The question for today’s modern Church is: Should women still be required to cover their heads when they pray? The modern Church’s most common response is: “No, women are no longer required to cover their heads. That was an antiquated practice based on the culture of the times and the Church has officially repealed the head covering requirement.”
As we will see in this article, this response is patently false and reveals an ignorance of the inerrancy and incommutability of the Church’s ecclesiastical traditions.
Ecclesiastical, or “church” tradition, is the infallible and immutable expression of the Deposit of Faith, which is inspired by the Holy Ghost and nurtured by the Church. Whereas Sacred Tradition refers to the doctrine of the Church, ecclesiastical tradition refers to the expression of that doctrine.
For example, the ecclesiastical tradition of using icons expresses the Church’s doctrine of the Communion of Saints. The ecclesiastical tradition of kneeling to receive the Holy Eucharist expresses the doctrine of the Real Presence. The ecclesiastical tradition of head coverings for women expresses the Church’s doctrine that a woman is under the authority of man. Because ecclesiastical tradition is divinely-inspired and takes its form from the Deposit of Faith, it, like the Sacred Tradition, is inerrant and unchangeable. Hence, the Church has never abrogated the practice of head coverings, and could never do so, because the practice has been inspired by the Holy Ghost who dwells in the Church and infallibly guides her to both teach and express the Faith.
In defending the ecclesiastical traditions of the Church (in this case, the use of sacred images and icons), the Second Council of Nicea (787 A.D.) declares that “the tradition of the Catholic Church…comes from the Holy Spirit who dwells in her.” Being inspired by the Holy Spirit, the ecclesiastical traditions of the Church contribute to her indefectibility and reflect her perfect knowledge of the Deposit of Faith. This is why the Church defends the ecclesiastical traditions against innovation or rejection, and condemns as heretics anyone who would dare engage in such activity. That the council infallibly condemns the innovator or rejecter of ecclesiastical tradition as a heretic demonstrates that faith in and observance of the Church’s ecclesiastical traditions is a matter of divine Faith itself.
For example, Nicea II pronounced the following: “We declare that we defend free from any innovations all the written and unwritten ecclesiastical traditions that have been entrusted to us.” The Council condemned “all who dare to think or teach anything different, or who follow the accursed heretics in rejecting ecclesiastical traditions, or who devise innovations, or who spurn anything entrusted to the Church (whether it be the Gospel or the figure of the Cross or any example of representational art or any martyr’s holy relic), or who fabricate perverted and evil prejudices against cherishing any of the lawful traditions of the Catholic Church…” The Council further declared: “If anyone rejects any written or unwritten Tradition of the Church, let him be anathema.”
Using the terminology of Thomistic metaphysics, while changes in ecclesiastical traditions occur as regards their quantity or quality (improvements to what already exists), they cannot change as regards their substance (or identity). Any changes which corrupt the identity of ecclesiastical traditions (in other words, the tradition does not retain its original substance), is a condemnable innovation according to Nicea II.
For example, adding relics to the devotional practice of venerating images and icons improves both the quality and quantity of such devotion and retains the substance of saintly veneration. Such an addition would not be considered an innovation. However, removing all sacred images and icons (which is what the heretical iconoclasts attempted to do and were thus condemned by Nicea II) is indeed an innovation because it changes, or in this case, removes the substance of veneration and makes it nonexistent.
Consequently, the innovation against the Church’s ecclesiastical tradition (use of images and icons) attacks the Church’s doctrine (veneration of saints). Similarly, the rejection of the ecclesiastical tradition of head coverings for women attacks the Church’s doctrine that woman is under the authority of man in the relational hierarchy of God, Christ, man and woman. The Second Council of Nicea anathematizes those who promote such innovations and attacks on the Church’s ecclesiastical traditions which have been “entrusted to the Church” by the Holy Ghost.
The council’s condemnation is best understood by referring to one of the oldest maxims of the Church’s sacred theology: “legem credendi statuit lex orandi.” This is a Latin phrase which means “the rule of prayer determines the rule of faith” (often referred to as “lex orandi, lex credendi”). In other words, the way we pray determines what we believe. As we have seen, if an ecclesiastical tradition (e.g. head coverings) which expresses a doctrine of the Church is altered or removed altogether, the underlying doctrine will necessarily be compromised (e.g., woman’s submissive role as wife and mother). This is because, as we have explained, the ecclesiastical traditions of the Church express and mediate the Sacred Deposit of Faith.
