A Mother’s Shame and Notre Dame

Eamonn Clark

There is an article at LifeSite about a controversy boiling at Notre Dame. Apparently, a mother wrote a letter to the editor of the school paper to express shock at the sartorial inclinations of some women at the basilica on campus. The letter was published, and a sensitive nerve was touched. I want to take the opportunity to sketch out the debate and offer some thoughts about deeper issues involved. For the first part, I’m going to use the quaestio format of the Summa Theologica. (You can read St. Thomas’ own blistering critique of immodest clothing here, though he is mostly talking about over-dressing.) For the second, I am just going to ramble. Bear with me.

Whether it is a sin for women to wear revealing clothing in public?

Objection 1. It seems it is not a sin. For the man who lusts after such a woman does so from his own volition which the woman does not control. Thus does Our Lord warn against adultery of the heart: “He who even thinks lustfully of a woman has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:28) But there is no commission of adultery by mere outward appearance. Thus, it is only the man who sins by his lust, not the woman by her attire which attracts his desire.

Objection 2. Further, modesty is a cultural norm which changes according to the tides of custom, which is easily proved by the fact that in two different nations the same attire might be looked at altogether differently. Given that more traditional restrictions of dress are more serious and burdensome for women, it is in fact laudable that these customs be gradually changed to bring about a more equal standard of modesty for men and women.

Objection 3. Further, just as it is natural for a stone to fall to the earth, so too are human beings inclined to seek what is most natural to them and thereby satisfies their God-given desires. But restrictive dresscodes contradict this tendency toward goods such as comfort, self-esteem, and the like. Therefore, whatever feels most desirable in itself ought to be licit to wear.

On the contrary, It is written (1 Timothy 2:9): “Women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control.” Since the Apostle identifies immodest dress with women in particular, it seems it is especially incumbent upon women to adhere to a strict standard of modesty.

I answer that, Modesty in outward attire, in the sense we are speaking of it, seeks a middle-path between two extremes – repression and vulgarity.

On the one hand, to subject women habitually to the total covering of the entire body even including the face, is illicit for at least two reasons, even though it would remove the occasion of lust. First, it is necessary for women to be able to attract husbands through means of their appearance, which is altogether impossible by such an arrangement, leaving some other method to take the place of self-determination. Second, identification of one person among many is much easier without exorbitantly restrictive coverings, especially of the face, which makes the public life of women and the men who interact with them much more efficient. Thus, the complete repression of individual identity and bodily features through extensive covering is undesirable.

On the other hand, the more one reveals the body, the more one tends to increase the occasion to lust through vulgarity. Therefore, if one is to incur the risk of scandal being taken by one’s attire, namely, lust, some proportionate good to that risk must be gained. Where there is only small potential of scandal being taken, only light reasons are necessary to avoid sin, such as serious inconvenience, moderate discomfort due to heat, and so on; where there is large potential of scandal being taken, only the gravest of reasons will excuse, such as the risk of one’s life. The offense will be in proportion to the similitude between one’s necessity and the risk of scandal. Given that men are more easily drawn to women by appearance than women are to men, women are especially susceptible to this vice and should guard against it most closely, which also promotes the common good by requiring men to seek them for their virtue and honor. Thus it is written, “Let not yours be the outward adorning with braiding of hair, decoration of gold, and wearing of robes, but let it be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable jewel of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.” (1 Peter 3:3-4) Therefore, to safeguard morals and common decency among the sexes, which are graver motives than mere pleasantries of comfort and convenience, errors ought to favor the more restrictive vice.

All of this is especially important in sacred places. As the Psalmist says, “Worship the Lord in holy attire.” (Psalm 69:6) For what is moderate in profane spaces becomes immoderate in sacred spaces due to a lack of fittingness with the outward worship of God which the space is specially consecrated to. Thus is it licit to throw darts in a pub, but it is not licit in an oratory. Likewise, dress in churches or other sacred places ought to be especially reverent and safe from occasioning sin, lest men be drawn to lower their eyes from the worship of God toward the delectation of a woman’s flesh.

Reply to Objection 1. It is also written, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believes in me to sin, it is better that a great millstone was hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.” (Mark 9:42) The argument in favor of individual liberty holds to the degree of custom which reason has communally decided upon, and regarding which one should make errors on the side of safety, as said above.

Reply to Objection 2. Custom cannot eradicate concupiscence, nor can it change the greater proclivities of men to delight in the appearance of women than women do in the appearance of men. Therefore, while custom may be altered, human nature will not be altered and must be adverted to.

