Some may say that an issue such as this is not my prerogative to engage — being a man, and a layman at that. Nevertheless, I will discharge my mind. And I shall be brief.
Certainly it is a minor issue compared with the major ones afflicting our Church. Yet, it is symptomatic of what are latent weaknesses in certain practicing Catholic women who may be tinged with a bit of feminism without even realizing it. Ironically, some of the very same otherwise devout women who do not cover their heads in church are critical of modernist nuns for having discarded their own veil.
Again, I am addressing practicing Catholic women who take their Sunday obligation seriously and sincerely want to adore God and receive Him reverently in Holy Communion. I am not addressing those who have no scruple receiving Communion in the hand. If a woman has no problem doing the latter then, obviously, she will dismiss the former as passé.
My wife, who is ten years younger than me, explained to me that Catholic women her age were told in the 1970s (in her case from the pulpit) that Rome no longer requires women to wear a veil or mantilla in church. And that is true. The 1917 Code of Canon Law that mandated the wearing of a veil (or other head covering) for women in church, has been abrogated by the 1983 new Code, which has nothing on the subject. All prior disciplinary laws, therefore, that are not in the new Code are no longer in effect: “Can. 61. When this Code goes into effect, the following are abrogated:1. the Code of Canon Law promulgated in 1917; etc.” Specifically, in the 1970s, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith did issue a decree, Inter Insigniores, which stated: “[I]t must be noted that these ordinances, probably inspired by the customs of the period, concern scarcely more than disciplinary practices of minor importance, such as the obligation imposed upon women to wear a veil on their head (1 Cor 11:2-16); such requirements no longer have a normative value.”
“Normative value”? Well, in that they are no longer related to a norm or standard (which by the time the Holy Office decree was issued was the case) that much is true. However, neither was there any prohibition of wearing the veil. That would have been difficult to justify in light of First Corinthians. The question is: Why was wearing the veil in church no longer normative in the 70s? One may well ask: Why were so many other good traditions, complementing and nourishing piety, no longer normative after the post-Vatican II liturgical revolution? One could make a list. Did women just start giving in to peer pressure, “since no one else is wearing a veil, why should I?” Many straddlers simply did not want to appear to be “different.” The holier than thou complex I suspect. Nevertheless, when it is time for a girls’ First Communion, mothers still (thank God) put a white veil on the child’s head in honor of the Holy occasion. So, too, do Catholic brides still wear a veil at their wedding.
Refusal of women to don a veil in church is a western phenomenon for the most part. When you see photos of women in church in the East, Near East and Far East, they are veiled. This is so in the Eastern Rites and in the Latin Rites, both in the Extraordinary Form and the Ordinary. It is the norm in the East. For that matter, women, Christian or not, have from time immemorial (until modern times) covered their heads outside the home. Although in Eastern Europe (i.e., Poland, Russia, and Ukraine), women use a shawl or head scarf rather than a veil, the covering of the hair in church is so common as to be the custom everywhere, even though in the eastern rite canons it is no longer obligatory.
Is it merely national culture? Partly. And so what if it is? It’s part of Catholic culture too. And it is a good thing. A man, on the other hand, uncovers his head in church as a sign of his respect for the divine Presence. Is there any culture in the world where this is not the custom in religious services? What a scoundrel a man would be to refuse to take off his hat when entering a church! Defiant Communists in China wore their red-starred caps in churches to mock the faithful, while performing other blasphemous outrages. These were of course atheists. Buddhist men uncover their heads in their temples. On the other hand, Jewish men, at least the Orthodox and Reformed branches, cover their heads with a yarmulke in the synagogues, although some Jewish exegetes claim that this custom was introduced for laymen only in the 17th century and that on account of the Talmudic prohibition not to imitate the heathen customs.
Let’s cut to the chase.
For if a woman be not covered, let her be shorn. But if it be a shame to a woman to be shorn or made bald, let her cover her head” (1 Cor.:11:6).
I am certain that any devout Catholic woman would affirm with the Church that the Bible is inspired by God. Therefore, what is written here by the hand of Saint Paul is divinely inspired. And the Church has always maintained this discipline for women (as well as that of keeping silence in church — 1 Cor.:14:34). That is, up until the liturgical revolution post Vatican II.
Saint Paul explains why women ought to cover their heads in verses 7-10, continuing with the passage just quoted: “The man indeed ought not to cover his head, because he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of the man. For the man is not of the woman, but the woman of the man. For the man was not created for the woman, but the woman for the man.Therefore ought the woman to have a power over her head, because of the angels.”
I have seen women smirk — I am referring to practicing Catholic women — with the reading of these verses.
Saint John Chrysostom is not unique among the Fathers of the Church in noting that the veil is a “sign of subjection” to the man, as Saint Paul clearly teaches, in that Eve came from Adam and was to be his helper and mate, as well as the mother of his children.
“Because of the angels!”
