[Taken from De Fide Catholica]
The following is from a conference given by the late Fr. John Hardon, S.J.
Modesty and prudence are two virtues that most persons would not think to associate, yet they stand to one another as cause to effect: Just as there can be no chastity without modesty, so there can be no modesty without prudence. Before we go any further, let us reiterate that we are dealing with Christian chastity; i.e., chastity as revealed by Our Lord Jesus Christ. Indeed, although the Latin word castitas predates Christ, chastity regarded as a virtue appears only after the Incarnation. Already among the ancient Greek philosophers like Aristotle, it was assumed that continence or the virtue of temperance in controlling the sexual appetite required the practice of prudence. But the prudence we have in mind goes far beyond, is much deeper, than what even the best minds before Christ ever conceived, to say nothing of what was expected of persons in practice.
What is modesty?
The most basic meaning of modesty is moderation. In this sense a modest person is one who moderates his actions. In other words, a modest person is moderate or balanced. This can mean placing a moderate estimate on one’s own abilities or talents. A modest person is one who is neither bold not self-assertive. A modest person tends toward diffidence. Such descriptions we will find in any modern lexicon. In Catholic moral teaching, however, modesty is a virtue inclining a person to observe proper decorum, especially in speech, in one’s bodily movements, dress, and adornments. The key term in this definition is proper decorum. As explained by St. Augustine in his Rule for the Servants of God, “In all your movements, that nothing be evident which would offend the eyes of another.” For our purpose, proper decorum means such external behavior as would not lead another person into temptation, especially against chastity. As we have often said before, God intends us to be channels of grace to other persons. Conversely, therefore, God does not intend that we be sources of temptation to other persons.
Needless to say, modesty is rooted in the mind and in the will. That is why Lactantius once observed: “Modesty in human beings is praised because it is not a matter of nature, but of will.” We are only as modest in our behavior as we are convinced on reason and faith that our external conduct has a deep influence on every person whose life we touch. We are responsible for every person whom God even momentarily places in our life. Accordingly, we are responsible for others’ preservation and practice of modesty and chastity. This is still the mind of believing Christians, even though we live in a world that has almost forgotten how to spell the word modesty and ignores the most fundamental norms for the preservation of chastity.
If we are to understand the meaning of modesty we must first realize that, like so many other virtues, it is rooted in humility, the virtue opposed to pride. The more closely we look at modesty the more we see that it requires restraint, restraint in the instinct we all have to be appealing to others. We want others to accept us, think well of us, admire and praise us. In short, we desire to be loved. This desire helps foster and preserve the social bonds that man has by nature. Man’s nature, however, suffers from the effects of original sin. Were human nature not wounded, we would not desire to be loved at any price; we would all be modest spontaneously and easily. But human nature is wounded, subject to inordinate desires-cravings- on account of original sin, including the craving to be loved. Consequently, we are inclined to crave to be the object of others’ attention at any price. This craving leads to immodesty, wherein we become for those by whom we wish to be accepted, admired and loved occasions of sinful temptations. Certainly, the desire to be loved is not in itself a bad thing. But reason illumined by faith assures us that, on account of the effects of original sin—especially the inordinate love of self (i.e. pride) that leads to an inordinate desire to be loved—we must practice restraint, difficult as this may be at times. We dare not crave the acceptance and admiration of others except in accordance with the will of God. As stated previously, the practice of modesty depends upon the virtue of prudence. Without Christian prudence, the practice of Christian modesty is practically impossible.
What, then, is prudence?
In general, prudence is the virtue whereby we recognize in any situation what is good and what is evil. In this sense, prudence is a moral virtue, a moral virtue of the intellect that enlightens the mind and directs the will on what goals it should desire, and on the good means it should choose to attain that goal, as well as the evil means it should avoid. In other words, prudence is a light that guides the will with respect to what should be done and the morally good means that may be used to accomplish it. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that prudence is composed of no less than eight elements. These eight qualities of prudence are worth reviewing, as they are important for a correct understanding of modesty and help in the practice of Christian chastity.
First, prudence requires the memory of past experiences on what a person draws when making a moral decision. In practicing modesty, it helps to remember how past imprudence led at least to temptations, even sins against chastity, in oneself or in others.
Second, prudence demands understanding of the basic principles of morality, derived not only from reason, but also from revelation. Only a Christian believer can really understand that chastity is necessary for the practice of charity. And as every believer knows, charity is a pre-condition for reaching our eternal destiny. It is a necessary means to reaching the ultimate goal that we have as children of God. At root, immodesty is a failure in charity. It is self-love at the cost of another person’s friendship (potential or actual) with God.
