Modesty versus Immodesty in Catholic Teaching

Modesty

Modesty can refer to self-restraint in every area of life.

Saint Thomas Aquinas: “Augustine says (De Morib. Eccl. xxi): ‘In both Testaments the temperate man finds confirmation of the rule forbidding him to love the things of this life, or to deem any of them desirable for its own sake, and commanding him to avail himself of those things with the moderation of a user, not the attachment of a lover, in so far as they are requisite for the needs of this life and of his station.’ ” [Summa Theologica, II-II, Q. 141, A. 6.]

Or modesty can refer specifically to self-restraint in the area of sexuality.

Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Purity requires modesty, an integral part of temperance. Modesty protects the intimate center of the person. It means refusing to unveil what should remain hidden. It is ordered to chastity to whose sensitivity it bears witness. It guides how one looks at others and behaves toward them in conformity with the dignity of persons and their solidarity.” [CCC n. 2521]

Modesty in the area of sexuality includes all that is related to sexuality even generally, such as clothing, speech, behavior, etc. For married Christians, the self-restraint of modesty includes the moderate use of the only moral sexual act, which is natural marital relations open to life. As a part of the infused virtue of temperance, modesty is moderation, restraint, and self-control for the sake of eternal life, not only so as to act in accord with reason, but also so as to act in accord with the perfect will of God. The modest Christian avoids not only illicit sexual acts, but all sexual sins (even interior sins), all occasions for sexual sin, and any excessive use even of what is moral.

Modesty is temperance concerning all that is related to sexuality, and includes avoiding what is sinful, and limiting what is not sinful. Chastity is found in avoiding all objectively grave sexual sins. If anyone avoids all mortal sexual sins, he is certainly chaste. He might not be modest or pure, but he at least has chastity. The chaste Christian avoids all objective mortal sexual sins, including interior lust and exterior illicit sexual acts. And chaste married Christians do the same, but they may engage in natural marital relations open to life.

Purity includes modesty and chastity. If anyone is chaste, but immodest, he is not entirely pure. Pure Christians are not only chaste and modest, they also strive to avoid even venial sexual sins. Now all this pertains to sexuality.

But when purity is at its fullest, not only sexual sins, but all sins are avoided. All sin sullies the soul. All sin is impurity before God. All sin is unfaithfulness to God. So when the ancient Israelites strayed from the true Faith given to them by Divine Revelation, they were compared to an adulterous spouse (e.g. Jer 3:6-10). Therefore, perfect purity must include both bodily purity and spiritual purity. But within the human race, only Jesus and Mary are absolutely free from all sin (original sin and personal sin), and so only Jesus and Mary are absolutely perfect in purity. Though many a faithful Christian is properly called a chaste and pure virgin, no one who has any type of sin is truly a Virgin in the fullest sense of the word. The only two perfect Virgins are Jesus and Mary.

Immodesty

Immodesty is the first step along a path that eventually leads to all the other, more serious, sexual sins. If someone is free from all sexual sins, he or she is also modest. Modesty protects against every kind of sexual sin. A person who perseveres in modesty in thought, word, and deed, in body and soul, cannot commit a sexual sin. All sexual sins are based upon immodesty.

[Genesis]
{9:18} And so the sons of Noah, who came out of the ark, were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Now Ham himself is the father of Canaan.
{9:19} These three are the sons of Noah. And from these all the family of mankind was spread over the whole earth.
{9:20} And Noah, a good farmer, began to cultivate the land, and he planted a vineyard.
{9:21} And by drinking its wine, he became inebriated and was naked in his tent.
{9:22} Because of this, when Ham, the father of Canaan, had indeed seen the privates of his father to be naked, he reported it to his two brothers outside.
{9:23} And truly, Shem and Japheth put a cloak upon their arms, and, advancing backwards, covered the privates of their father. And their faces were turned away, so that they did not see their father’s manhood.
{9:24} Then Noah, awaking from the wine, when he had learned what his younger son had done to him,
{9:25} he said, “Cursed be Canaan, a servant of servants will he be to his brothers.”
{9:26} And he said: “Blessed be the Lord God of Shem, let Canaan be his servant.
{9:27} May God enlarge Japheth, and may he live in the tents of Shem, and let Canaan be his servant.”

What was the sin of Ham, that he would be cursed by his own father? Although some theologians have speculated that Ham committed one serious sexual sin or another, Sacred Scripture says only that Ham saw the nakedness of his father. Ham was immodest. He looked on his father’s nakedness, and next he spoke about it to his brothers; he was immodest in what he saw and in what he said.

