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Chastity and Modesty

by Cardinal Meyer


A reprint of parts of a Pastoral Letter of the late Cardinal Meyer when he was Archbishop of Milwaukee. Originally appeared on May 1, 1956.

Larger Work

The American Ecclesiastical Review



Publisher & Date

The Catholic University of America Press, July 1967

We cannot, Dearly Beloved, write intelligently about the virtue of modesty, unless we emphasize first of all in strong and clear terms the universal importance of chastity. For, modesty, by its very definition, is looked upon as the shield and safeguard of chastity. The breakdown in modesty is due fundamentally to a disregard of the virtue of chastity as a necessary virtue for all, in all the circumstances of life.

The only right approach, therefore, to modesty is through a reaffirmation and a re-emphasizing of the universal importance of chastity, not merely for the sake of preventing sex crimes and tragedies, but for the eternal and temporal happiness of every immortal soul.

Hence, we would like to explain briefly three incontrovertible teachings of our holy Faith, which impose a corresponding threefold obligation upon us.

Teaching of Our Faith

The first teaching of our Faith is that the law of chastity is imposed on every human being. It binds him in public and in private, in marriage and outside of marriage, in youth and in old age. It is one of the serious laws that God had made, which means that it is one on which the salvation of our soul depends.

It is quite obvious that this law of chastity forbids the evil deed and the evil word. St. Paul says: "Do you not know that neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor the effeminate, nor sodomites will possess the kingdom of God?" (1 Cor. 6:9-10). And again: "But immorality and every uncleanness, let it not even be named among you" (Eph. 5:3).

However, it is most important to remember that the same law of chastity equally forbids the unchaste thought and the unchaste desire. The words of Christ in this regard are crystal clear: "I say to you that anyone who even looks with lust at a woman has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Mt. 5:28).

Unchastity, therefore, in thought and desire, as well as in word and in deed, is a serious violation of God's law, and a transgression of the right order of nature, established by God Himself. Unchastity is seriously wrong precisely and primarily because it transgresses the law of God. The evil effects of unchastity, remote or proximate, private or public, spectacular or ordinary, merely confirm that it is a serious violation of God's law. Whether these evil effects follow or not, the important point is that unchastity is a serious violation of God's law.

Moreover, the external act, which seems to be the sole concern of the world, when it is concerned at all, is merely the fruit of the internal thought and desire. It is this .internal thought and desire which is the source of the external act: "Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, immorality, thefts, false witness, blasphemies" (Mt. 15:19).

The second teaching of our Faith which we ask you to recall here is the doctrine of original sin. Every human being, except the Immaculate Mother of God, has through original sin inherited a tainted nature, which manifests itself more intensively perhaps in inclinations to unchastity than in any other way. The resulting battle with concupiscence is not limited to a given age or state of life; it must be waged by all and at all times.

It is fashionable to deny original sin. But to the Catholic, the doctrine of original sin is fundamental for the true understanding of the whole economy of grace and salvation. The denial of original sin ultimately leads to a denial of Christ and the purpose of His Incarnation and Redemption. The denial of original sin leads to a completely false appraisal of the meaning of life. Such a tragic denial, for example, underlies much of the theory of some progressive educators. And such a tragic denial is implicit in much of the ostrich-like approach to the very real connection between modesty and chastity, between unchaste thoughts and unchaste deeds, between the unchaste picture or book or dress or film and these unchaste thoughts, desires, and deeds.

It is the teaching of our Faith that through original sin man's nature has been wounded, although not totally corrupted. The wound in our nature is universally experienced through the struggle which we have to control our imagination and our passions. Imagination by itself, we know, is simply a picture-making power. It certainly is of real use to the intellect of man, but because of original sin it plays a part in the mind's affairs totally out of proportion to its merits, and has passed far beyond the condition of a useful servant. Hence, to feed the imagination with all sorts of pictures which serve to excite the passions in man's bodily nature is obviously against God's plans and God's will. Such pictures tend to make the passions rebel against the control of the intellect and will, and to draw the will itself away from conformity to God's will. That is sin. Original sin and its consequences in our fallen nature impose upon us the obligation of keeping the imagination in proper subordination to the intellect and the will.

The third teaching of our holy Faith is that this weakness of human nature, which is the result of original sin, can be met only by following the natural counsels of prudence and right reason, and by using the plentiful means of supernatural graces that have been provided for us by our Divine Savior. The world uses neither.

Prudence tells us that we must reasonably avoid whatever tends to make the imagination rebellious to the intellect and will, and to draw both of these away from God. Prudence is a dictate of the natural law. Prudence sees the intimate and necessary connection between the thought and the deed, between the sensory impression of the imagination and the thought and desire. The prudence, therefore, which sees that the virtue of chastity is a desirable and necessary good, also sees that certain things must be avoided to assist the will in the pursuit of that good. The world does not use prudence in the matter of chastity, because, instead of avoiding, it provides a constant flow of incentives to lust, completely heedless of the intimate and necessary connection between modesty and chastity, and indeed often denying the sin of unchastity itself.

