly through the 70s, 80s and beyond whenever I wore an outfit that my mother thought was immodest.

I agree there was more emphasis on it prior to Vatican II and before the 1960s and 1970s when clothing standards changed pretty drastically. My parents were older.

As for why you never heard about it, maybe you didn’t tend to push the boundaries with your clothing, or maybe it just wasn’t a priority for your parents. You describe them as being heavily interested in “social justice”. In my experience, Catholics who emphasized social justice (and I knew a lot of them including some of my cousins, many of my teachers and chaplains at school, some of my friends and some of my friends’ parents and siblings) were the least likely to care what anybody was wearing, to Mass or any place else. It was simply a difference in priorities.

I would perhaps suggest that you haven’t known a very wide variety of Catholics. I am basing that partly on some of the other statements you’ve made on the forum as well. It honestly sounds like you’ve been in a bit of a bubble.

3 Likes

I really don’t think it is an issue for “many” Catholics. But it seems to be an issue for some Catholics who frequently consume Catholic social media and “Catholic“ blogs and such.

ETA: I noticed that you didn’t attend Catholic schools. The Catholic schools tend to push modesty a little bit with girls, but even that definitely doesn’t approach the level of Puritan type thought about modesty that can be found on the web.

2 Likes

I think maybe there’s also been a cross-pollination with the more conservative Protestant sects who are big into the modesty and purity culture

6 Likes

I’d say that most posters on CAF don’t represent the majority of American Catholics. Therefore, some of the issues emphasized on here will be different from what you see in the average parish community. (I don’t mean this in an insulting way at all, it’s just how it is).

I personally think that the issue of modesty is a little over exaggerated, at least on this forum. The standard for modesty can be very subjective. In the end, as long as one takes care not to be deliberately immodest in their appearance, I think they’re probably okay.

3 Likes

I think the emphasis on “modesty” (and maybe it isn’t always referred to that way) can be an intersection of “old-fashioned” values / immigrant culture (which can be more traditional) / pushback against pop culture / perhaps even a personal manifestation of the “culture wars”.

2 Likes

My only “modesty” lesson as a teen was “you think you are going out of this house wearing THAT”?!?!?

16 Likes

It could be that your fashion was never immodest, so your parents did not need to enforce modesty. I grew up in the 60s-70s when lots of immodest fashion was suddenly cool, like itsy bitsy bikinis and skirts up to the thighs. (Ugh–can’t imagine it now). And my parents were older–I never once, for example, saw my parents wear jeans. So I heard about modesty or, better yet, I heard “get back upstairs and put something decent on.”

3 Likes

Honestly… because most priests are afraid to discuss it in homilies because a minority of lukewarm Catholics in the pews will give them a hard time.

It’s the same reason why they rarely preach on birth control, fornication, and other sins of the flesh.

These days, really the only sin of the flesh they can preach on without hearing several complaints afterwards is adultery.

9 Likes

We need sermons on birth control two or three times a year.

Your upbringing sounds amazing. I am deeply respectful of the kind of social justice orientation your parents had. I try to impart social justice principles to my son, and it is one of the few subjects where he really takes the matter to heart. He is always eager to pounce upon me and call any cultural observation I might make “racist”.

As far as your question, the concept of modesty really hasn’t existed among American Catholics since, I would guess, the late 1960s. I went to Catholic high school and I cannot recall ever having heard “immodesty” called to people’s attention. Generally speaking, young Catholic women wear anything they feel like wearing to Mass. It is not something people even think about. This is a horrible state of affairs, but it’s just the way things are.

1 Like

Personally, I would sum it up in a single, perhaps over-simplyfied word… modernism.

3 Likes

To be honest, I was always somewhat tall and somewhat curvy for my age, so I learned early on that there was something to be said for keeping a low profile and avoiding unwanted attention. Not that I didn’t always like clothes, but I tended toward jeans and sweaters or loose-fitting maxi dresses. So, this was more a pragmatic decision than a religious one. I think my most eyebrow-raising outfit was when I wore a tux to prom.

You are probably right that I have not met the widest variety of Catholics. I worshipped at the same parish all the time I was living with my parents. It’s one of those parishes where there’s a high level of wealth disparity and racial diversity and hence a lot of emphasis on social justice in very tangible ways.

After that, I’m afraid I was more or less away from the Church for some time. By the time I began to come back, I’d moved, by myself, to San Francisco, and I guess I found myself a parish that was pretty similar to the one I’d grown up in on the other side of the country. New York and San Francisco are of course somewhat similar in many ways.

