Nisi Dominus aedificaverit domum, in vanum laborant qui aedificaverunt eam - "Unless the Lord has built the house, they labored in vain who built it" Psalm 127

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Has Modesty Become A Dirty Word? Yoga Pants, Cage Fighting & Catholic Teaching

Outerwear or Underwear?

    Here’s a curious thing.  A couple years ago I started noticing that women had done away with their skirts, and were walking around in public wearing nothing but tights (which I had always thought of as undergarments) below the waist. This seemed to me to create certain problems in regard to feminine modesty, but few others seemed to find it remarkable.

A Young Lady wearing "Yoga Pants" and a magazine (

   I was soon made to understand that when tights were promoted from underwear to outerwear they earned the right to be called “yoga pants”, and that no one but a few stuffy old geezers had any objections. I had almost despaired of anybody in the Catholic world even posing the question of whether women in public places really ought to be displaying the contours of their bodies in quite such exacting detail when I came across an article called “Yoga Pants And Catholic Social Teaching”, authored by Stephen Schneck, Director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America.  “Ah”, I thought, “no doubt Dr. Schneck will address the dehumanizing effects of fashions that present women as sex objects, or the importance Catholic tradition places on modesty and mutual respect between the sexes, or perhaps even the importance of purity.”  

The Bait and Switch

   Well, no. Dr. Schneck mentions the trendy, form-hugging women’s wear only as a hook to draw readers to a brief discussion on the role of the economic marketplace in Catholic Social teaching.  The result is a missed opportunity, and a disservice to both topics. He says:
How many millions of us have purchased yoga pants or baseball hats with flat brims? No doubt some of us do yoga and play baseball and need the appropriate uniform, but something else is going on here. Where did our desire to make those purchases come from? . . .  the marketplace that is fashion . . .
Catholic social teaching says nothing about yoga pants or baseball caps. But the church does say something about market forces . . . Traditional church teachings have some issues with markets.
And off he goes.  First of all, while it’s true the words “yoga pants” never appear in any magisterial documents, I think one can make the case that the Church never the less has rather a lot to say on the topic, as we shall see below.  But first, a word or two about Dr. Schneck’s primary target, the role of markets in the Church’s Social Teaching, which is more relevant to the topic of modesty than it may at first sound.  Catholic teaching on economics is a very complex topic, and it’s hard to do it justice in a short article (and I speak as one who has tried, for instance in my post “Pope Francis Is Not A Communist . . . He’s A Catholic”).  Dr. Schneck does do a good job of summarizing the negative side of the Church’s teaching. He points out that markets function outside of our control.  He refers to Pope Francis’s comment that they “have no human face”, and can have destructive consequences, especially for “those people who live on the margins of society.”

One could get the impression from Scheck’s brief discussion that the Catholic perspective on markets is uniformly negative, but that is not the case.  In magisterial documents dating from Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum in 1891 Popes have reaffirmed the right to private property, and of individuals to do business; they also acknowledge that only markets can harness the productivity necessary to provide for the material needs of the world’s people (see especially St. John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus).  Schneck alludes to the leftish tone of some of Pope Francis’ language in Laudato Si’ and other places, which is undeniable, but it’s worth pointing out that Francis himself has insisted he’s not a communist or socialist.

