Still Binding? The Veiling of Women

and Meatless Fridays

by Jacob Michael

 We've all heard the phrase countless times: "Vatican II changed that." In his Christmas Message to the Roman Curia in 2005, Pope Benedict XVI spoke of the "hermeneutic [=the science of interpretation] of discontinuity," which wrongly insists that "the texts of the Council as such do not yet express the true spirit of the Council," and thus, "it would be necessary not to follow the texts of the Council but its spirit." The Holy Father comments, "In this way, obviously, a vast margin was left open for the question on how this spirit should subsequently be defined and room was consequently made for every whim." (Address of His Holiness Benedict XVI to the Roman Curia, December 22, 2005, source)

In the flurry of changes that followed upon the Council, two binding laws of the Church were forgotten by the faithful, and have largely fallen into disuse today. The first of these issues is the law of the Church concerning the veiling of women, that is, the obligation of women to wear some kind of head-covering at the liturgy; the second issue is the law of the Church concerning abstinence from meat on Fridays. In the course of this essay, both issues will be examined, and evidence will be provided to show that these two laws are still binding on Catholics today, contrary to what the false "spirit of the Council" might suggest.

The veiling of women is first mentioned in the inspired writings of St. Paul, who wrote as follows to the Corinthians:

Any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled dishonors her head - it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her wear a veil. (1 Cor. 11:4-6)

While some may wish to claim that St. Paul is speaking of a cultural discipline, which is subject to change, the Apostle himself adds later in the text that this obligation is not rooted in cultural practice, but in order of creation and the supernatural realm itself:

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 woman ought to have a veil on her head, because of the angels. (1 Cor. 11:7-10)

St. Paul appeals to the order of creation first - man was not made from woman, but woman from man - and to the supernatural realm second - women are to veil themselves "because of the angels." We will have opportunity later to examine the interpretation of these texts by the great biblical scholar, St. Thomas Aquinas; first, however, we will consider how this text was understood and put into practice in the early Church.

Against the modern interpretation of the text, which posits that a woman's hair is the only covering to which St. Paul was referring, St. Irenaeus gives witness to the early Church's understanding of what a "head covering" was. Commenting on the beliefs of the Gnostics, he writes:

Again, the coming of the Saviour with His attendants to Achamoth is declared in like manner by him in the same Epistle, when he says, "A woman ought to have a veil upon her head, because of the angels." Now, that Achamoth, when the Saviour came to her, drew a veil over herself through modesty, Moses rendered manifest when he put a veil upon his face. (Against Heresies, Book I, Cap. 8, 2)

What we learn from St. Irenaeus is that St. Paul was understood to be referring to a veil when he spoke of a covering for the head, and that the common understanding of the time (2nd century) was that the veil was worn for purposes of modesty. This view will resurface again in other works of the Fathers and later theologians.

Tertullian dedicated an entire work to the subject, entitled On The Veiling Of Virgins, in which he argues that virgins are not exempt from the law of veiling. He makes mention of the text in Genesis 6, which seems to indicate that the fallen angels were inflamed with lust for human women, and argues in conjunction with St. Paul's text that the veil should be worn "on account of the angels."

Tertullian appeals to the fact that the women keep themselves veiled, out of modesty, even outside of the liturgy; why, he wonders, should it be any different inside the church?

... as they veil their head in presence of heathens, let them at all events in the church conceal their virginity, which they do veil outside the church. They fear strangers: let them stand in awe of the brethren too; or else let them have the consistent hardihood to appear as virgins in the streets as well, as they have the hardihood to do in the churches. (On the Veiling of Virgins, 13)

He continues:

I pray you, be you mother, or sister, or virgin-daughter - let me address you according to the names proper to your years - veil your head: if a mother, for your sons' sakes; if a sister, for your brethren's sakes; if a daughter for your fathers' sakes ... Put on the panoply of modesty; surround yourself with the stockade of bashfulness; rear a rampart for your sex ... (ibid., 16)

If married women veil themselves in church, Tertullian argues, so should the virgins who are not married, because in reality, they are married - they are the bride of Christ:

And yet you do not belie yourself in appearing as a bride. For you are wedded to Christ: to Him you have surrendered your flesh; to Him you have espoused your maturity. Walk in accordance with the will of your Espoused. (ibid., 16)

These witnesses of the 2nd and 3rd centuries are complemented by another writer of the 3rd century: St. Clement of Alexandria. In his multi-volume work called Paedagogus, or "The Instructor," St. Clement likewise attaches the question of the veil to the issue of modesty:

Woman and man are to go to church decently attired ... Let the woman observe this, further. Let her be entirely covered ... For that style of dress is grave, and protects from being gazed at. And she will never fall, who puts before her eyes modesty, and her shawl; nor will she invite another to fall into sin by uncovering her face. For this is the wish of the Word, since it is becoming for her to pray veiled. (The Instructor, Book III, "Going to Church")