Reply to Objection 3. Outward attire exists primarily for three reasons. First, to protect against physical harm, such as from heat or cold or blows in battle. Second, to mark or distinguish ourselves among other people in society. Third, to protect against lust and shame, as it is written (Genesis 3:7): “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons.” Therefore, these considerations hold primacy of place in the reasonable choice of outward apparel, and only afterward can other motives be evaluated.

Now on to the rambling.

Notre Dame has been plagued with “Catholic identity” troubles over the past few years. Without repeating them all, I will simply point the reader’s attention to another recent story there which broke when a large number of students asked for content filters for their internet connections to help avoid “inappropriate” content. The administration balked, and now we are seeing a rather vile backlash over a concerned mother asking young girls to dress for church better than they dress for the gym – as if it is any wonder. There are hundreds and hundreds of comments under the main story, almost all of them deeply critical.

No doubt, many of the people screeching wild accusations of bad parenting at this poor concerned mother and proclaiming the virtue of individual liberties are the same people who complain about a “rape culture” on college campuses. While there is no demonstrable systemic toleration or support of verifiable rape in universities in the West – and thus no “rape culture” – there is what one might call a “culture of promiscuity.” This is the toleration and support of every kind of sexual activity, as long as it’s consensual (with a few arbitrary exceptions, like student-teacher relationships and incest). What to say then about the high amounts of regretful sex and he-said-she-said cases of assault? One might say that it’s almost as if a climate of loose sexual mores disposes people to make dumb sexual choices, whether by not avoiding bad situations or by crossing over nearly invisible lines in the heat of already sinful passion. While wearing this or that trashy piece of clothing in public is not immediately inducing assault, the broad acceptance of such things is part and parcel of the larger paradigm of just not giving a hoot about any kind of sexual activity short of what suffices to call the cops.

What you wear (or don’t wear) in public, it should be noted, is not consensual… You make others see you as you are without their consent. It is almost never a reasonable argument to say, “They can look away if they want.” The problem with revealing clothing is precisely that many people won’t want to look away but should for the good of their souls, and for the good of your relationship with them. Heard of the phrase, “Dress for the job you want, not the one you have”? How about this: dress for the respect and real love you want, not the respect and real love you have. Those who already respect you and love you won’t care about your appearance – only new people will, who still have to be won over to a special valuation of your personhood. The better a person you are, the less you will have to compensate by flaunting your mere appearance. And if you aren’t a good person, get to work on that first.

A lot of people don’t think about this topic much for one of a few different reasons. First, they don’t understand sin in general. This is a common and large problem requiring more basic catechesis and evangelization. Second, they are so hardened by sins against chastity that they cannot even begin to see the problem with revealing a little skin. To them I say, I am sorry for you – it must be terrible to miss out on all the little joys of physicality which come along with modest courtship. (See Prof. Esolen’s wonderful article on that here.) Third, they are out of touch with how men and women actually relate with each other, both in general and in today’s particular circumstances, for whatever reason. These could even include well-meaning people who are sincerely trying to be holy but who just for the life of them can’t see why wearing skin-tight leggings to church is such a big deal. My advice to them is to accept that holiness sometimes involves giving up things that you don’t see the harm of, even if it’s simply because other people find your behavior to disturb their over-sensitive conscience. (See St. Paul’s discussion of abstaining from food sacrificed to idols in 1 Corinthians 8.)

Whatever the case, there seems to be a need to address this topic more seriously at Catholic universities. Perhaps a standard chapel dress-code, for men and women, could be implemented… Or asking some of the more committed Mass-goers to step up their fashion-game to help other people see that the church is not a gym, a dance floor, or a couch… Especially at universities named after Mary, the Mother of God!

End of rant. I didn’t even get to discuss 1 Corinthians 11!

Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Practical Chastity

Eamonn Clark

“Oh Lord, give me chastity and continence, but not yet!”

The words of a wizened St. Augustine, reflecting on the prayer of his younger heart, are deeply insightful. They reveal us to ourselves, no doubt, and they give us a hint as to the path forward in our own journey towards sanctity: we must become chaste now. Not next week, not tomorrow, not this Lent, but right this very moment. 

Where to start? Well, first it will be helpful to recognize that lust is a sin which must be faced by getting away from the delight toward which the passion moves. As St. Thomas says, some sins must be fled from due to the sweetness of their object, while some sins must be faced by meditation on the opposing good (like how the slothful person should consider the goodness of spiritual things and thus be more drawn to them). All this is to say, the first step on the road to chastity is to step away from the cliff. In other words, remove the occasion of sin, or at least make the occasion as weak as possible. Here are just a few suggestions to consider.

