SHAMELESS WOMEN: “In what does the great part of our modern life differ from what it would have been, if our Lord had never appeared on earth? The Vicar of Christ has recently been forced to protest, in the name of Christian morality, against the shameless audacity of female attire. How far removed we are from the spirit of the Gospel! According to the word of God, women should dress in decent apparel adorning themselves with modesty and sobriety, as it becometh women professing godliness; but the modern woman too often flaunts along the streets, setting modesty at defiance. Can the gospel message ever have touched the hearts of those painted, leering, half-clad horrors which in- fest nearly all public resorts? Our modern morality seems to suffer them gladly.” —Archbishop of Birmingham.
Bishop Besson of Lausanne, ordered the following letter to be read at all masses, in the churches and chapels of his diocese on July 19 or 26, 1925.
The indecency of fashions, especially in the city, has taken on scandalous proportions. The faithful, and especially mothers of families, must not however forget that there are, in this area as in others, rules of Christian modesty from which no one can, under any pretext, be exempted.
It is necessary that the moral level has fallen very low so that the woman resigns herself to the outrageous toilets which the whims of a perverted world make her wear. It is necessary that the sense of propriety has been singularly weakened so that we no longer know that it is incorrect to leave the house before having finished dressing.
We are disgusted to see that such aberrations manifest themselves not only in the bad-tempered people who inspired them, but in Christian women, even in those who should more, because of their social position, set a good example.
We are sorry to think that the lightness of so many mothers forever compromises the souls of poor children, especially poor girls, by accustoming them to certain ways of dressing which make them lose the feeling of modesty.
Against such a revival of paganism, we have a grave duty to react, and it is to the Christian spirit of the faithful that we appeal.
Whatever empty pretexts you may invoke, Ladies and Ladies, we are not afraid to assert that current fashions are often a source of sin for the unconscious who accept them and an occasion of sin for those they scandalize.
In the day when God will ask you to account for the evil you have done and the evil you have caused to be done, he will judge you neither according to your fashion journal, nor according to the false principles of a completely materialized hygiene, nor according to the pretended conveniences of worldly people, but according to the holy Gospel. Now, the divine Master said: “ Woe to him who is the cause of sandal! Heaven and earth will pass away; this word will not pass.
Mgr. Marius Besson, cited in Catholic Tunisia, August 30, 1925, p. 681-682 .
Mgr Besson évêque de Lausanne, a ordonné de lire la lettre suivante à toutes les messes, dans les églises et les chapelles de son diocèse le 19 ou le 26 juillet 1925.
L’indécence des modes, surtout à la ville, a pris des proportions scandaleuses. Les fidèles, et notamment les mères de famille, ne doivent pourtant pas oublier qu’il y a, dans ce domaine comme dans les autres, des règles de la modestie chrétienne dont nul ne peut, sous aucun prétexte, s’exempter.
Il faut que le niveau moral soit tombé bien bas pour que la femme se résigne aux toilettes outrageantes que les caprices d’un monde perverti lui font porter. Il faut que le sens des convenances ait été singulièrement affaibli pour qu’on ne sache plus qu’il est incorrect de sortir de chez soi avant d’avoir fini de s’habiller.
Nous sommes écœuré de constater que de telles aberrations se manifestent non…
In his long-awaited reply to his critics, West honestly admits that he did not want to say anything until he had received the all clear from the bishops, a boon given in abundance by Cardinal Rigali and Bishop Rhoades. While the bishops’ endorsement is significant, it does not mean that West’s teaching is magisterial or that it is on the level of those who themselves hold the teaching office of the Church. Even a theologian who has gained the endorsement of a pope, such as Hans Urs von Balthasar or Cardinal Walter Kasper, is not considered above respectful criticism when he articulates views that may legitimately be shown to be difficult to reconcile with the Church Fathers and Doctors.
West is gracious for thanking his supporters, but his reference to the “profound consolation” proffered by the faithful is a bit off-putting. He has chosen the path of controversy of…
We are not called to be mimics of the Blessed Mother, dressing as would be appropriate for a first-century Palestinian peasant woman (e.g., long veils, skirts to the floor, sandals). We are called to imitate the Blessed Mother in her virtues. In terms of modesty, that might mean dressing in a way that is appropriate to one’s culture and circumstances, not drawing undue attention to oneself either in one’s dress or undress, remaining circumspect about one’s own choices, and not denouncing the reasonable choices of others.
Overall, I agree with this article of Michelle Arnold. However, what tends to happen in discussions about modesty is that those on one side of the debate tend to present a caricature of the other side or generalize too much about the habits of the other side. In particular, I disagree with her remark about Fatima. I believe it is pretty clear what…
Concerning dressing decently as Catholics, many have asked the question “What is so sinful about women’s shoulders!?” This is a perfectly valid question and we felt it deserved to be addressed in its very own post.
Temples of the Holy Spirit
“Do you not know, says St. Paul, that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, the members of the Mystical Body of Our Lord Jesus Christ”
First of all, shoulders are not sinful, just as the marital embrace, breasts, legs, ankles etc are not sinful. God made them, and He made them good. What makes something “sinful” is,
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992) defines SIN as, ” an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law (St. Augustine, Faust 22:PL 42, 418). It is an offense against God. It rises up against God in a disobedience contrary to the obedience of Christ. Sin is an act contrary to reason. It wounds man’s nature and injures human solidarity. The root of all sins lies in man’s heart. The kinds and the gravity of sins are determined principally by their objects. To choose deliberately – that is, both knowing it and willing it – something gravely contrary to the divine law and to the ultimate end of man is to commit a mortal sin. This destroys in us the charity without which eternal beatitude is impossible. Unrepented, it brings eternal death.” (CCC 1871-74)
In every sinful act two things must be considered, the substance of the act and the want of rectitude or conformity (St. Thomas, I-II, Q. lxxii, a. 1). (CatholicAnswers) So, to make something sinful, it would be:
Perverting something from its God-given purpose: Like masturbation, Sex outside of marriage, unnatural marital relations between husband and wife, adultery…
Being in itself an evil act: Murder, stealing, vanity, pride…
The marital act, for example is not sinful when it is used how God ordained it: between husband and wife. But it can be perverted from its God-ordained use: masturbation, pornography, adultery, used outside of marriage, unnatural instances and so on. But this does not mean that the marital act, when proper, can be viewed by others, or spoken of crassly / in the wrong situations and so on. There is a right way and a wrong way of doing things.
