Dear Edith: Why do some women wear veils at church?

March 15, 2017

Dear Edith,

Reading the Bible as a Catholic and a Feminist, I have long been confused by St. Paul's straightforward command that women should wear head coverings in church. I would think that this teaching perhaps had relevance to the culture at the time and is now obsolete, but I know millions of Catholic women still wear head coverings. I don't understand the purpose and it troubles me that women and girls cover themselves when there is no expectation that men and boys do so. I would never do this myself or ask it of my future daughters, but I would love to understand more about the application of this teaching in the modern church. Thank you!

- Carey

Dear Edith Response #1 - Amanda

Dear Carey,

Thank you for your question! To start, I think you are correct in that St. Paul’s teaching was related to the culture at that time. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a declaration in 1976 called Inter Insigniores, in which they state about the teachings of St. Paul regarding women,

“. . .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 (1 Cor 11:2-16); such requirements no longer have a normative value.”

Since the 1970s, women are not expected to wear head coverings while in church (though the expectation remains for Mass in the Extraordinary Form), leaving it up to a woman’s personal choice. As it is a choice, I can only share why I choose to do so. There are variety of reasons, but they are all part of a desire to recognize my femininity before God by wearing a veil in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.

One such reason is that, when I put on my veil upon entering a church, it is a concrete reminder that I am in the presence of God. This fosters a disposition that helps me pray and focus (helpful for someone who is as easily distracted as I am).

I also wear a veil as a sign of submission to the will of God; however, for me, this is far more of an accountability measure than it is a sign of holiness. I continually struggle with surrendering my will to God’s, and wearing a veil helps me remember that I still have much growing to do in this area.

Finally, the veil reminds me that it is a great blessing to be a woman, as our bodies are sacred vessels capable of carrying life (think of how the chalice which holds the Precious Blood is veiled before the consecration). This is one attribute that distinguishes us from men. As a woman, I have a special vocation to receive life and nourish it, whether that be through loving my friends, in my work with college students, or one day as a mother. All of that being said, the veil is certainly not necessary for women to focus at Mass, surrender their will to God’s, or embrace the gift of their femininity. There are plenty of holy women in my life who inspire me and happen to not wear veils. In the end, I wear a veil because I like wearing one for the reasons I mentioned, and I hope that any woman would feel free to wear one or not, as she chooses.

Dear Edith Response #2 - Kate

Hi Carey!

The important thing to remember about interpreting Scripture is the Catholic Church teaches that there is a literal and spiritual sense, and ultimately, the Church guides us (see CCC 115-119). When we look at St. Paul’s writing, we need to consider the cultural significance and how it relates to modern times, as you pointed out in your question. What we as women must understand is that we are morally obligated to dress modestly and reverently. A woman’s hair is viewed as something incredibly beautiful in a variety of cultures, which is why the idea of veiling came about. We also see other beautiful, and even holy things, “veiled” (that is, covered) in the Mass like the Eucharist in the Tabernacle or the blood of Christ being in a solid chalice. "Covering” our beauty rightly orients the focus away from us and towards what the focus of the Mass should be: Christ.

But you raised an important point: what about men? Men are absolutely held to the same requirement of modesty and reverence as women, but this is expressed differently. Though men and women are equal in dignity and value, they are different in other ways. I know this is challenging to accept, and is something I have struggled to understand myself. However, the more I look at what the Church says about the differences, I view it as a celebration because the differences are emphasized as a necessity. Our unique contributions as women represent some of the beauty of the Creator.

When I started looking into veiling, it was based on a personal desire to show devotion to God. It came to my attention at a time I was just beginning to recognize the True Presence. This development in my faith hit me hard, and veiling was a way to unite what I was feeling (awe towards the Eucharist) with an outward expression.

veiling was a way to unite what I was feeling (awe towards the Eucharist) with an outward expression.

I find that veiling (whether it is a mantilla or a wide headband) helps me to keep a posture appropriate for being in the presence of the Lord. At the same time, I recognize that is is a personal devotion and there are women who choose not to veil and are able to maintain that posture much better than me. Because it is a choice and not a requirement, I feel that it is between God and I on how I can improve my relationship with Him. The important thing to me is that it is a choice. I think every person should be modest, humble, and reverent, but how they go about that will have differences from me. If God blesses my husband and I with daughters, we will allow them to make the decision to whether or not they will veil.

