The Symptom of Irreverence: Declining Dress Codes and the Modern Worldview

“Irreverence at Mass is not the problem. It’s the symptom of the problem.” – Fr. Dwight Longenecker


Reverence = Deep respect for someone or something.

Every Sunday at Mass I see a mix of parishioners worshiping. I say “mix” because we come from all walks of life. Some are rich and some poor, some are more educated and some less so, some are there alone and some are with their families, and a variety of ethnicities are represented too. I also see a mix of clothing choices. A few are dressed up in their Sunday best, most are dressed in rather drab everyday clothing, and some come in clothing more suited to playing video games with one’s friends or watching a sporting event on television with a bowl of chips on one’s lap. I often see team jerseys, untucked shirts, yoga pants, bedhead hair, grown men in denim shorts, etc. And some regulars even look like tourists off the bus. (This is certainly far more common in the Novus Ordo Mass than the TLM, in my experience.)

We now live in a slob culture. The way most Americans dress, whether it’s for school, work, or church is fundamentally slobbish. [Full disclosure: I too am a slob. Even my dress up clothes are not all that nice.] Take a look at old pictures and you will see men everywhere dressed in nice shirts, ties, shiny shoes, sport coats and slacks, or suits. Consider the radical 1960’s. That was the time of throwing off convention. Right? Even then you see students so much better dressed than they are today.

Students protesting during the 1964–65 academic year on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley. Women in dresses and skirts, men in suits and ties.

Even in the mid-1960’s, not all that long ago, and even at a secular university doing secular things, students still believed they had to uphold their dignity as human beings in how they dressed.

Or consider this image below from the Apollo Mission Control Center in 1972. Even as recent as this picture was taken I don’t see a single man without a collared shirt and tie. That was routine then.


I know I don’t need to show any pictures of how people dress today. Untucked t-shirts, shorts, and flip-flops are now considered acceptable for many office jobs, especially in the tech industry. Hawaiian shirts and baggy jeans are even considered appropriate for Evangelical pastors on Sunday morning. Tight and ripped pants, untied tennis shoes, and offensive t-shirt graphics are typical in many schools. I know you’ve seen it all many times.

We take all this in stride. Most people would even think it strange to make anything of it. In fact many would defend their slobbishness as not slobbishness at all. “What do you mean?! This is fine.” The truth is, we have trouble making wise judgements. We just can’t see it. The dignity of human beings has been like the frog slowly dying in the pot of water that has very slowly come to a boil. Our dignity is cooked.

Enlightenment Modernism is our worldview. It is the religion of the West. I posit that the gradually increasing and pervasive slobishness of our culture has resulted from the modernist changes to our anthropology. What we believe about what a human being is has everything to do with how and what we do with ourselves and others, and with the kinds of cultures we create. As modern society has devalued man, a devaluation that emerged out of the “loss” of human transcendence brought about by the Enlightenment (and probably earlier), and thus the loss of his God-imageness, man has become nothing more than an intelligent animal or a non-mysterious collection of atoms. Therefore, we have nothing to celebrate or uphold when we dress ourselves. Is this not the evidence we see around us?

And yet, do we not expect royalty to dress like royalty? We are children of the King. But we dress ourselves as slobs. That this is all too often expressed at Mass is all the more troubling.

We are not only made in God’s image, again we are also sons and daughters of the King. At Mass the King, our Lord and Savior, is truly before us, truly present with us. We come to worship our God and King. We are subjects in the Kingdom of Heaven. We are Christ’s body. How should we behave? How should we dress?

The real problem is, of course, not how we dress. To riff on the quote from Fr. Longenecker at the beginning of this post, our slobbishness is merely a symptom of the problem. If we Catholics dress like slobs at Mass, and if that is a symptom of a deeper problem, then what is that problem?

Some Catholics ready for Mass in a different time.

Perhaps we need to ask ourselves if we really believe “this stuff.” Are we really fully Catholic if we say in our actions that we don’t believe some of the Church’s most fundamental, most basic beliefs–like the basic anthropology that we are made in God’s image? Do we actually, truly believe we are made in God’s image? Do we believe we are God’s children? Do we believe we are now royalty through the saving work of Christ? Do we believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist?

Do we?

Final word: I believe the Traditional Latin Mass inherently, by its very form and structure, makes more evident the need for proper reverence, and therefore places appropriate demands on the individual to dress more in line with his nature. Thus, does it not make sense that one significant antidote to the culture disease of slobbishness is the re-establishment of the TLM throughout the land?

Beauty and Reverence and Discipleship

fishermen Recently I wondered about what might a parish do to grow its numbers of active members and to increase monetary giving. We tend to gravitate towards what we find valuable. That wondering was prompted by a previous post on Beauty and the Mass. In both posts I suggested that a re-focusing on beauty and reverence at the Mass, particularly in light of the fact of the Real Presence (Christ, who as our King and Lord and Savior, is really there, present, with us) and all that means, or should mean, to us. But I want to take a step back. Though I thoroughly believe what I wrote, I am realizing more and more that what I am suggesting, though good, may be also be too much about the surface of things. At least I don’t want to convey it’s about external actions and the “prettiness” of things. This is not to say “let’s not have beauty or reverence until we deal with deeper things,” but I do want to call out that we must also (let’s say firstly) deal with the deeper things, namely our personal relationship with Christ. In order to truly (and properly) love the Mass, we must first love Christ. We must be His disciples. [Note: It is arguable that Beauty is not a lesser thing, in that it is one of the transcendentals, and thus an aspect of God. And reverence does seem to go hand-in-hand with a right understand of God.] Perhaps we should see beauty and reverence as flowing naturally from authentic discipleship, and then those things will be powerful calls to discipleship in others. Seek discipleship first, then beauty will beckon beauty, and reverence will beckon reverence, and both will beckon more disciples. I suppose it’s all of a piece. This was brought home to me via this talk given by Sherry Weddell at one of the recent Steubenville Conferences. (What the video below and the image at the top will make more sense.) Weddell is the author of the excellent book “Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus”. She does not talk about beauty and reverence, but her thoughts on discipleship made me realize that a parish without enthusiastic discipleship in its DNA will shrivel and perhaps die. And yet, and yet… the presence of beauty and reverence just may first call forth seekers to become disciples – those seekers who have ears to hear and eyes to see if only there is beauty and reverence before them. Thus, seek fervently to be true disciples, but do not wait for beauty and reverence.