Dressing like a Catholic

Is there a Catholic way to dress? Well, there’s no Catholic uniform (at least apart from school plaid). An early Christian of the second century said as much when writing a letter to Diognetus: “With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, [Christians] follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.” I have heard people take this sentiment too far, however, by saying, “God doesn’t care about what I wear.” To dress like a Catholic is not about dressing one particular way; it entails allowing faith to guide our choice in clothing.  

Catholic culture is a way of life shaped by faith at the center, that allows it to permeate and transform everything that we do. Charity should form our choices to make them an offering to God and an opportunity to love our neighbors. Nothing, therefore, should be left out of how we live as Christians, including seemingly little details like how we dress. Even if there is no Christian uniform, we still communicate who we are by what we wear. Our clothing can and should honor God, reflect our dignity, and convey respect and charity to others.  

Following the customs of the surrounding culture, however, as the letter to Diognetus described, has become more and more difficult. Rather than dressing in one particular way, Christians have to discern carefully whether or not the clothing presented by our culture as fashionable or normal truly represents our human dignity and is appropriate to respect others. Although it is often uncomfortable to talk about modesty, it is a necessary conversation, because we need to dress with dignity to guard our own purity and that of others. Certain fashions should be rejected as too provocative, casual, or attention-getting. We also have to think about setting — what is worthy of wearing to church or to create the right disposition for learning, work, or recreation? 

The need for modesty does not take away the opportunity for clothes to express positively who we are and our state in life. A recent book caught my attention in this regard, and my wife, Anne, helped me to unpack it, as it is addressed particularly to women: Nicole M. Caruso’s Worthy of Wearing (Sophia Institute, 2021). Having worked in the fashion industry in New York, Caruso continued to deepen her thinking about clothing as a mother, reflecting on the innocence and joy of her daughter Cecilia. More than a book, she explains, “Worthy of Wearing is a mindset, a thought process that reminds us … that we are precious in God’s eyes and that we are worthy of wearing the things that make us feel beautiful. We owe it to ourselves to dress in a what fills us with joy, suits our body, and matches our vocation and lifestyle” (ix).  

Caruso’s book helps us to think about clothes in relation to faith but also goes deeper in exploring Catholic femininity. The reflection questions, focused on the themes of “Where am I called?” “Uncover your fears,” and “Be set free,” invite the reader to reflect back on past experiences and to imagine greater freedom and expression, including forming an action plan. The layout of the book itself provides additional inspiration with beautiful layout and photography capturing the author’s family and friends. The book invites women into a process of discernment, guided by the author’s own experiences, reflecting on who they are and how clothes fit into expressing themselves and their womanhood.  

The book maintains the balance between seeing clothes as a personal expression and understanding the need for virtue to guide our choices. On the first point, Caruso explains: “That’s what style is: the way you adorn yourself within various contexts to express who you are uniquely, boldly, and unapologetically. It is a method of getting dressed, presenting your appearance, and telling your story without speaking. Style means intentionally choosing clothing that speaks to your mission, fuels your confidence, and creates connections with others by offering a little peek of who you are. In this way, style is more edifying than fashion” (86).  

Speaking of the difficult issue of modesty, Caruso also offers some commonsense guidance: “When it comes to modesty, I like to keep in mind a simple question: ‘Is my behavior or my clothing distracting?’ Our behavior and dress can amplify or detract from the wholeness of who we are in Christ: persons worthy of love, with unique gifts and talents, made to change hearts and spend eternity in Heaven. A low-cut dress can distract someone from your incredible talents, just as the way you gossip can distract someone from your virtue. Your unbridled anger might prevent someone from understanding the difficulties you face. We can even distract ourselves by wearing clothing that misrepresents who we are or simply does not fit our body or way of life” (99-100). She also gives practical tips, such as dressing for each season and for one’s locale, tips for building a wardrobe, and shopping with intention.  

