Male Headship in the Catholic Tradition


Since we’re on the topic of Catholic feminism, I want to take up this post that a friend recently tweeted, from the consistently interesting “Women in Theology” blog: “A Church that Changes“. The overall argument of the piece is that male headship (or, rather, male headship as signifying female subjection) in marriage was an uninterrupted, affirmed teaching of the Tradition of the Church up until St John Paul II came along (oh, Paul, what hast thou wrought!); and, therefore, that the Church can and does change its teaching related to something heretofore seen as an essential of marriage. In support of this, the author cites Augustine, Aquinas and Pope Pius XI.

Leaving aside the question of whether Church teaching should be unchanging or change (hint: the answer is “both” #faitheverancientandevernew), I think this is a very partial account of what the historic Tradition has to say about the equality (or inequality) of men and women and male headship.

The Fathers

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: it is very easy to rustle up many quotes from the Fathers (and the Medievals) about women that would make us cringe today, or that are downright misogynistic. Go to Google, they are well-highlighted there. But to say that this exhausts the teaching of the Fathers on men and women is, I think, highly misleading.

St John Chrysostom is a good example here. Chrysostom is known for his harsh criticisms of the behaviors of women in his parish and diocese, and it’s very easy to dig up cringeworthy quotes; but when Chrysostom speaks theologically about men and women, what he is primarily concerned with the shared ontological unity of the sexes within the context of the Imago Dei.

He is not alone. Most of the Fathers affirm the ontological equality in dignity of the sexes, contra a Greco-Roman world where such an equality would not at all have been taken for granted. And this is not without social consequences. Most obviously, the affirmation of the need for consent of both spouses in marriage is a Christian invention, then carried over into Roman law as the Church becomes the Roman state church. Ambrose also severely criticized the dowry system for reducing women to the status of objects or slaves in marriage.

And the teaching of Mary as the New Eve and as a “type” of the Church, which we see first in Irenaeus but is propounded by many Fathers, provides an exalted view of woman complicates any simple notions that the Fathers saw women as inferior to men because of notions such as Eve’s presumed greater culpability for the Fall or Eve’s creation from Adam’s rib.

I think on the whole a fair, short summary on the thought of the Fathers regarding the sexes would go something like this: the Fathers thought that men and women had a shared ontological equality of dignity (a revolutionary idea for the times), even though in the social realm some roles were more fit for women than men.

One quick point about the Medievals: many of the Fathers, then speaking at the dawn of monasticism, thought women could not be ascetics–a teaching awesomely and thoroughly repudiated by Medieval monasticism.

Pius XI and St John Paul II

I think Pius XI gets a bad rap in this area. His 1930 encyclical Casti Connubli on marriage is generally thought of as an example of the evil, mean, misogynistic pre-Vatican II Catholic Magisterium, and best forgotten. The post I’m responding to seems to evince the same view. I used to think the same thing–until I actually read it. Instead what I found was a thoroughly fascinating and in many ways highly counter-cultural view of marriage.

Pius XI’s aims with the encyclical were not so much to address women’s lib directly, but rather the 1930 Lambeth Conference, where the Anglican Communion became the first Christian denomination in history to tolerate contraception, and to address the then-growing (though certainly not to today’s extent) phenomenon of concubinage.

So, what does Pius XI say about male headship? After waxing lyrical at length on the beauty of child-rearing and of mutual self-giving in love of husband and wife, he does indeed affirm it, but in a way that ought to give us pause and that, especially given the times, is highly counter-cultural.

Pius XI doesn’t just say, after the Fathers and countless others, that male headship should be exercised in love and respect. He also says much more.