Moving forward, I am expecting to move to the UK as soon as I am able to. When I am there, I intend to worship with my fiancé/(hopefully soon to be) husband at the Priory Church of the Holy Spirit. This will perhaps be a good move for me. The Dominicans seem to emphasize a rather meditative style of liturgy with highly intellectual preaching. It will certainly be something different. I have tried the Oxford Oratory, but the style of worship is a little too ornate for me, though I must say that the perfectly synchronized doffing of birettas is quite a spectacle. I know that there are people who benefit greatly from this style of liturgy, but I feel more inspired by the simplicity, even the austerity, of the Dominicans.

Thanks, that is an interesting point. I think it’s been said before that Catholicism in the US is more strongly influenced by Protestantism than Catholicism is elsewhere. For example, there are American Catholics who support the death penalty and who believe in creationism, both of which are things you’d find a lot less of outside the US.

True, my personal preferences were never particularly immodest anyway. However, the thread that really tipped me over the edge was not even about fashion anyway. There was a recent thread where somebody was expressing concern that their sons, aged 5 and 7, were going in and out of the bathroom naked.

Or take this: Modeling modesty in dress The poster there is saying that children, in their own home, should wear a dressing gown or robe over their pajamas outside of the bedroom in order to be modest. That poster is from the UK. She’s not talking about teens and adults avoiding going outside the house wearing clothes that reveal a lot of leg or a lot of cleavage etc. She is talking about kids at home with their parents and siblings not being seen in just pajamas without a robe on top. This is the sort of thing that frankly seems a little odd to me.

3 Likes

I think it’s safe to say that many people have different levels of concern or standards about what is “modest”, which depend a lot on their culture, how they were brought up, etc. If a person’s own mother expected them to wear a robe going to and from the bathroom and chided them for being immodest when you didn’t, then it’s likely that they will expect their children to do the same. Often the modesty standards were also expressed in terms of good manners or respect for others, for example when you had a large family all taking turns in the bathroom, it was considered respectful to cover up and not be running past your family members in a state of undress.

Sometimes modesty discussions look a bit overblown to me too, sometimes they look reasonable. However, if it’s not your family or your children or your situation, I’m not sure how it’s polite or productive to keep going on about how “odd” this or that looks to you. Just accept that you were raised differently and let other people do what they do in their own homes. If you don’t think it’s a productive topic, don’t engage in discussions about it - I skip most modesty discussions because I have my own well-formed ideas about what is modest and I’m happy to let others have theirs and live and let live, since I’m not part of their family and they aren’t sharing my house.

And frankly, if I had kids age 5 and 7, I’d expect them to be putting on clothing or a robe before they went in and out of their room or the bathroom. When I was old enough to take myself to the bathroom, brush my own teeth, use the facilities etc I too was expected to cover up and would have been told “that’s not modest, that’s not respectful” if I were walking from my room to the family bathroom fully or partially nude by age 4, let alone age 5. It’s a reasonable thing to train kids to do. I’m aware that there were parents who were more free and easy with nudity in children, but in my part of the Midwest they would have been considered either irresponsible or hippies.

1 Like

Hmmm. I wonder if it’s that American Catholicism is more influenced by Protestantism, or that European Catholics (post Vatican II especially) are more influenced by modern trends? For instance, Padre Pio’s famed emphasis on modesty can hardly be chalked up to American Protestants. Creationism I agree with you, that does seem to be influenced by protestantism. Possibly people who (still) favor the death penalty as well, although there is no shortage of pre-Vatican II thinkers who advocated for the death penalty.

5 Likes

That is an interesting point. I remember a conversation with a friend of mine who is Romanian Orthodox. She said that even in the Romanian diaspora it is common for priests to preach whole sermons against pre-marital sex, and she remarked that this was not something that seemed to happen in most Catholic or Protestant churches.

Over the months that I’ve been on here, I’ve read a lot of your posts, and you sound like a pretty great dad yourself, if I may say so!

I really appreciate the emphasis on social justice that I received as a kid. There are a couple reasons why: first, because I genuinely think it’s good to grow up with a sense of conscience about the world we live in. But, secondly, it has been a very effective way of keeping me grounded in the faith.

My older siblings stayed the course, but I was away from the Church for some time while I was dealing with some personal issues. But the thing that always stayed with me, and that kept drawing me back, were the moral teachings of Jesus and the Old Testament prophets. How could one not love a God who talks about beating our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruninghooks? This, in the end, was what brought me back to Jesus and his Church.

3 Likes

Post-Vatican II American Catholicism is hugely influenced by Protestantism, whether people are conscious of this or not.

I do confess that I myself am more influenced by Southern evangelicalism (Baptist, Holiness, though not Pentecostalism, emphatically not) than possibly I care to admit. It took me a long time to get used to Marian devotion.

1 Like
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit www.catholic.com.