Friday, June 17, 2011

Traditionalist Thoughts on Women's Head-Coverings (with an interesting tie-in to Sola Scriptura)

One very unpopular (and thus often forgotten about) subject that has recently caught my attention is the Christian teaching on head-coverings for women. This subject is unpopular because the underlying subject matter is so repugnant to our modern culture. I have always thought the practice of head-coverings was pious and traditional, but mostly done for reasons of modesty and aesthetics. Most males are aware of how distracting and (unfortunately) tempting it can be when women dress immodestly for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. But recently I found out there was more to the practice, much more, which touched upon very relevant theological matters.

The practice of women wearing head-coverings goes all the way back to the earliest days of the Church. Though I was aware that St Paul spoke on the practice, I didn't realize the context from which he was framing his lesson was theological.
This is what St Paul says in 1st Corinthians 11:3ff,
3 But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. 4 Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. 5 But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. 6 For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.  
7 A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. 8 For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; 9 neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10 It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12 For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.  
13 Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, 15 but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering.
Like it or not, this is the teaching of inspired Scripture. Many who are too uncomfortable with this type of talk often become Liberal, and would rather deny the inspiration of Scripture than affirm such 'sexism'. Those Christians who would not go as far as to become Liberals (at least not formally) would prefer such passages go to the dustbin of history, since they can only be reflecting a less 'sophisticated' culture at that time. But right reason will not allow this kind of phony rationalization and emotionalism, and I say this principally because St Paul framed the lesson in terms of theology and ecclesiology.

Within this text I see a direct link between Liberalism and Protestantism, since both are founded on the principle that there is no such thing as absolute subordination, since the individual ultimately has the final say and cannot be bound by anything 'above' them. Granted, 'conservative' Protestantism believes in absolute subordination in some respects, but they are ultimately inconsistent since they themselves are founded upon the rejection of absolute subordination in ecclesial matters. (When I say 'absolute' subordination, I mean that which exists in unchangeable fashion, rather than 'voluntary' subordination which only exists so long as the one submitting desires to subject themselves.)

This text also raises another interesting problem for Protestantism, particularly with Sola Scriptura: since the text plainly says women need to cover their heads within liturgical contexts, we should expect "Bible based" Protestant denominations to be doing this. But almost no Protestant bodies do this (at least in recent history), particularly most 'evangelical' (and often "low-church") denominations. Thus, they're either ignoring Scripture or forced to argue that this practice only applied to the Apostolic age. But once they argue the latter, they open themselves up to having to explain why this no longer applies, yet other related subjects (e.g. forbidding women's ordination) still apply. It becomes a slippery slope of endless compromises. The only 'escape' is to have an authoritative Church that can define such parameters. Of course, if any Protestant body wants to take this text as perpetually in force, then they open themselves up to create yet another denomination within the scandalous number already existing.

At this point a question could be raised: why don't Catholics follow these instructions? Such is a fair question, and a good segue into the true subject of this article: feminism seeking to erase the distinction between men and women's roles.

In response to that question, on one level, Catholics do follow these instructions, since the spirit of the passage is maintained. But on another level, the 'practical' (for lack of a better term), Catholic worship and piety has largely abandoned - and illicitly so, prior to 1983 - the practice, except for a few traditionalist circles. I believe this abandonment is scandalous and ultimately to our detriment, since Catholicism is founded on the Sacramental principle, which is that signs and objects are given precisely to convey very real and important theological realities. As mentioned earlier, what makes Catholicism differ from the Protestant dilemma is that in Catholicism there is an authoritative Church to not only settle controversy, but also be an indefectible fountain of eternal life for all it's members.

I believe the real problem affecting all of Christendom in this regard is feminism, which is simply an outworking of Liberalism, which in turn was simply an outworking of Protestantism. Feminism is simply a more advanced stage of the radical individualism affecting our world today, translating into the idea women should not be seen as any different or incapable than men, much less inferior to them. This often is manifested in the idea women should be in leadership roles equal to or even above men, particularly in governing and running of the household. Sadly, this mentality has taken such firm root that it has affected and influenced nearly all aspects of society, including Christianity, and it's error is so subtle that many buy into it without realizing it. But the trajectory of this line of thought has brought about disastrous results both philosophically and in practice.

Probably the most adversely affected of all is the family, since no longer does it model a mini kingdom, but rather a perpetual civil war between two rival power. The results are very sad, ranging from rampant divorce and remarriage (always hoping to find the right person to establish a non-aggression pact with), to the emasculation of the male (particularly fathers), to the rise in lesbianism and homosexuality. As the Church has always taught: as the household goes, so goes the society. This is why, as the 'stops' continue to be pulled, society is literally on the fast-track to hell. Thankfully, as the Season of Pentecost teaches us, we have the Holy Spirit to guide and protect us from all this - but we must be willing to listen and take correction.