First, “this subjection of wife to husband in its degree and manner may vary according to the different conditions of persons, place and time,” and Pius cites approvingly Leo XIII writing that the wife must be “not as a servant but as a companion.” Moreover, male headship must not take away the wife’s liberty, which “fully” belongs to her “in view of her dignity as a human person”; it does not entail that the wife “obey her husband’s every request”; indeed, the only thing it does is prevent “exaggerated liberty which cares not for the good of the family; it forbids that in this body which is the family, the heart be separated from the head.” In other words, male headship boils down to this: wives should not be derelict in their duties as wives and mothers, which seems to be something everybody should agree with (obviously, as Pius writes elsewhere, husbands have a similar duty). Finally, writes the Pope, “[i]n fact, if the husband neglect his duty, it falls to the wife to take his place in directing the family.”

And Pius XI goes even further: he writes that the Christian concept of male headship cannot be used to justify discrimination against women in the realm of civil law. Again, we are in 1930, at a time when most women did not even have the right to vote. In France, at the time, women could not even have their own bank accounts without signed authorization from their husband or father, a situation that continued into the early 1960s. The reason my mother became a lawyer was because it was one of the very few occupations where the top-ranked schools were open to women (my top-ranked business school alma mater, for example, was not–it had a subsidiary women’s school, which was basically a secretarial school). And in 1930, when legal discrimination against women was everywhere, and when the Papacy saw itself as locked in a death-struggle with Modernity, the Pope writes that the Bible cannot be used to justify legal discrimination against women. This is really quite astonishing.

This is where the Papal Magisterium stood in 1930 on male headship: yes, male headship is affirmed, but the wife is explicitly not a “servant” to the husband; the wife has full liberty and is not bound to obedience; the way male headship is exercised can vary tremendously and does not “slot” either member of the couple into any rigid “role”; male headship merely prevents the wife’s dereliction of duty; if the husband does not exercise his headship rightfully, the wife has not only the right but the duty to take over the headship of the family; and male headship cannot be used to justify legal discrimination against women. Here, from an early 20th century Pope, you have something which is a heck of a lot more “progressive” and flexible than, say, the “Biblical Manhood and Womanhood” promoted today by a mainstream Evangelical theologian like Dr. John Piper.

Furthermore, in this light, St John Paul II’s decisive affirmation of the equality of men and women in marriage in Mulieris Dignitatem looks like a development, yes, but much less like a break with previous Papal teaching, and much more in continuity.

By the way, the author implies that John Paul does violence to the (in)famous Pauline text on male headship in promoting women’s equality, but of course Paul is the one who does the relativizing of his own teaching on male headship, since Eph 5:22 “Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord” cannot be reasonably read out of context with Eph 5:21 “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

Male Headship in the Catholic Tradition

After this necessarily partial overview, I think the fair thing to say about all this is this: what you might call “strong male headship”, i.e. a vision of marriage where the wife is a servant of the husband is definitely a highly present strand of the Catholic Tradition, dating back from apostolic times and up through the Fathers, the Medievals and the Popes, but it is also definitely not the only or even arguably the dominant strand in Catholic Tradition, and certainly not, as the post makes it sound, the dominant, fundamental Traditional view of marriage and of male headship up until John Paul II comes along.


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  • BTP

    And here I’d been convinced that our theology was drenched in misogyny…

    This is all so much chronological snobbery, isn’t it? Perhaps future generations will not judge us harshly for our errors, knowing that we are all children of our own time.

  • Benard Chedid

    Please please I beg you expand on this topic! I find it so fascinating and am constantly in contact with ultra feminists so any new knowledge is always eagerly devoured.

  • Oh don’t tell me there’s no male headship. Please let me at least live under that delusion. The last time I tried to pull male headship over my wife she just laughed…lol. And then told me to wash the dishes. 😉

