You Are What You Wear

Thomas E. Woods, Jr., Ph.D.

When I look back on my early days as a Catholic, when I briefly attended the new rite, I recall a great many things that told me something was wrong. High on the list was the way the vast bulk of the congregation was dressed. Many of them may as well have been sitting in the stands at the Indianapolis 500. These were people who would have been mortified to show up at a friend’s wedding in jeans and a T-shirt, yet they thought nothing of donning such apparel for Sunday Mass – where the Sacrifice of Calvary, the greatest act of love the world has ever known, was made present for them on the altar.

This phenomenon is by no means confined to the Catholic Church; a revenge of the casual has insinuated its way into just about every nook and cranny of American society. Sad to say, some faculty members at my college actually show up for their classes dressed in jeans. Once in a while my students actually inquire, particularly on hot days, why I consistently wear coat and tie. I explain to them not only that such attire is appropriate to my profession but also that I dress the way I do out of respect for them – to show that I consider imparting knowledge to them to be rather more significant than, say, digging trenches in my yard.

I love Joe Sobran’s observation about the film Miracle on 34th Street. The Manhattan that forms the backdrop of that movie about Santa Claus is a place of civilized, polite, well-dressed people. We happen to see men and women walking up and down the sidewalks of Manhattan. The women are well dressed and the men are all in suits and hats. As Joe says, today that would be a miracle on 34th Street.

There are really two intersecting issues here – modest dress, and appropriate dress for Mass – of which the former is really my subject. Although nothing immodest can ever be appropriate for Mass, inappropriate dress is not necessarily immodest. Both problems, however, reflect an inordinate preoccupation with self: the immodestly dressed person calls inappropriate attention to himself, while the inappropriately dressed person is either too lazy or too concerned with his own comfort to show respect for others. That it is actually newsworthy when a Novus Ordo priest instructs his parishioners to dress modestly and to show respect for God is almost all we need to know about the overall lack of seriousness in the post-conciliar Church.

Although men, too, are under a moral obligation to dress modestly, the nature of men makes it unavoidable that the vast majority of cautions regarding modesty in dress will be directed at women. The intelligent and civilized woman who dresses modestly reminds those around her that she is a human being, composed of body and soul, who would rather not be reduced to a mere thing in the undisciplined imaginations of strange men.

As we all know, there was a time when the Church considered modesty in dress a matter of great importance. In the course of my research for my latest book (The Church Confronts Modernity, just released by Columbia University Press) I came across a news item from around 1910, according to which the Archbishop of Paris was leading a campaign against immodest fashions in women’s dress. In 1910! Nearly a century later, when even self-described “conservatives” like the crazed Ann Coulter dress in ways that would get them kicked out of a Novus Ordo chapel – all right, I admit that’s impossible, but you get my drift – the present slate of bishops would be embarrassed at the very suggestion that they should be doing or saying anything about it.

The pre-conciliar popes, who could scarcely have believed the apparel that has become mainstream today, cautioned about offenses against modesty in their own day. In 1921, Pope Benedict XV spoke of “the blindness of so many women of every age and condition; made foolish by a desire to please, they do not see to what degree the indecency of their clothing shocks every honest man and offends God.” And while in the past most such women would have blushed at such apparel, now “it does not suffice for them to exhibit them on the public thoroughfares; they do not fear to cross the threshold of churches, to assist at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and even to bear the seducing food of shameful passions to the Eucharistic Table, where one receives the heavenly Author of purity.”

Likewise, Pope Pius XII declared:

The good of our soul is more important than that of our body; and we have to prefer the spiritual welfare of our neighbor to our bodily comforts. If a certain kind of dress constitutes a grave and proximate occasion of sin, and endangers the salvation of your soul and others, it is your duty to give it up. O Christian mothers, if you knew what a future of anxieties and perils, of ill-guarded shame you prepare for your sons and daughters, imprudently getting them accustomed to live scantily dressed and making them lose the sense of modesty, you would be ashamed of yourselves and you would dread the harm you are making of yourselves, the harm which you are causing these children, whom Heaven has entrusted to you to be brought up as Christians.

Modest and appropriate attire point to realities beyond themselves. The person who is modest in dress defeats his own purpose if he should be vulgar and offensive in speech. Modesty involves a recognition of and an instinct for what is appropriate and what is not, what is fitting and what is not. No one could be described as modest, for example, who spoke openly and loudly at a dinner party about the most intimate details of his married life.

This aspect of modesty has a particular significance for the clergy. In an age like ours in which moral corruption is so overwhelming, the temptation is very great for priests to address sensitive moral issues from the pulpit. If the priest should wish to make mention of specific examples of violations of the Sixth Commandment, he must do so in a way that preserves the innocence of the young people in the congregation. There are ways of doing so, of course, involving phrases and language too technical to be understood by anyone but adults.

The problem comes when delicate subjects – indeed subjects that could not have been mentioned on television half a century ago, much less spoken of in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament – are mentioned in sermons without recourse to euphemism or other prudent safeguards. In my opinion, it is never appropriate for the subject of homosexuality – or even the word homosexual – to be raised from the pulpit. Nothing that comes from the mouth of a priest should be a source of embarrassment for parents. We can never permit the degeneracy of the age to corrupt our own standards of what is and is not acceptable. Certainly we must fight against wickedness in all its forms, but there is a time and a place for everything, and holy Mass is surely not the time to call such things as these to mind.

Likewise, I have been told of cases in which a sin that moralists used to refer to discreetly as “solitary vice” is being frankly discussed from the pulpit. That such references constitute egregious lapses in judgment should be obvious. Thanks be to God, some of our children have managed to live their lives without ever hearing such language, or learning what these kinds of words mean. What a terrible irony it would be if their curiosity should be aroused precisely by a sermon against such things, spoken by a well-meaning priest.

Some will say that the issues we have raised here are mere trifles, hardly worth the time consumed in discussing them. But there is nothing wrong with paying due attention to matters that in the grand scheme of things – compared, say, to the need to restore the traditional rite of Mass – may occupy a lower tier of importance. St. Therese of Lisieux was the saint of little things, finding her way to heaven by her persistent pursuit of perfection in even the smallest aspects of her station in life. St. Teresa of Avila expressed a keen appreciation of the deeper significance of seemingly small things when she said she would die a hundred deaths for the smallest ritual of the Catholic Church.

In fact, these little things really aren’t so little, for they point to things that are very great indeed. In our day, to dress modestly is to dissent, boldly and courageously, from a culture that seems obsessed with finding out what happens when base desires are excited at every opportunity. When we dress well for Mass, we acknowledge our subordinate place, behind God and the angels, in the hierarchy of creation. Unlike the adolescent who considers himself the center of the universe, we are capable of showing honor and respect for something greater than ourselves. No matter how otherwise pious he may be, someone who consistently dresses casually in the presence of God, and particularly at the Holy Sacrifice, remains frozen in a state of spiritual adolescence.

Modesty is an unfashionable virtue these days, with most people managing to get through life without hearing so much as a word about it. But it is precisely at a time when no one talks about modesty any longer that we must emphasize it the most.