Male headship in marriage



Fr David Watt


A favourite ploy of the devil is to make his lies stronger by mixing them with some truth.  Thus, the truth that men have often oppressed women, has been twisted into the many-headed Hydra that is feminism as normally conceived, promoting such abominations as abortion, contraception and same sex unions.


To be sure, not a few devout Catholics would still describe themselves as feminists without promoting such horrors.  To some extent, the demands of feminism are simply the requirements of natural justice, eg that if a woman is doing the same work as a man, she should receive the same pay.  Even among more moderate feminists, however, there is a tendency to measure the promotion of women by their increased entry into predominantly male spheres.  Hence the frequent call for more women to be politicians, business leaders and so forth.


Traditional Catholicism, au contraire, has never judged the advancement of women in these terms.  The female sex has always been conceived as having a role which is complementary to, but different from, the male.  Imagine if oranges all started protesting and carrying placards demanding equality because they were not being advertised as apples.  We would reply, gently but firmly, that they were not apples, and that as oranges, they were not inferior; merely different.


In Catholic tradition, this complementarity of roles is shown by, inter alia, the relationship of authority between husband and wife.  Sacramental marriage is seen as mirroring the union between Christ and His Bride, the Church.  Just as Christ is in charge of His Church – not vice-versa – so the man is in charge of his wife.  Yet even the more pious-minded Catholics will often call for “equality” here, failing to see that although Our Lady had far more dignity than St Joseph, She was still subject to him.  Whenever it was time to move the Holy Family, this was intimated to St Joseph, not Our Lady, because he was the head of the home.


The Church in her doctrine and praxis concerns herself first and foremost with sacramental marriage; nevertheless, it would appear that male headship even in non-sacramental marriage is part of the natural law.  If God wanted marriage to be a democracy, did He not blunder badly in failing to foresee the possibility of a split vote?  So, if He wanted one sex to be as it were a “tie-breaker”, which would it be?  Well, men are on the whole physically stronger and more assertive than women, who tend to be more receptive and compliant.  That men are initiators, and women receivers, we see also from the relative structure of the male and female genitalia and the nature of the marital act.  It would seem, therefore, that women are generally better fitted by God for obeying men than for commanding them.


The question then arises whether male headship in marriage admits of any exceptions.  One is stated by Pope Pius XI in Casti Connubii   – that if the husband neglects his duty in governing the family, it devolves upon the wife to take his place (D2233 = DS3709).  This I believe may sometimes defuse the criticism levelled by some traditional-minded priests, against women who seem to be too much in charge of their husbands.  ‘Nature abhors a vacuum’, so if the husband cannot or will not lead, the wife must do so.


Relevant here is the traditional description of women as ‘the devout sex’, and certainly it is my own experience, 18 years a priest, and that of others, that there are, for example, many more women in church than men.  Per se, a deeper living of the Catholic faith on the part of the wife does not preclude male headship, as we see in the case of the Holy Family.  Nonetheless, in practice, if the man is actually slack in living his faith, this may well impinge on what he does – or rather, fails to do – in exercising his headship.  If however the wife is reluctantly compelled to take over because the husband is derelict in his duty, naturally one would hope this would be just for a time.


Are there any other circumstances in which a wife could legitimately take charge?  For example, even if the man has been exercising headship, is he entitled to cease doing so?  Certainly this is the case with other kinds of authority; for instance, Popes may validly resign; St Celestine V and Benedict XVI being cases in point.


The difference with marriage, of course, is that no one is forced to be a replacement Pope, whereas if the man insists on resigning, the woman would be forced to take over.   The innate modesty and reserve of the female sex would seem to militate against the legitimacy of compelling her in this way.  (Even though the man cannot force her though, circumstances may, as we have seen indicated by Pius XI in Casti Connubii.)


What if there is no force, but rather, mutual consent?  Is this legitimate?  I cannot find anything in Scripture or Tradition to exclude this.  So, employing the traditional axiom in dubiis libertas (the last preconciliar usage of which I am aware, was by St John XXIII in Ad Petri Cathedram, 29 June 1959), this would have to be allowed.


Even in this case, however, a better way I submit would be for the man to retain a kind of meta-headship, actually ordering his wife to take over the marriage – perhaps till death does them part.  That way, she is still exercising her wifely subjection, even in taking charge, and her husband is not depriving her of the merit of obedience.  (Analogously, a Pope might order a priest to be his confessor and spiritual director, possibly until the Pope dies.  At least in the internal forum, the Pope would be subject to his spiritual director, who would, however, be exercising his office in a spirit of obedience to the Pope.)


