“Ask a Priest: What If a Homily on Modesty Was Upsetting?”

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Q: What would be a respectful way to discuss the contents of a homily with a priest? I am struggling with the message from a recent homily, and having a hard time explaining it to my daughter. The priest discussed vanity and being humble in dress, purchases such as cars, etc. I wholeheartedly agree that dressing modestly, etc., is important. But he also only addressed how woman dress and specifically said that how they dress can lead a man into sin. Last I checked, we had free will, and men can be vain and dress inappropriately as well. In addition I have always told my daughter that God made her so she should be proud of herself and how she looks, thinks, etc. (but still dress appropriately). This line of thinking (what you were wearing is leading to someone else’s actions) is dangerous to me. This is not the first time he has made less than complimentary remarks about women, and it is becoming incredibly frustrating to me. I am the one ensuring my daughter is raised in the Church and makes her sacraments. I don’t know how to express to my priest how hurtful this is. – E.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: It’s good to hear how dedicated you are to raising your daughter in the faith.

As to your specific points: It’s hard for me to evaluate the situation since I’m unfamiliar with the parish (perhaps there is a noticeable problem in the locality).

Also, it’s hard to gauge the homily. A homily might have lots of valid points. But the way it’s delivered can leave a positive or negative impact (sometimes both) on the faithful in the pews. Here, ideally, a priest will choose the right words and the right tone – and know when to omit certain details.

As you mention, modesty in dress is important. Unfortunately the wider culture, especially the media, doesn’t encourage it very much. This affects the way people dress, including at Mass.

The fact that your priest is speaking about the topic shows a bit of courage, since it’s not an easy theme to bring up at Mass. Again, I can’t say whether he hit the right tone or used all the right words.

My guess, though, is that his heart is in the right place and that he isn’t trying to denigrate women in the least. On the contrary, he probably wants to help protect the dignity of women.

While men aren’t immune from dressing inappropriately, they are much more commonly tempted by immodestly dressed women than vice versa. Men react to visual stimuli differently from the way women do. It’s the way the male brain works.

The upshot is that an immodesty dressed woman would have far more impact on men than an immodestly dressed man would have on women. And the notion that what someone wears can have an impact on what others do isn’t a “dangerous” idea but rather something grounded in real-life experience. Yes, we all have free will, but the actions of others do influence us. The idea behind appropriate attire is to learn how to be a positive influence on others even in the way we dress.

The beauty that Our Lord bestows on women gives them the potential to inspire men toward great sacrifice and nobility. But if beauty isn’t protected with modesty, it can bring out an unsavory side in men. Jesus himself understood the potential for problems: “Everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28).

To put all this in a positive light, women by their modesty are performing an act of charity because it helps the men around them to live chastely.

While it’s great that you are encouraging your daughter to dress appropriately, it’s possible that other parents in the parish aren’t as diligent. Hence the homily.

It might help to get various perspectives on modesty, not because there is a problem in your household, but rather to understand the viewpoint of other folks who do grapple with challenges.

Focus on the Family, a Protestant group, has some worthwhile postings geared toward dads and parents in general. One is a short audio.

Also helpful might be these Catholic offerings: one from Pure Fashion, one from a theologian, one from the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) site, one from Women of Grace.

After looking over some of these items, you might want to pray about the issue and see where the Holy Spirit is leading you.

Perhaps you might approach the priest at an opportune moment and share your concerns with him. Maybe an e-mail ahead of time could help. It might benefit him greatly to get a woman’s perspective. Your input could help him hone his message in the future.

This could be an opportunity to cultivate a healthy appreciation for modesty in your parish — among men and women.

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5 Comments
  1. Father, I find it interesting that whenever a person writes you, you tend to give the benefit of the doubt to the priest. If you can’t empathize with people writing in, why bother to have a such a site here?

    Also, I find it amusing (or scary?) that you assume that men have stronger sex drives than women. Or that a woman can’t be turned on by a dearth of clothing on a male body. Isn’t that point of view rather medieval?

    Or is such a woman “disordered” ? (That being said, I am a Catholic and I do believe in modesty: but for both sexes). However, I still agree more with the person writing in.

    I wonder if always taking the priest’s side and not attributing much responsibility to priests has something to do with the sex scandals in the Church?

  2. I agree with you Father, continue to be brave and bold about speaking the truth!! MY OPINION: MORE WOMEN DRESS IMMODESTLY THAN MEN DO (for Mass and otherwise)! I’m a mother and teach my daughters that modesty is for both the dignity of herself and respect for others, especially men, who see her. We should never want to be partly responsible for someone else’s temptation nor ever aid in their potential impure thought. That being said, why do some people dress for Sunday Mass like they’re going to the beach? These same people dress up for weddings, and rightly so, it shows respect for the bride and groom.
    It’s a biological fact that conditions for women to become aroused are more complex than for men, men are more visual (Nature Journal). I’m sorry “E” that you thought the priest’s homily was “hurtful”, I would have been tempted to stand and clap for his courage. Pope John Paul II said “women can do SO MUCH to aid humanity in not falling…” RISE UP MOTHERS! Let’s teach our sons and daughters to be holy! Let the modesty, purity and beauty of Our Blessed Mother be an inspiration to us and our daughters! FATHERS! Do you really want men to look at your beautiful daughters like a piece of meat? Wouldn’t you rather be a real man and protect your daughters? “L”, being attracted to the opposite sex does not mean we’re “disordered”, it does not oppose the natural law, it means one is human. But “L”, if you’re human, you’re a sinner.
    We should help each other be holy, holiness is the path to Heaven. I want to be faithful to God in mind and body therefore I appreciate a man who dresses modestly. God made the human body beautiful and pronounced it “good” but “modesty protects the intimate center of the person”, “modesty refuses to unveil what should remain hidden.” “It is ordered to chastity…” (CCC 2521) I assume you know what chastity is L. Also, as horrifying as the sex scandals in the Church are, it was really unfair that you threw the sex scandals at this priest, maybe you should “take the plank out of your own eye first” (Matt 7:3-5).

