Rome’s Decrees on Modesty in Dress --
Still Victims of “Conspiracy of Silence”
- English Translation of 1928 Document
Modern Liberalism gives repeated evidence of a morbid fear of crusades against immodest fashions. It stubbornly adheres to the oft-repeated, and oft-condemned principle that Christian modesty in dress is regulated by “customs and styles of time, place and circumstances.” Just as stubbornly does it ignore, or refuse to heed, authoritative statements or decrees which contradict its pet sophisms and which insist that it is the Church, and not society, to which Christ has entrusted the principles governing Christian modesty.
Thus it happened that the “Crusade Against Immodest Fashions, Especially in Schools Directed by Religious,” ordered by Pope Pius XI on August 23, 1928, was all but completely ignored in the United States, even by our Catholic press. The letter containing the order was sent to all Ordinaries of Italy through the Sacred Congregation of Religious, and was made known to the world through the Acta Apostolicae Sedis in 1930 (vol. 22, pp. 26-28). Yet, to this day, very few Catholics have even heard of this document; and scarcely anyone seems to know its gravely-worded contents. For two decades we have been looking in vain for an English translation. At last we have one. It was made recently by the well-known Father John Rubba, O.P., from the Italian as it appeared in Commentarium Pro Religiosis (vol. 9, 1928, pp. 414-415). We are most happy to publish Father Rubba’s translation.
1928 Letter to the Congregation for Religious
To The Ordinaries of Italy: regarding the crusade against immodest fashions, especially in schools directed by women Religious.
Circular. Most Illustrious and Reverend Sir, well known to you are the grave words of condemnation which the Holy Father spoke, on several occasions, with apostolic authority, against the immodest fashion of women’s dress which prevails today to the detriment of good breeding.
Suffice it to recall the very grave words, charged with grief and admonition, with which in the discourse of August 15th current, in the consistorial chamber, promulgating the decree on the heroic virtues of Venerable Paola Frassinetti, His Holiness denounced once again the danger which, by its seductive fascination, threatens so many unwary souls, who profess to belong to the flock of Jesus Christ and to His Holy Church.
It is painful to point out in this regard that the deplorable custom tends to insinuate itself among young girls who frequent, as extern pupils, some of the schools directed by Sisters and Sunday-school classes which are held in female religious institutions.
In order to confront a danger which, by spreading, becomes ever more grave, this Sacred Congregation, by order of the Holy Father, calls upon the Ordinaries of Italy so that they may communicate to the superiors of the houses of female religious in their respective dioceses the following injunctions of this Sacred Congregation, confirmed by His Holiness in audience this day:
a) In all schools, academies, recreation centers, Sunday schools, and laboratories directed by female religious, not to be admitted from now on are those girls who do not observe in their attire the rules of modesty and Christian decency.
b) To this end, the superiors themselves will be obliged to exercise a close supervision and exclude peremptorily from the schools and projects of their institutions those pupils who do not conform to these prescriptions.
c) They must not be influenced in this by any human respect, either for material considerations or by reason of the social prestige and of the families of their pupils, even though the student body should diminish in number.
d) Furthermore, the Sisters, in fulfillment of their educational pursuits, must endeavor to inculcate sweetly and strongly in their pupils the love and relish for holy modesty, the sign and guardian of purity and delicate adornment of womankind.
Your Reverence will be vigilant that these injunctions be exactly observed and that there be perfect conformity of conduct among all the institutes of female religious in the diocese.
You will severely call to task whoever should fail in this, and should any abuse be prolonged, you will notify this Sacred Congregation.
With deepest esteem, I remain,
G. Cardinal Laurenti, Prefect
Sacred Congregation for Religious
Vincent La Puma, Secretary
Rome, August 23, 1928
Liberalism’s Excuse for Ignoring Letter
The excuse usually given for ignoring the Pope’s modesty crusade was, that it was not directed to the United States, but to Italy. A strange attitude, indeed, after Pope Pius XI had spoken to the world (as had Pope Benedict XV previously) “grave words of condemnation ... on several occasions, with apostolic authority, against immodest fashion of women’s dress which prevails today to the detriment of good breeding ...”; and in view of the fact that perhaps nowhere in the world were Catholic women and girls dressing more scandalously than in the United States, and therefore nowhere was the Pope’s Crusade more urgently needed than in our own nation.