Next we come to the writings of three of the Church's greatest biblical scholars: St. Augustine, St. Jerome, and the "Golden-Mouthed Doctor," St. John Chrysostom. In his work on the Trinity, St. Augustine writes:

We ought not therefore so to understand that man is made in the image of the supreme Trinity ... as that the same image should be understood to be in three human beings; especially when the apostle says that the man is the image of God, and on that account removes the covering from his head, which he warns the woman to use, speaking thus: "For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of the man." (On the Trinity, Book XII, Cap. 7, 9)

St. John Chrysostom, in his homilies on St. Paul's text from Corinthians, understands St. Paul to be saying that a woman should be veiled at all times, not merely in church:

... the man he compels not to be always uncovered, but only when he prays ... But the woman he commands to be at all times covered ... [he] also proceeded to say, "for it is one and the same thing as if she were shaven." But if to be shaven is always dishonorable, it is plain too that being uncovered is always a reproach. And not even with this only was he content, but added again, saying, "The woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head, because of the angels." He signifies that not only at the time of prayer but also continually, she ought to be covered. (Homilies on First Corinthians, Homily 26, ver. 4)

As can be seen here, the question for St. John Chrysostom was not whether women should be veiled in church; that was a given. The question was whether they should be veiled even outside of church.

St. Jerome, in a letter to Sabinianus (a deacon who had fallen into serious sin), notes in passing a common custom in certain convents, wherein woman who have renounced the world then cut their hair. Now, since St. Paul had made this very analogy, that for a woman to go unveiled was as disgraceful for her as if she had cut her hair, St. Jerome quickly adds that these women do not then proceed to the next step, and unveil themselves:

It is usual in the monasteries of Egypt and Syria for virgins and widows who have vowed themselves to God and have renounced the world and have trodden under foot its pleasures, to ask the mothers of their communities to cut their hair; not that afterwards they go about with heads uncovered in defiance of the apostle's command, for they wear a close-fitting cap and a veil. (Letter 147, 5)

Note that St. Jerome, writing in the 5th century, hundreds of years after St. Paul's epistle was written, still understands the veiling of women in church to be a "command" of the Apostle.

Moving rapidly ahead to the scholastic period in the middle ages, we look to the commentary of St. Thomas Aquinas on this passage from St. Paul. Commenting on the fact that women must be veiled "because of the angels," St. Thomas says that this can be understood in two ways - literally and figuratively. In the literal sense, "angels" really means angels:

This can be understood in two ways: in one way about the heavenly angels who are believed to visit congregations of the faithful, especially when the sacred mysteries are celebrated. And therefore at that time women as well as men ought to present themselves honorably and ordinately as reverence to them according to Ps 138 (v. 1): "Before the angels I sing thy praise." (St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on First Corinthians, 613, source)

In a more figurative way, St. Thomas says that "angels" can refer here to the priests who celebrate the liturgies, and thus he ties the issue of veiling to modesty:

In another way it can be understood in the sense that priests are called angels, inasmuch as proclaim divine things to the people according to Mal (2:7): "For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and men should seek instruction from his mouth; for he is the angel of the Lord of hosts."

Therefore, the woman should always have a covering over her head because of the angels, i.e., the priests, for two reasons: first, as reverence toward them, to which it pertains that women should behave honorably before them ... Secondly, for their safety, lest the sight of a woman not veiled excite their concupiscence. (ibid.)

As a side note, while Catholics do not take their theological or moral direction from the first Protestant Reformers, it is certainly interesting to make mention of the fact that in the 16th century, even John Calvin took a "traditional" view of the veiling of woman, tying it to the issue of modesty. In his characteristically blunt way, Calvin says:

So if women are thus permitted to have their heads uncovered and to show their hair, they will eventually be allowed to expose their entire breasts, and they will come to make their exhibitions as if it were a tavern show; they will become so brazen that modesty and shame will be no more; in short they will forget the duty of nature. (S. Skolnitsky (tr.), Men, Women and Order in the Church: Three Sermons by John Calvin [Dallas, TX: Presbyterian Heritage Publications, 1992], p. 12)

This witness tells us at least one thing: even by the 16th century, the tradition of veiling women in church was still going strong. And it continued to be the practice in the Catholic Church, right up until the late 1960s.