The first step in overcoming the problem is to properly understand how things are supposed to be, and better yet why they are so. Of the three passages of Scripture that make the typical Catholic woman cringe, the least known (keeping it form being the most "offensive") is 1st Timothy 2:11-15, but I believe is a good place to begin:
11 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15 But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.
If Paul or any other individual were to say this today, they'd no doubt be branded a hate mongering misogynist. Yet cutting through the emotions and fear, this passage teaches two important lessons on why women should submit to men: (a) Adam was created first; (b) Eve was deceived first. Now are these reasons founded upon anything unfair or hateful? No, they simply reflect reality. Thus, the one who rebels against reality is in some real way rebelling against God and His decisions. Just as important is that we recognize and distinguish that Paul was saying this submission exists on two levels, a 'natural' order and a 'supernatural' order.

The 'natural' order is simply that which exists in virtue of God creating it that way: e.g. gravity makes things go 'down', grass is green rather than blue, babies comes from sexual relations. In this regard, the male, being created first, is by nature the head of the household (Gen 2:15-24). Any attempts to undermine or overturn the natural order will inevitably lead to serious problems, just as we see today. (NB: The theory of evolution is a direct, even if subtle, attack upon the natural order of Adam being created first, as is taking Genesis as myth rather than genuine history.) One will notice that in the Creation narratives, woman being 'created from man' is not derogatory in any way, and indeed despite the differences in roles they are to complement each other. Isn't it ironic and quite telling that of all the modern hype of 'celebrating diversity', there is strong resistance to celebrate the real diversity of male and female?

Next comes the 'supernatural' order, which is by definition that which 'rises above' the natural, in this case God's grace building upon and perfecting our human nature. In this regard, we see the details best by contrasting them to what was lost after Adam and Eve sinned in Eden. Genesis 3 tells of that woeful event as well as the punishments that resulted. Of particular note (Gen 3:16) is that God said there would be a disorder between man and woman, specifically in the loss of Christian affection for the husband and wife: the male would now have the inclination towards dominating his wife like an slave, while the wife would have the inclination to be insubordinate. As some good Catholic commentators have pointed out, Eve's sin was also an act of insubordination to her husband, by making such a grave choice apart from his consent. And, lastly, notice how Paul says in verse 15 women will be saved: by (re)assuming their role as mothers!

Often people conflate and confuse the natural and supernatural levels of submission, and thus fail to appropriately address the issue. This can often been seen when people say that Original Sin is the only thing keeping men and women from 'co-ruling', erasing or ignoring the reality of a submission on the natural order. In reality, salvation consists in the two fold (a) properly recognizing the permanent reality of the natural order of submission, and (b) recognizing the need for grace to fight against the disorder created from Original Sin.

I believe the best Scriptural text to consider in coming to correct the problem is the most feared (and hated) passage - though feared for false reasons - is Ephesians 5:21-ff, which says:
21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. 25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.

Now many would tear verse 21 out of context, or at least ignore certain verses while reading it, but that's not proper. The 'mutual submission' in verse 21 is that of mutual Christian love taught in verse 24a. Clearly, Paul reaffirms that wives should submit to husbands, not the other way around, nor in a way that would deny submission. Indeed, the analogy of submission is that of Christ being the head of the Church, His body. It would be nonsense to say a body does not have to submit to the head, for the head is what gives the body it's 'orders'. It would be no less nonsensical to say the head and body 'mutually submit', except on the level of respecting each other.

While this passage certainly does come off as "disrespectful" and "degrading" to modern ears, and hence why the feminist mentality hates this text (especially at weddings), looking carefully at it provides the antidote to that poison. The antidote is simply this: Christ's relation to the Church is the analogy. True Christian love, most especially within the Marriage covenant, follows that analogy. Who could dare say, be they Christian or pagan, that Christ's love for His Bride, the Church, was that of 'domination'? Instead, what we see is that of a Groom who is willing to give all for His Bride, and a Bride joyfully embracing that Groom and his love. What most women don't realize here is that if anyone has it 'good' here, it's the Bride! Someone who gives up his life for you should be worthy of all your love, and indeed that's the analogy for Christian life in general, not just the Bride to the Groom.

And now we're in a position to come full-circle, back to 1st Corinthians 11:3ff. Within that text we see clearly the two-fold natures of subordination of woman to man, which glorious truth is signified sacramentally in the head-covering at Mass. So for more than just for modesty reasons, head-coverings convey spiritual truths.

In regards to the natural order, we see an uncovered female head within the liturgy as akin to a woman going around with a haircut like a man (i.e. shaved or short) - and Paul calls such a disgrace. It is a disgrace not in that it's intrinsically sinful, but in that it obscures and causes scandal to what are different roles by nature between man and woman. This is seen especially within the feminist mindset today by the huge numbers of women getting haircuts that are short like men, even trying to look like men (and the reverse we see in the hippie mindset of men growing out long hair and 'caring for' it with special shampoos and such). This imagery brilliantly captures why feminists generally hate Christianity, yet we know this is nothing short of a rebellion on the natural level.

