Tradition Unbound – Part II

Tradition Unbound – Part II December 5, 2016


Last time on Catholic Authenticity, we were talking about development of doctrine, specifically in reference to the fear that many conservatives have that Pope Francis is undermining eternal, changeless Church teaching in an unprecedented way. A lot of this fear seems to stem from an unduly rigid sense of how doctrine ought to be promulgated, taught, and applied. It’s a fear that I can well understand: I remember the first time that I realized that development of doctrine can actually involve pretty radical change in terms of the practice of the faith. I felt like my faith was being shaken to the core, and I didn’t know what to believe anymore. So I do have sympathy for the people for whom the footnote about communion for the divorced and remarriage in Amoris Laetitia is like a fault line opening up in the Earth underneath their house.

As a way of calming these anxieties, I’ve been working through another change in the Church’s teaching on marriage – one which I think is actually much more radical than the possibility of the Church slightly relaxing her discipline regarding communion for the divorced and remarried: the change in the teaching on male headship within the family.

We’d gotten as far as Mulieris Dignitatem. To illustrate the difference in Church teaching that took place over the course of a little over a century, I’d like to put the teaching about Ephesians 5 as it is expressed by John Paul II in a side-by-side with the teaching about Ephesians 5 as expressed by Leo XIII:

“The husband is the chief of the family and the head of the wife. The woman, because she is flesh of his flesh, and bone of his bone, must be subject to her husband and obey him; not, indeed, as a servant, but as a companion, so that her obedience shall be wanting in neither honor nor dignity. Since the husband represents Christ, and since the wife represents the Church, let there always be, both in him who commands and in her who obeys, a heaven-born love guiding both in their respective duties. For “the husband is the head of the wife; as Christ is the head of the Church. . . Therefore, as the Church is subject to Christ, so also let wives be to their husbands in all things.”

– Leo XIII, Arcanum Divinae

The author of the Letter to the Ephesians sees no contradiction between an exhortation formulated in this way and the words: “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife” (5:22-23). The author knows that this way of speaking, so profoundly rooted in the customs and religious tradition of the time, is to be understood and carried out in a new way: as a “mutual subjection out of reverence for Christ” (cf. Eph 5:21). This is especially true because the husband is called the “head” of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church; he is so in order to give “himself up for her” (Eph 5:25), and giving himself up for her means giving up even his own life. However, whereas in the relationship between Christ and the Church the subjection is only on the part of the Church, in the relationship between husband and wife the “subjection” is not one-sided but mutual.”

– John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem


Any good Catholic apologist will point out that there is an essential continuity between these two teachings, and it’s true, from a theological perspective, there is. But from a practical perspective, in terms of the actual politics of the household and the application of discipline within the parish or the confessional, they are night and day. The older form of the teaching demands “willing obedience” of wives: a woman can rightly disobey her husband only in cases where his directives are contrary to right reason (i.e. he commands her to do something which is immoral), or contrary to the dignity of wives (a euphemistic phrase: if you read other documents from the period, it’s clear that this refers mostly to cases where a husband demands sexual satisfaction contra naturem.) In this schema the husband takes the role of Christ, the woman takes the role of Church: she is to be subject to him.

In John Paul II’s theology there is a much greater emphasis on the freedom and dignity of woman, and a vastly greater appreciation for the degree to which males, on account of concupiscence, are at risk of abusing power if it is granted to them unilaterally. Mulieris Dignitatem gives a succinct formulation of a theology of reciprocity, complementarity and mutual subjection which is developed in much more detail in Theology of the Body. Here John Paul II expands at some length on the dangers that face marriage as a result of the Fall, and he discusses at some length the ways in which male domination of women comes about because of the curse spoken in Genesis 3 “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he will lord it over you.” By moving the focus from the obedience that wives owe to husbands towards the subjection which both spouses owe to each other, John Paul II provides a theological framework that is technically in continuity with the tradition, but which in practice justifies the dynamics of the modern family.

What this does is overturn nearly two millenia of tradition concerning the natural inferiority of woman and God’s intention for the order of the family. You need only a passing knowledge of history to know that Ephesians 5 was routinely used as a justification for the expectation that a good Christian wife would quietly to submit to her husband’s judgment, trusting in his supposedly greater rationality. According to this tradition, harmony within the home was maintained by a proper hierarchical order in which the husband did his best to make decisions that would benefit everyone, and the wife did her best to accept his decisions – even if she disagreed. It would have been normal for a husband to receive the support of his pastor if he complained that his wife was willful or that she talked back to much, and female penitents would have been encouraged to routinely scour their consciences to see if they had been disobedient without just cause.

