Consider this article from The Anchoress, in which Elizabeth Scalia joins a host of other voices from the Catholic Blogosphere in condemning spaghetti straps, short shorts, and tight t-shirts, among other violations of the American bourgeois Christian dress code. This issue is just one of many that now has become almost a point of obsession in what I believe is an emerging hyper moralistic, neo-conservative Catholicism possible only through the Internet. The new Catholic moralism does not merely attack what it perceives as the gross immodesty of many contemporary parishioners, but has at various times set its sights on rock and roll, the Novus Ordo Mass, and handshaking during Mass, and which makes an almost painstaking conformity with (their interpretation) of every and any proclamation originating from ecclesiastical sources one of the most fundamental marks of true Catholicism.
The truth is, there is much to be commended in such a crusade. In many ways, today's Catholics, especially the younger to middle aged Catholics more familiar with technology, the Internet provides a method of seeking communion with other Catholics who are not impressed with the more liberal direction the Church has often taken in the recent American past. There is no doubt that there is truth behind their objections, and most importantly their objections and concerns indicate a genuine interest in the preservation of a genuine Catholic culture, something that is in danger of becoming an almost non entity in the public and popular sphere.
Yet there is also a danger to the inanity of certain aspects of the crusade, a danger that results from the new insular nature of the Catholic blogosphere. By sequestering into an online enclave capable of mutually reinforcing rants about everything from flip flops to a scrupulous level of concern over the perfect form of confession to worries about less-than-ideal liturgical celebrations, the entire programme risks more than irrelevance: it risks an insidiously deformed vision of Catholicism and a disordered sense of the most important battles against the culture of death. Not only is condemning (mostly young female) parishioners for wearing the most widely available, most current, and most popularly ingrained styles to Church likely to be a failed crusade more probably resulting in the loss of their interest in an increasingly condemning environment, but it errs in two other ways as well: the recognition that modesty is always to a great extent a culturally determined concept and secondly the recognition that Catholicism is the religion of the masses. When it comes to Catholicism, "here comes everybody."
We would not expect an African tribeswoman to observe the standards of dress as a Victorian widow. There are areas of the world in which going topless is considered completely normal (often not only for purposes of comfort but for the utility of breastfeeding; an often neglected part of the culture of death is a war on breastfeeding which manifests itself in the ironic labeling of breastfeeding as an immodest act). Our culture, too, has norms about what is appropriate, although these norms are in constant flux. You will get no argument from me that much of the western proclivity towards less covering is not so much motivated by environmental or parenting considerations as a movement towards the over-sexualization of every aspect of life. But at the same time, the new cultural norms are so ingrained that to an extent it is not even a sign of immodesty for a woman to attend Mass wearing a short skirt and spaghetti strap: it is merely a sign that she has purchased the latest fashion. And while it is rather easy for us to compare our current dress with the vogue of the fifites (or, more likely, the late 1800's) and wag our finger at the change, we might just as well wag them at the bust raising corsets of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Furthermore, the concern over standards of dress at religious occasion is primarily bourgeois in nature: Church becomes a primarily social event in which attendees must conform to particular expected norms of dress, behavior, attitude, and demeanor, and in which failure to conform results in, at the very least, being subject to a thorough "looking down the nose." More regularly, it may result in explicit condemnation and provide an occasion for those who abide by the expectation to reaffirm for themselves their own goodness. But as I have already mentioned, there is the genuine possibility that these "immodest young women" are not by any means intending any disrespect to the proceedings: it may be the case that they are actually wearing some of their best clothing, clothing which happens to form to a style no longer in conformity with the expected standards.
Of course, this is probably only a concern in a few Churches in any case. But whereas before the invention of the Internet, those few zealous and sincere if possibly overly moralistic watch hounds would be mostly confined to their local parish, they now have the capability of banding together and condemning spaghetti-strap-wearing Catholic women all over the country. This has resulted in a false sense of what I like to call hyper-Catholicism, a self-appointed enclave whose imagined jurisdiction covers the face of the earth.
Furthermore, it draws much attention and effort away from true calamities. Abortion, war, disease, economic exploitation, poverty, lack of access to health services, and so forth are regular fare for the human race, and the faith must still grapple with the challenge of scientism as well as the ever changing existential struggles of postmodernity. In such an environment, concern over flip flops becomes not quaint, but downright inane. If the world wants to walk around topless, all it would mean is that half the allure of sins like pornography would probably be gone, especially if it were coupled with a society-wide insight among believer and non-believer alike that the breasts are primarily for nurturing the young, not for sexual fetishism. But the struggle against meaninglessness and violence would still be one of the most important social missions for the Church, and the spreading of the Gospel of peace might trump the concerns of pietistic moralism.