  3. Approaching the matters of virtue and of sinful action by way of generalizations made about the sexes seems to me to be a really murky way to go. Why not actually provide the richness of church teaching on this matter? I find this answer very evasive. Sure, we have no idea what the priest’s reasons were for delivering the homily the way he did. However, when someone asks for more formation on a topic so that she may converse with her daughter and with her pastor on a matter where there is some difficulty, why not seek that which is above? What in reality IS modesty? Its true definition is not going to be qualified by biological differences between males and females. It goes way, way deeper than that…. to the heart and soul of what it is to be human and to love another human. Yes our bodies and brains affect how we may bear out the actions of virtue, but they do not restrict the strength of that virtue within our souls. Trivializing the virtue by remaining on the level of who is “much more commonly tempted” and who has “far more impact” when they dress immodestly and whose actions “bring out an unsavory side” in the other is a cop-out. We should never define a virtue through the negative, meaning telling young girls that when a man responds to some article of clothing of theirs (i.e. a shirt, a swimsuit, a skirt, etc.) lustfully, then it must not have been a modest choice of clothing. Is that the way we want girls to understand how they are to dress and practice this virtue? Should they seriously wake up each morning and think, “What in my closet is going to not cause a man to be attracted to me unsavorily?” That line of thinking could actually prove poisonous to a girl’s understanding of manhood, to say nothing of the deleterious effects it might have on their understanding of their own femininity! It doesn’t come close to doing justice to a fully Catholic understanding of femininity and masculinity. How about writing out an actual, deep, true, and essential definition of what the virtue IS… its POSITIVE definition… how it originates in GOD HIMSELF and takes up the pattern of God’s own ways… THAT is the definition women should use to guide their manner of dressing. THAT is the definition that will really change culture, not some murky sense of who is the temptrix and who is the more easily tempted. In the end, that’s going to prove a very paltry and weak way to consider manhood and a very shallow and guilt-driven way to approach feminine beauty. A follow-up to this post from Father Edward with more substance regarding what modesty truly and essentially consists of could prove very helpful.

  4. After reflecting on this question more, I find myself wondering… what richness could we bring to this conversation and to the desire for a virtuous life if we, Catholics, lay and consecrated alike, each spent a week or even more meditating with the Scriptures on the question, “How is GOD modest?” The Scriptures would immediately leap into this conversation and we’d be reminded of the many references to God’s veiling of Himself and His power in the Old Testament (and also, when He chose to reveal it), of his encounter with Elijah on the face of the mountain as the gentle breeze, of the humility of His incarnation, of the Sermon on the Mount and the lilies of the field, of the modesty of the Kingdom and the ways of the Holy Spirit… human modesty, lived out by both men and women, has as its source the ways of God himself. What are those ways? How do they touch and inform our vocations? How is the mark of God’s ways and his divine attributes borne out in our daily lives, through our bodies and their meaning, not divorced from or at odds with them? Answering these questions takes real spiritual discipline and humility of heart. We HAVE to move the conversation about modesty past the plane of spiritual and biological stereotyping. Such generalizations are proving woefully inadequate to those in search of the truth about God’s designs with regards to the human body, most especially the youth.

  5. Most men actually dress modestly, jeans and a tee shirt, a suit or trousers and a shirt are all modest. very few dress immodestly. I do not think of men’s reactions to my clothes I dress modestly as I think immodest clothing is vulgar.
    The think to remember is that modest dressing does not have to be boring or unfashionable. Too much vanity is bad, but I do not think dressing modest but fashionable is bad.
    I actually am into vintage clothing and like to wear 1950’s modest skirts with a dark top that is my signature look. I think that people who design clothes put a lot of work into them so I do like to look nice.
    I try not to be vain though.
    But I am a girlie girl meaning that I like pretty clothes and looking feminine. Other girls may like trousers.

    I keep my hair nice and do try to look after my skin that God gave me.
    But beauty is not skin deep, it is what is inside that counts.
    There are a lot of nice long skirts in fashion just now and ways we can adapt fashionable looks to keep modest.
    I think I would feel uncomfortable if a guy I worked with started dressing immodestly.
    Remember we are being conditioned by the media every single day to dress immodestly because usually there is some sleezy male that wants us to dress and look a certain way!!! I know there are women designers but they have been manipulated like a lot of us due to the media.

    I think that it is nice to have modest clothing as it makes me feel that I am respecting my own self.
    I do enjoy wearing clothes, and as I said I can dress modestly but still wear pretty prints and not look frumpy. I think immodest clothing looks terrible anyway. Covering our bodies properly I think shows that we are respecting ourselves.

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