Just as there is a right and wrong way of dressing in public. Pope Pius XII spoke on May 22nd, 1941, “Fashion itself isn’t bad. It arises spontaneously from human sociability, following the impulse which inclines to put oneself in harmony with one’s fellows and with the habits of the people among whom have lived. God does not ask you to live outside your time, to remain indifferent to the demands of fashion to the point of making yourself ridiculous by dressing yourself against the common tastes and customs of your contemporaries, without ever worrying about this. that they like. Thus, the angelic Saint Thomas Aquinas affirms that in the external things which man makes use of there is no vice, but that vice comes from man who uses it immoderately in relation to the uses of those with whom he lives, distinguishing himself in a strange way from others”
On November 8, 1957, Pope Pius presented the still-valid principles of modesty in dress.
Clothing fulfills three necessary requirements: hygiene, decency and adornment. These are “so deeply rooted in nature that they cannot be disregarded or contradicted without provoking hostility and prejudice.”
Hygiene pertains mostly to “the climate, its variations, and other external factors” (e.g. discomfort, illness). Decency involves the “proper consideration for the sensitivity of others to objects that are unsightly, or, above all, as a defense of moral honesty and a shield against disordered sensuality.” Adornment is legitimate and “responds to the innate need, more greatly felt by woman, to enhance the beauty and dignity of the person with the same means that are suitable to satisfy the other two purposes.”
Fashion “has achieved an indisputable importance in public life, whether as an aesthetic expression of customs, or as an interpretation of public demand and a focal point of substantial economic interests.
“The rapidity of change (in styles) is further stimulated by a kind of silent competition, not really new, between the ‘elite’ who wish to assert their own personality with original forms of clothing, and the public who immediately convert them to their own use with more or less good imitations.”
The Pontiff then isolated the difficulty with fashion. “The problem of fashion consists in the harmonious reconciliation of a person’s exterior ornamentation with the interior of a quiet and modest spirit.” Like other material objects, fashion can become an undue attachment–even perhaps an addiction–for some persons. The Church “does not censure or condemn styles when they are meant for the proper decorum and ornamentation of the body, but she never fails to warn the faithful against being casily led astray by them.” (Monsignor Charles M. Mangan)
Bare Arms / Serious Importance of Modesty in Dress Held by the Church
The problem that arose concerning women wearing sleeveless dresses and shirts to Mass arose in 1925. Many Bishops exhorted their priests to post a sign on the doors of the Churches to make sure women knew what was considered appropriate in the House of God. Their main concern, aside from the rising Vanity, Pride, Materialism that was becoming so fashionable was “bare arms” and “Décolleté / Décolletage” which is ” the upper part of a woman’s torso, comprising her neck, shoulders, back and chest, that is exposed by the neckline of her clothing. However, the term is most commonly applied to a neckline that reveals or emphasizes cleavage.”
In the Pastoral Letter of His Eminence Cardinal Luçon, Archbishop of Reims, the clergy and the faithful of his diocese, a scathing account is written concerning the seriousness of indecent dress at Mass, where he specifically mentions “bare arms” and low cut dresses, “There is at least one point on which we see ourselves as certain to encounter a unanimous obedience: that nobody will afford to appear to church with these unseemly fashion, that is to say, low-cut dress or bare arms. If there is one place where the frivolous fashions and nudity are particularly displaced, is not it the House of God?” he concluded, “
We strongly urge women and girls of our diocese to observe in their clothes the rules of Christian modesty.
They should absolutely abstain from appearing at the church, especially in the public offices and during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, cut dresses and bare arms.
They will not be admitted to in Confession nor the Holy Table.
And will be, this pastoral letter with the command which terminates, read and published in the main advocates of Mass in churches and chapels of our diocese on Sunday that following receipt.”
And in July, 1925, Mgr Besson bishop of Lausanne, ordered a letter to be read at all Masses in churches and chapels of the diocese that was very similar. He then also spoke to parents, concerning the upbringing of their children, “You have a moral duty to raise them and maintain them in modesty. You have to dress them with reserve and in particular require that the dresses of your girls cover their arms and down below their knees.“
Cardinal-Vicar of Pope Pius XI, Cardinal Pompili on 24 September 1928 issued Guidelines to help Catholic women with regard to Fashion – and what they could consider to be Modest and proper for Mass (and so on). “A dress cannot be called decent which is cut deeper than two fingers’ breadth under the pit of the throat, which does not cover the arms at least to the elbows, and scarcely reaches beyond the knees. Furthermore, dresses of transparent materials are improper.” There has been a concession with regard to sleeve length, because of market conditions.
Brother Raymond-Marie Rouleau, Archbishop of Quebec, wrote in 1930: (loosely translated from French) “In order to determine precisely what is to be considered what is appropriate, (or) improper attire to be worn by the person assisting at Mass…We take the following rule to the letter of His Eminence Cardinal Vicar [ Basilio Pompilj ] addressed on 24 September 1928 to all higher schools of sponsorships and girls in the city of Rome..We hope that all the girls and women of our diocese will be a duty to comply with these provisions and to set an example of Christian modesty with the submission to the will of the Vicar of Jesus Christ. It goes without saying that sanctions brought by the Sacred Congregation must be applied with equal prudence and firmness , to stop immediately and as effectively as possible the scourge of immodesty.”
In 1945, Cardinal Jean-Marie Rodrigue Villeneuve likewise, told those in his diocese ” The priests will not let people enter churches who are not dressed properly. Those who have sleeveless dresses, too low cut or too short, must put on a cloak before crossing the threshold of our temples.” While the Bishops Synod of Quebec stated, “What if we ask what is a modest and decent outfit for a Christian, it is understood that this is the one that covers the chest and arms non-transparent fabrics, coming down at least mid-leg, and whose cup a suitable extent protects modesty hiding body lines “(Cardinal Rouleau, December 8, 1930 . Mandements of Bishops of Quebec , vol. XIII, Supplement 45 [in fact: 36]).
Church Dress Code: Still A Practice Today
The standard of bare arms being improper for Mass and in Church still exists to this day; we can see it being enforced in the Vatican. In particular, the Papal Audience Dress code states that women must cover their shoulders.
