Monday, March 19, 2012

What Do Men Think of Women Who Practice Christian Headcovering and/or Wear a Veil to Catholic Mass

I sought, this weekend, to get a taste of what men think of women who cover in church.  After reading a rather coarse comment on dear Cam’s blog, I was interested in finding out.  I asked  a somewhat motley, (by age and denominational affiliation), group of Christian men for honest reactions to veiling.  All of them are men who are dear to me, which may mean that they were kind, and somewhat guarded, in their responses…but I asked them not to be.  Clearly, this is a naturally biased sample, since it only included people that I know, but…it’s a start.

I have learned some things that were unexpected, and some things that were no surprise at all.

Here are some highlights:

One Thing I Had Expected to Find:
These men, even those in their 40s and 50s, do not seem to have the same hang-ups about headcovering that women do.  They don’t associate it with subjugation, male dominance, or power issues.

One Thing I Was Pleased to Find:
Not one man was critical of the decision of some women to cover.  Now, maybe I just have really awesome friends, but, I think I was getting pretty honest answers.  There were varying levels of understanding of why a Christian woman might choose to cover, but no one along that continuum, expressed distaste or negative judgment. 

In fact, while none of these men, to my knowledge, has a woman in his life that chooses to cover, each was accepting of the practice, and, in the case of some, even willing to defend it.

Photo: Creative Commons

The Thing That Was Most Disquieting for Me:
A few brought up the one issue, regarding veiling, that causes me to squirm, both intellectually and emotionally: the idea that headcovering, if intended to express modesty and humility, is counterproductive when done in a cultural context where it is not the norm.

This has always been the only personally valid argument against veiling, for me.  I certainly cover in a cultural environment where it is not the norm.  However, I also live in the midst of a culture where virtue, respect for male headship, the placing of vows over personal gain, pursuit of  integrity, and honor for God are not the norm.  I’m not about to give up striving for these things, because I find myself in a culture that does not universally embrace them.  My fierce internal longing to honor the Presence of our Lord trumps the desire to flee circumstances which may call attention to me.  And, in the end, I squirm far more unveiled in church, than I do veiled.

A Question That Was Answered for Me:
Some of these fine Christian men are not immune from sharing the discomfort that some of us headcovering women feel, toward veiling in church, when they are intimately tied to us in some way. However, those who expressed this potential discomfort, also rose to support us, in rather knightly fashion, provided our reasons for veiling were Biblical, sincere, and virtuous.

Artwork: {{PD-1923}}-published before 1923 and therefore public domain in the US 

Something I Already Knew:
Men, the good ones at least, are pretty wonderful.  They are more thoughtful, reasonable, supportive, and kind, than most women give them credit for.

The Thing that Surprised Me Most:
The first response, that I received, came completely out of left field for me.  This portion was not at all what I had expected:

"I don't really care if you do or don't, I see it as a form of fashion.  I do not know the reason why veils wouldn't be allowed as per doctrine but so far as I know God doesn't care if you wear them or not." (Italics, mine.)

As I thought about this, I realized that this very thoughtful, contemplative, intelligent man, whom I hold rather dear, was born post-Vatican II.  We have adults, now, that were born well  past Vatican II.  Have you, (assuming that you are old enough to remember sitting through televised Watergate hearings), thought of it?

They have lived entire lives with no exposure to looking out over a congregational sea of hats or lace mantillas on female heads in church, images of a veiled Jackie Kennedy, priests/pastors with backs to the congregation while facing a wall-backed altar to celebrate communion, housewives at the grocery market in the middle of the day with their hair set in rollers under scarves, or significant controversy over the use of birth control.

This very well informed young man probably has no awareness of the National Organization for Women's heavily promoted 1968 suggestion that:

"Because the wearing of a head covering by women at religious services is a symbol of subjection with many churches, NOW recommends that all chapters undertake an effort to have all women participate in a "national unveiling" by sending their head coverings to the task force chairman.  At the Spring meeting of the task force of women and religion, these veils will be publicly burned to protest the second class status of women in all churches.  (National Organization for Women, Dec., 1968.)

Many of the cultural shifts that have occurred in the short time between his generation, and mine, have been tragic.  Others may not be.  It hit me rather hard that, to him...and most of his peers...a veil in church is just a piece of lace.

...It's not a sign of subjugation.  It's not a sign of honoring the wearer's husband, present or future.  It's not a sign of backward thinking by a woman who is not comfortable with her own sexual freedom.  It's not necessarily a sign of modesty.  It's not a sign of imprisonment by superstitious religious thinking. It's not a gesture of honor toward the Real Presence of our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.

It's just a piece of lace.
And, maybe, that is a good thing.

I don't know why I didn't realize it before now.  I suspect that a lot of things that headcovering women (or those considering it) worry about, regarding the reactions of others, are no longer least for people under 35, or so.

Perhaps we have finally reached a point where we can get our collective societal head on straight.  Maybe, now, lace covered female heads; male headship in the home; and a heading away from limited family size, institutionalized child care, and the embracing of a culture of divorce...can become true matters of choice.  We have seen a period where women had no choice but traditional roles.  We have seen a period where society militantly opposed women's embracing of traditional roles.  Maybe now, as images of sit-ins, and bra burnings, fade in the memories of the relative handful of us that possess them, we can entertain hope for healing.


One Sunday, my daughter wore a dress to church that, by most people's standards, was perfectly modest.  However, it fell lower along the bust line, than she would generally wear without a shell underneath.  As the mass progressed, I was aware of her tell-tale judicious fussing with the neckline of that dress.  Finally, as we prepared to go up for communion, my rather scrupulously headcovering daughter discreetly slipped her lace mantilla off her head, folded it in half, and tucked it quietly into the bodice of her dress, in preparation for meeting her Lord, bareheaded, at the altar rail.

That episode is the best example I can recall, of healthy, balanced veiling...and I believe that those Chrisitian men, whose opinions matter, would understand her decision perfectly.

My own testimony of veiling is here.
A response best read in its entirety is here.

Pax Christi,

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