  • Theresa

    This makes so much sense to me as a wife who could TEND to be what can only be described as…a bulldozer. As my wise husband observed of the instructions “wives be subject to your husbands…husbands love your wives as Christ loved the church.” It is exactly what each sex needs to hear. At their best, women are excellent at giving their everything for their family, so much that their health and well being suffer at times (consider the amazing yet heartbreaking stories of women who are somehow doing it all). But what I think we (women) aren’t great at is holding back and giving a man space to do his masculine part his way, and not taking over. Especially my generation (the Millennials) who have been told we can do anything…bulldozer style. On the other hand, it’s a little too each for men to be subject to their wives if she’s willing to do the heavy lifting so they need to be challenged to give of themselves ALL the way for their family (hint: Christ died for the church) joining the family after a long day of work, taking jobs he doesn’t like for the good of the family. I think our “instructions” strike at the heart of each sex’s tendency or weakness as a challenge. Don’t tell the feminists I think women also have weaknesses…it wouldn’t go over well. Disclaimer: I speak in generalities. Obviously personalities, temperaments, habits can override these things, which is why the quoted portion speaking of the different contexts of each marriage is brilliant.

  • captcrisis

    You can soften it all you want, but in the Catholic Church men must lead and women must follow their orders.

    • Popes Leo XIII, Pius XI, John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul II all disagree with you. But what do they know about Catholicism?

      • captcrisis

        I don’t remember any of those men taking orders from nuns, or saying that women should have any decisional authority in the Church or even be allowed into a Church hierarchy that has absolute power. So no, all those popes in fact do agree with me.

        • LJ

          Actually, JPII did appoint women to positions of authority over men, including as official Church theologians and as head of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences (Mary Ann Glendon). He appointed, or approved the appointment, of women into leadership positions in many dioceses, including his own as Bishop of Rome. He also considered himself wholly dedicated and subordinated to the Virgin Mary (his papal motto was “Totus Tuus”). I’m afraid the other Popes were “before my time” and I can’t come up with counterexamples off the top of my head for them.

          • captcrisis

            These (JPII’s appointments) are beginning steps, admittedly. It’s a tacit admission that on this point, at least, St. Paul was flatly wrong. But the Pontifical Academy, as the name suggests, necessarily serves at the whim of men.

  • Yonah

    What can be observed, or in this case found upon investigation of remote artifacts, cannot be of much help in terms of what has been dominantly going on…on the ground. What Pius wrote, and what got taught and preached in the parish are two different things.

  • bill b

    Your article was fairly truthful until the end where you stated in your words for Pius XI: ” the wife has full liberty and is not bound to obedience.”
    Here’s the actual Pius XI in section 74 of Casti C.:
    ” 74. The same false teachers who try to dim the luster of conjugal faith and purity do not scruple to do away with the honorable and trusting obedience which the woman owes to the man.”
    The obedience of the wife is referenced six times in the NT and nowhere in the catechism or in Vatican II. There are areas in which some Protestants obey God more than us…that’s why Evangelicals vote better than us against pro abortion pols. Anabaptists probably are closer to Pius XI on husband headship than we are though I imagine on Rom.13:4 and the death penalty, they do our contortionist apologetics since they are pacifists.

    • Sigh. Context, context, context. Read the whole thing.

      • bill b

        I did. Context doesn’t excuse slips that contradict context. A young girl can remember the ” is not bound to obedience” better than the caveats that preceded it.

        • Oh, girls. They’re just so dumb.

          • bill b

            I Tim. 2:14 says they’re at a disadvantage in that area of deception…vis a vis males. You can banter henceforth with God. Good luck.

  • Michael Boyle

    Respectfully, I cannot square the idea that traditional Catholicism affirmed the “ontological equality in dignity” of women with, for example, the words of St. Thomas:

    “Accordingly, since it is not possible in the female sex to signify eminence of degree, for a woman is in the state of subjection, it follows that she cannot receive the sacrament of Order.” (Summa Theologica, 111, suppl., quest. 39, art. 1).

    How is there an “equality in dignity” when “a woman is in a state of subjection”? How is there an “ontological equality” when men are per se of a higher “degree,” per St. Thomas?

    I have come, more and more, to believe that the idea of the “hermaneutic of continuity” is Catholicism’s version of “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” Some of the basic philosophical underpinnings of Catholic thought have changed significantly in the last 50 or so years. I think those changes are all to the good; others view them as a catastrophe. But I think trying to retrofit the old ideas into the new is a dead end.

