Can Christian decency be guarded in the summertime?

It can hardly be disputed that the public display of immodesty flooding our large cities at this time of year appears ever bolder. And on beaches, outside the cities, it has actually become a kind of legitimised nudity, gradually desensitising even those who value purity. 

Priests sometimes say in jest that the best time to preach on modesty is January and February, when everyone is well-wrapped up and no one feels offended by the message — and there is certainly a good deal of prudence in reaching out to hearts and minds when none of them are closed in self-defence! Yet Christian modesty, while a controversial issue even in many Catholic circles today — and a message for which the messenger will most likely be shot! — must also be addressed now, as the temperatures are rising and the abandonment of decency seems almost universal. Even those who made good resolutions in January and February may find themselves beset by such tides of immodesty that they can easily let their standards drop whilst still appearing to be much better than the rest. 

The problem is old, but the attack is ever renewed. Man, created innocent and ordered towards God, became aware of his body and its disordered passions only after his first sin. At that moment, God mercifully covered him and began the work of his redemption, and the devil launched his attack on each soul to make her give in to concupiscence and fall into sin. Thus, the body became a means to lose the soul.

Our Lady of Fatima confirmed that “More souls go to hell for sins of the flesh than for any other reason”. But this is not because they are necessarily the gravest of sins; rather, they are either more difficult to confess because of the shame that accompanies them, or, as is often the case today, the widespread insensitivity to such sins makes it more difficult to recognise them for what they are.

Furthermore, our Blessed Mother left no doubt regarding the connection between modesty and salvation when she warned:

“Certain fashions are going to be introduced which will offend Our Lord very much. Those who serve God should not follow these fashions. The Church has no fashions; Our Lord is always the same. The sins of the world are too great. If only people knew what eternity is, they would do everything in their power to change their lives.” 

Our Lady’s words of 1917 were soon vindicated by the emergence of the new fashions of the 1920s — the rise of Coco Chanel, sensual jazz music and more revealing swimwear. Compared to the virtual nudity so widely accepted today, that era may seem for many a time of decency and good taste. The Brazilian thinker Dr Plinio Correa de Oliveira, however, explains the importance of the principle of gradualism in the spread of impurity. He writes:

“The discreet and noble ladies who initiated the custom of bathing on the French beaches would have been very surprised to see the beach clothes of the elegant society of 1920. And perhaps, in order to avoid such excesses, they would have even given up that custom still in its initial stage. 

“In turn, what would the elegant bathers in 1920 say if they could see how their daughters and nieces would be dressing at the beaches in 1956? This preview probably would have raised a salutary reaction in them. But, since no one foresaw such excess, the style continued along its course. Today [1956], we can ask: How will things be in 1986?

“Any denunciation of this process that aims to raise a reaction has to take into consideration the principle of gradualism. Nothing seems more important than to understand how it works.”1

A true understanding of how this principle applies to fashion can be gained from Virginia Coda Nunziante’s book, Christian Fashion in the Teaching of the Church (Calx Mariae Publishing, 2022). Here she clearly outlines how gradualism in the fashion revolution has resulted in a rebellion against beauty and the order of God. The historic overview she presents is complemented by the eloquent and unambiguous teachings of the popes on the subject of fashion — from Benedict XV to Pius XII. 

In a speech on 3 November 1957, for example, Pius XII explained that in addition to the practical (protecting from cold and heat, suitability for the type of work one does) and moral (protecting modesty) functions of clothing, there is a third, aesthetic function, which he defines as “adornment”. Pius XII praised fashion where it becomes an instrument of beauty, fulfilling its purpose of adornment:

“The young person seeks attractive and splendid clothing which sings the happy themes of the springtime of life, and which facilitates, in harmony with the rules of modesty, the psychological prerequisites necessary for the formation of new families. At the same time, those of mature age seek appropriate clothing to enhance an aura of dignity, seriousness and serene happiness. In those cases where the aim is to enhance the moral beauty of the person, the style of clothes will be such as almost to eclipse physical beauty in the austere shadow of concealment, in order to distract the attention of the senses, and concentrate reflection on the spirit.”2

