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Womens' Head Covering

ROME, MAY 22, 2007 ( Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: A friend of mine told me that according to the Scriptures a woman should cover her head in the presence of Our Lord (holy Eucharist/during Mass). In our churches this is not practiced. Can you please write and tell me as to how and when the practice of women covering their heads came to an end, or is it that we are doing something which is not proper? -- J.M., Doha, Qatar

A: The Scripture text referred to is probably 1 Corinthians 11:4-16:

"Any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered brings shame upon his head. But any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled brings shame upon her head, for it is one and the same thing as if she had had her head shaved. For if a woman does not have her head veiled, she may as well have her hair cut off. But if it is shameful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should wear a veil. A man, on the other hand, should not cover his head, because he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; nor was man created for woman, but woman for man; for this reason a

woman should have a sign of authority on her head, because of the angels. Woman is not independent of man or man of woman in the Lord. For just as woman came from man, so man is born of woman; but all things are from God.

"Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears his hair long it is a disgrace to him, whereas if a woman has long hair it is her glory, because long hair has been given (her) for a covering? But if anyone is inclined to be argumentative, we do not have such a custom, nor do the churches of God."

A full treatment of this text is beyond the scope of this column. But we may say that this passage contains some elements that have perennial theological value and others which reflect transitory social mores which apply only to the specific time and place of the Corinthians.

For example, during the course of history there were times when it was common for men, and even clerics, to wear their hair long; and none felt that St. Paul's words considering the practice a disgrace applied to them.

Likewise, liturgical norms tell bishops to keep their skullcaps on during some of the prayers during Mass, and they may use the mitre while preaching, without falling under St. Paul's injunction that this practice brings shame upon his head. The norms, however, do ask him to remove his head covering for the Eucharistic Prayer and when the Blessed Sacrament is exposed.

Apart from bishops, and some canons, custom still dictates that all other men should uncover their heads in church except for outdoor Masses.

During St. Paul's time it was considered modest for a woman to cover her head, and he was underscoring this point for their presence in the liturgical assembly.

This custom was considered normative and was enshrined in Canon 1262.2 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law alongside the recommendation that men and women be separated in Church and that men go bareheaded. This canon was dropped from the new Code of Canon Law promulgated in 1983, but the practice had already begun to fall into disuse from about the beginning of the 1970s. Even though no longer legally binding, the custom is still widely practiced in some countries, especially in Asia. It has been generally abandoned in most Western countries even though women, unlike men, may still wear hats and veils to Mass if they choose.

Sociological factors might also have been involved. The greater emphasis on the equality of man and woman tended to downplay elements that stressed their differences.

Likewise, for the first time in centuries, not donning a hat outdoors, especially for men, ceased being considered as bad manners, whereas up to a few years beforehand it was deemed unseemly to go around hatless.

This general dropping of head covering by both sexes may also have influenced the disappearance of the religious custom. 

Follow-up: Head Coverings for Women

Several readers asked for further clarifications after our article on women wearing head coverings (May 22).

One reader said he was told that the new Code of Canon Law did not repeal the former obligation to wear hats and veils, but simply did not mention it.

Although some canonists might accept this hypothesis, it is not the most probable interpretation as it is unlikely that the legislator would have left the faithful in doubt as to the existence of an obligation. By no longer mentioning the custom, the legislator removed it from the realm of obligation while leaving intact the possibility of its remaining as a custom in some places or contexts.

A reader from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, mentioned a particular case: "We have a small group of traditionalist parishioners who come for Mass with their heads (especially women) veiled. Most parts of the Mass they are seen kneeling when everyone else is standing. During Communion they would receive kneeling and will only receive Communion if distributed by a priest and not by lay ministers or religious. There are instances where they refused to come out for Communion because the priest who celebrated the Mass would only give Communion to communicants who are standing. This resulted in them moving from church to church, searching for priests who would give them Communion kneeling. What is the Church's norm on this?"

Other readers mentioned similar cases of women being actively discouraged by priests from wearing hats and veils because they "cause distraction."

The principal reason why St. Paul mandated women to cover their heads was to foment modesty during the liturgy, especially because in the cultural context of the time a woman who did not cover her head conveyed a message of impropriety.

Since modesty is the primary reason, a woman is free to cover her head for the sake of modesty, or simply out of respect for long-standing custom.

While modesty would also advise against using elaborate hats and veils that tend to draw attention to oneself, there is no authority in canon law or in common-sense social mores that would allow a blanket prohibition or discouragement of all head coverings. Priests should be flexible enough to accommodate the various spiritual sensibilities of their flock, except in the case of clear incompatibility with the nature of the sacred rite.

A similar point could be made regarding the so-called Malayan traditionalists. These faithful should be encouraged to participate in the common gestures of the celebration which express unity of prayer and purpose.

Although the priest should try to educate them as to Church norms and genuine piety, it is usually pastorally advisable to be patient and avoid creating unnecessary divisions regarding points that are not always clearly defined in liturgical law.

At the same time, the Holy See has made it clear that even when the bishops' conference has established the practice of receiving Communion standing as a general norm, the faithful who wish to, may kneel down to receive the Host. It has also emphasized in very clear terms that under no circumstances may the faithful be refused Communion simply because they kneel.

Such members of the faithful, however, should also be careful lest their practice cause any disturbance to the flow of the Communion lines and if necessary they should, for example, wait until the end to receive kneeling.

As one version of the classic spiritual adage says, "In important things unity, in less important things liberty, in all things charity."

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