Pope Pius XII condemned the idea that a sin such as wearing an immodest fashion is acceptable (i.e. not sinful) if it is customary at a given time and/or place. The principle of majority is no rule of conduct. (There are many evil practices that are widely accepted.) “Yet, no matter how broad and changeable the relative morals of styles may be, there is always an absolute norm to be kept after having heard the admonition of conscience warning against approaching danger: style must never be a proximate occasion of sin.” (An ADDRESS of Pope Pius XII to a Congress of the “Latin Union of High Fashion” November 8, 1957.)
Concerning the seriousness of modesty and purity, St. John Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests cried, “Oh God, how many souls does this sin drag down to Hell! . . . . No, my dear brethren, this beautiful virtue is not known to those worldly and corrupt girls who make so many preparations and take so many cares to draw the eyes of the world towards themselves, who by their affected and indecent dress announce publicly that they are evil instruments which Hell makes use of to ruin souls- those souls which cost so much in labours and tears and torments to Jesus Christ! . . . .” Now he wasn’t one to mince words! Yet he had thousands and thousands flock to Mass and Confession because of it!
In 2016, Fr. Carmelo Arada of Manila Archdiocese Commission on Liturgy said certain decorum must always be observed for liturgical functions.“Going to Mass in the parish and going to Mass in the malls must be celebrated with the same disposition, including the attire. Dress properly,” said the priest. He called for the observance of the proper dress code during mass. “Male Catholics are also discouraged from wearing caps, basketball jerseys, tank tops or jersey shorts, and shorts while women are urged to refrain from wearing spaghetti-strap tops or tank tops, short skirts, skimpy shorts or sleeveless shirts with plunging necklines during Mass.” Which is the same dress code the Archdiocese of Manila had laid down back in 2007.
Fr. Dominic in a homily on EWTN spoke, “Many people come to Church dressed like they are ready to go to the beach. You should not come to Church dressed in shorts, miniskirts, swimsuits, bikinis, tank-tops, dresses above the knees, bare shoulders, bare arms, low cut dresses, sleeveless shirts, very tight fitting clothing, etc. If you come to EWTN or the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, AL and you are not dressed properly don’t expect to get out of your car because we have a dress code here. And don’t even dare to come into the Chapel before our Lord. If you do, hopefully you will be caught by our security guards and asked to put on more clothing. We must return to having a holy fear for God and for His true Presence in the Eucharist and for being in His house. How can we expect to grow in the spiritual life if we are dressed like we don’t care? How dare we approach the Holy Eucharist dressed like we are going to the beach.”
However, all this aside, what we wear to swim, or what we wear in our own homes is certainly a little less “standardized.” (see video below) Though we must never forget our proper role as Catholics; children of God and heirs of Heaven. And our duty to be holy examples to others, especially those under our care. When it comes to bare shoulders, it is more or less not much of an issue outside of Church. But of course then we are faced with the questions, “How thick must our strap be? Two inches? Spaghetti straps? How wide can our sleeves be? Does it even matter at all?” For we know that when we are wearing sleeveless shirts / dresses then the showing of our bra / breast can become an issue when there are large, gaping holes.. We recommend sleeveless shirts / dresses that do not show our bra, and cut close to under our arms, just so that we need not worry about our chest showing when we bend down or lift our arms.
Conclusion / Final Notes
The Catholic Church isn’t dumb; we are not expected to wear old fashioned or ugly clothing, covering our bodies likened to Sharia Law! Pope Pius XII actually calls us to follow the fashion, but with prudence! He called it an act of charity! He has even said that Fashion and Modesty go together.
We are called to look to these guidelines for the sole reason that we know without a doubt that our dress (and, remember we must be modest in our looks, thoughts, words and actions also!) will never be a source of scandal or sin to others.
It’s not “two more inches and you are sinning!” but rather “here is a Standard that will make it easier for you to be able to build a wardrobe around, without having to worry about Modesty at all!” And even if some willfully dress immodestly, it is never our place to hate those people, or treat them badly! Never! We are called to be examples, and to tell the truth when it is charitably necessary (if people don’t know what is modesty they cannot dress modestly), but we are not called to judge if a person is purposefully dressing sinfully to make men lust after them! Most people have no idea anymore! And then need our prayers, our charitable information when possible, and most of all … our example It would be really easy to believe that we could dress how we think is modest, but as mentioned before; something are more difficult than others when it comes to temptation. It is up to both genders to dress modestly, be pure in heart and mind, “flee thou youthful desires, and pursue justice, faith, charity, and peace, with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart.” [2 Timothy 2:22]
If we tried to “cover up” parts of ourselves that were a “stumbling block” or “temptation” for others it would be impossible. As even the mere thought of a person can bring about temptation. It is up to us to fight these temptations, yet not making it harder for our Brothers and Sisters in Christ.
Few “dress codes” have been made by some Christians that have proven to make no sense at all concerning “inches” and “situational outfits”. Is Original Sin merely situational? Prudence and common sense calls us as Catholics to follow a moral guideline, not our feelings, as most Catholic issues. As the Catholic Church has so very much pointed out the importance of Modesty in dress, as well as other areas, we should at least adhere to the seriousness, and the importance.
We must always remember WHY we are trying to dress with decency and modesty:
Because we are temples of the Holy Spirit
Because we are children of God and heirs of Heaven
Because it honors God
Because it allows us to become good examples for Christ, as well as keeps us pure
THOSE who have had the misfortune to give bad example, and to wound or cause the perdition of souls by scandal, must take care to repair all in this world, if they would not be subjected to the most terrible expiation in the other. It was not in vain that Jesus Christ cried out, Woe to the world because of scandals! Woe to that man by whom the scandal cometh! (Matt. 18:7)
Hear what Father Rossignoli relates in his Merveilles du Purgatoire. A painter of great skill and otherwise exemplary life had once made a painting not at all conformable to the strict rules of Christian modesty. It was one of those paintings which, under the pretext of being works of art, are found in the best families, and the sight of which causes the loss of so many souls.
True art is an inspiration from Heaven, which elevates the soul to God; profane art, which appeals to the senses only, which presents to the eye nothing but the beauties of flesh and blood, is but an inspiration of the evil spirit; his works, brilliant though they may be, are not works of art, and the name is falsely attributed to them.
They are the infamous productions of a corrupt imagination.
