Women must be decently dressed, especially when they go to church. The parish priest may, with due prudence, refuse them entrance to the church and access to the reception of the Sacraments, [each] and every time that they come to church immodestly dressed.” (General Pastoral Directive, 1915 A.D.)
Although immodesty in dress was not unheard of from the lips of the Popes, it was around the time of Pope Pius XI that a Dress Code of sorts came about.
Pope Benedict XV (1914-1922) spoke of the deplorable immodesty in society, in his Encyclical to the Third Order St. Francis, “SACRA PROPEDIEM“, and encouraged especially the Tertiary Sisters, “by their dress and manner of wearing it, to be models of holy modesty for other ladies and young girls; that they be thoroughly convinced that the best way for them to be of use to the Church and to Society is to labor for the improvement of morals.”
He goes on to say, about society:
“..one cannot sufficiently deplore the blindness of so many women of every age and condition; made foolish by desire to please, they do not see to what a degree the in decency of their clothing shocks every honest man, and offends God. Most of them would formerly have blushed for those toilettes as for a grave fault against Christian modesty; now it does not suffice for them to exhibit them on the public thoroughfares; they do not fear to cross the threshold of the churches, to assist at the Holy sacrifice of the Mass, and even to bear the seducing food of shameful passions to the Eucharistic Table where one receives the heavenly Author of purity. And We speak not of those exotic and barbarous dances recently imported into fashionable circles, one more shocking than the other; one cannot imagine anything more suitable for banishing all the remains of modesty.
In considering attentively this state of things, the Tertiaries will understand what it is that our epoch expects from the disciples of St. Francis. If they bring their gaze back to the life of their Father, they will see what perfect and living resemblance to Jesus Christ, above all in His flight from satisfactions and his love of trials in this life, had he whom they call the Poverello, and who had received in his flesh the stigmata of the Crucified. It is for them to show that they remain worthy of him by embracing poverty, at least in spirit, in renouncing themselves, and in bearing each one his cross.
In what concerns specially the Tertiary Sisters, We ask of them by their dress and manner of wearing it, to be models of holy modesty for other ladies and young girls; that they be thoroughly convinced that the best way for them to be of use to the Church and to Society is to labor for the improvement of morals.”
Pope Pius XI, around the same time of the Flapper Era that caused so much ruckus in the 20’s, had decried the Immodesty of women and called for those who dressed immodestly TO BE DE-BARRED FROM HOLY COMMUNION:
“Maidens and women dressed immodestly are to be debarred from Holy Communion and from acting as sponsors at the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation; further, if the offense be extreme, they may even be forbidden to enter the church.”
(Original letter published in Acta Apostolicae Sedis of 1930 vol. 22, pp. 26-28)
He spoke again of the importance of modesty in sports, in his encyclical, “Divini Illius Magistri” DECEMBER 31, 1929.
In 1930 a letter of the Sacred Congregation of the Council (Acta Apostolicae Sedis 1930 vol. 22, pp. 26-28) was issued. This was addressed to the whole world. It condemned emphatically “the immodest fashion of dress adopted by Catholic women and girls, which fashion not only offends the dignity of women, but conduces to the temporal ruin of the women and girls, and, what is still worse, to their eternal ruin, miserably dragging down others in their fall.”
These instructions were given (among others):
1. “The parish priest should command that feminine garb be based on modesty, and womanly ornament be a defence of virtue. Let them likewise admonish parents to cause their daughters to cease wearing indecorous dress.”
2. “Teachers must not receive in their colleges and schools immodestly dressed girls.”
3. “Maidens and women dressed immodestly are to be debarred from Holy Communion … further, if the offence be extreme, they may even be forbidden to enter the Church.”
In another Encyclical he wrote:
“It is abundantly clear that readers of Augustine will not be caught in the toils of that pernicious error, which was widespread during the eighteenth century, namely, that the inborn impulses of the will should neither be feared nor curbed, since all of them are right and sound. From its false principle sprang those educational methods, which We condemned not long ago in Our Encyclical on “The Christian Education of Youth.” Their effect is to allow a free mingling of the sexes and to employ no precaution in controlling the growing passions of boyhood and youth. From this false principle too comes that license in writing and reading, in presenting or frequenting plays, that do not merely threaten innocence and purity with dangerous occasions, but actually plot their ruin and destruction. From this source again are derived those immodest fashions of dress, which Christian women can never be at too great pains to abolish.”
“Ad Salutem“, April 30, 1930 A.D.
The Standards issued by the Cardinal-Vicar of Pope Pius XI, Cardinal Pompili, on 24 September 1928 are: “A dress cannot be called decent which is cut deeper than two fingers’ breadth under the pit of the throat, which does not cover the arms at least to the elbows, and scarcely reaches beyond the knees. Furthermore, dresses of transparent materials are improper.”
There has been a concession with regard to sleeve length, because of market conditions.
The official Catholic Hierarchy website states that Cardinal Pompili served as Vicar General in the diocese of Rome from 7 Apr 1913 to 5 May 1931.
Rufino J. Cardinal Santos, Archbishop of Manila, quotes these standards as “The Church’s stand concerning modesty in dress” in his Pastoral of December 6, 1959.
There is still a sign outside the Vatican which tells the visitors how to dress. And if you are dressed more immodestly you will be thrown out or given paper clothing to wear! And as you can see, they still adhere to the original Modesty Guidelines, “shoulder and knees covered, nothing too low-cut… etc.”
The Papal Audience Dress Code should at least be thought about adhering to when in the Presence of, not just the Pope, but the Blessed Sacrament!
In 2006 the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement titled, “Happy Are Those Who Are Called To His Supper: On Preparing to Receive Christ Worthily in the Eucharist”, in the statement is this portion on dressing well for Holy Mass;
“Appropriate attire — We should also come to the sacred liturgy appropriately dressed. As Christians we should dress in a modest manner, wearing clothes that reflect our reverence for God and that manifest our respect for the dignity of the liturgy and for one another.”
As we can see, the importance of the issue of modesty, especially in the Presence of the Holy Eucharist is still very important.
We will continue to update this portion of the website as we obtain more information concerning Modesty in Dress & the Church.