Emphasizing the dictates of prudence, Christ requires that we also have recourse to both natural and supernatural means. How forceful are those warning words: "If thy hand or thy foot is an occasion of sin to thee, cut it off and cast it from thee! It is better for thee to enter life maimed or lame, than, having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the everlasting fire. And if thy eye is an occasion of sin to thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee! It is better to enter into life with one eye, than, having two eyes, to be cast into the hell of fire" (Mt. 18:8-9).

The world does not heed this admonition of Christ because it denies the reality of the sin of scandal, and because it ignores or despises the supernatural means for preserving chastity, and the helps which come through the sacraments and prayer.

Our Obligations

These three incontrovertible facts of our holy Faith point to a threefold obligation on our part. First, to love chastity for itself as binding on all of us in all the public and private relationships of our lives, as necessary for the salvation of our immortal souls. Second, to use prudence and common sense to protect it. Third, to use the supernatural means of prayer and the sacraments to preserve chastity.

Listen to these words of our Holy Father in this regard: "It is abundantly clear that with this warning [quoted above from Mt. 18:8-9], our Divine Savior demands of us above all that we never consent to any sin, even internally, and that we steadfastly remove far from us anything that can even slightly tarnish the beautiful virtue of purity. In this matter no diligence, no severity can be considered exaggerated. . . . Flight and alert vigilance, by which we carefully avoid the occasions of sin, have always been considered by holy men and women as the most effective method of combat in this matter. Today, however, it does not seem that everybody holds the same opinion. . . . Moreover, to preserve chastity unstained, neither vigilance nor modesty suffice. Those helps must also be used which entirely surpass the powers of nature, namely prayer to God, the Sacraments of Penance and Holy Eucharist, a fervent devotion to the Most Holy Mother of God" (Encyclical Letter on Sacred Virginity, March 25, 1954).

The Virtue of Modesty

This brings us to a consideration of the virtue of modesty in the general scheme of virtues, and more especially as it relates to the virtue of chastity.

The virtue of modesty, in general, may be described as that virtue which prompts us to be decorous, proper, and reserved, in the way we dress, stand, walk, sit—in general in the way we behave exteriorly. This virtue of modesty bears a relation to other virtues besides that of chastity, especially to the virtue of humility. In a special manner, however, the virtue of modesty is particularly regarded as the guardian of chastity in thought, word, and action.

St. Thomas says that it is the virtue by which we rightly regulate our conduct in respect to those things that can lead to impure thoughts, desires, and actions, in ourselves and in others. He says that, while chastity deals with the regulation of difficult things, powerful passions and strong desires for pleasure, modesty deals with the regulation of easy things, the remote and proximate occasions and conditions that lead to unholy desires. Thus we see that modesty is a virtue allied to the virtue of temperance, or the general habit of self-restraint.

It is this virtue of modesty, in its relation to chastity, which prompted the Holy Father to address himself to the Bishops of the world, through the Sacred Congregation of the Council, and to remind them that "it is altogether imperative to admonish and exhort, in whatever ways seem most apt, people of all stations, but particularly youth, to avoid the dangers of this kind of vice which is so directly opposed and potentially so hazardous to Christian and civic virtue. 'How beautiful then is modesty and what a gem among virtues it is!' Therefore, let it not be offended or violated by the easy allurements and attractions of vices which arise from that manner of dressing and from other actions what we have mentioned above and which decent people can but lament." Again, in his encyclical letter on Holy Virginity, our Holy Father writes about modesty: "Educators of the young would render a more valuable and useful service, if they would inculcate in youthful minds the precepts of Christian modesty, which is so important for the preservation of perfect chastity, and which is truly called the prudence of chastity. For, modesty foresees threatening danger, forbids us to expose ourselves to risks, demands the avoidance of those occasions which the imprudent do not shun. It does not like impure or loose talk, it shrinks from the slightest immodesty, it carefully avoids suspect familiarity with persons of the other sex. . . . He who possesses the treasure of Christian modesty abominates every sin of impurity and instantly flees whenever he is tempted by its seductions."

Modesty and the Printed Word

Whether we are conscious of it or not, we are influenced by the books, magazines, and papers which we read, and all of these leave their imprint on us as individuals. Back in the eighteenth century, Samuel Johnson expressed the same idea when he said: "Books have always a secret influence on the understanding: we cannot at pleasure obliterate ideas; he that reads books of science, though without any fixed idea or desire of improvement, will grow more knowing: he that entertains himself with religious treatises will imperceptibly advance in goodness; the ideas which are offered to the mind, will at last find a lucky moment when it is disposed to receive them."

