Reading Time: 15 minutes
By Gianna Catherine
Modesty is a hotly debated topic and discussions oftentimes lose sight of the purpose and value of modesty. When man understood the spousal meaning of the body and had the freedom of the gift, there was no need for modesty. But historical man lost that understanding and acquired sexual shame. He further loses sight of the goodness of the body when he gives into concupiscence. Modesty helps fight lust, beginning in the heart and extending to clothing and attitude, which allows man to see the body in all its goodness. Christ’s call for purity can be most easily answered through the virtue of modesty.
In the Garden before the Fall, Adam and Eve experienced an inner dimension of vision. Genesis proclaims that they “were both naked, yet they felt no shame” (New American Bible, 2011, Gen. 2:25). This nakedness without shame speaks to the fullness of interior vision that was experienced before sin, showing a “particular fullness of interpersonal communion” (A Theology of the Body, 2006, 12:4). They had an integral vision of the other that allowed them to selflessly live for the other. This is because the “body manifests man” (ToB, 12:5) and allows him to communicate with the opposite sex. Adam and Eve were able to see each other reciprocally through the body, “more fully and clearly than through the sense of sight itself” (ToB, 13:1). This interior vision let them see the pureness of male and female in their body and sex. They were furthermore able to see their bodies in “reciprocal complementarity precisely because they are ‘male’ and ‘female’” (ToB, 13:1). They experienced an interior peace because they saw each other in entirety. There was no shame because there was no fear of being used or separating the person from its sex. They understood how to look at one another and in that, understood the meaning of their own bodies in a reciprocal communion of persons.
This understanding of one’s own body is the spousal meaning of the body. Man is meant to be a gift to another – it is part of his very essence. It has been like this since Eden, when Adam cries out, “[t]his one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (New American Bible, 2011, Gen. 2:23) when he lays eyes on Eve. Adam’s announcement seems to say, “[l]ook, a body that expresses the ‘person’” (ToB, 14:4). He does not see Eve as a sex object to satisfy his desires, he sees her body as revealing her hidden essence as a person. Man finds happiness “by existing ‘for someone’” (ToB, 14:2). He understands his body in the context of the reciprocal communion of persons, and the complementariness of the two sexes. This knowledge gives an interior freedom to man.
This interior freedom of understanding his body and sex is the freedom of the gift. It is “the power to express love” (ToB, 15:1) whereby man becomes a gift and his being and existence is fulfilled. This freedom comes from the virtue of self-mastery. Self-mastery allows man to control his thoughts, desires, and actions to be free to give himself as a gift. The understanding of the reciprocal communion of persons and self-mastery “makes possible and qualifies the ‘spousal’ meaning of the body” (ToB, 15:2). It is therefore vital to have self-mastery and a strong understanding of the reciprocal communion of persons before man can give himself as a gift.
This freedom allows man to will the other “for his own sake” (ToB, 15:3), as a person made in the Imago Dei in her femininity or his masculinity. Man welcomes woman for her own sake “as she is constituted in the mystery of the image of God through her femininity” (ToB, 15:3), and woman does the same for man in his masculinity. Adam and Eve understood the body as revealing a value and beauty that “goes beyond the simply physical level of ‘sexuality’” (ToB, 15:4). They saw the body as an outward manifestation of the person – not just in its ability to express love but also as a person willed by God. The human body reveals a person willed for his own sake as unique, unrepeatable, and worthy of respect. Woman was a gift to man, and man receives her “as a gift in the full truth of her person and femininity” (ToB, 17:6). In return, man gives himself and is received as a gift in his person and masculinity. Freedom of the gift consists in a “sincere gift of self” (ToB, 17:6), and calls man to continually see and accept woman as a gift as well as offering himself as a gift to enrich her.
After the Fall, shame becomes the burden of historical man. After sinning, Adam and Eve’s eyes “were opened, and they knew that they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves” (New American Bible, 2011, Gen. 3:7). Man loses that fullness of vision of reciprocal communion he had previously experienced and now has a lack in the fullness of consciousness. He now experiences shame, a “fear in the face of the ‘second ‘I’, and this is substantially fear for one’s own ‘I’” (ToB, 12:1). It is a fear of not being seen in the fullness and value of personhood and of being used as an object. It is when man and woman stop being a reciprocally disinterested gift that shame is felt. After the fall, the body still has intrinsic meaning and man is given the task to rediscover the spousal meaning of the body, a task “inscribed in the depth of the human heart as a distant echo” (ToB, 19:2) of original purity. Man is tasked with defending the spousal meaning of the body and the freedom of the gift from harm.