The artist of whom we speak had allowed himself to be misled in this point by bad example. Soon, however, renouncing this pernicious style, he confined himself to the production of religious pictures, or at least of those which were perfectly irreproachable. Finally, he was painting a large picture in the convent of the discalced Carmelites, when he was attacked by a mortal malady.
Feeling that he was about to die, he asked the Prior to allow him to be interred in the church of the monastery, and bequeathed to the community his earnings, which amounted to a considerable sum of money, charging them to have Masses said for the repose of his soul. He died in pious sentiments, and a few days passed, when a Religious who had stayed in the choir after Matins saw him appear in the midst of flames and sighing piteously.
“What!” said the Religious, “have you to endure such pain, after leading so good a life and dying so holy a death?” “Alas!” replied he, “it is on account of the immodest picture that I painted some years ago. When I appeared before the tribunal of the Sovereign Judge, a crowd of accusers came to give evidence against me. They declared that they had been excited to improper thoughts and evil desires by a picture, the work of my hand. In consequence of those bad thoughts some were in Purgatory, others in Hell. The latter cried for vengeance, saying that, having been the cause of their eternal perdition, I deserved, at least, the same punishment. Then the Blessed Virgin and the saints whom I had glorified by my pictures took up my defence. They represented to the Judge that that unfortunate painting had been the work of youth, and of which I had repented; that I had repaired it afterwards by religious objects which had been a source of edification to souls.
“In consideration of these and other reasons, the Sovereign Judge declared that, on account of my repentance and my good works, I should be exempt from damnation; but at the same time, He condemned me to these flames until that picture should be burned, so that it could no longer scandalise any one.“
Then the poor sufferer implored the Religious to take measures to have the painting destroyed “I beg of you,” he added, “go in my name to such a person, proprietor of the picture; tell him in what a condition I am for having yielded to his entreaties to paint it, and conjure him to make a sacrifice of it. If he refuses, woe to him! To prove that this is not an illusion, and to punish him for his own fault, tell him that before long he will lose his two children. Should he refuse to obey Him who has created us both, he will pay for it by a premature death.”
The Religious delayed not to do what the poor soul asked of him, and went to the owner of the picture. The latter, on hearing these things, seized the painting and cast it into the fire. Nevertheless, according to the words of the deceased, he lost his two children in less than a month. The remainder of his days he passed in penance, for having ordered and kept that immodest picture in his house.
If such are the consequences of an immodest picture, what, then, will be the punishment of the still more disastrous scandals resulting from bad books, bad papers, bad schools, and bad conversations?
Vae mundo a scandalis! Vae homini illi per quem scandalum venit! — “Woe to the world because of scandals! Woe to that man by whom the scandal cometh!
Scandal makes great ravages in souls by the seduction of innocence. Ah! those accursed seducers! They shall render to God a terrible account of the blood of their victims.
Alas, my dear brethren, how little purity is known in the world; how little we value it; what little care we take to preserve it; what little zeal we have in asking God for it, since we cannot have it of ourselves. No, my dear brethren, it is not known to those notorious and seasoned libertines who wallow in and trail through the slime of their depravities, whose hearts are . . . . roasted and burned by an impure fire . . . . [sentence incomplete’Trans.] Alas, very far from seeking to extinguish it, they do not cease to inflame it and to stir it up by their glances, their desires, and their actions. What state will such a soul be in when it appears before its God! Purity! No, my dear brethren, this beautiful virtue is not known by such a person whose lips are but an opening and a supply pipe which Hell uses to vomit its impurities upon the earth and who subsists upon these as upon his daily bread. Alas! That poor soul is only an object of horror in Heaven and on earth! No, my dear brethren, this gracious virtue of purity is not known to those young men whose eyes and hands are defiled by glances and . . . . [sentence incomplete’Trans.] Oh God, how many souls does this sin drag down to Hell! . . . . No, my dear brethren, this beautiful virtue is not known to those worldly and corrupt girls who make so many preparations and take so many cares to draw the eyes of the world towards themselves, who by their affected and indecent dress announce publicly that they are evil instruments which Hell makes use of to ruin souls- those souls which cost so much in labours and tears and torments to Jesus Christ! . . . .
Look at them, these unfortunates, and you will see that a thousand devils surround their heads and their breasts. Oh, my God, how can the earth support such servants of Hell? An even more astounding thing to understand is how their mothers endure them in a state unworthy of a Christian! If I were not afraid of going too far, I would tell those mothers that they are worth no more than their daughters.
Alas! This sinful heart and those impure eyes are but sources of poison which bring death to anyone who looks at or listens to them. How do such monsters of iniquity dare to present themselves before a God Who is so holy and so set against impurity! Alas! Their poor lives are nothing but an accumulation of fuel which they amass to increase the flames of Hell through all eternity. But, my dear brethren, let us leave a subject which is so disgusting and so revolting to a Christian, whose purity should imitate that of Jesus Christ Himself, and let us return to our beautiful virtue, which raises us to Heaven, which opens to us the adorable Heart of our Lord and draws down upon us all sorts of spiritual and temporal blessings . . . .
St. James tells us that this virtue comes from Heaven and that we shall never have it unless we ask it of God. We should, therefore, frequently ask God to give us purity in our eyes, in our speech, and in all our actions. . . . Finally, we should have a great devotion to the Blessed Virgin if we wish to preserve this lovely virtue; that is very evident, since she is the queen, the model, and the patron of virgins . . . .
This is an article by FSSP priest Fr. William Rock. We thought it an excellent addition to our plethora of jewels here at OfficialCatholicModesty.com. Read original article here.
If one were to visit Cerami, Sicily on September 7, one would encounter young women wearing red tunics, harkening back to the time the island was Greek, and young men wearing blue shirts and black pants. Dressed in this festive attire, they are assisting at the annual Maria SS della Lavina celebration.