Reclaiming our culture for Christ is a big task. For us, however, each day presents us with little opportunities to use all that we do to give glory to God. Clothing is no exception, as we make it an expression of our dignity and respect for others.  

COMING UP: Moral courage and the many cultures of death

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CRACOW. Thanks to the pandemic, it’s been two years since I was last in Cracow, where for three decades I’ve done extensive research and taught great students while forming friendships with many remarkable people. It was wonderful to be back in one of the world’s greatest cities, and soon after I arrived in late June, I took a long walk to see what had changed. The first major difference I noticed was that the plaza in front of the central railway station (named for my late friend Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, a World War II courier for the Polish Home Army and the man from whom the future John Paul II got real news via Radio Free Europe’s Polish service) has a new, strikingly modern memorial, dedicated to the memory of Colonel Ryszard Kukliński.

That name is not well-known throughout a western world that has largely forgotten the meaning and lessons of the Cold War. But if Jan Nowak-Jeziorański was right when he spoke about the Polish colonel in the mid-1990s, Ryszard Kuklinski was a genuine hero of the long, twilight struggle against communist totalitarianism — the man who helped prevent a bloody Soviet invasion of Poland to crush the nascent Solidarity movement.

An accomplished officer in the communist-era Polish Army, Ryszard Kukliński began to doubt the truth of what he had been told about the West when, as a member of an international commission, he met American military men in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. His doubts about communism and its purposes intensified by orders of magnitude in 1968, when the brutal Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia ground the Prague Spring to dust under the treads of Soviet tanks, and in 1970, when the Polish army shot Polish workers during labor strife. Privy to some of the Warsaw Pact’s most confidential strategic plans, he became convinced that, if the Cold War turned hot and the east bloc attacked the West, the Soviets would sacrifice Poland as retaliatory western tactical nuclear strikes hit the second wave of Warsaw Pact troops pushing west. So, in 1972, Kukliński, risking his life and his family’s safety, offered his services to the United States and for the next nine years was the West’s most important intelligence asset behind the iron curtain.

His greatest service to Poland and the cause of freedom came in the later months of 1980. Thanks to his efforts, the United States knew the entire order-of-battle the Soviet Union had organized to stamp out Solidarity, which had held its first formal congress in September 1980. With that information, and working in concert with the incoming Reagan administration, outgoing national security adviser Zbigniew Brzeziński, with the help of the AFL-CIO’s Lane Kirkland, was able to organize a comprehensive western response to a potential Soviet invasion of Poland: an international economic blockade that would have severely damaged the already-staggering Soviet economy. Faced with economic ruin, the Soviet leadership backed down and the Warsaw Pact divisions that had surrounded Poland withdrew.

Colonel Kukliński and his family were exfiltrated to the West; two of his sons later died under dubious circumstances that may have involved Russian retribution, and Kukliński lived out his life under an assumed name in the United States, dying in 2004. There was public controversy when he returned to his native Poland for a 1998 visit, with some charging that he had violated his officer’s oath by working for American intelligence for a decade. John Paul II, through various intermediaries, quietly passed the word that Kukliński was to be regarded in Poland as a national hero. Zbigniew Brzeziński, who held the exact same view, put it brilliantly, in a comment that appears on the Kukliński Memorial in Cracow: Colonel Kukliński was “the first Polish officer in NATO.” 

Communism was a distinctive form of the culture of death, for the effort to create “Homo Sovieticus” was a lethal assault on souls. Colonel Ryszard Kukliński took a courageous stand against that particular culture of death, knowing as he did that freedom is never cost-free: freedom lived nobly always requires sacrifice. His example should be pondered by Catholic citizens and Catholic public officials throughout the West today, who are called to resist, with similar moral courage and effect, that form of the culture of death that masquerades as the ideology of “choice.” May we and our elected officials be as principled and brave as the Polish officer who took what John Paul II described at the United Nations in 1995 as the “the risk of freedom.”