Where modesty comes from, and why it’s still essential today

Where modesty comes from, and why it’s still essential today By Hugh Owen for Life Site News

Modest dress once gave witness to the unique dignity of women. Does it still, or is modesty just an outdated custom?

Nowadays, in Latin and Byzantine Rite Catholic Churches, as well as in the other Churches of the Catholic Church, many ancient traditions and customs have been called into question, and many of the faithful have been led to believe that most of the “old ways” of doing things are “old hat” and no longer apply in our day and age. One of the “old ways” of doing things that is widely regarded as “old hat” is the “old way” of dressing — both the old standards for dress in general and, in particular, the standards of dress for divine worship. In this article we will consider whether the traditional Catholic standards of “modesty” are “old hat” or still valid — subject to change according to fashion, or divinely ordained and timeless.

Before addressing the subject of modesty, it will be important to distinguish between customs, or “old ways” of doing things, that were wrong according to the Gospel — and which therefore needed to be changed — and “old ways” of doing things that were required by the Gospel and which must be maintained. One “old way” of doing things that was not according to the Gospel was the longstanding practice of segregation in Catholic churches in many parts of the United States. Two generations ago, in many states of the Union, Catholic churches were completely segregated according to color. It would not take much reading of the New Testament or of the Church Fathers to know that this practice contradicts the teaching of Our Lord Jesus Christ as it was understood in the Church from the beginning. In the letter of St. James, the apostle strongly condemns any kind of discrimination in the Church based on wealth or social status, which certainly included racial discrimination. Thus, the abandonment of segregation should be celebrated by all Catholic Christians as a victory for the Gospel.

The old custom of segregation according to race is (rightly) so repulsive to people today that many Byzantine Catholics and members of other churches within the Catholic Church are tempted, unfortunately, to regard other customs that were practiced at the same time as equally dispensable. But this is illogical —and extremely dangerous. It is illogical because the mere fact that two customs prevailed in the same Catholic community at the same time (and that one of them was evil) does not prove that the second custom was also evil or dispensable. It is also dangerous because if the second custom accorded with the teaching of the Gospel as it has been handed down from the apostles, the rejection of that custom will do great harm to the souls of the faithful. In short, one must learn to ask the vital question: “Is this or that custom in accord with the Gospel as it has been understood in the Church from the beginning?” If the answer is “yes,” that custom must be defended. If the answer is “no,” it can be changed for good reason — as long as the new practice is also in accord with the Gospel as it has been handed down from the apostles.

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