Modesty within Catholic Christian Marriage

{7:21} Do not choose to depart from a good and understanding wife, whom you have been allotted in the fear of the Lord. For the grace of her modesty is above gold.

A wife should be modest even before her husband, and a husband should be modest even before his wife. Whoever teaches immodesty to married couples, leads them away from Christ, and harms the Sacrament of Marriage. For the relationship between a husband and wife is a reflection of the relationship between Christ and His Church. Should Christ be immodest with His Bride, the Church? Should the Church be immodest before Christ? So then, neither should a husband and wife be immodest with one another, neither in thought, nor in word, nor in deed. For immodesty leads to every sexual sin.

Marriage is not an exception to the eternal moral law. Natural marital relations is morally good only when it is practiced in accord with morality. Lust within marriage is gravely immoral. If the spouses use one another for mere sexual pleasure, apart from love, faith, hope, apart from the primary goods of marital relations (found in the unitive, procreative, and marital meanings), then they sin seriously against God. And all unnatural sexual acts are intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral, even within marriage.

But lesser sins are also possible concerning sexuality within marriage. Even for a husband and wife, it is a sin to speak or act in a licentious manner, to speak or act as if marital relations were base or were merely for pleasure, to speak or act with immodesty and impurity. Certainly, modesty depends in part on intention and circumstances. Modest clothing in public differs from modest clothing before one’s spouse at home. Modesty for a husband and wife differs from modesty for a man and woman who are dating but unmarried. Yet even spouses must have respect for the dignity of the body and of sexuality, and a holy fear of God, in order to avoid various misuses of the body and of sexuality.

A just war does not justify all acts of violence within that war. And a holy marriage does not justify all sexual acts within that marriage. The eternal moral law prohibits intrinsically evil and gravely immoral sexual acts, as well as acts that are not intrinsically evil, but are sinful due to intention or circumstances. So the thoughts, words, and deeds of immodesty are not justified by marriage.

Immodesty is not intrinsically evil, but is a matter of degree. And so, if the spouses fall into some limited degree of immodesty, this is an imperfection in a lesser degree, and a venial sin in a greater degree. However, whoever continues along this path of ever increasing immodesty eventually will fall into various mortal sexual sins. And severe immodesty itself may reach to the extent of a mortal sin, since immodestly concerns the important good of sexuality.


The husband and wife, joined in the holy Sacrament of Matrimony, remain nevertheless in the fallen state. Although baptism entirely wipes away original sin, there remains an effect of original sin in the human person called concupiscence, which is a tendency toward personal sin. Even the holiest of persons, if they were conceived with original sin, have concupiscence. Only Jesus and the Virgin Mary were conceived without original sin, and never had concupiscence. (Adam and Eve were created without original sin, but they later fell from grace, and as a result they had concupiscence.) We mere weak and mortal sinners must always struggle against this tendency toward selfishness, toward valuing lesser goods over greater goods, toward the disorder of values that is the basis for sin.

Therefore, throughout any marriage, both spouses must continually struggle against the misuse of sexuality. For sexuality has great power to do good within marriage (uniting the spouses, procreating children, strengthening the marriage) and yet great power to do harm within marriage. Its potential for harm is in proportion to its potential for benefit. There is an intrinsic danger to sexuality. [Cf. Dietrich von Hildebrand, In Defense of Purity, An analysis of the Catholic ideals of purity and virginity, Part III: The Attitude of the Pure in Marriage, I. The Intrinsic Dangers of Sex; (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1935) p. 89.]

The potential of sexuality to unite the spouses has a counterpart when sexuality is misused within marriage, even if only by immodest thoughts, words, and deeds. The spouses can be pushed apart by this misuse of the gift of sexuality, resulting in disunity. Sin of any kind, mortal or venial, does not cooperate with grace and does not benefit any relationship. Although there might seem to be some short-term benefits if the spouses behave in a licentious or immodest manner, the spiritual harm, and the harm to the marriage relationship in the long term, is much weightier.

Modesty within marriage requires the spouses to treat one another as whole persons, with respect and affection, and with a holy fear of sin. Modesty within marriage requires the spouses to view sexuality as integral to the Sacrament of Marriage, and not as a mere source of entertainment or pleasure. Modesty within marriage requires the spouses to subjugate the lesser goods of sexuality (pleasure, emotions), to the higher goods of sexuality (the unitive, procreative, and marital meanings), and to the marriage as a whole. Respect for the human body as a gift from God requires the spouses to act with self-restraint or even self-denial, and to avoid excessive indulgence in even lawful acts.

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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