The Dignity of the Human Person

Papal teaching emphasizes the dignity of the human person (Reuters)
   In any case, the foundation for the Church’s teaching in this area is the dignity of the human person, not some theory of economics.  It is not that markets are bad, but that they are amoral, impersonal forces.  Our dignity demands that we who were made in the image and likeness of God do not let mere things like markets make moral decisions for us. The same is true of government programs, political movements and ideologies, and any number of other similar forces.  In Laudato Si’ Pope Francis warns us against the temptation to surrender our moral decision making to the “technical fix”:
        Any technical solution which science claims to offer will be powerless to solve the serious problems of our world if humanity loses its compass, if we lose sight of the great motivations which make it possible for us to live in harmony, to make sacrifices and to treat others well. Believers themselves must constantly feel challenged to live in a way consonant with their faith and not to contradict it by their actions. (Laudato Si’ 200, my bold type)
   Ironically, in yoga pants Schneck introduces a perfect vehicle to illustrate the dynamic among market forces, morality, and personal choices, but he drops it as soon as he starts drawing close to his proper target.  By speaking of yoga pants so dismissively, he suggests that this is one instance in which we can comfortably let the market choose for us. He reinforces this impression with his breezy closing: “My best thinking happens, coincidentally, as I walk, with my baseball cap worn the old-fashioned way. If yoga pants do the trick for you, go for it.”  I think he is mistaken.  I think that yoga pants are a perfect example of how the market can override our better judgment.  In this case, our desire to be fashionable, or our fear of seeming prudish, can lead us to ignore the virtue of modesty.  

The Virtue That Dare Not Speak Its Name

Modesty is a very unfashionable concept today.  Even Dr. Schneck’s sly suggestion that there just might be an objection to yoga pants, which he introduces only to swat it away as a non-issue, elicits numerous indignant comments such as “Oh, come on, it’s only yoga pants!”  And it’s true that this particular style of dress (or near-undress), in and of itself, does not spell the doom of Western Civilization. At the same time, there are serious reasons well-grounded in Catholic teaching and tradition to criticize this form-fitting fashion.  More than that, the widespread acceptance of yoga pants makes them an excellent example of the sort of groupthink whose deleterious effects Dr. Schneck decries in economic markets.
    So is there or isn’t there a Catholic teaching on yoga pants? Well, we must concede that the term “yoga pants” does not appear in any magisterial document, but a great deal has been said over the centuries about purity and modesty. Below are excerpts from the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s lengthy summation of this voluminous body of teaching (bold italics mine):

2518 The sixth beatitude proclaims, "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." "Pure in heart" refers to those who have attuned their intellects and wills to the demands of God's holiness, chiefly in three areas: charity; chastity or sexual rectitude; love of truth and orthodoxy of faith. There is a connection between purity of heart, of body, and of faith . . .

2519 The "pure in heart" are promised that they will see God face to face and be like him. Purity of heart is the precondition of the vision of God. Even now it enables us to see according to God, to accept others as "neighbors"; it lets us perceive the human body - ours and our neighbor's - as a temple of the Holy Spirit, a manifestation of divine beauty.


2520 Baptism confers on its recipient the grace of purification from all sins. But the baptized must continue to struggle against concupiscence of the flesh and disordered desires . . .

2521 Purity requires modesty, an integral part of temperance. Modesty protects the intimate center of the person. It means refusing to unveil what should remain hidden. It is ordered to chastity to whose sensitivity it bears witness. It guides how one looks at others and behaves toward them in conformity with the dignity of persons and their solidarity.

Feminine, attractive, and modest: Tia Alese Wong in her "Modest Church Look"

2522 Modesty protects the mystery of persons and their love . . .  Modesty is decency. It inspires one's choice of clothing. It keeps silence or reserve where there is evident risk of unhealthy curiosity. It is discreet.

2523 There is a modesty of the feelings as well as of the body. It protests, for example, against the voyeuristic explorations of the human body in certain advertisements, or against the solicitations of certain media that go too far in the exhibition of intimate things. Modesty inspires a way of life which makes it possible to resist the allurements of fashion and the pressures of prevailing ideologies.

2524 . . . Teaching modesty to children and adolescents means awakening in them respect for the human person.

2525 Christian purity requires a purification of the social climate. It requires of the communications media that their presentations show concern for respect and restraint. Purity of heart brings freedom from widespread eroticism . . .