Devotion to the Maria SS della Lavina image is traced back to a Byzantine icon which was brought to the area at some unknown time in the past (several theories exist which attempt to explain the arrival of this Byzantine icon in Sicily). The icon, as it shows Our Lady suckling Our Lord, is interpreted by the locals as an image of Our Lady of Graces [la Madonna delle Grazie]. Such depictions of Our Lord and Our Lady are ancient. “The earliest images of Mary nursing the Child are of Coptic [Egyptian] and Palestinian origin…From the Monastery of Saint Sabas in Palestine, the composition spread to Italy (Rome, Santa Maria in Trastevere) and, via Serbia, reached the monasteries of Mount Athos. In the seventh century, during the struggle with the Iconoclasts, Pope Gregory II (d. 731) wrote to his adversary, Emperor Leo III the Isaurian: ‘Among the icons to be worshiped there is also an image of the Holy Mother holding our Lord and God in her arms and nursing him with her milk.’” (Icons and Saints of the Eastern Orthodox Church, pg. 183)
The original Maria SS della Lavina icon was, according to the harmonized, pious local tradition, housed in a convent of Benedictine nuns. During a time of danger and iconoclasm, the icon was nailed to a beam in the ceiling in order to protect it. When that danger had passed, the icon was left in its hiding place. Eventually the nuns moved to a different location, leaving the icon behind, and the monastery fell into disrepair.
In the mid-seventeenth century, it is held that Our Lady appeared several times in a dream to one of the Benedictine nuns and directed her to request that the local Archpriest unearth from the ruins of the old monastery the sacred icon. The request was received with skepticism by the priest.
During the third apparition, Our Lady stated that because of the skepticism of the priest, she herself would bring the icon to light. Soon, a torrential rain fell which caused flooding. The day after, a farmer was leading his mule near the torrent caused by the rainfall. Inexplicably, the mule then stopped and, after striking the mud with his hoof, knelt. The farmer, struggling to get his mule to move, drew by this commotion the attention of those who were nearby. After digging, and to the astonishment of those present, the icon of the Blessed Virgin and the Christ Child was found buried in the mud. (It is claimed than an imprint of the mule’s hoof can still be seen on the sacred icon.)
As soon as the Archpriest heard of the episode, shaken and repentant, he made the bells ring out and, together with a large crowd of faithful, went to the site and the sacred icon was recovered with great devotion. In memory of this event, in May, Cerami celebrates the Feast of the Encounter and the icon is carried in procession.
From this time, the image received the title of “Lavina” from u lavinaru, which means in the local dialect “torrent,” a reference to how the image was discovered after the torrential rainfall carried the image out of the ruins and buried it in the mud caused by the flooding.
The pious tradition also tells us that the discovery of the icon was crowned by some miraculous events: one of the best known is of a certain Giuseppe, blind for thirteen years, who, as soon as the news of what had happened reached him, was led by his relatives to the image, and, having kissed the holy icon, regained his sight.
While the miraculous icon itself was placed in the church of the new covenant, a chapel was built on the site where the icon was found. Due to damage received over the years, especially during the Second World War, this chapel has gone under several renovations since its original construction. Within this chapel was placed a newly produced painting (17th century) which depicted the same scene written on the icon, that of Our Lady nursing Our Lord. The new image along with the new chapel received the name of Maria SS della Lavina also, thus linking them with the devotion shown to the miraculous icon. It is this second image, the painting, which is carried in procession during the September celebration.
Devotion to this image of the Virgin and Christ Child was brought to the United States by Italian immigrants. A Maria SS della Lavina Society was organized at St. Aloysius Church in Caldwell, New Jersey by the early 1900s which was legally chartered in 1912. This Society held yearly processions in the town originally with a banner and later with a painting. This painting, which still currently hangs at the church, was undertaken in 1934 by Mr. Onorio Ruotolo, founder of the New York City Leonardo da Vinci Art School.
Some may object to this presentation of the Virgin and Child on grounds of modesty. In our overly immodest culture, it is tempting to retreat into a puritanical position in this regard. Faithful Catholics, however, must ensure that they do not simply take a reactionary position, but should rather allow themselves to be formed in this matter by the perennial liturgical and devotional traditions of the Church. Such would do well to consider, for example, the Epistles read on the Thursday of the First Week of Lent and the Saturday of the Third Week of Lent and the Gospel assigned for the Saturday Mass of Our Lady during the Time After Pentecost in order to see what the Church allows to be read in her public liturgy and which she does not view as degrading to the dignity of the sacred action. Such should consider also the Marian hymn O gloriósa vírginum which is sung in the Divine Office. The first verse is as follows:
O gloriósa vírginum, Sublímis inter sídera, Qui te creávit, párvulum Lacténte nutris úbere.
O glorious of Virgins, Exalted among the stars, He Who created you, as a little one You suckle by your milk-filled breast.
Drawing from the letter of Pope Gregory II, we can see that the practice of depicting the Virgin suckling her Child has existed in the Church for over 1,000 years. In Bethlehem, one can even find a Chapel under the name “Milk Grotto of Our Lady.” According to pious tradition, the Holy Family stopped at this site during the Flight into Egypt, and there, while Our Lord was feeding, a drop of Mary’s milk fell, and the floor of the cave turned white. Let faithful Catholics then allow their position on this matter, as in all others, be formed according to the mind of the Church as perennially expressed in her approved liturgies and devotions.
May God bless you all and may you have a happy and blessed Maria SS della Lavina Feast Day!
Sub tuum praesidium confugimus, Mater Lavinæ!
Fr. William Rock, FSSP was ordained in the fall of 2019 and is currently Assistant Pastor at Mater Misericordiae parish in Phoenix, AZ. Thanks are due to Msgr. Robert Emery, Pastor of St. Aloysius Church in Caldwell, New Jersey, for his support and permission to use parish media, Mr. Fabio Sturchio for his translation work, Mr. Antonino Casabona for granting permission to use his photographs, Mr. Franco Digangi for providing historical information and review, and Mrs. Santa Rock and Ms. Ashleigh Grenci for photography.
Regarding his interview on Nightline, Christopher West says that his remarks were taken out of context. In some sense, this is surely true. However, the comments as aired are the latest in a long list of statements and actions not inconsistent with the context set by the Nightline editors.
Though occasioned by West’s Nightline appearance, the present statement addresses his theology as a whole.
Let me stress that I agree with those who vigorously defend West’s intention of fidelity to the Church. Certainly he has had positive results in drawing many Catholics into a deeper understanding of their faith. As for myself, I do not initiate anything about West in my classes, but only respond when asked a question. Then I begin by emphasizing West’s intention of orthodoxy. As I have often put it, “he would throw himself in front of a bus for the Church.” It is important to understand, however, that good will is not synonymous with sound thought; and I must say, not without reluctance, that West’s work seems to me to misrepresent in significant ways the thought of John Paul II.