Third, prudence calls for docility, that is, the willingness to learn from others. In this age of sexual promiscuity, if the young are unwilling to learn from those who are older and wiser than they, the further breakdown of a stable society is assured. In my five years on a faculty of a state university, I was constantly counseling my students, never retiring before midnight. These young people had to practice constant prudence if they wanted to maintain their chastity, to say nothing of their sanity!
Fourth, prudence is built on shrewdness. To be prudent, a man must be able to make a wise conjecture about the best course of action to follow in a particular case. Christ told us to be as simple as doves, but let us not forget the other half: to be as wise as serpents. To persevere in virtue, one must be supernaturally shrewd, cunning in anticipating how my virtue will be tested in a variety of situations. One can never be too wise in the practice of modesty, at least if the goal is to imitate Our Lord and Our Lady in their practice of chastity.
Fifth, prudence implies practicality. All the moral doctrine of Christianity is useless unless I apply the Church’s moral principles to the particular situations that arise hour after hour, day by day, especially when I associate with other persons.
Sixth, prudence entails foresight; indeed, the very word means foresight; that is, being able to provide or foresee how something should be done. Applying this to modesty, a modest person will consistently, almost instinctively, foresee how he or she should act in order to preserve his own chastity and that of others. We said earlier that modesty avoids any bodily movements that would be offensive to the eyes of others. We should immediately add that modesty also avoids anything that would be offensive to the ears of another person. In the modern West, and certainly in American society, it is almost part of our culture to arouse sexual thoughts and images through sight and sound. Our communications media not only seem to be, they are diabolically possessed with a desire to incite the sexual passions.
A whole science has come into existence called sexology. Its advocates have deeply influenced our entire system of education, from pre-school children right through secondary schools and to the universities. I thought I would have a heart attack when a priest friend of mine, who was taking graduate courses at a university for a doctorate, told me that he was specializing in sexology. Somewhere, near the center of this ideology, we find a virulent opposition to what the sexologist calls religious moralizing. According to the sexologist, the moral teachings of all religions, but especially that of Christianity, are repressive, Christianity, the claim, inhibits the natural expression of the sexual instinct, even within the bond of marriage. Needless to say, many clergy and laymen have embraced these notions propounded by sexologists and championed by Margaret Sanger and Planned Parenthood, the institution that she founded. When, as we’ve said before, Pope Paul VI published the encyclical Humanae Vitae, the Episcopal conferences of almost all the nations of the world met in solemn session to pass judgment on the Vicar of Christ, and about half of the world’s Episcopal conferences voted against the teachings of the Bishop of Rome, while tacitly acknowledging with Sanger and her ilk that the Church’s teaching on contraception was repressive, and could in good conscience be rejected.
Let’s be clear. In today’s world, a Christian believer cannot remain chaste without practicing heroic prudence. What do I mean? I mean what Our Lord taught: we cannot love both Him and the world. Either accept Christ and reject the world or, more graphically, love Christ and hate the world. Knowing the world as well as we do, we have no choice. We shall only be as chaste as we are constantly on guard against the enemies of Christ, who deny the very existence of chastity. In their vocabulary, chastity is a form of psychosis. Sexual pleasure in every form should be available to every normal man or woman-- indeed, to every child.
Seventh, prudence calls for circumspection, which means to look at or study a situation from “all around”. In other words, prudence would have us take into account the circumstances involved in what ever it is we plan to do. For the time, place, and persons involved may bear to one degree or another on the morality of our actions. Needless to say, circumspection is indispensable if we wish to remain faithful to Christ’s teaching on chastity. Fortunately, the holy Ghost, who dwells in our hearts, is ready to provide us with the light we need to enkindle our divine instinct: what we should say or not say; how we should act or not act; what we should wear or not wear; how we should even move or not move our bodies, if we are to preserve our own chastity and be channels of grace for His virtue to everyone who enters our lives.
The last element of prudence that we will take up is caution, which entails anticipation and vigilance. In practice, this means that I will be content neither with the act itself nor the intention being good, but that I will strive to anticipate and be vigilant against the evil or harm that an otherwise good action on my part may occasion or produce in another, despite my good intention. Such anticipation can hardly be maintained apart from the assistance of the Holy Ghost dwelling one’s heart. For only God knows how a perfectly innocent act on our part may be the occasion of sin for another.