Virginia Coda Nunziante comments: 

“Today, clothing no longer seems to reflect these criteria: the very function of protection from cold or heat is often sacrificed to the imperatives of fashion, which change the other principles, starting with the sense of shame. It suffices to consider what beaches are like today, as well as the spread of nudism, especially during the summer months, in large western cities. The fashion revolution represents an attack on modesty, and must be seen in the context of a plan to reject beauty, which characterises the decadence of contemporary society. As Carmelo Leotta has noted ‘fashion only apparently becomes an instrument of beauty, if, in fact, beauty is never separated from the good and the true; the sensual ostentation of one’s body becomes an instrument of disorder and renders love — naturally aimed at the perpetual possession of the true and the good — more difficult’.”3

Fashion, therefore, which seeks to be beautiful, must respect modesty. Modesty, like any virtue, requires training. True modesty is, above all, a habit of doing good — rather than an occasional good act. In this regard, two tendencies, which are unfortunately more and more evident in Catholic circles, must be avoided.

Firstly, the belief that modesty is only really required in church and perhaps also at school or work. On the contrary, modesty is integral and must be observed everywhere and at all times just as in church. It is true that Sunday clothes have always been different, but the difference has been in their quality — material, adornment etc., not in the standard of modesty. 

Secondly, the overemphasis on comfort, which often eclipses modesty or dignity. This can be deceptive because, rather than an attack on decency, it appears as a challenge to the effort and mortification that dressing with appropriate decorum may entail. However, in terms of dress, there is nothing like the heat of summer to distinguish the true lady and gentleman.

Catholics have a grave obligation to observe modesty at all times and not yield to comfort at the expense of it. Pius XII gave an absolute norm: if a fashion leads others to sin, it is evil in itself and must be rejected by every Christian. To which Virginia Coda Nunziante adds, “This is an insurmountable moral limit. Fashion is immoral if it constitutes an occasion of sin for oneself or for others.”

What is “occasion of sin”? This expression refers to the possibility of sinning because of a person, place or thing. Catholics have a grave obligation to flee occasions of sin. 

It is true that one cannot escape violations of Christian modesty today, as soon as one leaves the home. Yet, the obligation remains to guard the eyes and never voluntarily place oneself in situations or frequent places, where Christian purity is known to be disregarded. “He, who, without sufficient reason, does not flee the occasion of sin,” reflects Virginia Coda Nunziante, “by this very fact, commits a sin of the same gravity that he places himself in danger of committing. This is why the popes have always warned against immoral fashions.”4

Custody of the eyes means precisely that: it is not licit to look at what it is not licit to desire. And thus many actions that are innocent per se, such as spending time at the seaside, may become an occasion of sin by the circumstances it entails. 

We must also remember that our guardian angel, who sees the face of God in heaven (Mt 18:10) and who fought the good fight alongside St Michael before the beginning of time, is with us always. We should, therefore, avoid anything that would be unworthy of his presence!

Such thoughts can inspire vigilance regarding modesty at this perilous time. But as insensitivity to impurity spreads even among believers, one must take steps to remain vigilant. Reparation — prayers and acts of mortification to repair for the sins committed due to immodesty and impurity, especially at this time of year — is one such measure to keep us alert. Setting a good example in honouring Christian decency is, of course, ever more necessary as the attacks advance. By dressing modestly today, one can certainly follow the fine instruction of Saint Francis to preach always and use words only if necessary!

The fact that, today, very few men of the Church address the issue of modesty serves to demonstrate the serious nature of the problem. It is all the more important, therefore, to use what we already have to guard this precious virtue — the clear teachings of the popes of the first half of the twentieth century, as compiled in Christian Fashion in the Teaching of the Church, available here.


  1. Dr Plinio Correa de Oliveira, “The Principle of Gradualism, The Devious Law for Evil to Progress”, Catolicismo, August 1956.
  2. Virginia Coda Nunziante, Christian Fashion in the Teaching of the Church, (Calx Mariae Publishing, 2022), p 14.
  3. Ibid, p 15.
  4. Ibid, p 17.