Tuesday, December 31, 2013


This past Sunday, I walked out of church for the first time in my life.  That is, it wasn't that the baby was crying, I walked out because I felt if I listened to that homily for one more second I was going to stand up and scream.

It was the Feast of the Holy Family, so there were lovely readings about honoring fathers and bearing with each other patiently and the Holy Family fleeing to Egypt.

There was also this:

"Wives, be subordinate to your husbands,
as is proper in the Lord.
Husbands, love your wives,
and avoid any bitterness toward them."

It was a small snippet of a long reading, but that's the part the priest wanted to talk about.  In Seattle, where I grew up, they would usually cut that bit out or else explain it away somehow.  But this is the diocese of Arlington, which might just be the most conservative one in the country.  So we got a lecture on wifely obedience.

I was annoyed that the priest was going on and on about women and never mentioning the duties of men in the passage.  But I got really angry when he said something along these lines:  "Nowadays feminists try to convince you that spouses are equal, that you can just make decisions together.  But a family has to have a head.  You know what you call a creature with two heads?  Well, I'd call that a monster."

Yeah, that was when I got up and walked out.  It was that or start heckling the priest.  Poor guy, he's a youngish priest and means well.  But he also called my marriage monstrous, and I really couldn't sit there and take that.

My marriage works great, as it happens.  And I don't obey my husband.  I do submit to him, in the sense of letting him have his way when it seems really important to him or when I am trying to be nice.  He also submits to me, in the same sense.

There's a lot of ways you can understand that passage from Colossians.  In fact, there's someone who understands it almost any way you can think of.  Let me try to list them off.

1.  Husband makes the orders, wife obeys without question and gives no input.
2.  They discuss a matter, wife gives input, and husband makes a decision.
3.  They discuss everything and come to an agreement, but if they can't come to an agreement, husband makes a decision.
4.  They discuss everything and each tries to "submit" to the other in the sense of being willing to give up their own way .... but decisions are made together or not at all.
5.  This passage was written in the context of a male-dominant society where women were already subject.  The advice is when the wife submits, as she already has to do, she should do it "as to the Lord."  So this passage doesn't really apply to modern marriages at all.

And then, of course, there are a wide variety of applications even among people who agree on the basic meaning of the passage.  Where the husband is a more dominant personality and the wife is more adaptable, "submission" doesn't even come up because it's their natural dynamic anyway.  When the wife is more dominant and the husband tends to go along with her ideas, "submission" might mean she makes an extra effort to include him in decision making.  Couples that believe in the husband having the "final say" if they can't agree, may find that never comes up because they are always able to work things out.

As far as I'm concerned, it's all good.  Marriages are all unique; you can't grab someone else's dynamic and patch it onto your marriage.  And Catholic teaching is surprisingly relaxed in this area.  While many Church Fathers and saints took it as a given that wives would obey their husbands, many also were adamant that wives are not inferior or to be treated like slaves, vassals, or children.  Pius XI talks about wives obeying their husbands, but then makes a number of exceptions, saying a wife should not obey her husband when it is opposed to right reason or her human dignity, and adding that "this subjection of wife to husband in its degree and manner may vary according to the different conditions of persons, place and time."  And John Paul II went the furthest, saying that a wife's submission to her husband doesn't at all excuse the husband of the duty of submitting in turn to his wife.  Both should be giving up their will for the other.

And all of this is a matter of developing teaching.  None of it appears (so far as I can tell) to be infallible.  I think one is safe, as a faithful Catholic, going with one's best judgment on the matter.

What bothers me, though, is when people seize upon this verse, and certain interpretations of it, and believe it is a moral law which they (and others) are obligated to follow.  Like, for instance, the priest did on Sunday.  He taught as if it were the mandate of the Church what was really his own opinion on the subject.

And misunderstanding this -- particularly in trying to force your marriage into a mold which doesn't fit it -- can have disastrous results.  I read one woman's story of how she and her husband got along great before they became Catholic, but she made all the decisions.  And oh what a struggle it has been for her to "take her proper role" since their conversion.  All I could think was, it wasn't broken, why did she feel the need to fix it?  Who told her that a marriage where both people were happy was operating "wrong"?
Or the many women married to placid, easygoing guys who live with a daily frustration that their husbands are not "manning up," "taking the lead," and making all the daily decisions.  Maybe there is a deep-seated instinct telling them they want a more dominant attitude from their husband -- many would say so.  But maybe they are just struggling trying to fit into the role of "obedient wife" when their husband just isn't the sort of guy that needs to be obeyed.  Why make them both feel like they are wrong and inadequate because she has a more dominant personality and he doesn't?

Worst of all, when the wife is naturally more passive, it seems to give her permission to take no responsibility and never assert herself while giving her husband permission to lay down the law.  So they end up with a very unequal relationship.  Sometimes this is a happy one.  But sometimes it's not.  As an easygoing person myself, I know I knuckle under easily in an argument, but then I resent it forever.  I make it a point to be more outspoken, because I know things don't go as well for me when I let myself get pushed around.  If I were still subscribing to the "obey your husband" thing, I'd probably be angry and resentful all the time.

