Modesty and Chastity in Catholic Teaching

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.

Intrinsic Evil

Is immodesty intrinsically evil? Immodesty is a matter of degree. For example, consider the length of a woman’s skirt. If it reaches to the ankles, it is not immodest in length. A shorter skirt does not, at some point, suddenly go from being modest at one length to sinfully immodest at a slightly shorter length. By degrees, a shorter skirt becomes first immodest as a matter of imperfection, and thereafter as a matter of venial sin. Intrinsically evil acts are never moral in one degree and immoral in another degree. Also, modesty and immodesty depend on circumstances. The same attire that is modest for the beach is sinfully immodest for the church. But intrinsically evil acts never change from moral to immoral solely by a change in circumstances. Therefore, immodesty is not intrinsically evil. Some acts are immodest to such a limited degree that the immodesty is an imperfection, not a sin.

If a form of media (television show, movie, book, etc.) is objectionable merely because of some limited immodesty, it is not intrinsically evil to watch that show. The immodesty in the show is in the circumstances of the act, not the moral object. Some bad circumstances can be tolerated in the third font without sin, as long as the good in the third font outweighs the bad. However, the consequences of watching an excessive amount of entertainment containing immodesty (and various other sins) should not be disregarded or underestimated. Many Catholics have fallen into heresy by believing the false teachings explicitly or implicitly expressed in various forms of modern media. And many Catholics have been led into serious sin, in part by various types of sin integrated into the entertainment shows found in modern forms of media.

Chastity and Purity

[Wisdom]
{4:1} O how beautiful is the chaste fruit of purity! For its remembrance is immortal, because it is observed both with God and with men.

The chaste person avoids every objectively grave sexual sin, interior and exterior. The modest person practices self-restraint and self-denial in all that pertains to sexuality, in thought, word, and deed. Modesty in heart, mind, body, and soul, leads to chastity in heart, mind, body, and soul. But chastity and modesty are only the beginning of purity. True purity is freedom from every sexual sin, interior and exterior. And purity in the fullest sense is freedom from sin of every kind. Every modest and chaste life is pleasing to God. But every pure life is a reflection of the very Nature of God.

{4:9} and an immaculate life is a generation of sages.

If anyone is wise in words only, and not also in deeds, then he is not truly wise. An immaculate life, a life of modesty, chastity, and purity, a life unstained by sexual sins, is a life of great wisdom. This true wisdom is not confined to words. It is the wisdom of a life lived in cooperation with grace. A modest, chaste, and pure life offers more wisdom than a generation of sages.

{4:12} For fascination with entertainment obscures good things, and the unfaithfulness of desire subverts the mind without malice.

Christ warned us that the eye is the lamp of the body. But if anyone is fascinated with entertainment, especially the modern forms of entertainment that are so thoroughly tainted by sin, his eye is obscured. The more that we immerse ourselves in mere entertainment, especially sinful entertainment, the more difficult it becomes for us to understand what is truly good. Right and wrong become obscured; and this is all the more true for those poor souls who lack the light of the Church’s teaching so as to distinguish right from wrong.

Entertainment itself is not intrinsically evil. Good entertainment can refresh the mind and heart, can be a respite from the difficulties of daily life, and can even give examples (in both fiction and non-fiction) of the goods found in humanity and in human relationships. Therefore, certainly, the faithful may morally make use of entertainment in their lives.

However, the warning of Sacred Scripture against the misuse of entertainment is true for all generations. The faithful must avoid the worst examples in various types of media, while distinguishing between good and evil even in the better examples of entertainment. And so, if a book or movie has some good and some bad in it, the faithful may judge whether reading that book or watching that movie will do more harm or more good. If making use of any example of entertainment is good under all three fonts (good intention, good moral object, the good consequences outweigh the bad), then its use is moral. Unfortunately, as society moves ever further from God, what is immoral in various forms of media increases, and what is good and useful decreases. The faithful must not be subverted by sinful desire or false teachings (implicit or explicit) when making moderate use of various forms of entertainment. In using modern forms of entertainment, the faithful must be careful to guard not only their eyes and ears, but also their hearts and minds, by means of that grace-filled restraint called modesty (a type of temperance). Sometimes modesty is exercised by self-restraint, by the moderate use of the things of the world, and other times by self-denial.

[1 John]
{2:15} Do not choose to love the world, nor the things that are in the world. If anyone loves the world, the charity of the Father is not in him.
{2:16} For all that is in the world is the desire of the flesh, and the desire of the eyes, and the arrogance of a life which is not of the Father, but is of the world.
{2:17} And the world is passing away, with its desire. But whoever does the will of God abides unto eternity.

While living in the world and making temperate use of worldly things, we must always remember that we are not of the world, but of God. The virtue of modesty assists us in loving God by guarding us against the impure desire for the things of this world, the desires of the flesh, the love of worldly passing things. Thus modesty opposes the false love of lesser things, freeing us to love the higher things of life. And this true love of the higher things in life is always ultimately directed at, and guided by, the love of God, who is the greatest Good.

Marriage and Modesty

[Sirach]
{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 above text is an excerpt from my book: The Catechism of Catholic Ethics

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

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