The holy angels are present at Mass. They take note of the reverence and modesty of the worshipers. The exterior sign of a woman’s humility as well as her modesty in covering the glory of her hair is pleasing to God, the angels, and, especially, each faithful woman’s guardian angel.
Saints Ambrose, Anselm, and Thomas Aquinas interpret “angels” in this verse as the priests and bishops, the latter of whom are called “angels” in the Apocalypse.
A man uncovers his head in church because, as Saint Paul says, “he is the glory of God.” It would be a distraction to elaborate from the Fathers concerning this verse; suffice it to say that, as Cornelius a Lapide notes, “[M]an is the image of the glory of God, or the glorious image of God, in whom the majesty and power of God shine forth most clearly. He is placed on the topmost step in nature, and is as it were God’s vicegerent, ruling everything.” The glory of God then ought to be manifest in the man and hidden in the woman, especially during the holy sacrifice. If someone objects that a priest or bishop has his head covered when he enters the church for the liturgy, be it noted that he removes his biretta or mitre for the holy ritual. The biretta and mitre, let me add, are symbols of the priestly office. The mitre, in fact, goes back to the attire mandated for the priestly function in the Old Testament.
In a certain sense, the woman participates in the liturgy in a more visible way than the layman because her veil is an outward sign, not, of course, as part of the rubrics, but certainly as her part in the ceremony which includes so many other visible signs performed by all the worshiping faithful.
Protestants, as we know, have no liturgy, no divine Presence. Even still, the principal heresiarchs of the Revolt, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Wesley, and Knox, all kept the biblical mandate for female head covering. This changed somewhat in the early twentieth century in the Anglophone West. Veils were deemed too Catholic. So, leave it to the Protestants to find a solution: bonnets. But that was only for a time. Now they rarely even wear hats during their services, except perhaps at Easter time. Amish and Mennonite women still wear a long, tied in the back, kerchief head covering by rule. Today, Bible begone, Catholic women have joined with Protestant women in baring their heads in church.
Why is this important liturgically?
Prescinding from First Corinthians, the woman is a figure of Our Lady. Our Lady is almost always veiled in art, as she was in life. Women should do their best to imitate Mary especially in their modest dress at all times. In church, “because of the angels.” There are two points I need to make here. They are liturgically related:
First, there is the tabernacle.
Tabernacles are covered with a veil. In the Old Testament, the tabernacle, or Holy of Holies, was separated from every other place in the temple by a gigantic veil. So, in the New Holy of Holies, (the Sanctuary), the Tabernacle is veiled. The veil symbolizes Our Lady. As Our Lady’s Heart was rent on Calvary, the veil of the tabernacle in the temple was ripped in two by an angel when Jesus died.
There is more to ponder.
It is written in Jeremias and in capital letters: “[T]he Lord hath created a new thing upon the earth: A WOMAN SHALL COMPASS A MAN.” (31:22). And, again, “ [H]e that made me, rested in my tabernacle” (Ecclesiasticus 24:12). Even when we pray the Hail Mary, Mary compasses Jesus, for she is invoked before and after the Holy Name. Therefore, she is the Veil of the Tabernacle; she is the door through which we pass to Jesus: Ad Jesum per Mariam.
Second, only a woman can imitate Mary in this way. She is veiled in honor of the Veil of the Tabernacle. A woman hides her beauty under a veil, for, especially in God’s House, “All the glory of the king’s daughter is within in golden borders” (Psalm 44:14). “O Lord,” the priest prays at the Lavabo: “I have loved the Beauty of thy House, the place where thy glory dwelleth” (Psalm 25:8). Many holy commentators attribute this verse to Mary. And how wonderful that is!
Finally, as an aside: How is it that even to visit the pope, who, although the Vicar of Christ, is a sinner, a woman wears a veil and then, before God Himself, she does not? Melania Trump, God bless her, wore a modest black dress and a black veil when she accompanied her husband to greet Pope Francis. Even Michele Obama did the same, and so did Laura Bush. Mrs. Trump, granted, is Catholic, but the only other Catholic First Lady was Jacqueline Kennedy, who, by the way, not only wore black with a mantilla for her private audience with Pope John XXIII in 1962, but genuflected before him and kissed his ring. (When John, as president, met with Paul VI a year later he did not kiss the pope’s ring but gave him a hearty handshake.) Even Elizabeth II, the Queen of England, wore black and was veiled when she met Popes John XXIII and John Paul II. When she visited Pope Francis she at least wore a hat, a blue one. I think I have made my point.
More important than the chapel veil issue is that of the brown scapular. How few practicing Catholics, men or women, wear the brown scapular! This is tragic indeed. What an insult to the mercy and generosity of the Mother of God! And what is the excuse given by some practicing Catholic women, especially younger ones, for not wearing the brown scapular? It’s unsightly! Yes, I am sure many of you have heard that, or certainly many mothers have heard it, from their daughters. Seems that, in their vanity, they would rather exhibit their scapulae than wear a scapular.
Well, that is an issue for another time.