The following examples have been verified by persons directly involved or by things written by West himself (and I regret the necessary adoption of West’s own language).
West’s work has involved suggesting that a man and woman bless their genitals before making love; blessing the ovaries of women in his classes; advising young men in college and the seminary to look at their naked bodies in the mirror daily in order to overcome shame; using phallic symbolism to describe the Easter candle; criticizing “flat-chested” images of Mary in art while encouraging Catholics to “rediscover Mary’s … abundant breasts” (Crisis, March 2002); referring to the “bloodied membrane” of the placenta as a “tabernacle” (Colorado Catholic Herald, 12/22/06); stating that, while “there are some important health and aesthetic considerations that can’t be overlooked,” “there’s nothing inherently wrong with anal penetration as foreplay to normal intercourse,” (Good News About Sex and Marriage, 1st ed., emphasis in original), though qualifying this in the revised edition and stressing the subjective dangers of lust in such activity; and, on Nightline, praising Hugh Hefner for helping rescue sex from prudish Victorian attitudes, saying that there are “very profound historical connections between Hefner and John Paul II,” while emphasizing that John Paul II took the sexual revolution further and in the right direction.
I offer these examples not merely because they are vulgar and in bad taste, not to mention sometimes bordering on the just plain silly, but because they indicate a disordered approach to human sexuality. An objective distortion in approaching sexuality does not cease to be such simply because it is theologized. West to be sure will point toward the “orthodox” intentions and context of the examples, but my criticism bears on the substance of his preoccupation as reflected in the examples. (As a Thomist friend of mine used to say: pay attention to a man’s subjects, not his predicates.)
What, then, are the objections to West’s theology?
First, West misconstrues the meaning of concupiscence, stressing purity of intention one-sidedly when talking about problems of lust.
When I first pointed this problem out to him several years ago, his response was that he refused to limit the power of Christ to transform us. My response is that concupiscence dwells “objectively” in the body, and continues its “objective” presence in the body throughout the course of our infralapsarian existence; and that we should expect holiness to “trump” temptations or disordered tendencies in the area of sexuality exactly as often as we should expect holiness to “trump” the reality of having to undergo death.
Second, West has an inadequate notion of analogy. He conceives love in a reductive bodily-sexual sense, then reads the Christian mysteries as though they were somehow ever-greater and more perfect realizations of what he emphasizes as key in our own experience, namely, sex.
But sex is not even the most important part of human love, let alone the key to the Christian mysteries–the Eucharist, for example. Missing in West’s work is an adequate idea of the radical discontinuity (maior dissimilitudo) between the divine love revealed by God–and indeed the (supernatural) love to which we are called–and sexual love or intercourse. To be sure, the spousal love between man and woman is central in man’s imaging of God, and the gendered body and sexual relations are an integral sign and expression of spousal love, which also includes what John Paul II calls all the other manifestations of affection. However, as Joseph Ratzinger says, it is only because man has a capacity for God that he also has a capacity for another human being. The former indicates the “content,” the latter the “consequence,” of man’s likeness to God.
In the end, West, in his disproportionate emphasis on sex, promotes a pansexualist tendency that ties all important human and indeed supernatural activity back to sex without the necessary dissimilitudo.
Third, West’s treatment of shame and reverence is marred by a too-male vision of things–not only too much maleness but distorted maleness. If we could just get over our prudishness and sin-induced guilt, he seems to think, we would be ready simply to dispense with clothes and look at others in their nakedness. He has no discernible sense of the difference between what might be a feminine as distinct from masculine sense of unveiling. He (thus) lacks a reverence for the body entailing a modesty not reducible simply to shame, or again a patient reverence presupposing the “veiledness” proper to what essentially contains mystery. His work is preoccupied with what is external to the detriment of the interiority proper to persons. In this context, we can say that West’s theology ultimately lacks a Marian dimension: not in the sense that he fails to make references to Mary, but because his work is not adequately formed, in method or content, in Mary’s archetypal feminine-human sensibility.
Fourth, a style of preaching is not merely a matter of “style”–a difference in personality or taste. It is always-also a matter of theology itself. West often tends to treat resistance to the content of his lectures, for example during the question periods, as matters of resistance to the Holy Spirit (to the Spirit now speaking in and through West’s “charism”), urging questioners to pray to overcome the fear induced in them by their bad theological-spiritual formation. Well-balanced persons have spoken of how West makes them feel a sense of guilt, of resistance to the Holy Spirit, if they experience uneasiness about what he is saying.
Pope Benedict XVI’s sacramental “style,” integrated within the objectivity of a larger truth that always first calls ourselves into question even as we preach to others, provides a helpful lesson here.
Regarding Hefner: West fails to see that Hefner at root does not correct but misconceives and then only continues the error of America’s Puritan Protestantism. For both Puritanism and Hefner, the body is merely a tool, though to be manipulated differently: by the former exclusively for reproducing children and by Hefner for pleasure. It is not only Puritanism but also Hefner that fails to understand properly the body and bodily desires in their natural meaning as good.
In sum, West’s work provides a paradigm of what is most often criticized today in connection with John Paul II’s theology of the body–and rightly criticized, insofar as that theology is identified with West’s interpretation: namely, that it is too much about sex and too romantic.
West presents a problem for the Church, not because he lacks orthodox intentions, but because his unquestionably orthodox intentions render his theology, a priori, all the more credible. His work often deflects people from the beauty and depth of what is the authentic meaning of John Paul II’s anthropology of love, and thus of what was wrought in and through the Second Vatican Council. It is scarcely the first time in the history of the Church that abundant good will did not suffice to make one’s theology and vision of reality altogether true.
West has worked tirelessly on behalf of the Church. However, if his work is to bear the Catholic fruit he so ardently desires, he needs to subject basic aspects of his theology to renewed reflection.
David L. Schindler Provost/Dean and Gagnon Professor of Fundamental Theology Pontifical Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family The Catholic University of America Washington, D.C.
Christopher West at a recent Theology of theBody road show in Hawaii.
(Posted 07/01/09 www.RemnantNewspaper.com) Christopher West’s appearance on Nightline, during which he praised Hugh Hefner and asserted that John Paul II advanced the sexual revolution “in the right direction,” is but the latest in a long series of scandals arising from West’s promotion of “John Paul II’s Theology of the Body” (TOB). [Caveat: I am forced to quote some of that scandalous material here—not for the sake of multiplying scandal, but rather to demonstrate its existence as a warning to Catholics to keep themselves and their children away from this man’s morally offensive presentations, and those of his fellow “experts” in TOB.]
