Bare shoulders and barren hearts

If you follow the tempests that froth over Twitter’s teapot on the regular, you may have seen the teeth-gnashing inspired by this Catholic priest’s tweet about a female parishioner’s shoulders:

Tweet by Catholic priest

He’s since been run off Twitter. His antagonists employed two predictable lines of attack: 1) Naked lady shoulders are not the sex scandal Catholic priests ought to be focused on; and 2) How dare you suggest women are responsible for the lewd thoughts of men?

Since it’s not my purpose here, I’ll note in passing that neither critique is reasonable. Regarding the first, we have every reason to believe, given his statements on other matters, that the good father favors harsh penalties for pederast priests and their protectors, including preventative measures that conflict with the LGBTQ sympathies of his detractors.

Regarding the second, one has only to visit any neighborhood bar on a Saturday night to see that many women believe they have some influence over men’s sexual thoughts, else they’d wear more comfortable clothing. That’s not to suggest that women are responsible for the actions of men, but that’s not what the priest was saying. He was asking that churchgoing women have mercy on men who might be distracted from their contemplation of God by alluring get-ups.

So as you can see, I was inclined to support this priest, but instead his words got stuck in my craw. I mean, on the one hand, I am precisely the kind of weak-minded man he wants to protect. Ample breasts in a low-cut blouse, a thong strap protruding over a skirt’s waistband—believe me, if there’s anything lurid to be noted, my lizard brain is going to catalog it.

Yet on the other hand, well, that’s my daily existence. At least in church I have the juxtaposition of holiness and degradation. I see myself for what I am. I experience the grace of God which is poured out on any one of us where we are, despite who we are.

But that’s not really it, either. I think his admonition bothers me because it’s so, well, 90’s evangelical youth group culture. I mean, if you’re a Catholic priest, you believe (as we Orthodox Christians believe) that you are handling the body and blood of Christ. You believe you are in the presence of God and a host of heavenly angels. I don’t mean symbolically. I mean you affirm your conviction that they are right by-God there, and they are not amused by your trivial bullshit.

The affront of immodest dress in church isn’t that some dude might get an erection (which, let’s be honest, if bare shoulders are going to rev your engine, you’ve got way deeper trouble the other 110 waking hours of your week, and you really ought to consider counseling or perhaps a monastery). The affront stems from the fact that a lot of us believe we are literally standing in the presence of God. Which means you put on something decent, or at the very least try not to look like you’re on the Saturday night prowl in your local bar. If you’re a man, you wear long pants like a man. You spit out your gum. You shut your damn mouth and pay attention.

In other words, unless you oversee a miraculous church where all the men are dressed respectfully, and parents have their kids under control, and nobody is whispering or looking at his phone, well then, don’t limit your tweet to the bare-shoulders lady. Lay on, MacDuff. Speak some hellfire truth to indifference. Because if she’s not comporting herself like she believes she’s coming into the presence of God, I guaran-damn-tee you a lot of other folks aren’t, either. And singling her out just makes it sound like your audience is the people in the pews. God knows there are enough churches that really believe that, but there’s no need to follow suit.

And the thing is, if we cultivate that sensibility—if we really live and speak and behave as if we believe with all our hearts that we are in the presence of the all-powerful God, we’re not pondering bare shoulders, we’re approaching the barren heart. We’re in the territory where lives get transformed. Where people are drawn to the Church not by clever tweets or dress codes, but because its inhabitants are lights on a darkened plain.

I’m probably not saying anything the good priest doesn’t already know. As with most things here, I direct them outward, but the person who most needs to hear them is me.


  1. Doug

    I once went to a church that was mostly doctrinally sound but was very much vested in their bowling shirt and Birkenstock look. I was in a coat and tie, which is what I always wear to church for the reasons you state. A member of the church (dressed of course in bowling shirt and Birkenstocks) nicely said to me in the hallway, “you know you do not have to dress up on our account”. I just as nicely replied, “I am not dressed up on your account, I just figure that if Christ can hang on a cross for me, the least I can do is put on a coat and tie for him”. His mouth opened, but nothing came out and we both walked away. It is not my nature to usually respond to an otherwise nice and probably well meaning person like that, but I have to say that I have never regretted my response.

  2. Anonymous

    “Bare Shoulders and Barren Hearts” is so good. I especially loved that you ended it with a sentence indicating that we each need to take a look in the mirror, so to speak.(Your writing gift always blows my mind, by the way.)
    A long, long time ago, I chose to become Catholic as a young teenage girl. The parish was pretty small and lightly attended one Saturday evening mass that I’ll never forget.
    I adored our priest, as he’d given me personal instruction to become Catholic. He was brilliant, kind, had a dry humor, and I respected him.
    This particular Saturday, he stood silently before the pulpit for a few moments at the very beginning of mass, clearly agitated. Then he burst forth in a brief, but clearly angry and bitter tone, about “a poor boy in Madison, Wisconsin that was convicted of rape of a young woman who’d been scantily clad…” Then he lectured on the responsibility of young women to dress appropriately for Mass.
    It took me a few minutes to realize he was talking about ME. I was horrified. I was the ONLY young woman at that Mass, and I wanted the floor to open up and swallow me. I WAS wearing a tight shirt. I was 16 years old, and I was both aware and innocent at the same time about my shirt, to be honest. I was just learning about the power that a woman holds over young men if she dresses a certain way. I’d had a check in my heart about wearing said shirt, but I wore it thinking no one would notice. I never expected the priest to notice, though.
    In this culture, we are not allowed to say that women should take responsibility for how we dress. I absolutely don’t think a woman should EVER be raped for any reason, but I do think every woman is quite aware as she is purchasing or putting on sexy clothes at the effect she even HOPES it will have, if she is honest. I try to do that for my husband AT HOME.
    That priest humiliated me. But I did learn that I needed to take responsibility for how I dress. This is such an unpopular notion…we live in a time when some women want it both ways. “Look but don’t touch. It’s the MAN’S fault if he can’t control his erection over my shirt.” Well.

    Personal responsibility is up to me. We are all flawed in need of a Savior.
    Though I have not been a Catholic for a long time, I want to be clear that I don’t see them as one big group of men who are especially flawed and horrible. Aberrant sexual behavior knows no specific denomination.
    That being said, my priest is long dead and gone, but I saw his name on a list a few months ago of priests who had sexually abused teenage boys. Now, I see his calling me out that Saturday night as being more about his personal issues, rather than my shirt. But It was a good lesson for me about taking personal responsibility.

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