Conscience and Appropriate Dress at Mass

Should parishes have a dress code for holy Mass? No, I don’t think so. I rarely see anyone I think is inappropriately dressed at Mass, even in the summer in a church that has no air conditioning. A dress code, as well intentioned as it might be, will end up giving some few persons control over how other persons dress. And that type of decision should be left to each individual conscience.

Suppose we begin with the idea of a very limited dress code, which only excludes very inappropriate clothing. Undoubtedly, due to the failings of fallen human nature, that dress code, over time, will be amended again and again, becoming more and more strict, until it unreasonably substitutes the decisions of a few influential persons in the parish or diocese for the individual conscience. Eventually, such a dress code will exclude clothing which is not truly offensive or inappropriate.

And then, instead of preparing for Mass by considering whether they have offended God by any sins on their conscience, they will have to worry about whether their clothing offends the dress code. Some people will be driven away from Mass by an excessively restrictive or excessively detailed dress code. And there is just no compelling reason to have a committee and a set of written rules stand in judgment over what clothing people wear.

Currently, there are numerous stories in the secular press on the topic of dress codes in various places, such as high schools. It causes more problems than it solves. And inevitably some entirely appropriate types of clothing are prohibited for no good reason. Once you start making decisions for other persons as to how they may and may not dress, errors abound.

It is also a problem when every aspect of the moral decisions of daily life are taken away from the individual and given to a small group of leaders or influencers. Under the principle of subsidiarity, decisions should be made at the lowest level possible. Clothing and manner of dress and grooming are personal decisions that should not be given over to a committee, nor to a small group of parishioners who happen to have influence over the pastor.

This summer at Mass, I’ve seen plenty of men wearing shorts and/or tee shirts. Sometimes the t-shirts have no collar, sometimes they have no sleeves. I’ve seen women wearing shorts or relatively short skirts or dresses. Sometimes a woman has on a dress or top that bares part or much of her back. Sometimes a woman is dressed so that her bra strap shows from under her shirt or dress. And overall, the manner of dress at Mass in my parish tends to be rather informal.

But I see no reason to object, nor to compose a set of rules for how people dress at Mass. Doing so would drive some persons away from Mass, and therefore away from the Lord. And what would be the benefit that outweighs this great detriment of losing souls? There is no great benefit to compelling people to dress one way or another at Mass.

Each person will be judged by his or her own conscience before God. We should emphasize the formation of consciences and the teachings of faith and morals. Making unnecessary rules is Pharisaical and counterproductive.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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5 Responses to Conscience and Appropriate Dress at Mass

  1. Matt Z. says:

    On the other hand there is no reason to ridicule people that dress in their “Sundays best” for the Lord. Last Sunday at mass in my own parish I was wearing an all white long sleeve shirt with grey pants, a grey tie, no sport coat. While greeting the priest who presided after mass, he commented directly to me, ” another guy who is dressed like he going to a business meeting.”

  2. Joshua says:

    Mr. Conte, I respectfully disagree. I’ve seen young teenage girls wearing super tight shorts that display the shape of their buttocks for the whole congregation to see when they walk up to receive Our Lord is the Most Blessed Sacrament, among other things. This is not good. Not to be judgmental, but I do believe that their should be a dress code, or at least some kind of remainder to inform people to dress modestly.

  3. Mark P. says:

    I believe altar servers, cantors, lectors, Eucharistic ministers, ushers, and those presenting the gifts should have a formal dress code or expectation of appropriate dress.

    As for those in the pews, I think guidelines are appropriate, but not an enforced dress code that is written and posted. Appropriate dress must begin with parents and adults. In my opinion, it is inappropriate for grown men to wear football jerseys at Mass during football season. Likewise, as Joshua stated, some women and young girls dress in a manner that can be a bit too revealing not only for Mass, but for a practicing Catholic. But also, as Ron said, the conscience must be formed so those who dress or want to dress in these ways change their ways and present themselves more modestly and reverent in the presence of the Lord.

  4. Dora says:

    This discussion harkens back to the previous ones about who can receive Holy Communion. I agree with Ron that dress codes confer judgement and will chase people away. It is the same when you encounter remarried couples whose circumstances you do not know.
    I have seen the dress issue discussed thoroughly in blogs. Mind you, I have reminded teenagers to put away their cell phone games at Mass, though I only did it once. Last summer I was appalled when a well-endowed teen girl arrived in a tight near- bathing suit outfit at Sat. evening Mass. If I thought about the GIRL herself, and not the decorum, I would hope that perhaps a grandfather in the congregation would rush up to her, offer his jacket, and say to her “your incredible beauty is showing,” or something similar. If he were not a church official, it would certainly satisfy subsidiarity and quite possibly do her a great favor, because it is not at all safe to be dressed that way out in the world, forget about offending me! But after saying all that, I believe treading in this water is a risky proposition, because it is almost always self-serving.

    • Ron Conte says:

      There are occasional cases where some charitable correction is called for. But a dress code that binds everyone is going to cause more problems than it solves.

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