Thus, it is no surprise that the woman’s role in the life of the Church (from submissive wife and mother to veritable preacher and priestess) began to change precisely during the time when the traditional Church’s liturgical practices (head coverings for women and their silence in church) were abandoned, that is, following the close of Vatican II (late 1960s to early 1970s). We have seen this consequence not only with regard to the woman’s role in the Church, but also with regard to, inter alia, the Blessed Sacrament, where lay ministers, Communion in the hand, displaced or removed tabernacles and like innovations have directly undermined most modern Catholics’ faith in the Eucharist (evidenced by the many surveys which reveal only a minority of today’s Catholics believe in the Real Presence). This is why St. Paul repeatedly urged the faithful to keep firm the traditions he handed on to them, for the traditions serve to communicate and maintain the Faith of the Church throughout the ages.
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The Second Council of Nicea says that ecclesiastical traditions have been handed down either orally or in writing: “We declare that we defend free from any innovations all the written and unwritten ecclesiastical traditions that have been entrusted to us”; “If anyone rejects any written or unwritten Tradition of the Church, let him be anathema.” The Church’s ecclesiastical traditions have been recorded not only in her liturgical books (e.g. sacramentaries) and the writings of the Church Fathers, but also in Sacred Scripture itself. As we have seen, St. Paul teaches explicitly in Scripture that a woman is required to cover her head when she prays (ecclesiastical tradition) which expresses the Church’s doctrine that she is under the authority of man (Sacred Tradition). In fact, St. Paul reveals that the use of head coverings was already well-established during his day, and that the “Church of God” did not have any contrary “custom” (1Co 11:16).
It is also important to note that St. Paul opens his discourse to the Corinthians on head coverings by emphasizing that his forthcoming teaching is part of the apostolic Tradition which comes from Christ Himself. Before he specifically addresses the head covering issue, he writes: “Be ye followers of me, as I also am of Christ. Now I praise you, brethren, that in all things you are mindful of me: and keep my ordinances as I have delivered them to you” (vv.1-2). The word “ordinances” (Greek, paradoseis) refers to the teaching that Christ gave to His apostles, and which they have “delivered” to us either orally or in writing through apostolic succession. This paradoseis includes both the Sacred Tradition of the Deposit of Faith and the ecclesiastical traditions of the Church.
The practice and theological significance of head coverings is part of this apostolic paradoseis. After St. Paul instructs the Corinthians to keep the paradoseis (vv.1-2), he hands it on to them in the very next verse, by explaining the divinely-revealed order between God, Christ, man and woman (v.3). Immediately thereafter, St. Paul reveals that head coverings for women express this divine and natural hierarchy (vv.4-16). St. Paul repeats both the doctrinal and ecclesiastical aspects of the paradoseis throughout this passage. That is, St. Paul reveals both the Sacred Tradition (relational hierarchy from God to woman vv.3,7-9,14) and ecclesiastical tradition (necessity of head coverings for women vv.4-7,10,13-15) and how the former is expressed and lived in the Church by the latter.
Indeed, St. Paul finds these divine truths even in nature itself when he says, “Doth not even nature itself teach you, that a man indeed, if he nourish his hair, it is a shame unto him? But if a woman nourish her hair, it is a glory to her; for her hair is given to her for a covering” (vv.14-15).
St. Paul uses the same terminology of apostolic paradoseis elsewhere in Scripture. For example, in 2Th 2:14, St. Paul says, “Therefore, brethren, stand fast; and hold the traditions (paradoseis) which you have learned, whether by word, or by our epistle.” The teaching and praxis of head coverings is part of the “traditions” that St. Paul exhorts us to maintain, both in 1Corinthians 11 and 2Thessalonians 2.
This 1900 year-old tradition of head coverings has been handed down to us through both the oral (“by word”) and written (“by epistle”) sources of inspiration as both Scripture and Tradition affirm. Because the Holy Ghost inspired the ecclesiastical tradition of head coverings for women (as well as dictated the mandate in Sacred Scripture), we must “stand fast and hold” to the tradition as St. Paul reveals. St. Paul also says in 2Th 3:6, “And we charge you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw yourselves from every brother walking disorderly, and not according to the tradition (paradosin) which they have received of us.” Once again, St. Paul’s exhortations to the Thessalonians in the name of Christ reveal the immutability of apostolic traditions and the absolute necessity of maintaining these traditions to preserve the Faith.
