Condemnation not commendation; the issue of women wearing a veil – Monday, 24th week in ordinary time – 1 Corinthians 11:17-26,33
( Please read the entire chapter)
Chapter 11:2 to chapter 14:40 now focuses on the conduct of the Corinthian Christians at congregational meetings. There were certain disorders at the worship services which are brought to Paul’s attention; practices that Paul found offensive. The first of these deals with the ‘scandal of unveiled women’ (11:3-16) and I want to briefly touch upon it before I take on the text of today.
I am going to approach this text dispassionately at first and then weigh in with my thoughts.
At the time of St Paul, there were some women who were taking part in the worship services with their heads uncovered. Paul’s arguments come from both scriptural considerations and social conventions of that time. From Genesis 2, he and the Jewish world at that time, deduced that women were inferior to men and this conviction underlines the whole discussion. For him, a man’s uncovered head was a symbol of his acceptance of the authority given to him for he was created in God’s image. To cover his head with a symbol of inferiority would be dishonourable. In Paul’s religious world view, a woman was created for subjugation and hence she dishonours ‘her head’, that is (her) man. In uncovering her head she asserts her will to be his equal. For Paul, women are free to pray or prophesy, but only when as they demonstrated that they are under the authority of male leadership in the church.
First, let us not vilify St Paul too quickly, turn one page of your Bible and Paul was emancipating a woman’s conjugal rights in a marriage at a time when women were sexually objectified. Yet, in our day and time, it is difficult to swallow what Paul says. What Paul advocates was more a reflection of the cultural bias of the time rather than the scriptural text he uses to justify his stance. The Greco- Roman world and Jewish social customs mandated that married woman wear a veil as a sign that she was under rule of a man; ironically, they believed a woman received legitimization only if she was relationally linked to a man; if not, the opinions about her were up for the taking.
Where does the Church stand on this issue? The 1917 Code of Canon Law (in No. 1262) said that men in church should be bare-headed while women “shall have a covered head.” That same canon also said, “It is desirable that, consistent with ancient discipline, women be separated from men in church.” But in 1976, an instruction issued by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith indicated that this 1917 directive was no longer in force. The Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith said, “It must be noted that these ordinances, probably inspired by the customs of the period, concern scarcely more than disciplinary practices of minor importance, such as the obligation imposed upon women to wear a veil on their head. … Such requirements no longer have a normative value.”). This was then inked in the new code of canon law of 1983.