This goes double when I'm talking about the kids.  I'm an easygoing person .... but I also have very strong opinions about parenting and a very strong gut sense to go along with them.  If my husband said "spank the kids" and I felt that my religion morally required me to do it .... well, I'd have two ways to go.  One would be to go against my conscience, spank the kids, and be angry about it forever, blaming my husband for every problem that arose with the kids.  The other (and more likely) would be that I would leave my religion. 

No number of quotes and scriptures and sermons can talk me out of what I know in my gut, which is that my kids were entrusted to me equally with my husband, that I have a responsibility to them that can't be erased by putting myself in a position of subjection.  I couldn't imagine telling my children once they're grown, "Well, yes, I knew doing X was wrong at the time, but your dad said I should, so what was I supposed to do?"  I am their mother.  They have a right to have me stand up for them.

My own general rule is this: after a bit of discussion, if I think there is some way John could be right, I tend to go along.  Not because I'm female, but because he generally has good judgment and because I am pretty adaptable and am not likely to mind what he chooses.

But if I am sure about something, sure on a gut level, I don't budge for anything.  Especially where it concerns the kids.  There are two of us for a reason.  Taking one person's God-given mind and heart out of the equation just so the other can be in charge seems absolutely wrong to me.  It seems wrong to John too.

It's sometimes meant some long, drawn-out debates.  Sometimes we get angry.  But every time, sooner or later, we have worked it out in a way that respected both of our God-given wisdom and authority.  Often the "compromise" is a lot of work or it ends up having to be reworked or whatever.  But I am willing to go through that trouble rather than step down what I see as my responsibility.

If that makes our marriage a two-headed monster, Father, I'll take it.  Beats lopping off one of the heads just because it's female.

What do you think submission is supposed to mean?


Enbrethiliel said...


I have no idea what submission means, but your post actually got me to look up the encyclicals on marriage, to try to find the answer! I started with Leo XIII's Arcanum, which isn't exactly what I was looking for, because it explains the wrongness and evils of divorce. But I have Casti Connubii all lined up, and since it's about the nature of marriage (or so the first few paragraphs lead me to believe), I may finally make some headway. =)

Sheila said...

Yes, Casti Connubii is the place to start. After that, I believe Mulieris Dignitatem. I don't know if there's anything else on the encyclical level on the topic -- though Basil, John Chrysostom, Augustine, and Aquinas all wrote about it. The thing is, there is very wide variation in what the different sources say that I think it's fair to say it's a developing teaching that really hasn't been fully fleshed out yet at all -- and maybe it never will be.

Meg Portner said...

I consider myself a traditional, conservative Catholic, but there are SO MANY things that have been really getting on my nerves about that parish. It makes me so sad because I grew up in that parish, it was the only one I ever knew and it didn't use to be that bad. It REALLY bothers me the way that they tend to promote a cold, rules only approach to things (making it much harder than necessary for people to do the right way)and preach their (often harsh) opinions as church law. It's terrible. So many people that I've met that have left the Church or have simply drifted have done so because of the type of things that go on there. You can still be technical in your 'correct-ness', promote traditional practice, and preach hard to hear truths of Church teaching and do it in a loving, welcoming, non-condemning way.

Sheila said...

Yes, exactly!

The pastor at our local parish, I have been told, will never leave. He's there to retire. He was given our parish because he is so very good with money, and sure enough the parish has plenty of money. It's suffering in every other respect though!

We have been going to other area parishes, though, and it's just as bad. This sermon was actually in Little Washington, but the young priest, who we liked fine when he was new, has started sounding like an echo of our own pastor. So why bother with the extra drive, just to deal with the same stuff when we get there?

I hear the whole diocese of Arlington has become that way. I don't mind it being one of the most conservative dioceses in the country. I *do* mind the coldness and legalism. Also, at least in the parishes I've been to, the Hispanics are treated like second class citizens. We lived here for months before we found out there even was a Spanish Mass!

Belfry Bat said...

Yeah, it's going to be nearly impossible to figure out exactly what Paul means there (beyond, you know, the Divinely given Law, love), because we're only enjoying half the conversation. Or in other words, the context in which Paul writes — the state of the Church in Colossae — isn't quite made clear; whatever report Paul was reacting to is absent, and must be inferred from specific things he condemns.

Of course it's all very weal to say, Sheila, that you "don't obey"; but I don't entertain any suspicion that you are disobedient.

* * *

The practical question is how much exercise (and what sort) will it take learn to suffer such clumsy sermonizing without suffering scandal --- because the poor will be with us always, in wisdom no less than in substance. Actually listening to what a person says is a fraught game, especially when circumstances normally don't allow replies or interruptions; one has to compile the thought in the speaker's words and hold the resulting idea as a doubtful or disputed idea, without engaging the passions more than needed. Nicholas is a Saint because he lived and died in love of the God that Arius denied, not because he thumped Arius at the Council for there denying God. Sometimes its safer to turn off one's listening brain, if possible!

Sheila said...

Yes, I probably shouldn't have walked out like that. I know the priest meant well. I just worry because I know a great many women suffering miserable things and when I suggest some change, the answer is always "but my husband says it has to be this way and I'm an obedient wife." I feel like any priest who talks about submission should at least talk about its limits and the duties of a husband!

At times, BB, I could most definitely be called disobedient. Usually that doesn't come up because my husband usually doesn't give commands. And I like to point out to biblical literalists that St. Paul *never once* instructs husbands to give commands. Nor does he ever say husbands can't ever submit to their wives' wishes.

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