Our imagination is the power which we have of making mental pictures of the material universe. The imagination can reproduce whatever our senses have experienced, ..either as those sense experiences came originally through the senses, or in any variety of combinations. The imagination cannot make pictures of what the senses cannot experience. Obviously, then, the picture-making power of the imagination is in direct proportion to the stimulation of the senses. Now, as a result of original sin, the imagination of man constantly tends to get out of hand. It is a commonplace of experience how the imagination can storm the will by conjuring up pictures to solicit and entice; and it is likewise commonplace to experience the interference of the imagination in the process of thinking by way of distraction, or by censoring or substituting for whatever the intellect is to accept.

All these observations are true of adults, and even more so of children and young people, who have, as we say, impressionable minds. And these observations need to be kept in mind in applying the general principles discussed in this pastoral letter on decency applied to the printed and the pictured word.

The Problem of Indecent Literature

"Literature mirrors the times." No better proof of the urgency to return to the living of God's law is provided than by a visit to the local newsstands. We do not expect a sinless literature in a sinless world. Evil is not something new in the world. This is a sinful world, and the reading habits of people will all too frequently reflect this sad condition. But we have a right, and a duty, to call sin by its proper name, and to recognize it for what it is. Adultery is not romance, business cheating is not success. Love is more than sex, and religion more than a funny feeling. Civilization and culture are based on the dignity of man and his living, and not on the sordid elements of life.

Now, the moral and mental attack made by much of the current literature is well calculated to promote the advance of irreligion and atheism, and thus also foster communism. This literature is a contributing factor to types of crimes progressively troubling our lawmakers and the great body of our people. Under the guise of art, or romance, or travel, or science a vast output of books, booklets, magazines, and comics continues to stream forth from the printing presses of our nation to become, in the words of an objective governmental survey, "the media for dissemination of artful appeals to sensuality, immorality, filth, perversion and degeneracy." In fact, according to this same report, "so great is the exaltation of passion above principle, and so prevalent is the identification of lust with love that the casual reader of such literature might easily conclude that all married persons are habitually adulterous and all teenagers completely devoid of any sex inhibitions" (U.S. Cong. Committee, Union Calendar, No, 797, House Report No. 2510, p. 3). Thus are our national morals sabotaged and our nation's moral tone brought lower and lower.

As we have stated above several times, we wish to repeat here again. In the Sermon on the Mount, our Divine Savior condemns not only adultery, but everything that leads to it—all impure looks, desires, thoughts and action. "Anyone who even looks with lust at a woman has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Mt. 5:27-28). In the light of these clear words, there can be no misunderstanding about the gravely sinful nature of reading material, or movie and television fare, which pander to such lustful thoughts, desires, and looks. This means, therefore, that generally speaking such material is sinful for all, and not merely for the young. "We would warn you that there are books which are bad for everyone" (Pius XII).

Scandal and Co-operation

On another occasion, when our Lord had dramatically placed a small child before the Apostles, He solemnly said: "Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it were better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of scandals! For it must needs be that scandals come, but woe to the man through whom scandal does come!" (Mt. 18:6-7).

Scandal is any word, act, or omission that is in itself evil or has the appearance of evil and which can be the occasion of another's sin. Closely allied to the sin of scandal is the sin of co-operation, by which one concurs in the sinful deed of another. Such co-operation can take place either by concurring in the evil intention of the one committing sin, and then it is called formal co-operation; or it can take place by concurring only in the sinful act, without agreeing with the evil intention, and then it is called material co-operation.

There are many different ways in which one can co-operate with the sin of another. Whether or not we are allowed to co-operate in the sinful act of another (material co-operation), without of course making his evil intention our own, will depend on different circumstances, and especially on the measure of our co-operation. There are some things which from their very nature can have only an evil use. When such is the case, no matter what our intention may be, we cannot co-operate with another, even under grave moral pressure, precisely because it is impossible to dissociate ourselves from the evil nature of the thing or the act.

Thus, material co-operation in the dissemination of some books and magazines is permissible only for a grave reason. But professedly immoral literature cannot be disseminated at all without committing grave sin. This is the clear teaching of our Faith, enforced by the Canon Law of the Church, which states that "booksellers shall not sell, lend, or retain books designedly treating of obscenities" (Canon 1404).

The "Designedly Obscene"

That much of the stuff which is being peddled through pocketsize books, the magazines, and comics is "designedly obscene" can hardly be denied. This conclusion is true, despite the difficulties which the courts may have in arriving at a satisfactory definition of the word "obscene." The teaching of both experience and competent theologians makes it abundantly clear that the "designedly obscene" would probably include a great deal more than our legislative statutes and our courts would or could include. Moreover, it is also evident from experience and the teaching of moral theology that even though much of this material might not qualify as "designedly obscene" in the strictly legal or canonical sense, it does serve as the proximate occasion of grave sin for the greater majority of people, both adults and young. In other words, no Catholic publisher, or distributor, or reader could guide himself in this question of scandal, or co-operation, or sin, on the basis of what a legal statute or a court decision may state is the meaning of the word "obscene."

© The American Ecclesiastical Review, The Catholic University of America Press, Washington, D.C.

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