We have one more important aspect of our subject to speak on; namely, supernatural modesty and prudence. All that we have been saying so far about modesty and prudence has been founded on our Christian faith; we have not relied upon the world’s standards. A comparison between the two may now prove useful. A standard dictionary would define modesty as propriety in dress, speech, and conduct. Fine. Let’s accept this definition for now. But what is meant by propriety? Again, the dictionary will define propriety as a standard on what is socially acceptable in conduct or speech. In short, propriety is what is socially acceptable. On these premises therefore, it is the society in which a person lives that sets the standard on what is socially acceptable in conduct or speech. In short, propriety is what is socially acceptable. On these premises, therefore, it is the society in which a person lives that sets the standard for what is modest. The moment we say this, we are face to face with two norms of morality: the norm determined by society and culture in which we live, and the norm determined by our faith in Our Lord Jesus Christ. What norm do we follow? Perhaps one or the other, perhaps a little of both.
Those who practice modesty often do so with a view towards others. They do not wish to be a source of temptation for others. This is good, but incomplete. We are to practice modesty not only for the sake of others, but for our own sake as well. There is such a thing as being an occasion of sin for oneself. We believe that Our Lord’s standards of morality are fundamental to being a faithful follower of Christ. Our divine Savior could not have been more plain when He told us that we love Him only as much as we keep His commandments. I cannot over emphasize the importance of this. The essence of being a Christian consists not only in what a person believes but also in how a person behaves. Among these commandments of Our Lord Jesus Christ, none more openly and consistently conflicts with the philosophy of the world than Christ’s teaching on chastity.
St. Alphonsus, a Doctor of the Church and heavenly patron of confessors, tells us that, in his judgment, most of those who lose their souls lose them because they fail to practice chastity. If the standard of the world in this regard greatly differ from the standards of Christ, we must conclude that only a deep faith in Christ as the living God in human form and fidelity to His standards can sustain us in the practice of modesty and chastity.
Over the years in my priesthood, I have always been convinced that faith in Christ as the living God is the granite foundation for the practice of all the virtues, especially that of chastity. Volumes could be written defending on purely rational grounds why people should be chaste, but in the final analysis, you must believe Our Lord, not seeking fully to comprehend Him before accepting the truth of His words, that unless we be chaste in this world we shall never see the face of God in the world to come.
Christian chastity is a mystery and we define a mystery as that which is inconceivable before divine revelation and never fully comprehensible even after divine revelation. We will only be as chaste as our faith in Our Lord Jesus Christ—that He is the Divine Word made flesh—is strong, no more no less.
When Christ told us that without Him we could do nothing, He meant that we can do nothing in the moral order that leads us to heaven without the help of His grace. This grace is first of all light for the mind to know what God wants us to do in every circumstance of our daily lives. Put another way, the most important grace we need to practice all of the virtues, including that of chastity, is light for the mind. We must see with the eyes of faith why we ought to be chaste. This grace likewise strengthens the will that it may choose what our mind tells us is the divine will in every situation.
Not surprisingly, when Christ warned us about how we use our eyes and our hands, He did so with reference to chastity. Only a believing Christian, this is, someone deeply in love with Christ, is ready to accept what the Master tells us about chastity in the mind as a condition for chastity in the body.
For us who believe that Jesus is God, we can almost redefine modesty as chastity of the body, which is governed by a chaste mind. It is not too much to say that our loyalty to Christ, certainly in our day will only be as firm and as stable as our fidelity to the practice of chastity and modesty.
Twenty years ago, I listened to a lecture by Vance Packard, the author of Hidden Persuaders. What Vance Packard said on that occasion, I shall never forget. Almost at the heart of American society is an organized, highly financed, efficient, and savvy core of experts. Their one ambition is to persuade the people to buy what they do not need, with money they do not have. Worse still, one of the most important tools used by these persuaders is sexual stimulation. To be ignorant of this truth is to be ignorant of the society in which we live. Christ tells us not to be afraid, for He has overcome the world. We believe that Christ was telling the truth when He told us that modesty is a precondition for chastity: either we accept this teaching and put it into practice or we will become yet another casualty in the modern deluge of sexual idolatry.
I would like to close with a quotation from, of all people, the “Little Flower”. Writing just before she entered the Carmelite order, her simple yet profound words are worth pondering: “Here was one lady that was talking about my pretty hair, another just going out the door wanting to know who that very pretty girl was. The thrill of pleasure I felt made me realize that I was full of self-love. I am always ready to sympathize with the people who lose their souls. After all, it’s so easy once you begin to stray along the primrose path of worldliness.” What is this pretty girl, also known as St. Therese of Lisieux , telling us? Either we rely on Christ to protect us from going down the primrose paths of worldly immodesty or we risk the salvation of our souls.