    So, when we are judging a fashion or manner of dress (again, yoga pants are just an example) from a genuinely Catholic Christian perspective, we need to ask ourselves: does it discourage or encourage “voyeuristic explorations of the human body”? Does it bring “freedom from widespread eroticism” or instead ensnare the wearer (and potentially observers) in that eroticism by encouraging "unhealthy curiosity"? Does it promote “the dignity of persons” and “respect for the human person”?

Colleen Hammond

The Eyes Have It

    Former beauty queen and television newscaster Colleen Hammond has written extensively on the subject of modesty in women’s dress.  In her book Dressing with Dignity, Hammond shares the results of studies done by advertisers in the 1960’s and 70’s, when “pants became common attire for women and girls for school, work and even church.” The data held some interesting conclusions:

Advertising agencies quickly prepared marketing research to find out the reaction of men to a woman wearing pants.  Do you know what they found?  Using newly developed technology, they tracked the path that a man’s eyes take when looking at  woman in pants.  They found that when a man looked at a woman in pants from the back, he looked directly at her bottom.  When he looked at a woman wearing pants from the front, advertisers found that his eyes dropped directly to a woman’s most private and intimate area.  Not to her face!  Not to her chest! (Dressing With Dignity, 49)

That sounds an awful lot like “voyeuristic explorations of the human body” to me.  And these studies were done on women wearing ordinary pants. Consider how much more profound the effect when women are appearing in public (and, yes, even in church) wearing pants that are little better than a coat of paint over their bottom and “most private and intimate area.”

Enter The Gladiatrix

    Speaking of paint . . . well, let’s just say that it’s getting harder to separate the literal from the metaphorical these days.  In other words, we now come to the curious case of one Ronda Rousey.  Miss Rousey has achieved fame as a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter.  That is to say, she makes her living beating the daylights out of other women for the amusement of the (mostly male) crowd. And she’s good at it, or was.  She was the first female MMA champion, and went undefeated until last November, when she lost a match to a young woman named Holly Holm. She didn’t just lose: she was knocked out by a kick to her face that put her out of commission for a long time.  As an article on explained several weeks after the fight:

The stitches in her lip still dissolving, and a few of her teeth still unstable from Holm's fight-ending kick to the face, Rousey admits to ESPN The Magazine in its "Ideas of the Year" issue, on newsstands Friday: "It might be three to six months before I can eat an apple, let alone take an impact."

Even now, almost a year later, it doesn’t look like Miss Rousey will be able to return to her chosen profession anytime soon, certainly not until 2017 at the earliest.

Ronda Rousey, clothed and out of the arena
    A compelling aspect of this story is that, despite her unladylike way of making a living, Miss Rousey is an attractive woman (at least she was before Miss Holm's foot put her in need of restorative dental surgery).  Her feminine beauty has gained her not one, but two, appearances in
Sports Illustrated’s annual swimsuit edition, which has traditionally featured female models posing in decidedly immodest swimwear.  This is where the paint comes in.  Miss Rousey’s “suit” this year consisted entirely of body paint; she was, in fact, not wearing a stitch of actual clothing in the photos (sorry, I’m not posting any links).
    This raises some interesting questions.  Was Miss Rousey clothed, or was she naked? It’s true that her painted “suit” covered quite a bit more of her body than the scanty bikinis that the swimsuit models usually wear, and from the right angle it looks like she’s wearing a fairly unremarkable one-piece bathing suit.  On the other hand, how many of us wouldn’t object if our wife or daughter (or mother!) proposed going out in public wearing nothing but a coat of paint? I suspect that most of us would insist that she cover her body with some actual fabric.  