Unfortunately, even many Catholic women have this sort of haircut, which I believe is due to unknowingly being indoctrinated by feminist principles, even if these Catholic women none the less are faithful to the Church. This sight is especially lamentable when one sees the liberal indoctrination that hit the Church following the Second Vatican Council and involved the rush of females into every role and seat of power they could fill in the parish, all seemingly carrying that 'distinguished' feminist haircut and holding the same sentiment male 'domination'.

The supernatural order is more indirectly highlighted since Paul is already speaking within the sacramental and liturgical realm (see this amazing article regarding Paul's instructions of wearing a veil "because of the Angels"), but in brilliantly tying the natural and supernatural orders together, Paul makes yet another analogy: "I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God." The Arians and Jehovah's Witnesses will point to this and say "Jesus is inferior to God" and thus Jesus must not be Divine, but such error is apparent in recognizing the error rests in misidentifying the nature of the 'inferiority' (positively stated: 'subordination'). The nature of the subordination is in the role, not the dignity! Male and Female are created in the image and likeness of God, holding the same dignity (Gen. 1:26-27), and within the context of redemption stand as equally righteous children of God (Gal. 3:28-29). But this in no way means there cannot be different roles, especially complementary ones! Note the structure of the analogy Paul gives:
  1. Christ is head of man.
  2. Man is head of woman.
  3. God is head of Christ.
It's not too difficult to see that the man corresponds to Christ and even God the Father, but what is often missed is that woman here is also corresponded to Jesus! In other words, woman should submit to man just as Jesus submits to the Father! How can being likened to Jesus ever be an insult?! Jesus humbly submits to the Father's will in the Plan of Redemption - the most glorious submission of all! - Phil 2:5-11! Thus, the wife should take up that same mentality, gladly and humbly submit to the husband.

Sadly, even after reading this many will continue to be either angered or saddened by this truth - a truth which in reality is very liberating and satisfying in attaining our perfection in this life and in the life to come. The good news is that more and more Catholics are waking up to what the Church has always understood to be true, even if at times failed to do it's duty in proclaiming that truth. That said, ultimately it shouldn't be about law forcing women to wear the veil, but rather the woman doing it freely and for the right reasons, and thus even if not expressly commanded by Church Law that doesn't take away it's place in Scripture and Tradition, and thus it is still strongly encouraged and looked upon with favor by the Church. (Of course, this also strongly goes hand in hand with both male and females "dressing up" for Mass, along with being able to attend a reverent liturgy, but that talk is for another time.)


Brian said...

Great article, Nick.

Quick thought: People don't seem to have a problem with women covering their heads for weddings. I guess as long as it is for cosmetic reasons....

Nick said...

Hi Brian,

Thanks for your comments. I took a risk posting this article, but the main ideas encompassed in it made too much sense not to.

Randy said...

I do think head coverings will come back. As you point out, there is a lot of scripture and tradition behind it. Right now you see it discussed by Catholic women more and more. They need to lead the way. Once they do the bishops will make it a rule. I don't think they are going to do so in a climate where almost no women are doing it by choice. That would be seen as men forcing women just because they can. If it would be seen as calling women to greater piety then the bishops will go there.

Nick said...

That's a good point, things seem to be trending back in that direction, even if just slowly.

The Bishops of England already re-instated year-round Friday abstinence, which is a huge positive in recovering a Catholic identity.

Brent Stubbs said...


Your observation about the "direct command" of scripture and the seeming difficulty these scriptures make for sola scriptura was also made by Christian Smith in his book The Bible Made Impossible. I just published a review of his book over at CTC. Here's a relevant excerpt from the review that corroborates your observation:

"The examples he uses are: (1) “Greet one another with a holy kiss,” (2) “Women should remain silent in the churches,” and (3) our Lord’s instructions to wash feet (Jn. 13:14-15). Smith also points out other strange passages and extra-Biblical terminology that are essential to make the Bible “work” in the biblicist paradigm. At first glance, any student formally trained in theology can imagine a number of ways to massage away Smith’s problems with any one of the passages he cites. However, Smith’s larger argument is that to employ any one of those interpretive strategies is to exert on the text what is in fact not there. If Scripture is perspicuous and able to work-by-itself, then it should not require extensive exegesis, extra-biblical language, etc. to work out problems in texts that are direct commands. For Smith, this shows the absolute necessity for some type of agency external to the text, but Smith does not address what that implies."



Jim Paton said...

The strangest thing just happened: I was reading this post and I got to the bottom of the page to the comments, and as I started reading Brent's comment I heard a voice on TV say "Hi, and welcome to the Journey Home - tonight's guest is Brent Stubbs"

It was a tad freaky! LOL

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