If such an arrangement is possible for the entire length of a marriage, and for every aspect of it, a fortiori it is possible for lesser delegation of authority.  The husband could reserve certain decisions to himself, especially those which are more important, while leaving – preferably ordering, as we have seen – his wife to take charge of other matters.


Particularly in the case of a submissive husband and dominant wife, the man may wish to give her a great deal of authority.  This may be legal but whether it is advisable is another question; one which could need to be decided on a case by case basis.  Sacramental marriage, like the other sacraments, has as its primary raison d’être the attaining of happiness in the next life; nevertheless, a good marriage should normally result in a certain degree of happiness even in this ‘valley of tears’.  Also, the Saints, even on earth, were the happiest of people, and such happiness was promoted by the likes of St Philip Neri as more likely to lead to the happiness of Heaven.  So one relevant question is:  what arrangement would lead to most happiness, even here and now?  Perhaps there are cases where this would be achieved better by allowing some gratification of these naturally submissive and dominant tendencies.  On the other hand, there are also happy marriages where these tendencies are held more in check; the wife consciously refraining from leadership.   Please God this would not be a decision the couple would make on their own, but at least in consultation with – preferably obedience to – a spiritual director, even one who is merely ad hoc.


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One thought on “Male headship in marriage

  1. i love the work of the priests of our church in being our fathers in spirit along with our sisters in christ and our blessed mother.
    as such, i ask you as a daughter in christ who needs your protection to consider in the spirit my serious experience of not being protected by the many wordly , and therefore sinful and fallen, elements entering into the interpretation of ‘submit” in this analysis. as the church of christ on earth, it is our light that can eliminate these contaminants which cause and have caused so much suffering, abuse, and omission of women’s dignity as persons and their immense spiritual god-ordained gifts to the church and the world and leadership, and the stunted growth of god’s kingdom of joy and liberation for men’s hearts in the model and image of christ.

    this is urgently encumbent upon us as a church, because these omission and interpretations, where they enter, are grievous, because they will allow people without discernment or a pure heart to justify the worldly and non-union oriented practice and beliefs of many. The world favors men. The Bible tells Christ’s followers to favor others – husbands to their wives, wives to their husbands, believers to one another. In this way, everyone is sacrificially loving and being loved. Recent popes speak to this in their theology of mutual submission.

    above all: as a priest, it righteous and correct as a pastor of the flock to share and acknowledge and use as the key reference points the most recent and for-our-time revelaton/papal teaching on this matter and how it is to be correctly understood. it is the job and compelling need of the flock to be catechized correctly. because jesus is the good news- the news that liberates from the world and all of the suffering caused by the male-domination-version and over-emphasis (in any form) on wanting to be “in charge” in every way, and especially of women as a right.

    when writing about headship, even though this is in fact not the term ever proposed by paul, there should be more about “meek and lowly”- since, in quoting paul’s injunction that men LOVE as himself the wife– therefore, she is not only his equal but actually his reason to be– he is to serve her and SACRIFICE to the wife as jesus does for the church, his bride. and the model for such service could not be more plainly as they are spoken not out of the mouth of an imperfect apostle, but out of the mouth of god himself in jesus’ own words describing the way in which he does this: like a slave, a lowly, humble servant. certainly not a commander or someone to ‘obey’: “i am meek(gentle) and lowly(humble) ” matthew 11:29

    paul himself begins the entire section of these verses by setting the stage for everything to follow: submit ye to one another. that is mutual submission. it is described in varying terms and forms for each one of the wife and husband’s verbs of the structure of that submission. but it is the contemporary popes (st. john paul and pope francis) who clarify this is exactly the context– mutual submission and not one-sided as the world would and has had it– that is god’s will.

    it is also paul himself who explains there is no male or female in christ, and jesus himself modeled a slave-to-love, humble, and servile attitude even as he was in reality king of the universe– thus, a non-worldly, non-dominating, non-“I’m in charge here” model of sacrificial love. this is one that is nary emphasized for husbands when extracting these verses about wives.

    from john paul II: ”The author of the Letter to the Ephesians sees no contradiction between an exhortation formulated in this way and the words: “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife” (5:22-23). The author knows that this way of speaking, so profoundly rooted in the customs and religious tradition of the time, is to be understood and carried out in a new way: as a “mutual subjection out of reverence for Christ” (cf. Eph 5:21). This is especially true because the husband is called the “head” of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church; he is so in order to give “himself up for her” (Eph 5:25), and giving himself up for her means giving up even his own life. However, whereas in the relationship between Christ and the Church the subjection is only on the part of the Church, in the relationship between husband and wife the “subjection” is not one-sided but mutual.”

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