  1. Put the computer by the window, or in a common area, or use some monitoring program.
  2. Take cold showers.
  3. Avoid “attractive” people who are off-limits.
  4. If you must associate with such people, don’t drink alcohol around them.
  5. When tempted to unchastity, pray a rosary, or sing a pious hymn, and then make a decision about whether you still want to sin… You are quite likely to be repulsed at the thought.
  6. Go to bed tired, but more importantly, get out of bed when you wake up. No lazing around.
  7. Purge your life from things which remind you of or move you toward unchastity… images, books, music, etc.

But sometimes this isn’t enough. Sometimes the passion creeps up, and the fire burns, and you’ve done nothing to occasion it. Then what? Well, run away. And I mean this quite literally. You see, the urge to the preservation of the species (the sexual urge) is strong, but the urge to self-preservation is much greater. To put it another way, make yourself uncomfortable by some kind of ascesis – recovering from pain is much more urgent than the pursuit of pleasure. The body will work to get back to “equilibrium” before reaching for a further good.

  1. Physical exercise. Nobody ever had an unchaste thought after a hard work-out. This also releases endorphins. And endorphins make you happy.
  2. Fasting. The old penitential manuals recommend it as well!
  3. Some other acute (but minor) self-affliction, like holding your breath, biting your tongue, etc.

Beyond moderate ascetic practices, generally making yourself (ideally keeping yourself) busy is helpful. Even simply getting up and moving around can distract the body and mind enough to drive out temptation. On top of this, here are some more “spiritual” remedies…

  1. Laughter. As an overflow of a delight of the rational soul into the senses, laughter is an extremely effective cure for lust.
  2. Cultivating humility with respect to an off-limits “person of interest,” such as realizing that they almost certainly don’t have the same feelings for you and never will, and that they would be horrified if they knew your desires. Seeing as the entirety of the natural “social” pleasure annexed to carnal pleasure is derived from the ego, this can be huge.
  3. Frequenting the Sacraments, especially confession, addressing struggles openly and with special resolution to amend your life in this regard.
  4. Prayer, especially placing yourself under the protection of the Blessed Virgin, even in an urgent moment of temptation.
  5. Resisting despair. One of the “daughters” of lust is a deadening of any desire for spiritual goods (which can become full-blown acedia in addition to serious violations of the 6th Commandment). The pursuit of chastity can also be very difficult, and therefore frustrating. This means that hope, as both the desire for the good of Heaven and the trust that the necessary help will be given to reach it, is a fundamental enemy of lust, and it should be cultivated through prayer, spiritual reading, healthy friendships, and an unwavering confidence in God’s mercy and desire to satisfy those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.

Death, Light, and Bunnies

Eamonn Clark

We expect monsters to stay under the bed. In the closet. In the dark. When they do come into the open, it’s usually easy to spot them, but it can be particularly difficult when they masquerade as something good, benign, or even necessary. It’s the sickest when these sorts of things target kids.

Genderbread-Person-3.3

Enter Bunny Token.

Anyone who regularly watches YouTube (even kids watching cat videos!) will by now have seen the ubiquitous advertisements for “Bunny Tokens,” a cryptocurrency designed to unify the “adult” entertainment industry. The currency is, unlike BitCoin, (which you may have heard of,) limited, meaning that once they’re gone from the first shelf, you have to buy them later on at a higher price. This adds a real sense of urgency to the market. (Apparently, they’ve reached their soft cap for initial investments.) It’s not the first cryptocurrency for the industry, but it looks like it’s going to be extremely dominant based on the strength of their advertising campaign.

The monster has come out of its hiding place into the digital version of primetime, apparently with a plan to crawl back home into the darkness with its prey. (Cryptocurrencies allow for a much higher rate of anonymity of the buyer and seller than do currencies regulated by the government. It is actually an ingenious business move. Wise in the ways of the world indeed.) While this cute little bunny-monster is in the light of day, it provides us with a good opportunity to call pornography what it is – childish, unnatural, shameful, and deadly.

