Recently at the University of Notre Dame a controversy over girl’s leggings was featured in the university’s student newspaper. A concerned mother–of- four, having been distracted by girls wearing leggings at Mass, wrote a letter to the University of Notre Dame. She expressed her concern especially for young males who would be thrown into a struggle with purity of heart by what she described as “blackly naked rear ends.” “I didn’t want to see them—but they were unavoidable. How much more difficult for young guys to ignore them,” the concerned mother wrote.
The response by students at this Catholic university to the concerned mother’s plea for modesty was largely the same in-your-face, “How dare you tell me, I’ll wear what I want to wear” found anywhere else in our secularized society. The response even included a call by the Irish 4 Reproductive Health campus group for a “Legging Pride Day”. The group asked people to post photos of themselves wearing their favorite leggings.
The solution at a Catholic University or wherever else to so impenetrable a topic as women’s dress does indeed have a compassionate, inclusive, reasoned and intelligent solution, when viewed through the lens of the very soul and genius of the Catholic Faith—the sacramental worldview.
Help Men Respect Women
Through the lens of the sacramental worldview the concerned mother’s point and the entire issue of women’s dress and modesty would be understood as a call for a deep mutual love and respect between men and women, which grows out of a truly sacramental understanding of the deep, mystical ‘why’ behind womanhood and manhood, of how we are hardwired in our complementary gifts. But this view is also honest and sensitive enough to recognize how these gifts of manhood and womanhood have been rendered vulnerable by Original Sin.
When it comes to the human body, purity of heart and respect between man and woman, as St. John Paul II says in his Theology of the Body, it is a matter of how the body is presented and how it is perceived. In this the man and the woman both bear a responsibility. True, the male must develop the virtues of self-discipline and purity of heart. The very vocation of manhood is to honor and protect the inherent dignity, wholesomeness and holiness of womanhood including her feminine body. However, God hard wired men’s brain to be more visually responsive than women’s brain, especially toward the beauty of womanhood.
The concerned mother’s plea was grounded in sound biology, anthropology, and theology—as is the whole issue of modest dress for women. Modesty is simply about asking women to assist men in their duty to perceive and relate to women according to God’s design. The attitude; “It’s his responsibility to control himself. As a woman I will wear whatever I want to wear!” is hardly sensitive, tolerant, enlightened, mutually respectful, or Catholic.
A Call for Mutual Respect
Modesty in no way shifts the responsibility entirely on to the woman as many like to claim in such discussions. It is not an objectification, subjugation, sexualization of women, nor is it gender discrimination or prudishness. Modesty reveals a woman’s self-possession, her intelligent awareness of the inherent dignity of her femininity and of the gift and fallen side of both masculinity and femininity.
If the common rebuttal to the mother’s concern regarding leggings is that women can ‘wear whatever they want, wherever they want if it is comfortable for them, or just because they like it,’ then why don’t the ladies wear only leggings to their graduation ceremonies and other formal affairs or even to that job interview after graduation? Could it be that a woman does in fact know that how she presents her body really does matter, because it reveals how she sees herself and the person or organization with which she is engaged?
The concerned mother’s plea and the call for women to be conscious of how they present themselves as seen through the lens of the sacramental Catholic ethos is an affirmation of the intrinsic dignity of womanhood. It is also a call for mutual respect and responsibility between men and women, and a call to recognize the inherent power of femininity to attract or distract.
CORRECTION: This article’s title was changed to “Leggings Spark Controversy at University of Notre Dame” on April 17, 2019. The original title incorrectly used the name “Notre Dame University”. The Ascension Blog regrets the error.