Part of this burden of shame that affects historical man is sexual shame. Sexual shame is an experience of a breaking of the personal integrity of man’s body within a sexual sphere and springs from concupiscence. Concupiscence causes “difficulty in identifying oneself with one’s own body” (ToB, 29:4) and the subjectivity of the opposite sex. This difficulty helps explain the natural desire to hide one’s body before others. The body still has a spousal character but concupiscence further “limits and deforms this objective mode of existing of the body” (ToB, 32:1). Masculinity and femininity in their mutual relations are no longer expressions of the spirit and personal communion but are attractive objects. The passion of concupiscence “suffocates the deepest voice of conscience in the ‘heart’; it suffocates the sense of responsibility before God” (ToB, 39:2). This passion overwhelms man and insists on satisfying the desires of the body and its senses; never fulfilled, it continues to search for satisfaction until man is consumed.
The look of concupiscence reveals what is in the heart and “expresses man as a whole” (ToB, 39:4). In the look of desire, one is detached from both the spousal and procreative meaning of the body. This desire is an “intentional ‘reduction’, a restriction, as it were, or closure of the horizon of the mind and heart” (ToB, 40:3). Lust reduces a woman as a gift in all her feminine values down to just her sex value. It obscures the spousal meaning of the body and aims only at satisfying sexual urges. The woman is “deprived of the meaning of her attraction as a person” (ToB, 41:1) because she has become an object for the possible satisfaction of man’s lustful desires. Lust obscures the communion of persons, where man and woman are supposed to be gifts to one another. Concupiscence “removes the intentional dimension of the reciprocal attraction” (ToB, 41:5) and makes it a utilitarian relationship. It deforms the “very intentionality of the woman’s existence ‘for’ the man” (ToB, 43:3) by casting aside reciprocal unity for the mere satisfaction of sexual urge. Concupiscence is all about using the person as a means instead of as an end.
Because of concupiscence’s origin, Christ appeals to the heart. He taught that, “everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (New American Bible, 2011, Matt. 5:28). While Christ condemns concupiscence, He in no way indicates that “the object of this desire, namely, the woman at whom he ‘looks with [lustful] desire,’ is an evil” (ToB, 45:4). The heart is the center of gravity, so Christ shifts “the meaning of adultery from the ‘body’ to the ‘heart’” (ToB, 38:1). Christ’s call is an appeal to halt at the threshold of the look. The desire of lust has not become an external act, but it is still an interior act of the heart. Through a look of concupiscence, man “shows what he perceives in his ‘interior’” (ToB, 39:4) on the outside and to others. Christ is showing that man looks in accord with what he is. He therefore calls for the “transformation of the human person’s consciousness and attitudes” (ToB, 45:3) in recognizing and affirming the value and dignity of the body and sex. It is incorrect to understand purity in a wholly exterior way but instead as springing from man’s heart.
Christ has redeemed the heart, and that fullness of redemption “must be discovered, first with an interior vision ‘of the heart’ and then with an appropriate way of being and acting” (ToB, 49:4). The very spousal meaning of the body “is the value at stake in the act of self-dominion and temperance to which Christ calls us” (ToB, 49:5). The way to overcome concupiscence and find fullness is through purity. Purity can be understood as two dimensional – it is a virtue and a gift of the Holy Spirit. When speaking about purity in the moral sense, Christ refers to every morally evil sin so the idea of purity should be understood as a general concept. By this is meant that “every moral good is a manifestation of purity” (ToB, 50:4) and every moral evil of impurity. St. Paul expands on this topic of purity, writing “[t]his is the will of God, your holiness: that you refrain from immorality, that each of you know how to acquire a wife for himself in holiness and honor, not in lustful passion” (New American Bible, 2011, 1 Thess. 4:3-5). This requirement of refraining and keeping the body in holiness indicates that above all, purity consists in controlling impulses.
Purity helps a person to remove concupiscence from his heart. This idea of temperance and self-mastery shows purity to be “a practical ability that enables man to act in a definite way and at the same time not to act in a contrary way” (ToB, 54:2). Sin causes a disunion in the body but the cultivation of purity leads to a “gradual victory over this ‘disunion of the body’” (ToB, 55:7) in the heart, and a sense of reverence toward one’s own body and the bodies of others. Purity glorifies the body before God because “[i]t is the glory of God in the human body, through which masculinity and femininity are manifested” (ToB, 57:3). By keeping the body in holiness and reverence, it is given great dignity in relationships. The body should be kept in this way because of how it was created. On the sixth day of creation, “God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (New American Bible, 2011, Gen. 1:27). Before the fall, man “appears in the visible world as the highest expression of the divine gift, because he bears within himself the inner dimension of the gift” (ToB 19:3). A pure man recognizes the body as representing God’s image and the richness of the person as a subject, therefore inspiring him to treat all with dignity, which then glorifies God.