What Goes Around Comes Around

    Which brings us back to the topic of yoga pants.  How much more cover is provided, really, by the thin spandex-like fabric of yoga pants than by Miss Rousey’s body paint? It’s a question that we ought to take seriously. “Oh, come on, it’s only yoga pants!” I know, I know, yoga pants are not going to End The World As We Know It, but they are an example of just how well (or poorly) we are respecting the human person these days, particularly when that person is a woman.  Consider that not only are we sending our women out in public wearing “pants” that are barely distinguishable from a coat of paint: we are watching them knock each other’s teeth out for our entertainment; we had a Republican presidential debate before the New Hampshire primary in which not one of the candidates who was asked about it raised an objection to drafting our daughters and sisters into the armed forces;  those same armed forces themselves have just changed long-standing policy that kept women out of combat specialties such as the infantry, which means many more women sent directly into the maw of war. And we wonder why violence against women continues to be a problem.
    Our Lord tells us: "He who is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and he who is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much” (Luke 16:10).  Likewise, those who are disrespectful in small things will be disrespectful in large ones as well.  The little things matter.  I’m not telling anybody what to wear, but I am suggesting that we who call ourselves Catholic should take the teaching of our Church seriously (teaching which, not surprisingly, tends to respond to common sense, not fashion).  Our choices need to be guided by a conscience formed by Christ’s precepts, and He has appointed the Church as the preserver and teacher of those precepts.  We have also been promised that obeying God will make us happy: “For I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil” (Jeremiah 29.11). So, look around you: would you rather see the women in your life treated like the Blessed Mother, or like Ronda Rousey?

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Forgiveness Reveals the Power of the Gospel

This Throwback post was first published 23 June 2015   

We have witnessed an extraordinary demonstration of the power of the the Gospel in the past week. A rabid racist named Dylann Roof slaughtered nine people who were participating in a Bible study group at the Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina.  The shooter had hoped to ignite a race war between blacks and whites, but the families and friends of Roof’s innocent victims had a different idea.  Faithful to their Lord who said “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44),  they spoke movingly at Roof’s bond hearing about the unfathomable pain the shooting had caused them, but also expressed forgiveness for the shooter.

    Their bold act of forgiveness has drawn a lot of positive commentary, but it has also led to some confusion and bemusement.  Dennis Prager, for instance, in his column on the subject, disagrees with the families’ reaction, saying: “I am not aware of Roof’s having repented.  And even God Himself doesn’t forgive those who never repent.”
    Prager’s statement reveals some fairly common misunderstandings of Christian forgiveness.  For Christians, forgiveness is a decision of the will on the part of an aggrieved party to let go of anger and resentment at the person who has wronged him or her.  In the passage from Matthew’s Gospel above, Jesus tells us to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors; he doesn’t say that the the other parties need to first cease their enmity or their persecution.  Nor does forgiveness mean releasing a wrongdoer from the requirements of justice: innocent people need to be protected from further harm on the part of the perpetrator, other potential offenders must be deterred by seeing the consequences of his misdeeds, and objective wrongs he has committed need to be righted. When we forgive, we are not freeing the transgressor from the consequences of his actions, we are freeing ourselves from enslavement to the passions his transgression has provoked.  God likewise offers His forgiveness to all, and we only remain in unforgiveness if we refuse it (hence the Catholic belief that Hell is something that we choose for ourselves, not something imposed upon us); our repentance, if we do repent, is a response to His prior forgiveness, not a prerequisite for it.
    The events in Charleston are also a vivid reminder of St. Paul’s words to the Romans:

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." No, "if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:19-21)

The decision of the relatives of the victims to turn to the Lord and to Love instead of to Hatred and Anger has completely frustrated Roof's plan.  Instead of racial strife, it has led to an unprecedented show of unity and mutual support in the city that was the birthplace of the Confederacy a century and a half ago. By refusing to be overcome by evil, they have indeed overcome evil with good.
     Finally, as has often happened throughout history, the loving, peaceful response of persecuted Christians has given a beautiful testimony to the beauty and efficacy of Christ’s Gospel, which has been broadcast throughout the United States and the rest of the world. And all because some terribly wronged Christians in South Carolina turned to the Lord and his message of forgiveness, instead of giving in to the temptation to anger and vengeance.  