We have briefly surveyed the tradition of the Church on the subject; now we must look at what the law of the Church states today concerning women and head coverings. The most explicit statement came in the older, 1917 edition of the Code of Canon Law:

Men, in a church or outside a church, while they are assisting at sacred rites, shall be bare-headed, unless the approved mores of the people or peculiar circumstances of things determine otherwise; women, however, shall have a covered head and be modestly dressed, especially when they approach the table of the Lord. (Canon 1262.2)
Viri in ecclesia vel extra ecclesiam, dum sacris ritibus assistunt, nudo capite sint, nisi aliud ferant probati populorum mores aut peculiaria rerum adiuncta; mulieres autem, capite cooperto et modeste vestitae, maxime cum ad mensam Dominicam accedunt.

Why bring up this canon from the old Codex? Don't we have a new Code of Canon Law in force today? Yes, we do, but a difficulty arises from this peculiar fact: the new Code does not contain this Canon from the 1917 Code. The New Code of Canon Law simply does not mention the veiling of women. So does this mean the law of the veil has been abrogated? We turn now to examine what the New Code says regarding old laws that are not carried over into the new law code. The New Code begins in this way:

A law is established when it is promulgated. (Canon 7)

The first building block of our argument, then, is this: the law of the veil was established when it was promulgated, in 1917.

A later law abrogates, or derogates from, an earlier law if it states so expressly, is directly contrary to it, or completely reorders the entire matter of the earlier law. A universal law, however, in no way derogates from a particular or special law unless the law expressly provides otherwise. (Canon 20, emphasis added)

This is the second piece of the puzzle: an old law is not revoked unless the new law "states so expressly," or is "directly contrary to it," or "completely reorders the entire matter of the earlier law." The New Code of Canon Law does not even mention the veil, and thus it does not expressly revoke the law; the New Code does not legislate that women must not wear a veil, and so it is not "directly contrary" to the old Code; finally, since the New Code does not even raise the issue, it can hardly be argued that it revokes the old law by "completely [reordering] the entire matter."

Still, someone may say, because the New Code does not mention the old law of the veil, can we not conclude that it is being implicitly revoked, or at least no longer being enforced? On the contrary, the next canon says:

In a case of doubt, the revocation of a pre-existing law is not presumed, but later laws must be related to the earlier ones and, insofar as possible, must be harmonized with them. (Canon 21, emphasis added)

It would be incorrect, then, and contrary to Canon Law, to "presume" that the "pre-existing law" has been revoked. So far there is nothing in the New Code that would lead us to believe that veils have been abolished, and in fact, the law expressly states that old laws are not to be presumed to be revoked.

In the next canons, the question of particular "customs" is raised.

Unless the competent legislator has specifically approved it, a custom contrary to the canon law now in force or one beyond a canonical law (praeter legem canonicam) obtains the force of law only if it has been legitimately observed for thirty continuous and complete years. Only a centenary or immemorial custom, however, can prevail against a canonical law which contains a clause prohibiting future customs. (Canon 26, emphasis added)

This paragraph tells us that a custom obtains "the force of law" once it has been practiced "for thirty continuous and complete years." The custom of women veiling their heads (which was not mere custom, but positive law, in any case) was in force since at least 1917, when the old Codex was promulgated; the New Code was promulgated in 1983, which means that the custom of veiling was practiced for at least 66 years - more than double the requirement given by the New Code.

As we have shown, however, the custom of the veil was practiced in the early Church, and continued to be practiced down through the centuries until the 1960s; in other words, the custom of veiling women is more than even a "centenary" custom - it is an "immemorial" custom, and thus, even if the New Code had explicitly revoked it, according to Canon 26 it would "prevail against ... canonical law."

We can look to a similar and parallel case to prove the point we are making. The 1917 Code contained an explicit prohibition against joining a Masonic lodge. The code says:

Those who join a Masonic sect or other societies of the same sort, which plot against the church or against legitimate civil authority, incur an ipso facto excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See. (Canon 2335)
Nomen dantes sectae massonicae aliisve eiusdem generis associationibus quae contra Ecclesiam vel legitimas civiles potestates machinantur, contrahunt ipso facto excommunicationem Sedi Apostolicae simpliciter reservatam.

This older law was, in fact, mentioned in the New Code, but slightly revised so that Masons were not mentioned specifically:

A person who joins an association which plots against the Church is to be punished with a just penalty; however, a person who promotes or directs an association of this kind is to be punished with an interdict. (Canon 1374)

Just as with the law of the veil, the law prohibiting joining a Masonic lodge was not carried over explicitly into the New Code; did this mean that it was now permissible to join the Masons? Did the absence of the former law mean that it was revoked? On the contrary, and eventually the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was bound to issue a statement of clarification on the matter:

It has been asked whether there has been any change in the Church's decision in regard to Masonic associations since the new Code of Canon Law does not mention them expressly, unlike the previous Code ... the Church's negative judgment in regard to Masonic association remains unchanged since their principles have always been considered irreconcilable with the doctrine of the Church and therefore membership in them remains forbidden. The faithful who enroll in Masonic associations are in a state of grave sin and may not receive Holy Communion. (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration on Masonic Associations, November 26, 1983, emphasis added)

Notice the similarity in the argument: the previous Code explicitly mentioned the Masons, the New Code does not, therefore the law has been revoked. The CDF overturned this reasoning and stated that the previous law was still in force. The same must be said of the law of the veil, since the New Code itself says that no previous law can be presumed to be revoked, unless the New Code explicitly says otherwise.