The body is filled with goodness and should not be hidden out of shame because the body “is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and divine” (ToB, 19:4). It reveals the community of Persons in the Trinity. By the Incarnation, the body was honored and elevated, which means “every Christian must take into account in his behavior toward ‘his own’ body” (ToB, 56:4) and the bodies of others. The body is furthermore dignified as a temple by the Holy Spirit, “who is also the source of the moral duty that derives from such dignity” (ToB, 56:3). Through consciousness of the goodness of the body, “man senses himself as a subject of holiness” (ToB, 19:5). Christ calls man to “realize the spousal meaning of the body and to express this interior freedom of the gift” (ToB, 46:4). Purity is not a call to hide away from relationships or feel an unfounded shame for the body. The body expresses the “whole reality of the person and its dignity” (ToB, 55:4), and man is called to view the body in holiness, a holiness that comes from the body’s innate dignity.
The body has inherent goodness, but this does not mean that historical man can step back to before the fall and expect to be able to see the naked body in all its fullness. Man covers some parts of his body due to a healthy sense of shame, a shame that aims to protect him as a person. Paul points out how “those parts of the body we consider less honorable we surround with greater honor, and our less presentable parts are treated with greater propriety” (New American Bible, 2011, 1 Cor. 12:23). The whole of the body is good, but some parts are not as equal as others, in that some need more protection than others. The body in all its goodness “is not for immorality, but for the Lord” (New American Bible, 2011, 1 Cor. 6:13). Therefore, what body parts we choose to display should be for the Lord, and not for reasons of immorality. Man has been redeemed through Christ’s sacrificial death, so man is commanded to “glorify God in [his] body” (New American Bible, 2011, 1 Cor. 6:20). Man, even through his struggle with concupiscence, has a sense of the goodness of the body. He feels “a deep need to preserve the dignity of the reciprocal relations that find their expression in the body” (ToB, 46:6). This need along with a sense of dignity for the body leads to a healthy shame, and from this “is born ‘reverence’ for one’s body” (ToB, 55:5) and the bodies of others.
Having been redeemed and understanding the body’s dignity, man is led toward a sense of responsibility in how he treats his own body and the bodies of those around him. Yet thanks to sin, man is terrible at taking responsibility. As soon as the first man and woman sinned, they began the blame game. When God asked Adam if he did what was forbidden, he blamed Eve, who then blamed the snake. Galatians is aware of man’s weakness, and so begs Christians not to use their “freedom as an opportunity for the flesh; rather, serve one another through love” (New American Bible, 2011, Gal. 5:13). Man loves his own body and treats it with dignity, so he should do the same with the bodies of others and not treat them as objects. Especially since man has been redeemed, Paul reminds us that “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own” (New American Bible, 2011, 1 Cor. 6:19). Man should obey the Holy Spirit by answering His calling to be responsible for his own actions and try to influence others in a way that leads them to Christ. “Woman is not independent of man or man of woman” (New American Bible, 2011, 1 Cor. 11:11), as femininity and masculinity are two complementary ways of being human. Christ, in His call for purity, “assigns the dignity of every woman as a task to every man” (ToB, 100:6) and the dignity of men to women. The question is how this mission can be practically accomplished by historical man.
Both lust and modesty begin in the heart. It doesn’t matter what women wear, a person with a lustful heart will continue to objectify them. Woman is a gift to man, “entrusted to his eyes, to his consciousness, to his sensibility, to his ‘heart’” (ToB, 17:6). Men and women are called to modesty in their hearts and to see other people as gifts. If the body expresses the person, how can the person be seen when the body is completely shrouded? On the other hand, if the body reveals the person, how can the whole person be seen when their clothing points to just their sex value? Modesty in clothing is about moderation but it begins in the heart and should be “motivated by a love for one’s fellow man” (Gilkerson, 2020). A person cannot be called modest if they dress modestly and then judge and condemn others for not meeting a certain modesty standard. “The Lord looks into the heart” (New American Bible, 2011, 1 Sam. 16:7) and does not stop at the outward appearance of a modestly dressed person. Modesty is “of the feelings as well as of the body” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1994, par. 2523). Modesty begins by not defining worth by outward appearance; it sees the dignity of the person as an image-bearer of God, regardless of their clothing.