But by 1928 Liberalism was already in control of Catholic thinking. And Liberalism could see no need for the Pope’s Modesty Crusade. It kept insisting that “custom” determines what is modest and what is immodest in attire -- even when these shameless customs were introduced for profits by heathen commercialism in a de-Christianized society -- all the warnings of the Vicars of Christ to the contrary notwithstanding.
Yet, the good faith of Liberalism fell under serious suspicion when it persisted in ignoring the 1928 Letter even after the Holy See made it official also for the United States less than 17 months later. For on January 12, 1930 the Pope directed the Sacred Congregation of the Council to issue a strongly-worded Letter on Christian Modesty to the whole world, which required of “Nuns compliance with the Letter dated August 23, 1928, by the Sacred Congregation of Religious.” [see no. 6 below] This 1930 letter was even more emphatic; gave more detailed directives; and imposed the obligation of combating the immodest fashions and promoting modesty on all persons in authority -- Bishops and other ordinaries, parish priests, parents, Superioresses and teachers in schools. This letter reads as follows:
1930 Letter of the Congregation of the Council
By virtue of the supreme apostolate which he wields over the Universal Church by Divine Will, our Most Holy Father Pope Pius XI has never ceased to inculcate, both verbally and by his writings, the words of St. Paul (1 Tim. xi,9-10), namely, “Women ... adorning themselves with modesty and sobriety ... and professing godliness with good works.”
Very often, when occasion arose, the same Supreme Pontiff condemned emphatically the immodest fashion of dress adopted by Catholic women and girls -- which fashion not only offends the dignity of women and against her adornment, 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. It is not surprising, therefore, that all Bishops and other ordinaries, as is the duty of ministers of Christ, should in their own dioceses have unanimously opposed their depraved licentiousness and promiscuity of manners, often bearing with fortitude the derision and mockery leveled against them for this cause.
Therefore this Sacred Council, which watches over the discipline of clergy and people, while cordially commending the action of the Venerable Bishops, most emphatically exhorts them to persevere in their attitude and increase their activities insofar as their strength permits, in order that this unwholesome disease be definitely uprooted from human society.
In order to facilitate the desired effect, this Sacred Congregation, by the mandate of the Most Holy Father, has decreed as follows:
Exhortation to Those in Authority
1. The parish priest, and especially the preacher, when occasion arises, should, according to the words of the Apostle Paul (2 Tim. iv, 2), insist, argue exhort and command that feminine garb be based on modesty and womanly ornament be a defense of virtue. Let them likewise admonish parents to cause their daughters to cease wearing indecorous dress.
2. Parents, conscious of their grave obligations toward the education, especially religious and moral, to their offspring, should see to it that their daughters are solidly instructed, from earliest childhood, in Christian doctrine; and they themselves should assiduously inculcate in their souls, by word and example, love for the virtues of modesty and chastity; and since their family should follow the example of the Holy Family, they must rule in such a manner that all its members, reared within the walls of the home, should find reason and incentive to love and preserve modesty.
3. Let parents keep their daughters away from public gymnastic games and contests; but if their daughters are compelled to attend such exhibitions, let them see that they are fully and modestly dressed. Let them never permit their daughters to don immodest garb.
4. Superioresses and teachers in schools for girls must do their utmost to instill love of modesty in the hearts of maidens confided to their care and urge them to dress modestly.
5. Said Superioresses and teachers must not receive in their colleges and schools immodestly dressed girls, and should not even make an exception in the case of mothers of pupils. If, after being admitted, girls persist in dressing immodestly, such pupils should be dismissed.
