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“Modesty in the Abrahamic Religions”

A Conversation with an Interfaith Abrahamic Delegation from Iran

Sponsored by:

The Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law

The International Center for Religion and Democracy

“The Christian Perspective”

Mary Shivanandan, STD

John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage & Family

  at the Catholic University of America

April 29, 20005

            When our first child was a year old, I took him to visit my husband’s family in his village in Sri Lanka.  One of the first gifts I was given on arrival was a magazine with sexually explicit photographs.  I was taken aback and expressed my dismay.  My husband’s brother responded that he thought all Westerners were interested in such material.  I assured him that I was not and returned it to him.

            That and other encounters in our travels in Asia made me realize that the sexually explicit view the West projects to the rest of the world is very far removed from my Christian values.  It represents a materialist secular culture that is for the most part antagonistic to Christian values on women and family.  At the same time I discovered that the more restrictive values in of my husband’s family in Sri Lanka did not represent the dignity and freedom of women I had come to expect.  Young girls of marriageable age could not go out alone or visit even a male cousin’s house. 

            All these experiences have stimulated much thought on the dignity and role of women and men.  In 1988 I became a student at the John Paul II Institute for studies on marriage and family and have been able to study such questions in depth.  Questions about sexual modesty inevitably raise issues of culture and the meaning of the human body.  I have been fortunate to focus my research and teaching on John Paul II’s anthropology, especially his theology of the body.  And it is mainly from this perspective that I would like to address the topic of modesty today.

Man and Woman as Persons

            John Paul II bases his discussion of the body on an understanding of man and woman as persons made in the image of God.  In his book Love and Responsibility, which is a Christian philosophical treatment of the person in relation to sexuality, then as Karol Wojtyla, he distinguishes the subjective dimension of the person from the objective.  Objectively a person is some thing, an object in the material world.  But subjectively a person has an inner life beyond the material.  It is on the basis of his inner life that he is a person.  A person, says Wojtyla, because he has free will, is his own master sui juris.  No one can will for him or substitute their will for his.  A person--and he likes to quote the categorcial imperative of Emmanuel Kant--should never be treated simply as a means to an end. 

            In sexual relations between a man and a woman, the body of the other becomes an object of sexual desire.  To avoid reducing the body of the other simply to an object of sexual desire, the desire must be raised to the level of the person.  Love seeks the total good of the other so it is love that integrates sexual desire into a total gift of self.  In our Christian tradition the only proper context for sexual union is marriage, an exclusive lifelong commitment between one man and one woman ordered to conceiving and raising a family.  Outside of marriage men and women equally are called to be chaste.  Modesty is a virtue that protects chastity.  Its importance lies in the fact that, as John Paul II says, chastity is a requirement of the person so that the person is never treated merely as a sexual object.  Let us see how immodesty puts a risk the value of the person and the sexual relation.

            Men and women are different—to state the obvious—although nowadays some feminists are trying to abolish the difference in the name of a spurious equality.  In Love and Responsibility Wojtyla speaks a lot about this difference.  The man is attracted first to the sexual values in the woman.  His desire is focused on her body.  And that is as it should be so he can initiate love.  Now the woman is attracted more by the man’s masculinity, his qualities as a male, for example his strength.  Unfortunately many young girls do not understand this difference. Adult women do and some exploit it.  Our advertising and film industry particularly exploits it.  The current fashions even for pre-teens in our culture with the bare mid-riff and jeans cut low on the hip accent the sexual values of the female body.  In adult fashions the low-cut neckline and the blouse open almost to the navel leaves little to the imagination.

Man and Woman as Image of God

            In both these fashions we are seeing an emphasis on the bare body, on nakedness.  It is not simply nakedness per se but a nakedness designed to arouse the man’s sexual desire inappropriately, when that desire cannot be fulfilled in a true marital relationship.  Now you may say the majority of men are not going to cross the line and act on the sexual desires such fashions arouse.  So what is wrong with that?  For an answer from the Christian perspective over and above the purely philosophical, John Paul II turned to Scripture in the weekly sermons he gave in Rome from 1979-1984.  These have been collected into a book published by the Daughters of St. Paul, The Theology of the Body: Human Love in the Divine Plan.

                In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, “Thou shalt not commit adultery, but I say to you anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matt. 5:27-28)  John Paul II calls this a new ethos, the ethos of the Gospel.  By these words, he says, Jesus is calling man to enter his true image.  This is the theological concept of the person, made in the image of God, which governs all relations between men and women in a Christian context.