Dear Edith Response #3 - Kyla

Hi Carey,

First, I would like to say I was totally with you in the fact that I had no idea what women wearing chapel veils was about, or that anyone was even still wearing them! When I decided to start wearing a chapel veil for Lent, to work on humility and concentration during mass, my super liberal (as am I) parents were almost appalled. “Why would you want to wear a symbol of the church’s oppression of women?!” They asked me. Well, here was my reply to them.

In the words of the lovely Emma Watson – Feminism is a choice. The fact that I can CHOOSE to wear a chapel veil is the power of feminism, and if I choose to wear one it makes me no less a strong woman than those who choose not to. There is also a quote from St. Paul about women veiling themselves in the sight of the Lord in dignity, whereas men bare their heads in the same sign of respect. If you think about it, men still show that sign of dignity – how many men do you see removing their hats for mass? Indeed, if a man did NOT remove his hat for mass I myself would be a bit miffed.

Fr. Mike (a cool Catholic Priest and Youtube sensation) did a Q&A about Chapel veils that I feel explains what they are, why they are worn, and the history behind them.

One of my favorite parts is when he describes it as sacramental, the same way a rosary or a scapular is. Its a tool for us to explore our faith! It’s not required or necessary, but it could add a component to your prayer life, depending on your gifts and charisms.

It’s not required or necessary, but it could add a component to your prayer life, depending on your gifts and charisms.

Overall, it has been a huge learning opportunity for me to wear a veil at church. It’s definitely uncomfortable in a English mass – what is everyone around me thinking?! But that’s part of the point of my choosing to wear it – it shouldn’t matter what other people think. I DO find myself focusing more when I wear it, and this is for God, not for anyone else’s opinion or view of me. Not sure that I will continue to wear it regularly after Lent, but I do appreciate the fact that I’ve taken time to learn and experience what a chapel veil can do for my relationship with God.

Hope this helps!

Dear Edith Response #4 - Erin

Hey, Carey! Your question about veiling is a good one! There are a lot of layers to this question and to its answer, some of which I am still uncovering myself. But I’ll do my best!

Paul’s requirement that men not cover their heads while women do has to do with the spousal, nuptial imagery between God and His people that is found throughout the bible. Christ is considered the Groom and His people (the Church) are considered the bride. Ephesians 5:25 ties this relationship to the relationship between men and women, specifically husbands and wives: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loves the Church.” Men are to Christ as women are to the Church. And because veiling is traditionally a sign of submission, it would follow that women veil while men do not, because again, women represent the submissive nature of the Church under Christ. It’s why women religious veil: they are representatives of the Church, submitting to the love and care of Jesus, their Spouse. It’s why the bride veils on her wedding day: she is submitting to the love and care of her husband. A lot of people these days don't like that word "submission," but again, notice here that it means a woman submitting herself to the love and care of her spouse. It's a sign of trust in him, not a sign that her free will is being taken away!

It's a sign of trust in him, not a sign that her free will is being taken away!

Veiling is also traditionally a sign of reverence and an acknowledgement of the sacred. The tabernacle in some churches is veiled because it contains the Eucharist, the Bread of Life. The chalice is veiled before consecration at mass because it will contain the Precious Blood, Jesus' life and our life. Women are encouraged to dress modestly and might consider veiling because it's an acknowledgement of the sacredness of their bodies--they have the ability to bear life.

I started veiling a few months ago and I love doing it because it reminds me of my commitment to Christ and my submission to His authority over and love for me. I also see it as a way of recognizing before Christ that I am different from men. Of course, a woman can recognize her beauty and sacredness and beloved-ness without veiling. But even though veiling is not a required practice anymore, it still represents the transcendent reality of how men and women represent the bond between Christ and His Church, and of the reality that women have the unique capacity to bear life. It's a sign; it points to something deeper than itself.

I hope that at least starts to answer your question!

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