When submission becomes a false idol

When submission becomes a false idol July 11, 2015

First, the disclaimer: My husband and I have problems (you don’t live a thousand miles apart if you don’t), but I have never been afraid of my husband, nor has he ever behaved in a controlling or abusive way towards me or our children. I’ve been afraid for him, many times, but never afraid of him.

This blog post is a response to the stories and heart-felt struggles of many other good women, as shared with me over the last three years. In many ways, it is a post TO those women, a reminder, and, since I find myself repeating this message over and over again, a handy way to avoid having to retype the same passages and ideas every time misguided interpretations of wifely “submission” or horrible, awful, damaging Christian marriage advice come up in conversation.  

Now, on to the post. 

Dear, wonderful, struggling Catholic and Christian wives,

Stop trying to convert or change your husbands’ hard hearts through your wifely submission.

There are Christian and even Catholic writers out there who will try to convince you that your husband’s abusiveness, emotional detachment, defensiveness, anger, lust and infidelity, or immaturity is merely evidence that you, his wife, have not submitted sufficiently to soften his heart and seduce him into becoming a better husband, father, and head of the family.

You love Christ, you love the Church, and you love your children. You want to love your husband. You want your husband to love you. So you pick yourself up and try harder, assenting to every whim and decision your husband makes, no matter how degrading or disagreeable, playing the role he allows you or expects you to play, and tolerating cruelty, neglect, or disdain in return. You meditate on the trials of St. Monica and imagine that a time will come when your husband will see your self-sacrificial love and be slain by remorse, repentance, and compassion, and then you will finally have the rightly-ordered Christian marriage which you have idolized for so long. If only you can become perfectly meek and submissive and carry your cross in the meantime.

Dear ladies, this isn’t God’s plan for marriage. And it isn’t what the Church requires of you, or what St. Paul was getting at when he described marriage as a type of the relationship of Christ and His Church.

Casti Connubii 27 and 28 says, speaking of wifely submission as understood by the Church (emphasis mine),

27. This subjection, however, does not deny or take away the liberty which fully belongs to the woman both in view of her dignity as a human person, and in view of her most noble office as wife and mother and companion; nor does it bid her obey her husband’s every request if not in harmony with right reason or with the dignity due to wife; nor, in fine, does it imply that the wife should be put on a level with those persons who in law are called minors, to whom it is not customary to allow free exercise of their rights on account of their lack of mature judgment, or of their ignorance of human affairs. But it forbids that 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 to the great detriment of the whole body and the proximate danger of ruin. For if the man is the head, the woman is the heart, and as he occupies the chief place in ruling, so she may and ought to claim for herself the chief place in love.28. Again, this subjection of wife to husband in its degree and manner may vary according to the different conditions of persons, place and time. In fact, if the husband neglect his duty, it falls to the wife to take his place in directing the family.

Now, I think this is pretty clear. Submission is qualified, and subordinate to the demands of a woman’s conscience, reason, and dignity. For a wife to submit, her husband must first embrace right reason and act according to the dignity of his wife (and, I would say, his children).

Frankly, the whole “right reason and dignity” clause basically means that the whole industry of “submit and he’ll become virtuous” marriage advice is utter and complete shit. If you cooperate with evil (and anything that neglects or acts against the good of wife or children is, make no mistake about it, an evil) in the hope of softening your husband’s heart, you have essentially made an idol out of your husband or marriage and placed it above your own conscience.

Now, on to St. Paul. Ephesians 5:22-33:

Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing[a] her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.”[b] 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

As St. Paul clarifies at the end, this entire passage is primarily about how marriage is an image of Christ and his Church. In doing so, he explicitly calls for marriage to reflect the relationship of Christ to his Church. While verse 22 tends to get all the attention, the really radical passage is verse 25-33. You see, Christ’s self-sacrifice comes first; Christ sanctifies the Church and enables her to submit to his leadership. St. Paul then explains that this is how husbands should love their wives, with the same love with which they love themselves–in response to which, wives should respect their husbands.

Think about this again. The marriage of Christ and his Church came after the crucifixion–there was no Church when Christ walked the earth. Christ’s call for us to take up our crosses and follow him only comes after he takes up his cross. The leadership a husband ought to wield is a leadership akin to Christ’s–a leadership that proposes, but does not impose; a leadership that points to a purpose and end, but invites our full and fully willing cooperation in finding and travelling the road to the given end.

And yes, when a husband leads with a servant’s heart, with Christ’s self-sacrificial love, the only appropriate response is to yield to that love and be unified under a single vision for the family.

But if your husband is broken, flawed, mired in addiction or mental illness or just plain old sin? The path of love may be to remove yourself from the reach of a man who is ensnared by addiction and lashing out violently, so as to reduce the harm he would do to his own soul by his actions towards you. The path of love may be to guard a man’s children when you cannot guard the man himself from his own sinfulness. Your conscience may guide to you stand up for justice for yourself and your children when your husband is unjust to you.

Please, if you’ve been trying to tame your husband through submitting to his temper, his vices, his tyranny–please, remember you owe a yet higher allegiance. Find a peaceful, quiet place and ask God and yourself: Is this reasonable? Is this in keeping with my dignity and that of my children? Am I honored or loved as the heart of the home? Have I claimed for myself the chief place in love? What would that look like?

Then listen. And do not be afraid.

(For further reading: the USCCB statement on domestic violence, whether physical or psychological.)

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