    • First of all, St Thomas Aquinas was not a pope. He was not even a bishop. Infallibility does not apply to his statements.

      Secondly, the context is obviously about Holy Orders. Nobody is questioning that females are not ontologically capable of becoming priests. If you did that you would be breaking with the constant teaching of the church.

      Third, women are to be submissive in marriage. Men are to be submissive in marriage. That much is clear. The exact nature of a woman’s submission and the exact nature of a man’s submission are what is at issue. The underlying reality of mutual submission is not. So the word “subjection” should not be surprising. It is something we embrace as Christians in all areas of life including marriage. It does not indicate a difference between modern Catholics and St Thomas.

      • Michael Boyle

        I understand that St. Thomas is not infallible, but to pretend that his views are somehow outliers in the Catholic tradition is ridiculous.

        The fact that the quote deals with the ordination question is not the point–the point is that Thomas asserts that a woman cannot be ordained because “it is not possible in the female sex to signify eminence of degree.” Thomas is presenting that as a universal principle, with a specific application in the ordination context. In other words, he is not saying that because women cannot be ordained they are of a lesser degree; he is saying that because they are of a lesser degree they cannot be ordained.

        Finally, I don’t see anything in the passage that suggests that men are in the same state of “subjection” that women are. That’s a nice way to retrofit the quote into our current views of the equality of men and women, but I think that does violence to the original intent of the text.

        • Infallibility makes specific claims defined in Vatican I. It applies to certain statements. If you are going to argue that Catholicism should be rejected based on changing doctrines you should try and show they have changed in a way that Catholics say they have not changed. If you don’t then you are disproving something Catholicism does not teach. That can be interesting but it can never be a reason to reject Catholicism.

          Women and men are equal but not the same. Women can be of lesser degree in some contexts and men can be of lesser degree in other contexts. So St Thomas’s statement does not contradict current teaching.

          It is not relevant that St Thomas did not see the fullness of current Catholic teaching. That is that he did not see the equality of men and women. Sometimes the Holy Spirit reveals partial truths and a fuller truth later. If he saw female subjection clearer than he saw male subjection that does not make what he did see wrong. It makes it incomplete. It means the Holy Spirit is moving us from glory to glory in our understanding of gender. It is perfectly consistent with how Catholic teaching develops. It changes without ever being false.

          • Michael Boyle

            Believe me, I am not rejecting Catholicism based on the current perspective on gender roles–I’m not rejecting Catholicism at all. As I said, I think the statements in Lumen Gentium and elsewhere on the fundamental equality of men and women are completely correct and altogether necessary.

            My issue is the unwillingness to admit that some core philosophical ideas have changed over the course of 2000 years. The Catholic Church used to teach some horrible, profoundly anti-Semitic things and now it doesn’t. The
            Church used to teach some deeply unequal things about women and now it doesn’t. Let’s just be honest and admit that, instead of coming up with ever more elaborate explanations of why the new thing is really the same as the old thing.

          • LJ

            St Thomas argued eloquently against the Immaculate Conception, too. But he was, in that matter, simply mistaken. As Randy noted, he wasn’t even a bishop, let alone a Pope, and many of the topics he wrote about were (and still are) theologically “open”. There’s nothing weird about that. Catholics have always had schools of thought and differing opinions. If you want a rigid, party-line, everything-is-fixed-and-decided-already theology, you need to be Protestant! Likewise, you should be VERY cautious about taking medieval Latin terms that have been translated into English sound-alikes at face value. “Subjection” has a very negative, demeaning connotation in English, which is not in the Latin.

          • captcrisis

            It would be easy for the Church to say, in the future — if it had to — that there is in fact no papal infallibility, and that various Popes were mistaken in thinking that there was. The reasoning being that Vatican I was never closed; its resolutions were not final and can be brought up again to be reconsidered.