But this passage is not merely about the immodesty of one man, Ham. It is about the people of whom he was the father, Canaan. Now a man can be a father in two ways, either by literally (by blood) or figuratively (by some similarity). And so Abraham is said to have many descendants, both literally, in the Hebrew people, and figuratively, by similarity in way of life, in his spiritual descendants (Mt 3:9; Lk 1:55; 19:9; Rom 4:16).

Therefore, this passage from Genesis is not merely about the particular sin of immodesty committed by Ham on one occasion. Rather, it is about all the many serious sexual sins committed by the people of Canaan. The sin of immodesty committed by Ham in this particular case is used by Scripture as an example in order to teach that immodesty is the beginning of all sexual sins.

[Matthew]
{5:29} And if your right eye causes you to sin, root it out and cast it away from you. For it is better for you that one of your members perish, than that your whole body be cast into Hell.

Christ taught that immodesty of the eye leads to other sexual sins. To avoid those other sins, begin by ‘rooting out’ the immodesty in your eye, by no longer looking with immodesty at the things of this passing life. Christ was speaking figuratively; the body was created by God and is good, so we must not harm or maim our bodies, such as by rooting out an eye or cutting off a limb. But we should rid ourselves of sin, by ‘rooting out’ or ‘cutting off’ any knowing choice in our lives that is sin, or that leads to sin.

[1 Timothy]
{6:10} For desire is the root of all evils. Some persons, hungering in this way, have strayed from the faith and have entangled themselves in many sorrows.

This teaching also applies to sexual sins. Inordinate sexual desire is the root of all sexual sins. Inordinate desire often begins with the eye (literally or figuratively). A person first gazes on the object of desire, either literally, with his eyes, or figuratively, with his heart and mind. Inordinate desire is the root of all sin. A person steals because he first desires the goods that belong to another. A person murders because he first desires to do harm to his neighbor. A person commits sexual sins because he first consents to inordinate desire in the heart, presented by the eye (literally or figuratively).

{6:22} The lamp of your body is your eye. If your eye is wholesome, your entire body will be filled with light.
{6:23} But if your eye has been corrupted, your entire body will be darkened. If then the light that is in you is darkness, how great will that darkness be!

Christ taught that the eye is the lamp of the body. God is Truth. And truth is comparable to light, not only because truth shows us the path to God, but also because all falsehood and ignorance is a deprivation of truth, just as darkness is a deprivation of light. The eye is used as a figure to indicate any means that a person uses to take in truth, to enlighten the mind and heart, including listening, reading, observing nature, observing other persons, watching television, using a computer, etc. All of the means by which a person learns can be a source of enlightenment. Christ is instructing us to make use of these means to bring light, that is, truth into our hearts and minds.

However, these same means can be used to take in immorality of every kind. If the eyes and ears are used to see and hear immorality, then these may influence us to sin. We should use prudent temperate judgment in what we read and watch, in every form of media (print, television, internet, any other media), so as not to sin, and so as not to be led into sin.

[Sirach]
{9:4} You should not be continually in need of entertainment, nor should you be persuaded by it, lest perhaps you may perish by its effectiveness.

How is it that the entertainers of today consider themselves to be sages? They make use of their positions in the media to presume to teach and to correct on every subject, yet without understanding. The ability to entertain is not the ability to understand. Such persons often promote ideas that are directly contrary to Catholic teaching. Some even openly attack the Church and the Faith. Their words are immodest in every way, and they have no fear of God. But they have great influence because modern society gives great importance to entertainment. The inordinate desire to be entertained is a type of sinful self-indulgence, which may lead to many other sins.

{9:5} You should not stare at a virgin, lest perhaps you may be scandalized by her beauty.

By the grace of God, we may look upon our fellow human beings and see them as they truly are, as children of God like ourselves. This verse warns against a particular type of looking, i.e. with inordinate desire. The beauty of the human form may be admired without sin. But excessive attention to this lesser good can lead to sin. For we sin whenever we seek a lesser good in contradiction to a greater good.

{9:6} You should not give your soul, in any way, to fornicators, lest you destroy yourself and your inheritance.

Forms of entertainment that are filled with immodesty, or, what is far worse, with sexually-explicit material, are harmful to the soul. Such material can have a negative influence on our understanding and on our behavior, leading even to serious sin. The practice of modesty with the eyes and ears leads to modesty in the heart and mind. Every form of immodesty leads to every form of sin.

by
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

The above text is excerpted from my book:

The Catechism of Catholic Ethics
available in print (paperback, 752 pp.) and in Kindle format.

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