From this lengthy discussion on the veiling of women, we turn to briefly consider the question of abstaining from meat on Fridays. Here, there is considerably more explicit data to work with, and thus we are not left to wonder about the state of the issue.

In 1966, Pope Paul VI issued an Apostolic Constitution (one of the most authoritative forms of a papal declaration) on the subject of penance. In it, he said:

Apart from the faculties referred to in VI and VIII regarding the manner of fulfilling the precept of penitence on such days, abstinence is to be observed on every Friday which does not fall on a day of obligation, while abstinence and fast are to be observed on Ash Wednesday or, according to local practice, on the first day of 'Great Lent' and on Good Friday. (Pope Paul VI, Paenitemini, Cap. 3, source, emphasis added)

The "faculties" referred to by the Pope, which are spelled out later in the document, say that "it is the task of episcopal conferences to ... [s]ubstitute abstinence and fast wholly or in part with other forms of penitence and especially works of charity and the exercises of piety." (ibid.) Thus he leaves open the possibility that conferences of Bishops in particular areas can lift the Friday abstinence rule and substitute it for another form of penance.

Following this, the 1983 Code of Canon Law states:

Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. (Canon 1251)

In the United States, the USCCB (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) promulgated a document shortly after Pope Paul VI issued his Apostolic Constitution, and took advantage of the faculties he had given them. The document, entitled "On Penance and Abstinence", says:

... the Catholic bishops of the United States, far from downgrading the traditional penitential observance of Friday, and motivated precisely by the desire to give the spirit of penance greater vitality, especially on Fridays, the day that Jesus died, urge our Catholic people henceforth to be guided by the following norms:

1. Friday itself remains a special day of penitential observance throughout the year, a time when those who seek perfection will be mindful of their personal sins and the sins of mankind which they are called upon to help expiate in union with Christ Crucified;

2. Friday should be in each week something of what Lent is in the entire year. For this reason we urge all to prepare for that weekly Easter that comes with each Sunday by freely making of every Friday a day of self-denial and mortification in prayerful remembrance of the passion of Jesus Christ;

3. Among the works of voluntary self-denial and personal penance which we especially commend to our people for the future observance of Friday, even though we hereby terminate the traditional law of abstinence as binding under pain of sin, as the sole prescribed means of observing Friday, we give first place to abstinence from flesh meat. We do so in the hope that the Catholic community will ordinarily continue to abstain from meat by free choice as formerly we did in obedience to Church law. (USCCB, "On Penance and Abstinence", November 18, 1966, source, emphasis added)

To sum up, the US Bishops have lifted the obligation to abstain from meat on Friday, which only means that failure to abstain from meat on Friday no longer involves a grave sin. This is hardly a loophole that should be interpreted as blanket approval to jettison this traditional practice; on the contrary, the Bishops then say that abstinence from meat on Friday is given "first place" among other penitential options, and remains the practice which should be "ordinarily" observed by Catholics in the United States. The only difference is that now Catholics will abstain from meat on Fridays "by free choice" instead of "in obedience to Church law," which was formerly binding on pain of grave sin.

Unfortunately, most Catholics have taken their new freedom and turned it into a false liberty, a license to abstain from any form of abstinence, even though the Bishops clearly state that Friday is to remain a day of penance and mortification. If a Catholic chooses to eat meat on a Friday, he is still bound by Church law to do some kind of penance and mortification, such as praying an extra decade of the Rosary, praying the stations of the Cross, fasting during the day, etc.

But the desire of the US Bishops, it must be emphasized again, is that abstinence from meat on Fridays will be the "ordinary" method of doing penance - not the extra-ordinary method. Abstinence from meat on Fridays is still, by the way, binding on the whole Church during the season of Lent. But even outside of Lent, Friday is still a day of penance and mortification, and abstinence from meat is still the primary and ordinary method of doing such penance. The question which Catholics must ask themselves, if they say that abstaining from meat on Fridays is no longer the Church law, is "what equivalent form of penance have I substituted in its place?"

In conclusion, we have examined two practices of the Church which have recently fallen into disuse, mostly through ignorance. The law of veiling woman is still in force, until Canon Law says otherwise; likewise, the law of penance and mortification on Fridays is also still in force, and the primary and normative method of doing penance on Fridays is still to abstain from meat.