Tag Archives: chastity

A Modest Proposal

Continuing my consideration of C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, let’s turn to his views on Christian sexual morality and marriage (pages 84-100).

Lewis distinguishes chastity from modesty, and explains how modesty depends on a social convention about what is deemed ‘acceptable’ – a Pacific island woman can display considerably more bare flesh than a Victorian lady! But each culture has its standards, and when these are known, deliberate breaking of them is a means of communicating sexual desire and exciting lust. Lewis also notes that when subcultures with different standards co-exist (consider two generations in the same society), there is a temptation to accuse the more conservative subculture of being prudes or puritans.

How objective is respect? Is it really “more reverent” to receive Holy Communion on the tongue than in the hand? Or is reverence an attitude of heart, which God alone discerns while others judge outward appearances?

Lewis opines that accidental infringements of modesty through ignorance or carelessness is “bad manners”.

Ah! Here we are in the fraught territory, especially incomprehensible to the autistic mind, of non-verbal communication in the context of a shared understanding of certain cultural values. To judge whether something is “modest” is akin to judging with something is “fashionable”, and can only be done properly by a human being who knows how to read the fast-moving currents of changing opinion, and knows what a certain way of dressing is meant to signal between two people who understand the same code.

In last Saturday’s Divine Office (Week 6 of Ordinary Time), Pope Pius XII commented that “a modest wife is a boon twice over”. Previously, when this annual reading came around, I interpreted the modest wife as being “the woman who covers up”. But in the light of what I’ve just written, it might be more fitting to understand the modest woman as the one who “does not flirt, but uses the right social conventions to signal that she is faithfully committed to her husband.” The text goes on to say:

Her looks and words enter into the souls of her family, softening them, touching them, raising them up from the tumult of emotion… The wife is like the sun shining in the family by… the appropriateness of her dress and bearing, adorned by her open and honest way of life. Subtle signs of feeling, shades of expression, silences and unmalicious smiles, little nods of approval … If only you could know the full depth of the feelings of love and gratitude that such a perfect wife and mother inspires in her husband and children!

Ah! If only! But I’m an Aspie, so I can’t know that from my own lived experience. I’ll just have to take it on trust.

It seems, then, that there are two dimensions of chaste dress. One is ‘modesty properly so-called’, the intentional use of well-understood social conventions to advertise one’s availability or unavailability for a marital relationship in a social context. The other dimension concerns the acts of charity involved in dressing in such a way as to not provoke undue levels of involuntary sexual arousal in other people. This can never be done perfectly, because some people will have fetishes about parts of the body normally on display, and even separation of the sexes cannot guard against arousal from same-sex attraction.

Meanwhile, C. S. Lewis and Pope Pius XII inspired me to search for perspectives on “modesty” online. The Catechism has something to say, and many sites quote the much-misattributed “Vatican Guidelines” (see also my PS):

…a dress cannot be called decent which is cut deeper than two fingers’ breadth under the pit of the throat, which does not cover the arms at least to the elbows, and scarcely reaches a bit beyond the knees.  Furthermore, dresses of transparent material are improper.

If you visit Rome, you’ll see many signs outside churches indicating that visitors should not have bare arms or legs – I presume because those 1928 Guidelines are still in force. That is creating its own subculture, “Please show respect on our terms, not yours.” Perhaps it’s not a subculture for native Romans – I wouldn’t know, I’m not a Roman. But in the Eternal City thronged by tourists and pilgrims from around the world, there will be many more visitors who don’t share the same subculture of modesty than those who do. Is this a positive or negative thing? Does it say “Please adopt our subculture to acknowledge that this church is a set-apart place?” Or for those less discerning of what is going on, does it say: “This is a Christian site. It is run for prudes, by prudes”?

I won’t summarise the rest of Lewis’s two chapters here; it is a good broad summary of Christian teaching on chastity and marriage, with no paricular angle I wish to comment on. I will merely offer you two short observations which Lewis makes:

(1) Society has normalised casual sex and deemed it ‘healthy’. But our sexual instinct is no different in kind from those other instincts which we are called to check – no-one suggests we should give free rein to our other base instincts.

(2) We need not be deterred by the loftiness of the goal of perfect chastity. God may start by giving us the grace to rise after each fall, rather than the perfect gift. Nevertheless, the fact something is difficult doesn’t disqualify it from being a required moral goal.

PS Many websites conflate the ‘Vatican guidelines’ with other documents touching on modesty published by the Congregation for the Council (AAS 1930, v.22 pp.26-28) and a letter referred to in that AAS text from the Congregation for Religious (NOT itself published in AAS but Italian source cited and translated into English on a forum). Different websites give different claims for the “two inches” guidelines but the one who seems to have done most source research indicates the detailed instructions on modesty of dress for women were issued on September 24, 1928 by Basilio Cardinal Pompilj, the Cardinal responsible for the running of the Diocese of Rome on behalf of Pope Pius XI.

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