Photo by Ambar Simpang from Pexels
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About Fr. Thomas J. Loya, STB
Fr. Thomas J. Loya, STB, is currently the pastor of Annunciation of the Mother of God Byzantine Catholic Church in Homer Glen, Illinois. Fr. Loya, who has a master’s degree in counseling and human services, is very dedicated to evangelization through media where he is a regular guest speaker on several Catholic radio programs. His long running radio program “Light of the East Radio” which can be heard on EWTN Radio affiliates across the United States, brings the beauty of the east to the western world. Using his many gifts, talents, and life experience Fr. Loya uncovers the ageless beauty and genius of the Sacramental Worldview. Anyone who has heard Fr. Loya speak might say that he has the soul of an artist, the mind of a theologian and the compassion of an ascetic.
Do you mean the University of Notre Dame? It is not Notre Dame University..come on Ascension Press.
Thank you, Deb. We acknowledge the error and corrected the title.
Respectfully, I remain more ‘on the fence’ on the matter- and I think primarily because of the lack of emphasis on teaching men these virtues of modesty, purity, etc. If the discussion remains simply ‘this is what is and is not okay for women to wear, and when, and how,’ with a footnote of ‘oh, and guys, you should also be respectful of women,’ we all are going to continue to struggle with the matter. It makes modesty, purity, and sexual sin a “women’s issue”- men are involved, yes, but they aren’t ‘the big deal’ if the discussion is primarily focused on women’s dress, behavior, etc.
This leads to the sort of frustration expressed by the angry young ladies when they come to realize that even if they do everything ‘right,’ or even beyond ‘right,’ they still are catcalled, pinched, ogled, critiqued, etc.- not even counting the struggle of trying to look beautiful, attractive, ‘dignified,’ AND modest and pure. Women and their appearances are constantly assaulted from all sides, and if all they ever hear from the Church is ‘be modest!’ especially if it’s ‘be modest for the sake of our hapless young men!’ I hope you can see why this would lead to the kind of frustration that makes one just stop caring.
This doesn’t mean it’s right to stop caring, but it is also wrong to offer our youth no whole, structured support in the area of modesty and purity /beyond/ ‘how women should dress,’ and then be shocked and disgusted with girls when they go out in the same leggings as are worn by all the other young American women… especially when the issue is touched off by someone bemoaning how she couldn’t avoid looking at the girls’ “blackly naked rear ends” and what a tragedy that must be for the young men. (Which also comes across as terribly hyperbolic given that I, too, attend Mass, and never find myself forced to stare at peoples’ buttocks.) Starting the conversation with ‘I can see your butt! You will make those poor men stumble in their walk with God!’ is hardly gentle and respectful, as St. Paul advises us to be in reasoning with others- probably because he understood that charity disarms a lot of the offended “snap-backs” like those offered by the Irish 4 Reproductive Health club. Offended people don’t think- they just hit back.
If we want to talk to women about purity and modesty, we should start the discussion with them and where they are at- NOT with the possible internal conflict of random guys.
If we want to talk to the world at large about purity and modesty, then we should address more towards the men than just ‘you should respect women, even if it is super-duper hard because they cruelly parade their tempting tushies before your eyes.’
A lopsided and patchwork approach like we currently have is why we have these problems, and will never be able to solve them. I don’t want us to stop worrying about these forgotten virtues, but to offer their fullness to all with that integration implied by our being ‘Catholic,’ and the depth and breadth we have had 2,000 years to build up!
I know that’s the difficult approach. But the easy one hasn’t solved any of these problems yet, so maybe it’s time we steel ourselves and give the hard one a try.
Glory to Jesus Christ!
I am an international presenter on the Theology of the Body, (see taborlife.org) The very point I made in my Theology of the Body based article on the leggings controversy is that the purpose of modesty is precisely because the body of womanhood is NOT “bad” but because it is special. In accord with Theology of the Body spirituality, the “language” of something physical (women’s dress in this case) reveals the invisible realities of her attitude about her body, the person she is with (men in particular) and the occasion. There is no room nor mention of prudishness in this consideration.
Remember why PLAYBOY was created – Puritianism(body bad, soul good) v Theology of the Body