Pastoral Letter on Decency and Modesty – Archbishop Albert G. Meyer of Milwaukee

The first teaching of our faith is that the law of chastity is imposed on every human being. It binds him in public and in private, in marriage and outside of marriage, in youth and in old age. It is one of the serious laws that God has made, which means that it is one on which the salvation of our soul depends. …

It is most important to remember that the same law of chastity equally forbids the unchaste thought and the unchaste desire. The words of Christ in this regard are crystal clear: “I say to you that anyone who even looks with lust at a woman has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Mt. 5:28) …

The second teaching of our Faith which we ask you to recall here is the doctrine of original sin. Every human being, except the Immaculate Mother of God, has through original sin inherited a tainted nature, which manifests itself more intensively perhaps in inclinations to unchastity than in any other way. The resulting battle with concupiscence is not limited to a given age or state of life; it must be waged by all at all times.

It is fashionable to deny original sin. But to the Catholic, the doctrine of original sin is fundamental for the true understanding of the whole economy of grace and salvation. The denial of original sin ultimately leads to a denial of Christ and the purpose of His Incarnation and Redemption. The denial of original sin leads to a completely false appraisal of the meaning of life.

Such a tragic denial, for example, underlies much of the theory of some progressivist educators. And such a tragic denial is implicit in much of the ostrich-like approach to the very real connection between modesty and chastity, between unchaste thoughts and unchaste deeds, between the unchaste picture or book or dress or film and these unchaste thoughts, desires and deed. It is the teaching of our Faith that through original sin man’s nature has been wounded, although not totally corrupted. The wound in our nature is universally experienced through the struggle in which we have to control our imagination and our passions.

Imagination by itself, we know is simply a picture-making power. It certainly is of real use to the intellect of man, but because of original sin, it plays a part in the mind’s affairs totally out of proportion to its merits, and has passed far beyond the condition of a useful servant.

Hence, to feed the imagination with all sorts of pictures that serve to excite the passions in man’s bodily nature is obviously against God’s plans and God’s will. Such pictures tend to make the passions rebel against the control of the intellect and will, and to draw the will itself away from conformity to God’s will. That is sin. Original sin and its consequence in our fallen nature impose upon us the obligation of keeping the imagination in proper subordination to the intellect and the will.

The third teaching of our holy Faith is that this weakness of human nature, which is the result of original sin, can only be met by following the natural counsels of prudence and right reason, and by using the plentiful means of supernatural graces that have been provided for us by our Divine Savior. The world uses neither.

Prudence tells us that we must reasonably avoid whatever tends to make the imagination rebellious to the intellect and will, and to draw both of these away from God. Prudence is a dictate of the natural law. Prudence see the intimate and necessary connection between the thought and the deed, between the sensory impression of the imagination and the thought and desire.

Therefore, the prudence that sees the virtue of chastity as a desirable and necessary good, also sees that certain things must be avoided to assist the will in the pursuit of that good. The world does not use prudence in the matter of chastity, because it provides a constant flow of incentives to lust, completely heedless of the intimate and necessary connection between modesty and chastity, and indeed often denying the sin of unchastity itself …

The world does not heed the admonition of Christ (Mt. 18:8-9) because it denies the reality of the sin of scandal, and because it ignores or despises the supernatural means for preserving chastity and the helps which come though the Sacraments and prayer.

This brings us to a consideration of the virtue of modesty in the general scheme of virtues, and more especially as it relates to the virtue of chastity.

The virtue of modesty, in general, may be described as that virtue that prompts us to be decorous, proper and reserved in the way we dress, stand, walk, sit – in general, in the way we behave exteriorly. The virtue of modesty bears a relation to other virtues besides that of chastity, especially to the virtue of humility.

In a special way, manner, however, the virtue of modesty is particularly regarded as the guardian of chastity in thought, word and action.

St. Thomas says that it is the virtue by which we rightly regulate our conduct in respect to those things that can lead to impure thoughts, desire and actions, in ourselves and in others. He says that, while chastity deals with the regulation of difficult things, powerful passions and strong desires for pleasure, modesty deals with the regulation of easy things, the remote and proximate occasions and conditions that lead to unholy desires. Thus, we see that modesty is a virtue allied to the virtue of temperance, or the general habit of self-restraint. …

It is this virtue of modesty, in its relation to chastity, which prompted the Holy Father (Pope Pius XII) to write in his Encyclical on Holy Virginity:

“Educators of the young would render a more valuable and useful service if they would inculcate in youthful minds the precepts of Christian modesty, which is so important of the preservation of perfect chastity and which is truly called the prudence of chastity. For, modesty foresees threatening danger, forbids us to expose ourselves to risks, demands the avoidance of those occasions which the imprudent do not shun.. It does not like impure or loose talk, it shrinks from the slightest immodesty, it carefully avoids suspect familiarity with persons of the other sex. … He who possesses the treasure of Christian modesty abominates every sin of impurity and instantly flees whenever he is tempted by its seductions.”

With regard to clothing, modesty requires especially two things: first, care that one does not make chastity difficult for oneself or for others by one’s own modes of dress; second, a prudent but firm and courageous resistance to the styles and customs that are a danger to chastity, no matter how popular or widespread, or adopted by others.

In setting down these two general principles, there is no thought on our part to attempt to define details. In general, that form of dress may be said to be immodest which serves to arouse the lust of men, or which serves as a scandal, that is, a stumbling block to the practice of virtue.

With an honest respect for the innate sense of shame with which every human being is endowed, and with ordinary knowledge of human nature tainted by the effects of original sin, one can with fair accuracy determine what is immodest and what is immodest in given circumstances…

Here, then is also a call to parents to lead the way in encouraging their growing children not to make any compromise with immodest beach and summer wear, no matter how many thousands make use of such; with immodest evening gowns, though such may be seen in the most fashionable social gatherings; with immodest styles of dress that have been a feature of so much of the television entertainment almost from the beginning; with picture magazines that exploit nudity and suggestiveness in every issue; with dangerous associations, readings, shows.

Albert G. Meyer, Pastoral Letter on Decency and Modesty, May 1, 1956,
(Milwaukee, WI: Chancery Office, 1956), pp. 12-15.

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