Based on his rendering of John Paul’s 129 deeply obscure audience addresses filled with the Pope’s clearly personal “reflections” and “meditations” as a private doctor, West has turned TOB into a veritable branded product, complete with a Christopher West logo, which he markets in every conceivable venue with all the fervor and conviction of the late TV pitchman for OxiClean. And the marketing pays off big: a million books and three million audios sold. Yet another success story in Neo-Catholic Land.
TOB, West exclaims, “has already begun a ‘sexual counter-revolution’ that’s changing lives around the world. The ‘fire’ is spreading and in due time we can expect global repercussions.” Not impressed? Wait, there’s more!: “Brace yourself! If we take in what the Holy Father is saying in his Theology of the Body, we will never view ourselves, view others, view the Church, the Sacraments, grace, God, heaven, marriage, the celibate vocation…we will never view the world the same way again.”
Oh come off it, will you?
The brilliant David L. Schindler, for one, has had quite enough of West, who was one of his students ten years ago at the John Paul II Institute. After the Nightline appearance, Schindler wrote a subdued and (in my view) overly respectful but devastating critique of West’s “work,” including this catalogue of some of the countless examples of his former pupil’s notorious gutter-mouth at work (which I have separated into bullet points for easy reading). The following are not to seen by children:
· suggesting that a man and woman bless their genitals before making love;
· blessing the ovaries of women in his classes;
· advising young men in college and the seminary to look at their naked bodies in the mirror daily in order to overcome shame;
· using phallic symbolism to describe the Easter candle;
· criticizing “flat-chested” images of Mary in art while encouraging Catholics to “rediscover Mary’s … abundant breasts” (Crisis, March 2002);
· referring to the “bloodied membrane” of the placenta as a “tabernacle” (Colorado Catholic Herald, 12/22/06);
· stating that, while “there are some important health and aesthetic considerations that can’t be overlooked,” “there’s nothing inherently wrong with anal penetration as foreplay to normal intercourse,” (Good News About Sex and Marriage, 1st ed., emphasis in original), though qualifying this in the revised edition and stressing the subjective dangers of lust in such activity;
· and, on Nightline, praising Hugh Hefner for helping rescue sex from prudish Victorian attitudes, saying that there are “very profound historical connections between Hefner and John Paul II,” while emphasizing that John Paul II took the sexual revolution further and in the right direction.
Predictably enough, Janet Smith, the doyenne of neo-Catholicism, rushed to West’s defense against Schindler. “I want to add my voice to those who are enthusiastic about the West/Theology of the Body phenomenon,” she writes. In Neo-Catholic Land, you see, one must always applaud and defend the latest “phenomenon,” for phenomena and movements, rather than traditional Roman Catholic doctrine, dogma and liturgy, are what neo-Catholicism is all about—first and foremost the meta-phenomenon of Vatican II.
But what can one say in the face of the damning evidence Schindler presents? One can only cavil about “context” and offer, as Smith does, the lame excuse that “it is important to keep in mind… who West’s audience is. It is largely the sexually wounded and confused who have been shaped by our promiscuous and licentious culture.”
Poppycock. Smith knows quite well that West is not speaking to little groups of sexually abused people in hushed tones in the privacy of their homes or in small meeting halls. He shoots his big mouth off and struts the stage in front of cameras and large audiences of well-adjusted Catholics, including parents who have had to flee the room in horror with their children. He plies his trade on his website, on EWTN, on YouTube, on network radio and television. He wants the whole world to hear his “message,” and millions have.
Schindler, in a terribly difficult position because he is criticizing one of his own students, nevertheless has the integrity and the concern for souls to declare that West’s statements “indicate a disordered approach to human sexuality. An objective distortion in approaching sexuality does not cease to be such simply because it is theologized.” Spot on.
The necessary implication of Schindler’s assessment is that West himself is inflicting a form of sexual abuse on his listeners. And indeed he is. Running amuck with the all-but-impenetrable ambiguities of the original audience addresses, which he has no authority to interpret for anyone, West has turned the Pope’s “reflections” into the neo-Catholic novelty I explored in EWTN: A Network Gone Wrong: the “sexualization” of Roman Catholicism by elevating the physical aspect of marital relations to the level of a quasi-sacrament.
“Sex is holy,” West assures us, along with a host of neo-Catholic TOB apostles vying for the pulpit on EWTN and elsewhere. These include the equally foul-mouthed Gregory Popcak, whose work is heartily endorsed by West. Popcak’s utterances have included the filthy and blasphemous suggestion on EWTN (“The Abundant Life,” broadcast of November 15, 2001) that married couples pray a “Lover’s Prayer,” in which they “say something like ‘Lord, help me to kiss her with your lips. Help me to touch her with your hands and to love her with your undying passion….”
According to Popcak the answer to Deepak Chopra’s question “Does God have orgasms?” is “Absolutely yes. My own faith tradition teaches that God is a lover and that the cosmological orgasm physicists refer to as the Big Bang… is the model for human sexuality. Who wouldn’t give their eyeteeth for a night like that with their beloved?”
West gleefully offers the following disgusting endorsement of Popcak’s book “Holy Sex”:
Think of this book as Thomas Aquinas meets Dr. Ruth and enjoy…. Popcak goes right between the sheets, shall we say, providing a very frank, honest, and practical discussion of the sexual joys and challenges of the marriage bed…. Give Holy Sex a prayerful read and you will be on your way, as the good doctor puts it in classic Popcak-style, to “a toe-curling, eye-popping, mind blowing, deeply spiritual, and profoundly sacramental sexuality.”
“Dr. Ruth,” in case anyone doesn’t know, is Ruth Westheimer, the Jewish TV “sex therapist” whose presentations are so sexually explicit that not even West would dare quote them. Yet West is delighted by a book that (so he claims) somehow combines her obscene approach with the teaching of the Angelic Doctor.
At any rate, the Magisterium has used a number of terms to describe the sexual act, but “holy” has never been one of them. The physical act involved in reproduction (as distinguished from the soul infused at conception) can no more be holy than eating a good meal can be holy. Both are bodily goods, but goodness and holiness are two different things—a distinction that has been lost in the general conflation of grace and nature in post-conciliar thinking.