  1. Childish – The qualifier “adult” is usually applied to pornography and the things that go with it. It is, in fact, difficult to imagine a more childish activity than watching people abuse themselves and each other, let alone paying for it. Why an 18-year-old instantly becomes eligible for this kind of thing makes no sense whatsoever, and deep down we all know this. (And you can safely bet that the industry subtly pushes towards younger kids with a voluptuous wink and an approving nod.) We expect little kids to have no sense of self-control. We expect adults to be above what most people still consider perverted or at least think should stay hidden in the dark, even if they won’t admit that view in polite company. We teach our children not to be selfish. We teach them to respect others’ bodies and privacy (although this one is being threatened with trans-bathrooms and trans-lockerrooms). We teach them that some pleasures are immoderate, even if there’s no evident and immediate harm done. Pornography unteaches all of this, and study after study shows the long-term damage that an addiction can do to social and psychological flourishing. And now, hundreds of millions of kids who just wanted to watch a harmless cat video are being tempted to buy some Bunny Tokens. Wonderful.
  2. Unnatural – We are talking about the proper functioning of the reproductive part of the “vegetal soul,” which also has nutrition and augmentation (growth) as essential parts. The twisting of the sexual faculty to order it towards one’s own immediate gratification “free of consequences” is an unnatural vice (which would include the free and willful choices of self-abuse, contraception, sodomy, etc. – anything which pre-excludes the possibility of human generation based on the lack of the complementary organ in the faculty’s system, or based on the willed introduction or willed perdurance of some deficiency which destroys the faculty’s proper functioning, like a hysterectomy which is presumed upon for its contraceptive power in each sexual act)… It is not merely an excess or deficiency, as most vices are, it is something different. If we switch the faculty in question from the sexual to the nutritive (or digestive), we can see this relationship quite clearly. An excess of eating is bad because it causes obesity and sometimes even the death of the body through contracting diabetes or high cholesterol. A deficiency of eating is bad because it causes malnutrition and can also, obviously, be deadly. An unnatural digestive vice, if practiced with the full consent of the will, would look something like this. (NB: of course, true eating disorders usually involve a constraint of the will which inhibits moral freedom and therefore reduces culpability proportionately.) We know that “food porn” is not to be treated like actual porn – that should tell us something, shouldn’t it… The unnaturalness of this kind of thing could possibly be bad for the body, but it won’t kill a person who’s careful enough. Why, then, does the clip above work as a means of demonstrating the vice of the characters? (Yes, go watch it!) The aspect of exploitation of other people adds to the seriousness of the offense, just like physical violence adds to the gravity of fornication or adultery. With pornography, let us remember, the person acting or posing on the screen, despite definitely being a son or daughter to real parents and being created in the image and likeness of God, might by some chance be one’s own friend or relative. Imagine the horror of such a discovery, when an anonymous and faceless actor or actress turns out to be your sibling, or parent, or child. It’s also possible that those people aren’t even alive anymore, and the pleasure being derived is from a person whose body is now ash or rotting in the ground. Let that one sink in.
  3. Shameful – A proper sense of shame is one which causes repulsion from immoderate acts of the lower powers of the soul. The acts of which one should be ashamed are the ones that are most properly called “shameful.” While there is less guilt in sins against the Sixth Commandment than in other sins (like theft or lying, which don’t “tug” as hard on our wills as the fires of the lower passions for bodily pleasure do), there is certainly more shame. And the more removed the act becomes from its proper mode, the more shameful it becomes. I recall learning in seminary about how to deal with people – usually lonely, elderly men – who come to confess the sin of bestiality. (No, not the kind with another human – though that is wrong too.) They will usually mutter something about their dog… and, well… struggle to mention it. The lesson was that the best thing to do, other than perhaps gently mentioning the possibility of finding the dog a new home, is to ignore it. The penitent likely knows full well how shameful that act is and doesn’t need to be reminded. He’s just that lonely. Well, a quick glance at St. Thomas’ list of the order of gravity in the parts of lust – probably one of the most studied Articles in one of the most studied Questions in the Summa – reveals that the sin of self-abuse is only a few steps away from being too friendly with an animal, and resides above other sins in its essential gravity which even Western society considers wicked. (Of course, there can be mitigating factors in this sin, as the Catechism explains. Personally, I think they are often over-applied, but surely, someone who is going out of their way to invest in a cryptocurrency to purchase pornography long-term does not deserve as delicate of a treatment as an 8-year-old who is just discovering that touching down there feels good.)
  4. Deadly – Pornography is a scourge that can and does pull souls down into the darkness of sin, killing the life of grace within the soul, ruining social functioning, brain chemistry, and actual relationships in the meantime, not to mention exploiting often very vulnerable people who become the objects of one’s lust. If you are a parent, and you have been shying away from this topic, RIGHT NOW is a good moment… Bunny Token ads have been all over YouTube, and they have provided you, ironically, with a great occasion to bring this subject up, into the light, with your kids, in order to root out vice. (And no, you don’t have to be already watching questionable content for these ads to find you. The industry is looking to grow its audience.) What are you waiting for? Wake up and smell the concupiscence!

The further the monster comes into the light – especially if it is dragged there – the less it will seem like an innocent bunny, and the more it will seem like what it really is.