Sunday, August 26, 2012

That Pesky "Wives Be Submissive" Reading

The following is an excerpt from an unpublished manuscript on the three goods of marriage by an author who wishes to remain anonymous; I think he presents a good summary of the primacy of the husband in marriage – the topic of the second reading (Ephesias 5:21-32) in the Novus Ordo Mass for today. It's certainly been my experience that pastors generally prefer to have the "short" version read at Mass - the one that skips over the part about "let wives be subject to their husbands". But everyone who objects to this concept misses the point - so aptly expressed by the priest whose homily I heard last night: "It says 'wives submit to your husbands', but it also says 'husbands, you must be willing to die for your wives and families'!"

Faithful love based on the “order of love”

In Casti Connubii Pope Pius XI stressed that marital love can only be founded upon the “order of love” which he described this way:

“Domestic society being confirmed, therefore, by this bond of love, there should flourish in it that "order of love," as St. Augustine calls it. This order includes both the primacy of the husband with regard to the wife and children, the ready subjection of the wife and her willing obedience, which the Apostle commends in these words: "Let women be subject to their husbands as to the Lord, because the husband is the head of the wife, and Christ is the head of the Church." 

And he quoted his predecessor Pope Leo XIII:

“With great wisdom Our predecessor Leo XIII in the Encyclical on Christian marriage, speaking of this order to be maintained between man and wife, teaches: "The man is the ruler of the family, and the head of the woman; but because she is flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone, let her be subject and obedient to the man, not as a servant but as a companion, so that nothing be lacking of honor or of dignity in the obedience which she pays. Let divine charity be the constant guide of their mutual relations, both in him who rules and in her who obeys, since each bears the image, the one of Christ, the other of the Church." [Arcanum, 1880]

God Himself thought that this topic was so important that He spoke directly to Eve in the Garden of Eden and told her, “Thou shalt be under thy husband's power, and he shall have dominion over thee.” And St. Paul thought this issue so crucial that he discussed it not just in the famous verses from Ephesians already quoted, but also in several other epistles, hardly ever writing a letter without defending the natural order in regard to the proper roles of the sexes. Nor did St. Peter skip over this topic when he wrote in his first epistle,

“In like manner also, let wives be subject to their husbands:  in the incorruptibility of a quiet and a meek spirit which is rich in the sight of God.  For after this manner, the holy women also who trusted in God adorned themselves, being in subjection to their own husbands:  As Sara obeyed Abraham, calling him lord: whose daughters you are, doing well and not fearing any disturbance. Ye husbands, likewise dwelling with them according to knowledge, giving honour to the female as to the weaker vessel and as to the co-heirs of the grace of life: that your prayers be not hindered.” (1 Peter 3:1-7)

Knowing how often this Catholic teaching is denied today, we might wonder why this issue was considered so crucial from Adam and Eve right up until modern times. Our first instinct might be to take a pragmatic view similar to the popular notion which says, “When there is an important decision like buying a car or changing jobs, someone must have the final word, and so the husband has that authority.” This view is summarized by a joke, “My wife decides the small issues and I decide the big issues. So far there haven’t been any big issues.”

But the true reality of marriage is essentially spiritual, not pragmatic. Marriage is our school of sanctification for those of us who have not chosen the higher calling of celibacy. Recall the words of St. Paul to the Ephesians which immediately follow the verses quoted above:

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ also loved the church and delivered himself up for it: That he might sanctify it, cleansing it by the laver of water in the word of life: That he might present it to himself, a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. So also ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. (Eph 5:25-29)

Thus the fundamental job of the husband is to sanctify his wife, and lead her to salvation. Just as a pastor has the responsibility for the souls of his parishioners, and he will be held eternally accountable for any culpable negligence that leads to their loss, so the father of a family has responsibility for the smaller number of souls entrusted to his care, and he must lead them to heaven. This is his first and primary duty, and the one upon which his eternal destiny rests, even before such important duties as providing food, shelter, etc.

Every spiritual classic from the saints makes clear that obedience and submission are the very first necessary steps to spiritual growth. So the “order of love” in marriage is not something that comes into play only when there is a major purchasing decision, rather it is the very ground and basis for growth in sanctifying grace. Couples who discard this natural order have eradicated the means established for their own salvation.  As the Imitation of Christ says:

“He who strives to withdraw himself from obedience, withdraws himself from grace. He who does not willingly and freely subject himself to one above him, shows that his flesh does not yet perfectly obey him. Learn quickly to submit yourself to one above you if you wish to bring your own flesh into subjection.”

In addition to these spiritual realities, there are also pragmatic reasons for obedience, primarily in the way in which “the order of love” supports and protects the other two goods of marriage: fruitfulness and permanence. Submission to authority is inherently fruitful, as we see preeminently in the example of the Blessed Virgin. Her humility, her obedience. and her submission were the necessary conditions for her fruitfulness, a fruitfulness which has never been equaled, since she, together with the Holy Spirit, created the God-Man Jesus Christ whose creation is greater than all the rest of the universe. Each individual married woman, although not called to the identical type of fruitfulness as the Blessed Virgin, can imitate her virtues of humility, obedience, and submission, and she will find her virtue similarly rewarded with the blessing of fruitfulness showered upon her by divine Providence.

And just as the humility and submission of Mary were fruitful not only in the physical realm, but primarily in the spiritual, so too each woman who imitates Mary’s virtues will be spiritually fruitful by becoming the model and the mechanism for transmitting these virtues to the next generation. St. Louis de Montfort explains that Mary is the model of Christ and that by casting ourselves in her mold we can more surely and more perfectly be formed to a likeness of Christ, just as a statue is made so much more quickly and easily and a more perfect copy made by pouring the material into a mold than by pounding away with hammer and chisel. In the same way as Mary submitted to Christ and became the mold in which all Christians are formed, so each woman in the limited sphere of her own family can imitate Mary’s role by submitting to her husband and becoming a mold in which her children can be formed in all the virtues, but especially the virtue of obedience, more quickly, more easily, more surely and more perfectly. A woman who is not herself a good model but still hopes to form her children in these virtues is like a sculptor attempting to chisel away at hard and unyielding rock, engaging in difficult and often fruitless labor, instead of using the easier, more certain and more perfect method.

Moreover, a hierarchical relationship of authority and obedience creates the peace, the goodwill and the growth in sanctifying grace that are necessary for the protection of the permanent sacramental marriage bond. In contrast, a relationship of “unnatural equality,” as Pope Pius XI described it, is inherently unstable and prone to dissolution.

As a final word on this topic, let me add a reminder that the symbol of this Catholic doctrine is wearing a headcovering in church. As St. Paul said, “The woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head.” This teaching was handed down and lived by Catholic tradition for more than 1900 years and established by the magisterium as canon law. St. Paul says that any woman who enters church without a head covering “disgraces herself,” and by doing so she makes a public statement of her defiance of the Catholic teaching on authority. A headcovering may be only a symbol, but a very important symbol, one decreed for us by the Word of God and by the tradition and magisterium of the Catholic Church. Every time a woman wears a headcovering in church, she proclaims her fidelity to the traditional Catholic faith, and her commitment to traditional Catholic marriage which will be fruitful, sanctifying and permanent.

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