            In the “beginning,” before man and woman sinned by disobeying God, they were “naked and not ashamed.” (Gen: 2.25)  What does his nakedness mean?  John Paul II says it means (1) they could see each other with God’s vision as a freely willed gift and not an object to be used; (2) they had perfect self mastery.  There was no rupture between the spiritual and sensible.  Sexual desire was perfectly integrated with love.  When they sinned they lost the gift of grace.  The orientation of their whole being changed from being drawn upwards to God to being weighed down by earthly realities.  In St.Paul’s words, the “flesh warred against the spirit.”  The shame they experienced at being naked was a sign of this rupture.  Concupiscence, which our Catholic faith calls the tendency since the Fall to self-gratification and egoism, not least in the sexual sphere, became an integral part of the human condition.  Paradoxically shame also protects the value of the person because it alerts the person to a threat to his or her integrity.

            “The phenomenon of shame arises,” says Bishop Wojtyla,” when something, which of its very nature or in view of its purpose ought to be private, passes the bounds of the person’s privacy and becomes public.” (L&R 174)  Nakedness, for the most part, is no longer innocent because of the disorder within ourselves.  We can see, however, that besides the conjugal embrace, there are times such as in medical examinations, when nakedness is appropriate.  John Paul II speaks of such times as well as a giving an extensive discussion of the artist’s depiction of the human body.  Modesty cannot be simply identified with clothing or with the absence of clothing. Shamelessness comes about when the person gives in too easily to the sensual reaction to the opposite sex and reduces the person’s “body and sex” to a mere object of enjoyment. The human body in itself is not shameful nor is human sensuality in general.

The Perennial Attraction of Man and Woman

                In our Christian tradition, Christ, the divine Son, by taking on human flesh in the Incarnation, raised the dignity of the human body to a new level.  Even our bodies in some way image God and through our masculinity and femininity we make visible divine Trinitarian communion.  The one-flesh union of marriage images the union of Christ and the Church.  Christians, says John Paul II, can never devalue the body.  In fact we often do not value the body highly enough.  Through the grace that comes from redemption in Christ the perennial attraction of man and woman can once again be the foundation of love and total self gift in marriage.  Beauty is a transcendental value and God has created women beautiful.

Some Contemporary Implications

What does all this mean in terms of sexual modesty in today’s culture?  Since redemption in Christ is a fact, Christians believe that with proper education in the virtues, especially the virtue of chastity, men and women can freely move and work together in society.  Men have a particular responsibility to understand their greater orientation to sexual values and strive for self-mastery.  The woman has a responsibility to dress and act in a way that enhances her femininity and at the same time conceals appropriately those parts of her body that are likely to arouse men’s sexual desire.  The type of dress will depend on the activity the man and woman are engaged in.  Playing tennis or performing in a ballet will require a different kind of dress and exposure than the dress worn for a business meeting or attending Church.  Unfortunately nowadays very short shorts are even worn sometimes to Church and hemlines or bustlines that leave little to the imagination make it to the office.

            It is worth asking why there is so much confusion about appropriate dress today?  I believe that it can be traced largely to the radical feminist movement and what can be called a contraceptive culture.  (Here I would exclude responsible parenthood through monitoring the natural rhythms of fertility and infertility in the body for purposes of child-spacing in marriage)  Both radical feminism and the contraceptive mindset are ambivalent towards the woman as mother and seek to enhance the freedom and individualism of women.  With the removal of the traditional concern of women about becoming pregnant, a powerful incentive to conceal sexual values has been removed.  It has been said that the feminist movement has made women better men in order to compete in a masculine work place.  In so doing they have submerged a vital aspect of their femininity.  To compensate women flaunt the physical attributes of the female body.  Since pregnancy can either be prevented through contraception or the baby aborted afterwards, the risks to dressing in such a way may appear minimal.   But when motherhood becomes problematic the very identity of the woman is in jeopardy.

            Today’s dress for women reveals much about our sex-saturated, androgynous, materialist and individualist culture.  Dress often seems designed to conceal the sex of the wearer, or if it reveals it to make the body a sexual object. There is a real task for Christians to restore the dignity of the body and sexuality by consciously espousing those values in dress that enhance dignity, modesty, femininity and beauty. 

Copyright ©; Mary Shivanandan 2005

Version: 5th May 2005

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