Like head coverings, the mandate that women must keep silent in church is another ecclesiastical tradition that expresses the doctrine on the nature and submissive role of women in the church and the home. In his same first epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul teaches: “Let women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted them to speak, but to be subject, as also the law saith. But if they would learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is a shame for a woman to speak in the church. Or did the word of God come out from you? Or came it only unto you? If any seem to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him know the things that I write to you, that they are the commandments of the Lord” (1Co 14:34-37). Just as the Church submits to Christ her Teacher, so the woman does the same to her husband. The Church has always understood St. Paul’s command to preclude a woman from preaching or reading Scripture in any liturgical action, or even taking the leading role in educating her children in the Faith. But as with head coverings, the conciliar Church has also abandoned this divinely-inspired ecclesiastical tradition, in favor of promoting the exact opposite practice (women teaching and preaching in and out of church).
Notice further that St. Paul explicitly says his teaching on the woman’s duty to be silent in church and cover her head during prayer as a symbol of her submissiveness is according to “the law” (v.34) and “are commandments of the Lord” (v.37). Hence, St. Paul makes it clear that these ecclesiastical traditions are not dictated by the transitory condition of culture or society as many in the modern Church suggest, but are part of the Divine Law which comes from God Himself. Just as the relational hierarchy between God, Christ, man and woman cannot change, neither can the divinely-inspired practice which expresses it.
Just as the Church must always be in submission to Christ, so must a woman always be in submission to her husband. Because these truths are unchanging, they must be unchangingly expressed in the life of the Church (which we see in the 1900 year-old practices of head coverings for women and keeping silent in church). This, again, is why ecclesiastical traditions are inspired, infallible and inerrant, and why they must be preserved inviolate, without any innovation or rejection.
Because the modern Church has abandoned her ecclesiastical traditions, she is suffering an unprecedented crisis of Faith. This crisis was prophesied by Our Lady at Quito and Fatima and has been acknowledged by all of the Popes since the close of the Second Vatican Council. The crisis is conspicuously exemplified by the modern woman’s rejection of head coverings as she performs roles once reserved exclusively to the male clergy (reading Scripture, serving the Altar, distributing Holy Communion).
This perversion of the role of women in the Church was precisely the condition the prophet Isaiah lamented in the days of Israel’s apostasy: “As for my people, their oppressors have stripped them, and women have ruled over them” (Is 3:12). Through the intercession of Our Lady, Virgin and Mother, let us continue to pray for a restoration of all things in Christ, including her ecclesiastical traditions.
St. Paul emphasizes the head covering’s symbol of man’s authority over the woman through his precise use of language. St. Paul refers to the “cover” over the woman’s head, not as a chapel veil or mantilla, but as a “power” or “authority” (Greek, exousian). This is why the veil is placed “over” her head.
 St. Paul’s teaching on head coverings for women in 1Corinthians 11:1-16 is bracketed by his teaching on the Holy Eucharist (1Co 10:16-21 and 1Co 11:23-30) which he declares to “have received of the Lord” (1Co 11:23). Because both teachings (head coverings and the Eucharist) relate to the liturgy further underscores that the head covering requirement, like the instructions on the Eucharist, are divine commands from God that must be perpetually maintained.
 See also 1Tim 2:11-15.
 God reveals throughout Scripture that wives must submit to their husbands’ authority (Eph 5:22-24; Col 3:18; Ti 2:4-5; 1Pt. 3:1,5-6). This was part of God’s plan from the beginning. Rebutting the claim of the Modernists, Adam’s headship over Eve was not a punishment for Eve’s sin, for Adam already had authority over Eve before the Original Sin (Gn 2:18). Rather, the consequence for the Original Sin was Eve’s unnatural and disordered desire to rule over Adam instead of being submissive to him. As a consequence of her sin, God revealed to Eve in Gn 3:16: “your desire will be to rule over your husband, but he shall rule over you.” Similarly, God told Cain that lust would desire to rule over him but he would have dominion over it (Gen 4:7). This means lust for sex and power (e.g., women’s desire to have authority over men as teachers, lectors, lay ministers) is a sinful desire, borne from the Original Sin.
 In 1Cor 11:10, St. Paul adds that the woman should wear a covering not only for the sake of the man, but also “because of the angels.” This fact also reveals the head covering requirement is a divine command and a spiritual duty which transcends cultural or societal factors. This also puts the head covering practice in the context of the Holy Mass, where the angels witness the eternal sacrifice (cf. Heb 12:22;1Pet 1:12; 1Cor 4:9).