          • 🙂

          • What do you mean by “Catholic Church used to teach?” If by that you mean that some major Catholic thinkers said some false things on these issues then you are right. That happened. The trouble is that the church sees those as mistakes by individuals and not by the church as church. The reason that is important is that the church is seen as the pure, spotless bride of Christ. It is the pillar and foundation of truth. The church as church is not supposed to make errors. It is made up of error prone people. They can do bad things and teach wrong things without limit. That included popes and saints.

            So why the distinction? Why do we insist the sins of church leaders are not sins of the church? Can’t you just label anything deemed wrong as a sin by a certain set of churchmen and make the concept of a perfect church basically meaningless? No. We define some teaching as church teachings and not simply teachings of individuals. Those are made clear in Vatican I. So the claim that the church did not teach antisemitism and did not teach the that women are inferior to men is important. It shows the Holy Spirit did not let these mistakes rise to the level of official church teaching.

          • Michael Boyle

            The notion that the Church, as a Church, did not teach anti-Semitism in the past is simply false. The Council of Florence decreed that Jews should wear “distinctive clothing” and could not practice certain professions. It also said that Jews have no merit in the eyes of God, which is directly contradicted by Nostra Aetate. Is the Council of Florence not “official church teaching”?

            I mean no disrespect, but this exchange points directly to my broader point. In order to buttress at all costs the notion that the Church has never made any mistakes, we go through these crazy contortions to slice away “real” Church teaching from the stuff don’t want to acknowledge. It’s not historically supportable, and it makes us look silly. Let’s just be honest about our history, good and not so good.

    • Hey,

      In the Summa Contra Gentiles, Thomas also writes eloquently about the ontological equality of men and women, and writes of it as a particular of the Christian Tradition. His argument against polygamy, incest, arranged marriage, etc. is that these are wrong because under these circumstances the spouses cannot be equal.

      As a commenter pointed out below, here Thomas is specifically referring to Holy Orders, and what Thomas thought does not equal the whole magisterium of the Church. As my post pointed out, there is definitely a “strand” of Catholic thinking that views women as “in the state of subjection”, but this was never a core, infallible teaching.

      Of course, development of doctrine is a complicated concept. The faith is ever ancient and ever new. John Henry Newman wrote an excellent book about this.

      Thanks for your comment.

      P.S. It’s spelled “hermeneutic.”

  • LJ

    By the way, I’d like to add one additional point: that most of the particulars of Catholic teaching before the 1950s should be read with the viewpoint that they are mostly focused on women who are either pregnant or breastfeeding an infant. (Before that time, there was essentially no way to avoid pregnancy reliably, and most women spent most of their adult lives “in the trenches” of childbearing.)
    When pregnant or breasfeeding, women are very definitely weaker, more vulnerable to disease or injury, less able to fend for themselves or do long-term planning, more emotional, and exhausted. (Believe me, I know! Your body has all these weird things going on, the physical demands are off the charts, and you simply can’t do what you used to do.) They have a RIGHT to protection, first of all from the father of their children, but also from the rest of society. They’re not slackers, weaklings or spongers because they need help. Society needs women to do this if society is to survive more than a couple of decades. And that means society should both insist on and assist with men caring for their wives through thick and thin– just like St. Paul said.
    “Equal pay for equal work” is not even strict justice, since a pregnant/nursing woman can’t keep up with her pre-pregnancy self in workload, let alone the unencumbered singles. And that’s totally legit! They’re making the future of society possible. When the current generation gets old and sick, there better be a rising generation of well-raised young people to take over and make the economy and social system work.

  • cajaquarius

    People always hammer on the Church for misogyny but this is one thing where I do cut them a bit of slack. The Church is rooted in two thousand years of history and has had to raise armies and play in politics at times in the past. Male dominance over women is a corporeal need in a violent world because to raise the biggest and best armies, men need to control the means of reproduction. The lack of empathy men tend to be raised to express combined with the ability to control the uterus allows for that much more easily than not. That has been the way of societies until very recently, due to a vast increase in world wide empathy, generally. Nothing to beat yourselves up over.