6. Nuns, in compliance with the Letter dated August 23, 1928, by the Sacred Congregation of Religious, must not receive in their colleges, schools, oratories or recreation grounds, or, if once admitted, tolerate girls who are not dressed with Christian modesty; said Nuns, in addition, should do their utmost so that love for holy chastity and Christian modesty may become deeply rooted in the hearts of their pupils.
7. It is desirable that pious organizations of women be founded, which by their counsel, example and propaganda should combat the wearing of apparel unsuited to Christian modesty, and should promote purity of customs and modesty of dress.
8. In the pious associations of women those who dress immodestly should not be admitted to membership; but if, perchance, they are received, and after having been admitted, fall again into their error, they should be dismissed forthwith.
9. 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.
Donato Cardinal Sbaretti, Prefect
Congregation of the Council
Rome, January 12, 1930
“Conspiracy of Silence”
This important letter may be found in Acta Apostolicae Sedis of 1930 (vol. 22, pp. 26-28). It also appeared in Canon Law Digest (1, pp. 212-214), and undoubtedly in many other papers in the United States. The Central Bureau of the Catholic Central Verein of St. Louis deserves much credit for circulating an English translation of this letter so widely and so perseveringly over a period of many years. Unfortunately, American Liberalism, which so loudly prates about its loyalty to the Holy See, succeeded in shoving the Pope’s modesty Crusade into oblivion by its “conspiracy of silence,” and by its summary rejection of any set of standards for modesty in dress.
What! No Standards?
But where do you find the Marylike standards in either of these letters? The Liberals ask with an air of triumph, thus implying, if not claiming outright, that these standards are not authentic. But after many years of research, these standards are now full authenticated as having been issued by the Cardinal-Vicar of Pius XI in Rome, in these words:
“in order that uniformity of understanding prevail in all institutions of religious women ... we recall that 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 a bit beyond the knees. Furthermore, dresses of transparent material are improper ...”
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. He attributes them to Pope Pius XI Himself, and gives the exact date of issuance, September 24, 1928. The Marylike Crusade codified these standards, making only a small (ecclesiastically approved) temporary concession because of impossible market conditions in the United States. This modified form has been officially adopted by the entire Philippine Hierarchy.
The quick action of issuing the standards only 31 days after the Pope launched the Modesty Crusade show the great importance attached to the standards. You simply cannot promote modesty in dress without standards. Those who reject standards usually see no need for a Modesty Crusade. Or did you ever see any of them zealously promoting Christian modesty in dress? Hardly, they are too intent on calling those persons “prudes” who try to be conscientious in following the guidance of the Church; too busy trying to prove that modesty is what a paganized society, “custom,” says it is. In issuing standards, Rome lit the torch and held it aloft, but the Liberals quickly blew it out.
“In order that uniformity of understanding prevail” is the key to the question of standards. Without “uniformity” only confusion can result. And confusion defeats the entire purpose of the Modesty Crusade.
Both letters from the Holy See postulate some set of standards. Let us take some examples from the 1930 letter. How can parents possibly carry out number 3 in the absence of standards? Let conscientious parents try to object to a suit prescribed by a gym instructor, and see what happens!
Again, a teacher trying to carry out numbers 5 and 6 dismisses from school a girl who “persists in dressing immodestly,” or she bars from the school or its premises an immodestly dressed mother wishing to visit her daughter. Woe to that teacher if her case is brought to a Superioress or a Pastor who does not subscribe to standards of modesty in dress! “Liberty of conscience” is immediately invoked, and that poor teacher is “put in the doghouse.” Lack of “uniformity” nullifies all her efforts. (Many Sisters have complained of this.)
Further, how can the “pious associations” of number 8 possibly operate without a “uniform” standard? Try it!
Finally, in the absence of standards, “uniformity”, how would a pastor fare who would try to enforce no. 9?
Truly absurd and ridiculous is the claim of some that standards of modesty in dress are not essential for the Modesty Crusade. This fact is fully verified by the experience of the Marylike Crusade. Marching confidently under Mary’s glorious banner, we call these standards the Marylike Standards because we know that “Mary approves what the Church approves.”
Reprinted from the Marylike Crusader, Nov-Dec 1963.