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Because of the angels

· Why women were to cover their heads in church ·

Perhaps in response to the all too free behaviour of the faithful during the assemblies, Paul addressed to the young and lively community of Corinth his famous exhortation (1Cor 11:1-6) not to abandon his teachings: “Maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you”. When the canon of the Scriptures had yet to be formulated, the first Christian regulations regarding the faith, the liturgy and discipline were indeed entrusted to “tradition” and after Nicaea were followed by the conciliar formulations. In the rest of his Letter the Apostle refers to the cornerstones of the theology of the couple: it was this that gave rise to the issue of the female veil.

Wilhelm Leibl, “Three women in church”(1882)

Thus from the outset there was a problem of discipline, as the end of the passage confirms: “If anyone is disposed to be contentious, we recognize no other practice, nor do the churches of God”. Paul was seeking to rein in a community as heterogeneous and problematic as that of Corinth in situations of tension and of non-compliance that account for his severe instructions, in which he appears to place women in a subordinate position to men on the basis of a double hierarchy, both chronological (“For man was not made from woman, but woman from man”) and ontological (“Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man”). And “That is why a woman should have a veil on her head, because of the angels”.

The theological basis for these words is far more complex; it also involves the practice of prophecy and is not exempt from the networks of ritual and religious purity that converged in the customs of the first Christian communities. Moreover, Paul was a man of the Judaic tradition, educated at rabbinical schools, even though he had been born in a Hellenistic environment.

Here, however, the exegetic response of certain Church Fathers is interesting. They emphasized the issue of the subordination of women, complying for that matter with the ancient Judaeo-Hellenistic society. The most intransigent have explained the far from simple statement, “because of the angels”, as stemming from the fear of arousing the sexual inclinations of the angels who fell because they were supposed to have fallen in love with women, according to Genesis 6:4 and embroidered on later in apocryphal texts; a further guilt to be laid on the one responsible for the fall of man – man being “the image and glory of God” – whereas woman is only “the glory of man” (1 Cor 11:7).

The woman's veil, in the words of the Fathers of the Church, thus became the “burden of her constitutional submission” or her “yoke”, or the “symbol of her subjection”. Christian women, therefore, “should not only cover their head but their whole face”, imitating “those of Arabia” who can barely see through their veil with one eye.

Not all Churches in antiquity followed the same tradition, which is why the problem arose of following the custom that most closely conformed with the norms taught by God. To solve the issue of the veil Tertullian referred to the authority of the Eastern Churches: the Corinthians, after contesting Paul’s teaching, accepted and transmitted it so the other Churches were obliged to adapt to the Pauline liturgical norm. It was not long before Tertullian's catechetical treatise On the Veiling of Virgins was imposed. While tinged with Montanism, it became a reference manual for the female monastic institutions of the future, even establishing – despite its title – the norm of wearing the veil during prayer not only for virgins, but for all women, including married women (“women of the second [degree of] modesty”).

The need to give this norm the authority of the institutional Church became known in the late Liber pontificalis, in which the confirmation of the obligation for women to attend the Eucharist with their head covered is attributed to Pope Linus, obeying the specific order of his Predecessor, St Peter.

It is certain that the Pauline teaching, filtered through tradition, was reformulated at the Council of Gangra (c. 324), in which the veil was defined as “a memorial of submission”, and with an attenuated imprint was even embodied in the Codex iuris canonici of 1917 that still distinguishes between bare-headed men and women wearing the veil and modest clothing.

After the conciliar reform no specific instructions have remained. The custom, with regard to tradition, seems to have been superseded in Gaudium et spes (“The Church… is not tied exclusively and indissolubly to any…customary practice, ancient or modern”). Among the forms of discrimination this document condemns first and foremost those made “on the grounds of sex”, recognizing with regard to the fundamental rights of the person that “it is regrettable that these basic personal rights are not yet being respected everywhere, as is the case with women who are denied the chance freely to choose a husband, or a state of life, or to have access to the same educational and cultural benefits as are available to men”. There is no more room for this sign of submission whose original meaning has been all too often misinterpreted or exploited.

On Sundays, when I was a little girl, if I left my veil at home I did not dare to enter the church for fear and I missed Mass, adding one sin to another. Today I would wear that veil out of respect.

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