While modesty begins in the heart, outward modesty, particularly in clothing, helps inspire purity in the hearts of others and point them to Christ. Modesty is meant to help show the dignity of the person. Clothes send a message, consciously or unconsciously, whether intended or not. Dressing immodestly or modestly “tells a story about who we are” (Hill, 2021). The body represents the person, so the clothing that covers the body also represents the person; it reflects personality, beliefs, and interests. Modesty is a virtue, and clothing helps make that quality visible. Modesty is a path to freedom, not a path of rules and restrictions. Modest clothing allows “the person’s deepest and yet most real possibilities and dispositions [to] show themselves, when the deepest layer of his potentiality acquire a voice” (ToB, 49:6), which concupiscence would have hidden in its objectification of the person. Clothing is not just for practicality but has a moral, since “[c]lothes direct people to our faces and therefore foster personal relationships” (Staudt, ). Modesty in clothing should lean towards self-confidence rather than self-glorification. Dressing in self-confidence means recognizing your personal dignity and dressing in a way that dignifies you and others around you. Modesty “reveals where we’ve placed our identity” (Cotonethal, ) and the mission of every Christian should be to use their body to glorify and direct others toward God.
Because clothes should represent the person as a gift, a modest person should choose clothes that invite others to see them as a gift rather than as something to be grasped – mentally or physically – as an object. Dressing immodestly is “when someone deliberately seeks to accentuate their sexual values in a way that overshadows their dignity as persons” (Swafford, 2021). Modest dress acknowledges secondary sex characteristics, but does not seek to emphasize them, therefore dignifying the person. Particularly for women, when physical parts are purposely accentuated, “other, more personal, more significant, and more lasting values” (Morrow, 1997, pg. 103) are hidden. The intent and function of clothing should be examined to determine its modesty. If clothes serve their function, then they are usually modest. But wearing that clothing “outside the context of its specific function does become immodest” (Swafford, 2021). The clothing no longer serves the function it was intended for, which means the intent is changed, probably shifting toward the desire to get improper attention. The goal for choosing modest clothing “should be to look classy, not flashy” (Morrow, 1997, pg. 107). Modesty is beautiful and timeless when it aims to reveal the dignity of the wearer.
While modesty has been greatly emphasized for women, men are also called to modesty. Clothing has been designed for men that also emphasizes their body. One prime example is skinny jeans – they emphasize the leg and private parts, taking attention from the man’s person. Baggy pants are also immodest because they show the underwear, which can entice lustful thoughts and sends the message that the person is sloppy and doesn’t care about personal dignity. “Tiny bathing suits, skin-tight trousers, and T-shirts with the arms cut away deep into the center of the shirt” (Morrow, 1997, pg. 99) and short shorts are all immodest because it cries for bodily attention rather than pointing to the man’s personhood. Bathing suits – both for men and women – also call for modesty because “[i]t makes no sense to drop all standards of modesty when we swim.” (Staudt, ). Bathing suits should serve their function of allowing a person to comfortably swim and enjoy the water. Suits that go beyond that function become a cry for attention and the intent becomes immodest.
While modesty is greatly helped by clothes, the virtue extends beyond clothing choices. Modesty is also about attitude as “[i]t guides how one looks at others and behaves towards them in conformity with the dignity of persons and their solidarity” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1994, par. 2521). While the struggle of lust is a personal problem, Christians are called to live in solidarity and not isolation. Modesty, especially in women, boosts self-worth. It helps limit competition and jealousy because “lack of clothing leaves us vulnerable to hurtful comparisons [among] each other” (Koslosky, 2021). Modesty helps people see themselves and others as beautiful and unique because they have been made in the Imago Dei. Modesty calls for a respectful and kind attitude toward all, regardless of their clothing. For example, men should be modest in their actions by not catcalling, whistling, staring, obnoxious flirting, and telling dirty jokes. When men treat women in this way, they make women “feel as if [their] bodies are the currency of [their] value” (MasonHiemer, ). Modesty is about moderation and not being showy of blessings like material wealth. Christians should strive to be “clothed with strength and dignity” (New American Bible, 2011, Prov. 31:25), rather than brand names and ritzy accessories. A modest attitude helps point others toward Christ, and as St. Peter articulated, wins people over “when they observe your reverent and chaste behavior” (New American Bible, 2011, 1 Pet. 3:2). Modesty, beginning in clothing and extending to attitude, helps foster authentic, interpersonal relationships.
