Susanna Spencer explains what modesty means as a virtue.
Last month, on the first day of summer in the northern hemisphere, the National Catholic Register published an article by Susanna Spencer on a virtue that is particularly appropriate for the season when people tend to use more “minimalist” clothing than they do in winter: modesty in dress.
“Only when I learned about modesty as a virtue did I find a reasonable, satisfactory answer as to what it really means to dress modestly. To understand modesty in dress as a virtue, as opposed to other forms of modesty, I turned to three Doctors of the Church — St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Francis de Sales and St. Alphonsus Liguori,” writes Spencer.
Modesty is part of the virtue of temperance
Spencer turns first to St. Thomas Aquinas, the great medieval theologian and philosopher known for both a brilliant mind and unassailable chastity. The “Angelic Doctor,” as he is sometimes called, argued that modesty is an aspect of the virtue of temperance, which helps us to control our desires. In his view, being modest in the way we dress is a way of being honest in our outward appearance, something which applies to both men and women. The way we dress tells others about who we are.
St. Francis de Sales, an immensely influential Doctor of the Church who spent much of his life battling Calvinism, offers similar advice when he speaks of dressing with propriety. He emphasizes that being clean and orderly is a matter of respect for oneself and for others, and that therefore dressing inappropriately is a lack of respect for our neighbors. We should, he says, avoid both slovenliness and vain excesses.
“Modest dress is for both men and women,” Spencer elaborates, “and should emphasize the beauty God gave them. If we put a nice frame around an artistic photo or incredible painting, how much more care should we put into how we attire our God-given bodies.”
When it comes to having the right intention, St. Alphonsus Liguori—the third great Doctor of the Church to whom Spencer turns for guidance—explains that local customs are an important consideration when determining what’s modest or immodest. He explains that if a person dresses based on local customs and has no intention to incite to lust by the way they dress, they don’t sin, even if by another culture or region’s standards their clothes would be considered immodest.
Ultimately, though, modesty isn’t simply about avoiding sin by not inciting others to lust. The virtue of modesty in the way we dress is a contribution to a more beautiful and more decent society, and it’s a reflection of the beauty of God and His creation, which deserves to be honored. It’s about intention and context, wearing what’s appropriate out of respect for ourselves, our neighbor, and God.