Question: Not too many years ago women were required to wear hats or veils in Catholic churches. When did this change and why?
Answer: The topic of women’s head coverings sometimes evokes strong feelings among traditional Catholics and Orthodox and observant Jews, and similarly strong feelings among those who feel that the traditional practice is a form of patriarchal domination. This answer is not intended to upset anyone, and there is some room for discussion on the issue.
The 1917 Code of Canon Law included the following:
The 1983 Code has no similar provision, but, obviously, the lack of a specific rule does not allow men or women to be disrespectful or immodest. The question then becomes, “How do we show respect and modesty in our dress”?
Clothing, including hats, serves a number of purposes—to protect from the environment; to preserve or to gainsay modesty; signify one’s feelings; beautify; denote marital status, social status, occupation or affiliation; and signify respect—perhaps there are others. The function of protecting from the environment is instinctive, but the rest are in some way dependent on cultural development. A man dressed in blue with a silver star on his breast may not be perceived as a police officer everywhere in the world; the Catholic schoolgirl’s dress may seem prudish in a society where everyone wears “cutoffs” but immodest where all the women wear floor length burquas; some cultures mourn in black, others in white, yellow, red, or purple.[i] And even the cultural use of clothing is somewhat regulated by the environment—the modest woman’s clothing or the policeman’s uniform of the steaming tropics is not that same as that of the sub-arctic or the desert.
The Jewish tradition (but not the Scripture) which gave birth to Christianity “regards bareheadedness as a form of nakedness, and nudity as one of pagan indecencies and an infraction of propriety in worship. The word הודצ (nakedness) connotes shameful exposure, indecency, as well as improper behavior in general.... it appears that the sages did not walk four steps with an uncovered head.”[ii] Not only did the men cover their heads, but the married women as well: “Traditional Judaism considers the hair of a married woman erotic. As a result, married Jewish women are generally expected to cover their hair, except in front of her husbands, and sometimes in the company of other women. For most of Jewish history this practice was not disputed - mainly because society at large also considered it immodest for women to let their hair down in its city streets.”[iii] The desert dwellers of the Holy Land region—both men and women—are even more fully clothed and veiled than their Jewish counterparts, for in the desert modesty and protection from the elements go hand in hand, and the extremely low humidity makes both comfortable.[iv]
In Scripture the question of head coverings in church appears only in Saint Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians:
If there is any innovation here, it is in the idea that, contrary to Jewish tradition, men are supposed to pray and prophesy with their heads uncovered. It is not at all clear that Saint Paul intends his directions to be restricted to the formal assembly of the Church. He does discuss some problems which need to be corrected in the Corinthians’ worship in the remaining verses of chapter eleven and on through fourteen—but in fourteen, he explicitly forbids women to speak in church, so his direction to women in chapter eleven seems to speak to praying and prophesying at home, where they might have normally have gone without a head cover.[v]
If we look at them in the light of Church practice, the “praying or prophesying” in question would seem to be prayer or prophecy publicly expressed. All of the clergy wear head coverings in church at least some of the time. The biretta, a medieval development of the cowl, is worn by the clergy when seated, taking part in processions, and in performing acts of jurisdiction (e.g. hearing confessions or receiving the profession of faith of a convert).[vi] Monks and friars wear the older cowl or hood in place of the biretta. The mitre is worn by prelates, even while standing at the altar—but is removed when the prelate is praying—at the orations of the Mass, Office, and Sacraments; during the canon; and when reciting the sacramental forms for ordination.[vii] So, “praying or prophesying” has a rather specific meaning. One suspects that Saint Paul would have found nothing wrong with the hooded monk in choir or the bareheaded woman at home privately praying the Rosary.
Saint Paul’s “ordinances, as he delivered them” to the Corinthians seem intended, above all, to preserve the hierarchy which includes God, Christ, angels, men, and women. Now “hierarchy” is a word which makes many twenty-first century people uncomfortable—they take it to denote some form of unjust oppression of the weak by the strong, of the poor by the rich, or of women by men. As saint Paul would have used the word, however, it simply means an appropriate ordering of God and His creatures. In the very same epistle, Paul tells us that the rights of husband and wife are reciprocal.[viii] In his letter to the Ephesians, he further explained that “wives are subject to their husbands as to the Lord; a husband is head of the wife just as Christ is head of the Church.” But, reciprocally, “husbands must love their wives, just as Christ loved the Church and delivered Himself up for Her.... the two shall become one flesh. This is a great mystery—I mean in reference to Christ and to the Church.”[ix]
Saint Paul’s reference to husbands “delivering themselves up” for their wives may seem a bit out of date. Modern technology has made it possible for women to do many of the things necessarily reserved to men in earlier times. Few modern men are prepared to kill “the wolf at the door,” and women have become a common sight in commerce and industry. But maybe it is time to reevaluate the wisdom of this new found egalitarianism. Certainly, it has taken our culture far beyond the bonds of legitimate marriage, to sin and to consequent societal decay. Fatherless families, illegitimate children, venereal disease, and broken homes are among the obvious consequences. The two career household, almost universal today, has great incentive to contraception and even abortion. And how can we say that we love even our 1.3 children if we have attempted to prevent them and their siblings as though they were a disease?
Vatican II to the contrary notwithstanding, the primary purpose of marriage is the procreation and education of children—something Western civilization has been severely neglecting for the past fifty years—and which is bringing us rapidly to the brink of extinction. According to UN data. “The top ten cities in the world are gradually becoming less Christian, declining from 37.9% in 2005 to 31.6% by 2025.”[x]
Wearing hats or not, of course, did not cause Western civilization to stop having children. But the failure to recognize that everyone has an appropriate position in God’s hierarchy has resulted in both: men and women reluctant to take up the responsibilities of rearing a family; and men and women unwilling to show proper respect for each other and for God and His angels. Saying that something is appropriate for one sex or the other is not in any way a suggestion that one is inferior to the other. To quote Saint John Chrysostom:
Saint John Chrysostom, and many others who addressed the question of women’s head coverings did so with the question of modesty firmly in mind. The veil of the consecrated virgins and widows, and that of the married women, indicated that all of these women were “off limits” to those seeking wives. As we saw in a past article, the early Church generally had men and women worship in separate sections of the church to avoid distraction and temptation.[xii] Although the 1917 Code of Canon Law recommended continuing this practice, it fell into disuse in many places even before Vatican II. Nonetheless, it is inconceivable that good Catholic men and women would intentionally tempt each other through purposefully immodest dress. Yes, here in Florida we live in the tropics—but the most common complaint about the air-conditioning is that “its too cold.”
A final point must be made that, for women, the veil is part of the “Catholic identity.” Not too many years ago people could recognize Catholics, and we could recognize one another, by the customs we kept. We didn’t eat meat on Fridays, play golf on Sunday mornings, or eat treats during Lent. We made the Sign of the Cross before eating dinner, and our women folk covered their heads in church. To some degree the loss of any of these customs makes us less aware that we have been called to the practice of the unique religion which is the Catholic Faith. God help the soul who forgets that altogether.
[ii] Philip Birnbaum, A Book of Jewish Concepts, (NY: Hebrew Publishing, 1964) s.v. “Head Covering,” page 292.
[v] Cf. I Corinthians xiv: 33-35
[viii] I Corinthians vii: 4
[ix] Cf. Ephesians v: 21ff.
[x] www.gordonconwell.edu/ockenga/globalchristianity/gd/Lausanneinsert.pdf Source: World Population Prospects, 2002 Revision, United Nations; World Urbanization Prospects, 2003 Revision, United Nations; World Christian Database.