Outside of extremely conservative circles, nobody today believes in this now. Instead the norm is for couples to engage in mutual decision-making: seeking consensus, consulting one another, talking things over as equals, and occasionally seeking third party advice or counseling if an issue cannot be settled equitably. A man who complained to his priest that his wife wasn’t obeying him would most likely get an earful, and a woman who confessed to being a disobedient wife would be gently counseled in the virtue of self-respect. John Paul II’s marital theology provides a framework in which such practices of mutuality become a restoration of God’s original plan rather than a perversion of the natural order of the family.

The alteration in the teaching on women’s involvement in the work-force that took place between Casti Connubii and Familiaris Consortio is equally striking:

“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. Many of them even go further and assert that such a subjection of one party to the other is unworthy of human dignity, that the rights of husband and wife are equal; wherefore, they boldly proclaim the emancipation of women has been or ought to be effected. This emancipation in their ideas must be threefold, in the ruling of the domestic society, in the administration of family affairs and in the rearing of the children. It must be social, economic, physiological: – physiological, that is to say, the woman is to be freed at her own good pleasure from the burdensome duties properly belonging to a wife as companion and mother (We have already said that this is not an emancipation but a crime); social, inasmuch as the wife being freed from the cares of children and family, should, to the neglect of these, be able to follow her own bent and devote herself to business and even public affairs; finally economic, whereby the woman even without the knowledge and against the wish of her husband may be at liberty to conduct and administer her own affairs, giving her attention chiefly to these rather than to children, husband and family.”

– Pius XI, Casti Connubii

“…one cannot but observe that in the specific area of family life a widespread social and cultural tradition has considered women’s role to be exclusively that of wife and mother, without adequate access to public functions which have generally been reserved for men.

There is no doubt that the equal dignity and responsibility of men and women fully justifies women’s access to public functions. On the other hand the true advancement of women requires that clear recognition be given to the value of their maternal and family role, by comparison with all other public roles and all other professions. Furthermore, these roles and professions should be harmoniously combined, if we wish the evolution of society and culture to be truly and fully human.”

– John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio


Again, any apologist worth their salt can argue that Pius XI was only decrying women’s involvement in public affairs in those cases where this caused women to neglect their husband and children, and will point out that John Paul II shares his concerns about the preservation of the domestic sphere. But unless you’re willing to engage in some serious mental contortionism in order to maintain the belief that the teaching has been single, clear, unchanging, and unaffected by social and cultural values, it’s obvious that there has been a significant shift. Pius XI clearly sees women’s emancipation primarily as a threat to the family and to the “essential order of the domestic society.” John Paul II not only celebrates women’s participation in every aspect of cultural and political life, but actually goes so far as to apologize for the role that members of the Church have played in limiting women’s progress.

As with male headship, the shift in emphasis may be a small step for theology, but it’s a giant leap in terms of the practical application of doctrine in the lives of actual Christian women.

If you look at the development of doctrine from the 19th to the late 20th century, there’s no question that a dramatic change took place. This change did not alter the fundamental continuity of Christian teaching, but it certainly resulted in a markedly different application of Christian precepts, with different elements of the teaching being emphasized, taught, and enforced.

The shift in discipline that would be implied if divorced-and-remarried people were sometimes, in exceptional circumstances, under the guidance of a competent director, allowed to receive Communion provided that, due to exculpating factors, they are not in a state of mortal sin even though they are living more uxorio – this shift would be absolutely trivial compared to the shifts that we’ve just been discussing. Such a change in the discipline of the Church would affect far fewer people in a much less radical way, and would require no substantive revisions to the existing theology. Only someone caught up in the vicissitudes of the news cycle, and the excitement of the newest trumped-up Pope Francis scandal, could possibly fail to see this.

Which is why we need to have perspective. The development of doctrine places us within a historical process where our understanding of the truth is constantly being refined and perfected. This is not relativism, but it does require a certain humility before truth: a recognition that although the Church is called to the fullness of truth, the truth (who is Christ) is always seen “as in a glass, dimly” (1 Cor 13:12). The Spirit leads us into all truth, not all at once, but slowly. Without this understanding, every little shift in the practice of the Church causes uncertainty, fear, and instability – like Peter, looking around him at the water, we waver and feel ourselves sinking.

Yet Christ tells us not to fear, but to have faith. Yes, there will be waves but it has always been so, and we can have confidence that the Church will continue, steadfastly, in her progress towards the holiness to which she is called – even if the latest headlines tell us that the barque is about to capsize.

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