The biblical basis for women covering their heads during worship can be traced to two primary passages: Genesis 24:64-65 and 1 Corinthians 11:2-16.
Genesis 24:64-65: This passage recounts the story of Rebecca, who covered her head upon meeting Isaac, indicating her modesty and reverence in the presence of a future husband. Since women are icons of the Church and men of Christ (see 1 Corinthians 13), the practice of women covering their heads during worship properly reflects this relationship.
1 Corinthians 11:2-16: In this section, the apostle Paul addresses the issue of head coverings in the context of public worship. Paul asserts that men should pray with their heads uncovered while women should pray with their heads covered. He draws upon the theological concept of headship, emphasizing the hierarchical order between God, Christ, man, and woman. The covering symbolizes a woman's submission to this divinely established order. As we progress down in this narrative, let us keep in mind that although Saint Paul is the writer of this passage, the true author is God, who cannot deceive nor be deceived and thus not subject to temporal or cultural fads.
The two biblical passages above allow us to see that the practice of women covering their heads during the Mass has been tied to several theological and symbolic interpretations: order and hierarchy; unity and communion; and modesty and reverence. Allow me to elaborate on these three grouping.
Order and hierarchy: The theological concept of headship, as explained in 1 Corinthians 11, establishes a hierarchy of authority and submission. By wearing a head covering, women are seen to embrace their role within this hierarchical structure, acknowledging their place and function within the divine plan.
Unity and communion: The practice of women covering their heads can also be seen as fostering a sense of unity and communal identity within the parish community. By adhering to a shared practice, women express their solidarity with one another and their commitment to the teachings and traditions of the Church.
To see this with more clarity, we need to analyze further the 1 Corinthians 11 passage. In verses 4-6, Saint Paul introduces the issue of head coverings: "Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head."
Saint Paul argues that men (the ordained of whom would act in persona Christi) should not cover their heads while praying or prophesying because it dishonors Christ. On the other hand, women (who represent the Church) should cover their heads as a sign of submission to their husbands (who represent Christ) since this would maintain the proper order established by God.
By adhering to a shared practice, women express their solidarity with one another and their commitment to the teachings and traditions of the Church.
In verses 7-10, Saint Paul provides theological reasoning for his instructions: "For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels."
Here, Saint Paul draws upon the creation account in Genesis to explain his argument. He states that man is the image and glory of God, while woman is the glory of man. This is the order of creation, where woman was made from man and for man. Saint Paul's use of "glory" emphasizes the complementary nature of men and women and their respective roles. The phrase "because of the angels" in verse 10 may puzzle many, but tying this passage with another in a letter by Saint Paul, to that to the Ephesians, may clarify the matter. First, it is clear that wherever God is, so are His angels, and thus, angels are definitely present during the Mass. We must remember that the fall of the angels was due to their rejection to serve creatures (the human race) significantly inferior to them. Thus, angels are supremely interested in the affairs of human beings as they are attentive to the proper functioning of God's created order. The helpful passage is in Ephesian 3:8-11:
“To me, the least of all the saints, is given this grace, to preach among the Gentiles, the unsearchable riches of Christ, And to enlighten all men, that they may see what is the dispensation of the mystery which hath been hidden from eternity in God, who created all things: That the manifold wisdom of God may be made known to the principalities and powers in heavenly places through the church, According to the eternal purpose, which he made, in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
The reference to “principalities and powers in heavenly places” is a way to refer to all the nine choirs of angels who through the Catholic Church and her liturgy come to know the “manifold wisdom of God”. In the liturgy both man and woman have a role to play in God's plan, which requires the practice of head coverings for women, emphasizing that it is a symbol of authority and submission. Angels perfectly execute the will of God, which includes maintaining the created order, and are “scandalized” (a more adequate word could not be found, since angels lacking concupiscence after having made their inalterable choice to obey God, are unable to sin) when women disturb the proper order of the due submission of women to men, as the apostle states. This is why women should cover their heads as a sign of submission and recognition to the established order precisely in the most sacred liturgy of the Mass, for the sake of the angels.
Modesty and Reverence: Head coverings have often been associated with modesty and reverence before God. They serve as a visible sign of humility and acknowledgment of the sacredness of the liturgy and the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Saint Thomas in his Summa Theologiae (Second Part of the Second Part, Question 160, article 1) informs us that modesty is part of the virtue of Temperance, and in article 2 he states that temperance moderates those matters where restraint is most difficult, while modesty moderates those that present less difficulty. Saint Thomas elaborates further as follows when speaking of the virtue of temperance: “These seemingly are of four kinds. one is the movement of the mind towards some excellence, and this is moderated by "humility." The second is the desire of things pertaining to knowledge, and this is moderated by "studiousness" which is opposed to curiosity. The third regards bodily movements and actions, which require to be done becomingly and honestly [Cf. II-II:145:1], whether we act seriously or in play. The fourth regards outward show, for instance in dress and the like.” Since modesty is of the last kind, it should be the easiest to attain.
Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor informs us that “The rational ordering of the human act to the good in its truth and the voluntary pursuit of that good, known by reason, constitute morality…If the object of the concrete action is not in harmony with the true good of the person, the choice of that action makes our will and ourselves morally evil, thus putting us in conflict with our ultimate end, the supreme good, God himself.” Thus, the virtue of temperance, which helps us to bring all that gives us pleasure under the power of reason, allows us to act in a truly human way, positioning us higher than all the other animals. This is how God has designed us as rational beings, thereby ordaining what is good for us – what will ultimately make us happy and truly good men. Modesty is that part of temperance that regulates our attire and our attitude, so that we dress appropriately for the occasion according to our state in life, such that we avoid excessive vanity on the one hand and excessive casualness on the other. Humility is the part of temperance that mitigates our excessive pride, which seeks to draw undue attention to ourselves, or to bring undeserved honors on ourselves. Now, since both humility and modesty, whether of dress or of action, are parts of the virtue of temperance, we can infer that, exercising a virtue or sub-virtue, which requires the use of the intellect and will and thus a human act in the sacred liturgy directed to our highest good (namely, God) demands our best effort.
