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Father David Bellusci, OP

The challenge with modesty in dress is the need to put others before ourselves

Voices Jul 26, 2017

Outside the basilicas of Rome, dress codes are advertised and strictly enforced by guards at the entrance. "Visiting the House of God, whether in Italy or Canada, should be governed by a common sense principle of how we dress when we are in God’s sacred space, and in the presence of others," writes Father David Bellusci, OP. (Wikimedia Commons)

Working at one of the Basilicas in Rome during the summer months, I have become accustomed to watching the guards at the entrance of the Roman Basilica prohibit immodestly dressed men and women from entering, or asking the tourists to leave. Speaking Italian with hand gestures to exit, the guards can be direct, “you cannot enter the basilica dressed that way” or “you will have to leave the Basilica.”

I was quite surprised one summer when not only the tourists could not enter, but even the tour guide was refused entry: nobody in the group was appropriately dressed to enter the Basilica, and while the tour guide was surprised and upset, the guards explained the dress code to enter the Basilicas in Rome, in fact, dress codes that apply for almost all of Italy’s shrines, basilicas, cathedrals.

The basic principle is to cover neck, shoulders, and knees.

Signs outside venues will show examples of prohibited dress: for men and women this usually means shorts that are too short (above the knees) and tank tops (uncovered shoulders). The basic principle is to cover neck, shoulders, and knees.

How do people react to the instructions of the guards in these Catholic Churches? Generally, in the summer heat, and long line ups, tourists become quite irritated. Comments vary from not knowing why they are unsuitably dressed, or finding it too hot to add any more fabric to what they are already wearing. The guards simply will not let an immodestly dressed tourist into a basilica.

Should such a dress code be needed? Or should people be using common sense making the distinction between going to the beach and going to Church? It might be hot, but does that justify attire that is suitable for a resort pool bar?

While such policies are reinforced in Italy with the presence of guards, I remember even at the cathedral in Vancouver where visitors head to the beach after Mass, the temptation is to be dressed for the sands of Kitsilano rather than the processions of a liturgy.

1.) What is suitable attire for a Church in hot summer weather? and, 2.) How does my way of dress become a distraction for others?
— Father David Bellusci, OP

We have two different but related issues: 1.) What is suitable attire for a Church in hot summer weather? and, 2.) How does my way of dress become a distraction for others? Clearly, these two questions are connected. The answer to the second, should also provide an answer to the first.

Visiting the House of God, whether in Italy or Canada, should be governed by a common sense principle of how we dress when we are in God’s sacred space, and in the presence of others. We go to Church to pray. We all know we become easily distracted by the way people dress. The challenge with modesty in dress is the need to put others before ourselves.

In our society today, modesty is difficult to exercise because we are accustomed to putting our feelings first: how I like to dress; how I want to look; how I feel in my clothes. Yet modesty, which is connected to the virtue of temperance, means we have a responsibility to help others direct their thoughts towards God.

If provocation is not the intention, perhaps Christian self-reflection is needed on how we can grow and help others in sanctity—in a culture that poisons the heart and mind.

Saint Thomas Aquinas considers immodesty a lack in the virtue of temperance (Summa Theologiae, Book Two, Second Part, question 169, article 1.) We can prove to be an obstacle for others by immodest dress when we have the intention to provoke others; this is regarded as a sin of impurity. And if provocation is not the intention, perhaps Christian self-reflection is needed on how we can grow and help others in sanctity—in a culture that poisons the heart and mind.

Our choice of clothes reveals not only something about our beliefs, but the way we dress also conveys something about our relationship with society: to what extent are we governed by our convictions as Christians in contrast to society’s glamorised rights?

If “being me” means “being free” to distract others, or means snatching others from God, then we need to ask ourselves: How do we help others in their communion with God?

We all share in this communitarian responsibility as Catholics—to help our fellow believers reach their ultimate end: Eternal Life.

 Father David Bellusci is a Dominican priest at Saint Thomas Aquinas Priory, Toronto