Please see a follow-up published last summer, a year after the Charleston shooting: “Charleston, The Stranger, And Orlando: The Power Of Forgiveness


Wednesday, October 19, 2016

A Dark Matter: "Proving" God in a Materialist World

This Worth Revisiting post was first published January 30th, 2015. To enjoy the work of other faithful Catholic bloggers see Worth Revisiting Wednesday, hosted by Elizabeth Reardon at and Allison Gingras at   

Nasa graphic of the Big Bang theory from "Dark Energy, Dark Matter"
     How do you show young people that Christian belief is reasonable?  I’ve seen more and more over the years in which I have been teaching in Catholic High Schools that most of my students have been formed in a materialist worldview – even when they are professing Christians.  It’s an unspoken assumption in most of the classes they’ve taken, particularly the science classes.  They just assume that a transcendent God who cannot be measured or detected with scientific instruments cannot be shown to exist.  I have found that, with a little help from NASA and modern cosmology, many students can better understand that belief in God is at least as reasonable as many “scientific” concepts that are accepted almost without question.  
     Cosmological science offers a good illustration of some ways in which we apply reason to our world and experience.  You may occasionally hear in the news, for instance, reports of planets discovered in other solar systems.  We do not now have any instruments capable of “seeing” the planet itself; instead, we detect it by observing its effects on other things, such as the miniscule wobble its gravitational pull causes in the star it orbits, or the very slight changes in the light we observe from the star as the planet passes in front of it (read more here).  
     On an even grander scale, consider the question of “Dark Matter” and “Dark Energy.” Over the past century, scientists have formulated what is known as the Big Bang Theory to account for the fact that the entire universe appears to be expanding at a consistent rate.  At the same time, they have calculated that in order for the universe to do what it seems to be doing, there needs to be much more matter and energy than we can detect – many times more.  As the NASA publication “Dark Energy, Dark Matter” explains (my italics): 

More is unknown than is known. We know how much dark energy there is because we know how it affects the Universe's expansion. Other than that, it is a complete mystery. But it is an important mystery. It turns out that roughly 68% of the Universe is dark energy. Dark matter makes up about 27%. The rest - everything on Earth, everything ever observed with all of our instruments, all normal matter - adds up to less than 5% of the Universe. Come to think of it, maybe it shouldn't be called "normal" matter at all, since it is such a small fraction of the Universe. (full publication here

Notice that physicists say that more than 95% of the matter and energy in the universe is completely undetectable, and we may never be able to detect it.  There is no direct evidence of the existence of Dark Energy and Dark Matter, and yet they are sure it is there, only because of the effects we observe on other things.
Merging Galaxy Cluster Abell 520 from "Dark Energy, Dark Matter" 

    Much of the evidence for God’s involvement in our world is of a similar sort, at least for those who have not themselves had a direct experience of God.  Like Dark Energy, God cannot be measured with scientific instruments, but his effects are very clear.  Consider the case of Bernard Nathanson, an atheist doctor from a Jewish family who was one of the founders of the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL).  Nathanson himself performed or presided over tens of thousands of abortions until he was convinced by ultrasound images of the humanity of the unborn.  Deeply disturbed by his involvement in the taking of so many innocent lives, Nathanson, still an atheist, became active in pro-life activities, where he encountered many committed Christians.  He noticed something different about his religious friends, which he eventually recognized as what St. Paul called “The Gifts of the Holy Spirit”: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" (Galatians 5:22-23).  It was clear to him that the difference he saw was due to the religious dimension of their lives, the visible effects of their relationship with God.  He eventually converted from atheism to Catholicism.