Christ’s call for purity can be most easily answered through the virtue of modesty. Historical man does not have the luxury of having the peace of interior gaze that man and woman first experienced. Concupiscence is a real and serious problem that man battles every day. Answering Christ’s call to purity means first and foremost a reformation of the heart and personal responsibility. Modest clothing and attitude dignify the person and helps all to see the goodness of the body. Pursuing the virtue of modesty supports purity and draws the person and those around him closer to Christ.
Ahmed, S. (, October 17) Mayim Bialik, if you think modest clothing protects you from sexual harassment, you need to listen to these Muslim women. Independent. www.independent.co.uk/voices/modest-clothing-mayim-bialik-harvey-weinstein-sexual- harassment-muslim-women-a8004501.html
Catholic Church.(1994) Catechism of the Catholic Church. United States Catholic Conference, Inc.- Libreria Editrice Vaticana.
Cotonethal, M. (, May 20) Modesty Misunderstood: What Men and Women Need to Know. Desiring God. www.desiringgod.org/articles/modesty-misunderstood
Gilkerson, L. (2020, July 7) 6 Marks of Biblical Modesty: How God Brings Sexy Back. Covenant Eyes. www.covenanteyes.com/2013/08/16/biblical-definition-of-modesty.
Hill, M. (2021, June 29) The Modesty Conversation We Need to Have. The Gospel Coalition. www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/modesty-conversation.
John Paul II. (2006) Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body. Pauline Books and Media.
Koslosky, K. (2021) I Never Knew A Bikini Could Hide So Much. Chastity Project. chastity.com/2021/10/i-never-knew-a-bikini-could-hide-so-much
MasonHiemer, P. (, August 1) That Day He Wore Skinny Jeans: 5 Reasons Men Should Be Modest Too. Every Woman a Theologian. phyliciamasonheimer.com/that-day-he-wore- skinny-jeans-5-reasons-men-should-be-modest-too
Morrow, T.G. () Christian Dating In A Godless World. Sophia Institute Press.
New American Bible (2011) St. Benedict Press.
Pope Paul VI. (1965, December 7). Gaudium et Spes. Vatican Archives. www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat- ii_const_19651207_gaudium-et-spes_en.html
Staudt, J. (, August 2) Modesty Is for Men Too. Those Catholic Men. thosecatholicmen.com/articles/modesty-is-for-men-too-2/
Swafford, A. (2021) The Importance of Modesty . . . For Men. Chastity Project. chastity.com/2021/09/importance-modesty-men/
 All further references to A Theology of the Body will be abbreviated to keep this essay at a reasonable number of pages.
 Man finds happiness in existing for someone because, as Pope Paul VI articulated, man “cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself” (Pope Paul VI, 1965, par. 24:3).
 Man cannot give himself as a gift until he fully possesses himself.
 See Gaudium et Spes 24:3 (Pope Paul VI, 1965).
5 In a way, shame does have value, because proportional shame both projects and protects human value and dignity.
 In this essay, the man lusts after the woman, but it is important to note that women also experience lust and are called to purity.
 This can be understood in God’s actions, as He was the one who created clothes. After Adam and Eve sinned, “[t]he Lord God made for the man and his wife garments of skin, with which he clothed them” (New American Bible, 2011, Gen. 4:21).
 See Gen. 3:11-13 (New American Bible, 2011). God does not buy this game and punishes each for their own sin.
 God calls us to be holy, and “whoever disregards this, disregards not a human being but God” (New American Bible, 2011, 1 Thess. 4:8). It is easy to brush responsibility off with excuses but brushing off this responsibility to holiness has eternal consequences.
 For example, Muslim women are known for wearing full body coverings for the sake of modesty. However, many of these women have said, “[t]he clothes I was wearing didn’t matter as they all seemed to undress me in their minds.” (Ahmed, ).
11 Extreme modesty also sexualizes women, by encouraging women and men to see women primarily as sexual objects.
 Examples of an outfit that serves its function would be a clean and neat outfit for mass, a work uniform, shorts for working in the summer, a certain type of bathing suit for competition, etcetera. In the case of the infamous pants debate, I would argue that pants are modest for women when they serve to keep them warm and protect their legs; in some cases – such as physical activity – they are even more modest than skirts.