Hey, Father! Modesty at Mass. Why not talk about it?

I have just finished reading the book, Dressing with Dignity, by Colleen Hammond. In the book, it says how women’s clothing at Mass has become too revealing, not only for teens but for their mothers. St. Padre Pio was strict on who he’d allow in his confessional if necklines weren’t up high enough, and skirts weren’t low enough. The book also references what the Catholic Church teaches about appropriate modest dress, especially at church and if one isn’t dressed modestly, Communion can be refused. Why aren’t priests being more strict about this today? I feel like women would think twice about what they wear — especially to church — if they knew this. 

– Anonymous in Dieterich

First, I acknowledge that the topic of modesty in dress, especially in church, tends to be controversial. Many people get defensive and argumentative whenever it comes up. This is probably the main reason why priests and others in ministry avoid addressing it. There is also the idea of “picking your battles;” fewer people are coming to Mass and priests are afraid of offending people so that even fewer show up. But this is only a short-term strategy. We have to address modesty, even if some people choose to be offended.

Let’s begin with the big picture. The primary question is not so much the choice of one specific article of clothing over another or exactly how much of the body should be covered. To some extent, those questions are endlessly debatable and there is admittedly a cultural element at play (see CCC 2524). Rather, when we knowingly choose to dress in an immodest or inappropriate way, the underlying problem is that we do not take God seriously enough and, as a result, we do not take ourselves seriously enough.

God created man and woman — all of us — in His image and likeness (Gen 1:26). Every human person is therefore a profound mystery and has immense dignity. We also know that we are not souls with bodies, but we are both soul and body. Pope St. John Paul II taught that “the body expresses the person.” Of course, the clothing we wear is not part of us, but it is a kind of extension of our body. We could say that the body expresses the person, and clothing in turn expresses the body. It is part of our body language. Within the context of human culture and traditions, we choose clothing to express ourselves as persons, to communicate ourselves to the rest of the world.

Now, the question is this: Knowing that we are made in the image and likeness of God, how should we dress to proclaim this truth? Yes, we believe that the human body is beautiful, which means it is worthy of admiration and celebration. But we also believe that the body is sacred, which means it is worthy of respect and reverence. Therefore, clothing should not simply “cover up” or hide the body, but neither should it unveil the body to everyone indiscriminately. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, “Modesty protects the intimate center of the person. It means refusing to unveil what should remain hidden …  . It guides how one looks at others and behaves toward them in conformity with the dignity of persons … .” (CCC 2521). Here we see that modesty is not some arbitrary limitation on our freedom but rather a virtue that protects our God-given dignity.

Immodesty is an offense against both ourselves and others. Christ’s second great Commandment is, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt 22:39). If we value and cherish ourselves, including our bodies, our clothing will reflect this. To dress modestly and appropriately for the occasion (a wedding is very different from the beach) also shows love and respect for all others present. It sends the message, “I take myself and you seriously.”

Finally, there is an additional consideration when it comes to the clothing we wear during Mass and other liturgies. Mass is not about you! Or me. Or any human being. It is about God and our coming into His presence to worship Him — period. Therefore, anything we do, say, or wear that draws attention away from Him and toward ourselves undermines true worship. Our personal preferences must die in the face of something infinitely more important. Since we are coming into the presence of God — and especially if we intend to receive Jesus in the Eucharist — our dress should express a certain seriousness. Mass is not just another human activity or gathering. We Americans have a reputation for being informal, especially in regard to clothing. Perhaps part of our immodesty in dress is a consequence of this general informality. After all, casual clothing tends to be more revealing, and women’s casual clothing tends to be more revealing than men’s clothing. This could explain why, even if men and women are equally guilty of dressing too casually for Mass, women are more often accused of dressing immodestly.

In closing, a famous exhortation of St. Paul perfectly brings together these themes: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:1–2).