More on Modesty: What is Permissible vs. What is Best

I received an email from a good friend a couple of weeks after the publication of my essay on three Doctors of the Church and their explanations of modesty. He raised a number of good points, which lead me to desire to explain a little more about my understanding of the virtue of modesty in dress.

First, I will sum up the views of St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Francis de Sales and St. Alphonsus Liguori from the previous essay, though I recommend to get the full picture to head over and read it. When considering whether an act is moral one must evaluate the act itself, the circumstances in which it is performed, and the person’s intention in performing the act. Dressing to fit with one’s state in life, the activity one is participating in, the fashions of one’s society, and with a pure intention are all essential aspects of being modest. Simplicity and cleanliness in dress are also important parts of virtuous dress since they are part of humility, temperance and respect for others.

I ended my essay explaining that our society’s fashions made certain forms of dress morally acceptable, which have not always been understood to be so. Modest dress changes according to fashion. For example, St. Alphonsus Liguori wrote about a particular fashion of his time where women “uncovered their breasts.” Since it was an already established fashion, he said that if a woman dressed that way without any impure intention, without forming lust within herself or intending to lead others to lust after her, then it was morally permissible. He also explained that while it was permissible for her to dress revealingly with pure intentions, the person who invented the trend of uncovering breasts was culpable for instituting a fashion that could lead people into sin—though this too changes with the creators intentions.

Similarly, in our society, there are many fashions that might be more revealing than what was once considered morally acceptable. For example, because it has become normative, one cannot look at a woman in a bikini and presume that she is acting immodestly. She may have no lustful intentions whatsoever. She is simply going for a swim or working on her tan wearing what is fashionable.

That being said, there is a difference between what is permissible, and therefore not sinful, and what is best for a person truly desiring to grow in virtue. Dietrich von Hildebrand, a 20th-century Catholic philosopher, talks about the morally conscious person in his essay “Responsibility” in the book The Art of Living. The morally conscious person is aware of his or her responsibility to the world around him or her. This person sees the beauty and value of those he or she encounters and of all of creation. When a person is awakened to this responsibility of responding to all with seriousness and gravity, not in a scrupulous manner, but in confidence certain of one’s call, while always recognizing that there is a higher being.

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