The 1983 Canon Law does not explicitly mandate the practice of women covering their heads during the Mass. However, it provides a broad framework within which this tradition needs to be fostered. Canon Law offers general guidelines that shape the liturgical practices of the Church. Women's head coverings during the liturgy find support in Canon Law. Canons 5, 20 and 28: Taken in conjunction, they acknowledge that liturgical laws and customs of the Church, which have been reasonably observed for an extended period, possess the force of law. Over the centuries, the practice of women wearing head coverings during the Mass has become deeply ingrained in the tradition of many Catholic communities. Also, the authority of local bishops to issue particular laws and norms for their respective dioceses, provided they do not contradict universal law, would permit it. Hence, in specific regions or dioceses, bishops have the authority to promote or require the practice of women covering their heads during the liturgy if they deem it pastorally beneficial or appropriate, even under the regime of Francis. I suggest that bishops who are neither careerist nor seeking to ingratiate themselves with every dictum of the present Pope can courageously require the universal return of this practice in their dioceses.
Not to be overlooked in all this was the significant role the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) had, with its aggiornamento (“bringing up to date”) mandate, in ushering significant reforms to the liturgy under the guise of the participation of all the faithful, regardless of gender, in the worship of the Church.
In recent times, the practice of women covering their heads during the Mass has declined in many Catholic communities. This change can be attributed to various factors, including cultural shifts, redefining understandings of gender roles with a consequent false interpretation regarding the equality of men and women in the Church. Not to be overlooked in all this was the significant role the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) had, with its aggiornamento (“bringing up to date”) mandate, in ushering significant reforms to the liturgy under the guise of the participation of all the faithful, regardless of gender, in the worship of the Church.
Following the Council, many local churches and bishops' conferences around the world chose not to enforce the practice of women covering their heads during the liturgy. Modernism reared its ugly head when it artificially introduced the false dichotomy of pitting the internal disposition of the faithful against external symbols or physical practices. They were quite successful in emphasizing the interior reverence, attentiveness, and active engagement of all the faithful during the Mass at the expense of exterior appearances. But this approach entirely overlooks the traditional Catholic way of accepting paradoxes, which are indeed at the heart of our theology: for instance, Jesus is both man and God, Mary is both virgin and mother. In fact, as human beings, we first learn the “moves” proper to the different parts of the Mass, such as sitting, standing, and kneeling early in our childhood, and, as we mature, we integrate those positions with what is going on at the Mass. For instance, we kneel at the consecration because God has substantially and sacramentally appeared, and we must worship Him Whom we will later eat. The reverence of wearing the mantilla is inspirational to others, including the men. The opposite is also true: when the reverence reflected in the use of the mantilla disappears, the “world” makes its appearance with women in immodest attires and men dressing as if they were going to a picnic or a ballgame, in sneakers, t-shirts and jeans. We do not need to be biblical scholars to appreciate the Matthew 22:11 verse, which many, including clergy, are quick to spiritualize, forgetting that the Church teaches that the primordial biblical meaning is the literal one (CCC 116: “The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation: "All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal."). To refresh our memories, I will quote it herein in its context, verses 2-13:
The kingdom of heaven is likened to a king, who made a marriage for his son. And he sent his servants, to call them that were invited to the marriage; and they would not come. Again he sent other servants, saying: Tell them that were invited, Behold, I have prepared my dinner; my calves and fatlings are killed, and all things are ready: come ye to the marriage. But they neglected, and went their own ways, one to his farm, and another to his merchandise. And the rest laid hands on his servants, and having treated them contumeliously, put them to death. But when the king had heard of it, he was angry, and sending his armies, he destroyed those murderers, and burnt their city. Then he saith to his servants: The marriage indeed is ready; but they that were invited were not worthy. Go ye therefore into the highways; and as many as you shall find, call to the marriage. And his servants going forth into the ways, gathered together all that they found, both bad and good: and the marriage was filled with guests. And the king went in to see the guests: and he saw there a man who had not on a wedding garment. And he saith to him: Friend, how camest thou in hither not having a wedding garment? But he was silent. Then the king said to the waiters: Bind his hands and feet, and cast him into the exterior darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
One may wonder why the harshness of our Lord. But the answer is found in verse 2, where the King is God the Father, inviting us all to the wedding feast of the Lamb, which we re-present every Sunday at Mass. Given this situation, I suggest that men are then called to take the lead, as they should, by dressing for the supreme wedding they are attending and put on a dress jacket (ideally a suit) and a tie instead of the lamentable casual attire that the Novus Ordo Mass has accustomed them to.
The Church was first in recognizing the equal dignity and worth of both men and women. The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms that men and women are equal in their fundamental dignity as human persons, created in the image and likeness of God (CCC 2334). As such, let all Catholic men and women comport themselves according to their dignity in the divine liturgy.
In summary, the practice of women covering their heads during the Catholic Mass liturgy can be traced back to theological (biblical) principles and has support in Canon Law. Since this practice is associated with the virtue of temperance of which modesty and humility are a part, (encompassing reverence, order, and unity within the worshiping community), the practice of women covering their heads during the liturgy would go a long way in bringing back the true reverence due to our Lord, both in the physical (exterior) and spiritual (interior) aspects of our worship.
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