The “third rail” to which I refer — a topic likely to severely burn any Catholic blogger, particularly a male blogger, daring or foolish enough to touch it — is the issue of modest and appropriate dress … specifically, whether Catholic women ought to prefer wearing skirts/dresses rather than pants or jeans at all times.
This Great Pants Debate seems to have triggered an intense reaction on some other Catholic blogs. So, as a currently active female member of TAC, I thought I would tackle it so the guys would not have to endanger themselves or their domestic peace by doing so.
The debate began with this recent post (http://www.catholicity.com/message/2010-07-30.html) at CatholiCity. The author counsels observant Catholic women to eschew pants and wear skirts or dresses at all times because this will, he says, enable good Catholic men like himself to appreciate their God-given femininity without being (ahem) distracted or tempted by certain physical attributes.
Meanwhile, other bloggers (http://simchafisher.wordpress.com/2010/09/13/pants-a-manifesto-2/) and commenters (http://markshea.blogspot.com/2010/09/go-simcha.html) reacted with amusement, outrage, resentment, defensiveness, or some combination of them. Some dubbed the author’s teaching “sola skirtura” and characterized it as merely a chauvinistic man’s attempt to control women instead of controlling himself. Others saw it as a ham-handed attempt to create a litmus test for judging a woman’s piety, chastity, and/or obedience to her husband. Still others attempted to defend the author by citing the dress code Padre Pio imposed on penitents and the reported warning of Our Lady of Fatima concerning “certain fashions… that will offend God very much.”
I must admit I was surprised at the level of interest in this subject — more than 600 comments just on Simcha Fisher’s and Mark Shea’s blogs alone. I would have thought that a debate over whether or not it is appropriate for Catholic women to wear pants would be about as timely as, say, the Kennedy-Nixon debate over Quemoy and Matsu. For most people that train left the station at least 40 years ago. Why the big deal now?
I suspect it has to do with the fact that committed Catholics today are rightfully concerned about the need for modesty and about promoting a proper understanding of the roles of men and women. This is an issue that touches everyone and is deeply personal. Most of the commenters regarded the “sola skirtura” approach as an example of what not to do; but that leaves open the question of what to do. Both sides have legitimate concerns, but as in most cases, a balanced approach between two extremes is best.
We live in a society that has gone out of its way to deny or downplay the significance of male-female differences in ways that are destructive to families, the Church, and to the common good. The most egregious manifestations of this attitude include same-sex “marriages”, attempts to ordain women priests, and the notion that children do not need both a mother and a father. Pretending that all male-female differences are merely a matter of societal conditioning, or of “plumbing” that can be altered at will, does not make it so — it merely leads to confusion and chaos. Christians, however, proclaim the truth that God has created humanity male and female, both equal in dignity, but different in their characteristic gifts.
Moreover, secular society constantly exploits the natural tendency of men to be, shall we say, visually oriented. An entire multi-billion-dollar industry (pornography) has been built upon such exploitation, and provocative dress and actions are used to sell everything from popular music to consumer items. Observant Christians, on the other hand, know they are called to be considerate of one another’s weaknesses and temptations. This includes, as far as reasonably possible, avoiding scandal to others such as women may create when they dress in ways that call unnecessary attention to certain parts of their bodies and arouse sexual desire in men to whom they are not married.
Inevitably, though, some Christians overreact to these societal evils and attempt to impose or revive outdated or burdensome standards of modesty. Although this is most common among fundamentalist Protestants, some Catholics, particularly those of a traditionalist bent, have (as we see above) fallen into the same trap as well.
So what are my thoughts? First, I don’t for one moment believe lay women are morally obligated to wear skirts at all times. Those who cite the Old Testament injunction against women wearing men’s clothing and vice versa should remember that in those days, men’s and women’s clothing was far more similar in style (tunics, robes, head coverings, etc.) than it is today. The intent of this law, most likely, was to prevent men and women from deliberately decieving others regarding their gender, or from adopting some of the decadent sexual practices of their pagan neighbors. A modern woman, however, is not going to fool anyone into thinking that she is a man merely by putting on a pair of jeans or slacks.
The warning of Our Lady of Fatima regarding “fashions that will offend God” could refer to any number of offensive clothing styles or practices that have arisen in the past 90-plus years. I’m sure most of us can think of numerous examples but I would bet that ordinary women wearing reasonably decent and properly fitting pants (not skin-tight or low-cut) are not on most of our lists. As for Padre Pio, it is true that he would not allow women to approach him for confession unless they were wearing skirts well below the knee. Whatever his reasons, though, the fact that Padre Pio is now a canonized saint does not mean that all of his personal opinions, ideas, or preferences are endorsed by the Church or binding on all Catholics. Holiness or even sainthood does not equal infallibility.
Second, I have no beef whatsoever with women who choose to wear only skirts because they feel it is personally beneficial to them, their families, or their relationship with God, or even just because they feel more comfortable in them. (In the spring and summer I wear skirts about 90 percent of the time myself, simply because they tend to fit me better than pants do.) If they feel that giving up pants is a sacrifice that they are called to make out of love for God or respect for their husband’s authority over the home, that’s fine, as long as they don’t presume that everyone else is called to do the same.
Making a conscious effort to dress with dignity does seem to promote self-respect and more dignified behavior toward others. This can clearly be seen, for example, in schools that have instituted uniforms or enhanced dress codes. So there’s nothing wrong with a woman putting reasonable effort into improving her clothing or appearance. However, I believe pants or even jeans can be just as dignified as skirts on a woman depending on how they fit and the situation in which they are worn.
Third, I have no desire to pass judgment upon women whose personal opinions differ from mine or have bigger things to worry about than what they are wearing – financial difficulties, caring for young children, personal health problems, or work within or outside the home that makes it uncomfortable, awkward or impractical to dress up. Sometimes it takes heroic effort just to get out of bed in the morning and get oneself clean and dressed enough to avoid arrest for vagrancy or indecent exposure. Anyone who has stayed up all night tending to a sick child, tried to sleep in a hospital waiting room or airport lounge, or even forgotten to do the laundry knows what I’m talking about.
C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity wrote that there is a difference between the virtue of chastity – which is required of all Christians in all times and cultures – and the exercise of modesty, which varies according to time, place, and culture. As Lewis pointed out, a Pacific island girl wearing only a grass skirt and a Victorian lady covered from neck to toe could be equally “modest” by the standards of their cultures, and equally chaste or unchaste for all one could tell by their dress. So pronouncements made by past saints, popes, etc., concerning particular fashions or customs of their era do not necessarily apply equally to our own era, since standards of modesty do legitimately change over time.
If you care to watch me grab the third rail and voice my personal opinion regarding modest dress, I’d suggest that men and women, in most public places and situations, try to keep their shoulders, entire torso, hips, and legs to just above the knee covered as much as reasonably possible. Arms need not be covered, and a neckline that stops short of displaying cleavage or chest hair is fine. For women making trips to the pool, beach, or gym, I’d modify that to just keeping one’s hips and torso covered (I personally prefer one-piece bathing suits and would never permit my daughter to wear a bikini, but again, that’s just my opinion). Tight-fitting clothes that call immediate attention to one’s, um, sexual attributes should be avoided, and undergarments should never be on public display (that goes for men too!). The goal is simply to avoid what would be offensive, distracting or provocative to the average person. The judgment of a spouse, adult family member or trusted friend can be consulted whenever one is in doubt about the appropriateness of any outfit. Most observant Catholics will probably do fine if they simply exercise common sense and respect for others around them.