     Literally millions of people have come to Faith in the same way over the last two thousand years.  Like Nathanson, they were first attracted by the effects they saw in others, and after embracing Christ, found the same changes in their own lives.  They very reasonably based their faith on the real results they saw in others, and that they experienced themselves. 
     That, by the way, is one way in which belief in God is different from a belief in Dark Energy or Dark Matter.  Nobody has ever had a personal encounter with Dark Energy, or seen a miracle performed by Dark Matter; countless people throughout the ages have had direct experiences of God, or witnessed His miracles, which continue up to the present day.  One might say that, when we examine the evidence of the world around us, belief in God is actually quite reasonable.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Slavery in Rationalia

I was in a small local fish store recently when a sign taped near the cash register caught my attention.  The notice assured us that the raw shrimp, a product of the US. Gulf Coast, was “slavery free”. The cooked cocktail shrimp, on the other hand, was from Indonesia, so there was a good chance that slave labor was part of the process that brought it to market.  The shop was donating all proceeds from the cooked shrimp to “a foundation that works to end slavery in that part of the world.”

Burmese slaves rescued in Indonesia (AP photo)
I have to admit, I was a little taken aback.  I shouldn’t have been too surprised, of course: in an abstract way I was aware that slavery still exists in many parts of the world, much as it has from the earliest times. I also knew that certain forms of it exist, albeit less visibly, even in places where legal slavery has been abolished, including here in the United States (something that I had actually addressed in a
recent blog post). It’s still a bit of a shock, however, to come upon so tangible a reminder that human slavery is not just an abstraction, but a very concrete, very ugly, reality.
The persistence of slavery points to a deeper truth: human nature doesn’t change.  This is something that secular “progressives” are at great pains to deny.  Recently, for instance, Neil DeGrasse Tyson (astrophysicist and all-around cool science dude) published an essay in which he longs for a Utopia he calls “Rationalia”, where human reason, unhindered by the chains of religious superstition and what not, orders all things for supreme human happiness.  Tyson seems blissfully unaware of the complete, and often bloody, failure that has befallen all attempts at establishing the Rule of Pure Reason here on earth, from small-scale projects like Robert Owen’s New Harmony in 1825-1827, to the colossal horrors of 20th century communist regimes (Marxist theory held that simply changing the economic order of society could change human nature, create a "new man". No such luck).  Nor does he acknowledge that the very science to which he looks as a savior has increasingly been coming to the conclusion that much of what happens in the natural world is apparently random, or at the very least beyond our powers of prediction.
Skulls of victims of Marxist Khmer Rouge in Cambodia (Wikipedia)
Ironically enough, reason itself should tell us that a human regime such as Rationalia (Tyson envisions its constitution as reading: simply "
All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence") is hopelessly impossible.  For one thing, because of our finite knowledge and capabilities, we very often can’t even begin to assess all the possible variables that go into a particular issue.  Not only that, different people can reach different conclusions using the same data because they legitimately have different values and interests.  An even greater difficulty than either of those, however, is our legacy of original sin.  This is a topic that I have touched on before; the short version of the story is that our conclusions are very often determined more by our desires (very often disordered desires) than they are by the data.  One of the benefits of healthy religion is that it provides a reliable authority greater than our desires that can help guide us to sound conclusions.
    Christians, of course, know even more than that.  We know that the authority provided by our faith has not only been empirically tested by human experience over several millennia (unlike the schemes of secular social engineers), but that the Author of that Faith is Himself our creator, and knows exactly what we need to be happy.  We also know that we can never perfect ourselves through our own efforts alone.  Perfection can only come through the Grace of our Creator, who offered himself up on the Cross in the person of Jesus Christ in order to make that Grace available to us.
The interesting thing is, the evidence of the persistence of human nature, and of our limits and radical imperfection, is abundantly clear: the further our society moves away from God, the more the primeval ugliness of our race rises again to the surface.  We may try to disguise it with euphemisms, but is anybody really fooled, for instance, by whitewashing sexual slavery with the term “sex workers”?  Well, maybe some people.  Those who most identify themselves as citizens of “Rationalia” seem to ignore the mounting evidence ( so much for "All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence") Instead, they cling to the fantasy that, somehow, all we need to do is expel God from the Garden in order to achieve perfect human bliss here on Earth.  Reason, however, tells us otherwise: the rational thing is to follow Christ.