Further, the sexual act involves a dark mystery to which West is apparently oblivious. As Pope Pius XI observes in Casti Connubii, a classic statement of traditional Catholic teaching on human sexuality: “the very natural process of generating life has become the way of death by which original sin is passed on to posterity…” (Casti Connubii, n. 14).
The sexual act, while of course not evil in itself, is nevertheless by the divine command an instrument for the transmission of death itself and the corruption of human nature on account of Adam’s transgression, even though it also results in the creation of an immortal soul. Then, of course, the sexual act is fraught with our inherited concupiscence. Hence as John Paul II himself admitted in his audience address of October 10, 1980: “Man can commit this adultery in the heart also with regard to his own wife, if he treats her only as an object to satisfy instinct.” (There is nothing new here, as the Church has always spoken of the right use of the marital privilege, and the avoidance of a lustful abuse of it.) For these reasons alone, any attempt to declare the sex act “holy” is offensive to pious ears at best.
And if “sex is holy” (as opposed to being a mere bodily good) why does the Catholic mind reel in horror at the thought of Our Lord or Our Lady engaging in even legitimate nuptial relations? Why is the celibate state exemplified by Christ Himself and the very Mother of God higher than the married state according to Sacred Scripture and all of Tradition? Why will there be no “holy sex” of any kind in heaven, if holy it is? The answer is that the sexual act is a lowly and passing thing of this world to which a penalty must attach because of original sin, and that in the divine plan it will never be anything but an ephemeral aspect of earthly existence having no part whatsoever in the life eternal of the blessed.
But the answer to the problem of Christopher West is really much more basic than all this. Has our sensus catholicus been so dulled, our standard of decency so abased by forty years of novelty in the Church and depravity in the culture, that we cannot muster enough outrage to declare that someone who says the things that West says is simply a vulgar pig who should be silenced by ecclesiastical authority for the good of souls?
As for the “theology of the body,” I see no duty to pay it any mind in the absence of a binding Magisterial pronouncement on what, if any, binding doctrinal content is to be found in 129 talks filled with such tentative expressions as “It can be said,” “we can think,” “can convince us,” “seems to confirm this,” “it can be affirmed,” “it is admittedly not possible to amplify this implication too much,” and “we are trying to penetrate the specific meaning of these words and these chapters.”
As even TOB enthusiast George Weigel has written: “A small, even microscopic percentage of the world’s Catholics even know that a ‘theology of the body’ exists. Why? The density of John Paul’s material is one factor; a secondary literature capable of ‘translating’ John Paul’s thought into more accessible categories and vocabulary is badly needed.” (Witness to Hope, p. 343).
I rather doubt that theological truths of momentous importance for the Church and the world were left unspoken for nearly 2,000 years, only to emerge suddenly in “John Paul’s thought” by way of little-known addresses so “dense” they need to be “translated” by “secondary literature.” Yet the lay “translators” of TOB preposterously “interpret” a series of opaque commentaries as nothing less than the hope of the world in our time, the implication being—and this is classic neo-Catholicism—that the Church’s teaching on marriage and procreation before Vatican II was all pretty much worthless.
The Magisterium does not teach by “secondary literature” written by “translators.” It teaches by unequivocal pronouncements of Popes and Councils concerning what Catholics must believe. No such pronouncements have been forthcoming on this nebulous subject.
Much less does the Magisterium teach through the likes of Christopher West, the self-anointed lay prophet of a novel theology he seems to think is the Church’s only claim to credibility concerning marriage and procreation. As one tribute to him explains:
Christopher West was not always a spokesperson for the teaching of the Pope and the Catholic Church…. A very passionate but not exactly chaste young man of 21, Christopher nearly left the Catholic Church because what he considered the repressed and antiquated teaching of the Church against contraception. But before checking out of the Church of his youth, West decided to allow the Church a chance to explain herself…. [H]e read Pope John Paul II’s 129 Wednesday audiences on the theology of the body. “They changed the way I see the whole universe,” said West. “I knew then that I would spend the rest of my life studying the pope’s theology of the body and making it accessible to others.”
We see here the essence of neo-Catholic arrogance and selective deference to the Church: the sadly deficient Church was given a chance to explain herself and—lo and behold!—the Church restored her claim to allegiance with the novel remarks of John Paul II, which this layman will now “make accessible” to the world.
And this from a man who finds deep meaning in rock music and the movie Spiderman III (which he admits has occupied his thoughts for several years), publicly brags about his own rock drumming, and pounds his chest to the beat of a U2 song while belting out “DEE-SIIIII-RE!” to illustrate one of his excruciatingly sophomoric “theology” lectures.
In a video available on his website, West expresses sympathy for Katy Perry, the rock star whose lesbian-tinged hit “I Kissed a Girl” represents, according to him, an example of how rock music explores themes “from the depths of the human heart…” whereas “saccharine Christian music” is “afraid to go there.” West contends that because Perry was “raised in a Christian home” in a “repressive Christian atmosphere” in which “her parents forbade her to listen to anything but Christian music,” she just had to turn to rock and roll to express how “deeply wounded” she is. West admits he is “only guessing” about Perry’s “repressive” upbringing, but this does not prevent him from calumniating her parents on the World Wide Web.
To appreciate how “deeply wounded” poor Katy is, West suggests watching her video on YouTube in which she is “in bed with one guy, thinking about this other guy” or another video in which “she is cutting herself with this knife, blood is all over her cleavage.” We must not condemn this sort of thing mindlessly, he insists, but rather try to understand its meaning concerning the wounding of Perry’s soul by her Puritanical upbringing. “I am sick and tired of this Puritanical BS that passes for Christianity!” he declares to his worldwide audience.
And this is the man who peddles the product called “John Paul II’s Theology of the Body”® to audiences filled with impressionable young Catholics. Have good Catholics completely lost their minds? Even if there were bona fide Catholic doctrine to be found in the “theology of the body,” could the situation in the Church have become so parlous that we would have to learn it from an oversexed man-child with a dirty mouth?
No matter what his intentions, Christopher West’s “mission” is but another sign of the apocalyptic decline of our time in the midst of the worst crisis in Church history. West deserves prayers for his conversion and repentance no less than the public condemnation his scandals require. And may God bless Dr. Schindler for having the courage to speak out against this wildly popular false prophet who was once his student.