“Ask a Priest: How Do I Tell Women to Dress Modestly?”

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Q: Pope Pius XI (or XII, but I think XI) had put out a letter or something addressing what is considered modest clothing. My question is: Is this still in effect? Is it infallible? Does it change as time goes on? It’s not an issue for myself personally, but as for the women around me, I barely know any women or girls that always fulfill these guidelines by the late Pope. And it’s painful, because how would I be able to tell these people that they must follow these strict guidelines? – A.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: It’s admirable that you are concerned about modest attire.

While modesty might take on different forms in various ages, there are minimum standards that should apply in every era (but that’s another issue altogether).

You might be referring to a January 1930 document on modesty issued by the Sacred Congregation of the Council (now the Dicastery for the Clergy) by mandate of Pope Pius XI.

While every detail mentioned in the document isn’t infallible in the strict sense (for instance, “[A] dress cannot be called decent which is cut deeper than two fingers breadth under the pit of the throat …”) the document does offer perennially prudent advice.

Indeed, we have a general obligation to avoid leading others into sin, which is a key reason we should be modest in attire and comportment.

As for telling others (especially women) about the need for modesty, this is a delicate issue.

Unless you are close to someone (like a sister or a good friend), you would want to be careful about how you raise the topic. Criticizing a woman directly about her way of dressing could backfire as well as ruin a relationship.

So what might you do?

First, it would be good to teach by example. That is, always be modest in the way you dress and speak and deal with women.

Second, try to avoid situations where immodestly dressed women abound. Be modest with your eyes. A woman can sense how a man is viewing her. Your modesty might send a signal to her.

Third, avoid anything that might be an occasion of sin – bad TV shows and movies and Internet sites and books, and racy music, etc. Produce a bubble of modesty in your life. Don’t let in any trash – you are a son of God, after all.

Fourth, try to interact with women at times when they are more likely to be modestly dressed. Don’t plan meetings with them at the beach or the pool, for instance.

Fifth, look for opportunities to express your appreciation for modesty. Let your male friends know where you stand. The word will get around – and possibly encourage women in the right direction.

Of course, the culture won’t change any time soon. Immodesty will be with us for a while.

But you don’t have to change the world. You just need to guard your heart and do what you can to encourage modesty in the circles in which you live.


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