Thursday, April 28, 2016

Mutual submission of spouses: coherent, Pauline, true?


Among other issues raised by Pope Francis' Exhortation Amoris laetitia is the question of family life and the complementarity of the sexes. As I have pointed out on this blog, Pope Francis seems to have a relatively robust notion of the specialisation of gender roles, a subject Pope St John Paul II was less willing to broach. I have noted on this blog the strange position of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which brings up complementarity when discussing homosexual relationships. These lack 'genuine complementarity', the Catechism tells us, and therefore lack something essential to marriage. Something so essential, in fact, that its own discussion of marriage doesn't even mention it. D'oh.

Pope Francis nevertheless pays lip-service to feminism, and says that 'patriarchy', whatever he means by that, is wrong. More substantially, in section 154 he repeats in summary form the argument made by Pope St John Paul II in his 1988 Apostolic Letter Mulieres dignitatem 24, that St Paul in Ephesians wants each spouse to submit to the other (Pope Francis refers in fact to a 'Catechesis' John Paul II gave in 1982, but the argument is the same). This is something, on the face of it, which is problematic in Amoris laetitia, not because it contradicts Pope St John Paul II, but because it agrees with him.

Pope St John Paul II says very little about what 'mutual submission' actually means. There may be a 'pious reading' which would allow us to say that it says nothing in tension with previous treatments, but I want to explore the theory as standardly elaborated and understood by neo-conservative Catholic writers, of whom there are a great many. The problems with their notion of 'mutual submission' can be divided into three categories. Does it make sense? Is it the teaching of St Paul? And, Is it the teaching of the Church?

Mutual submission is a theological riposte to traditional views of male headship of the family. There are good, bad, and indifferent versions of such views, but what they have in common is that according to them the husband has some form of authority over the wife, which the wife does not have over him. There is an asymmetry in the relationship, and the family has a hierarchical structure. Instead of clarifying the nature, the limits, the purpose, or the motivation of this authority, or investigating the corresponding expectations and rights of the wife vis a vis the husband, the 'mutual submission' approach to this question is to deny the asymmetry. The most natural way to do this would be simply to say that there is no submission of the wife to the husband: there is no relationship of power or authority, and no hierarchy, within marriage. This would be the view, I suppose, of most secular people. Instead, the 'mutual submission' suggestion is that there is a relationship of power or authority, but that it goes both ways. The wife submits to the husband, and the husband submits to the wife.

At any rate, this is the language which is used, on the basis of Ephesians 1:21, where St Paul writes 'And be subject to one another in the fear of Christ', which is used by the partisans of this view as an interpretive key to understand the numerous passages in the New Testament which urge wives to submit to their husbands. Yes!, people say, wives should submit to their husbands, but look at Eph 1:21: husbands should submit to their wives too!

It may be objected, however, that the attempt to establish a position on authority within the family which is different from the secular view that there is no authority in the family, at any rate between husband and wife, fails, because it is impossible to give coherent substance to such a position. What does it mean to submit to the authority of a person who, in exactly the same way, is submitted to your own authority? I might have authority over you as the Secretary of a club you have joined, and you may have authority over me as a traffic warden over the driver of a car, but we can't have authority over each other of exactly the same kind.  It just doesn't make sense. Or rather: the only sense which can be made is that the clashing authorities cancel each other out.

The proponents of this view might reply that it means that the two people locked in this Escher-like paradox of mutual subordination should always be ready to give way to the other's desires, as opposed to working out their differences by some form of bargaining. The two little love-birds, trapped forever in the closing pages of a sentimental novel, should, on this view, be constantly saying to each other 'no, dearest, we must do what you want!' Whenever they have divergent desires or opinions, which will be a lot of the time if they are rational, if they are to come to any decisions at all, they must do so in favour of whichever has best mastered the art of emotional manipulation: of conveying a desire without appearing to insist upon it. If that's not what the proponents of this view have in mind, then what it really comes down to is saying that the bargaining of the secular model should be tempered by charity and self-restraint, which may be an improvement upon secular practice but does not restore to it any kind of legitimate authority. If Scripture tells us that there is legitimate authority within marriage, then, on this view, Scripture is wrong.

So the next question is, does Scripture, and specifically St Paul in Ephesians, tell us that there is legitimate authority within marriage, of one spouse over the other? The answer of course is that this message is conveyed emphatically over and over again, not only in Ephesians, but in Colossians, 1 Corinthians, 1 Timothy, 1 Peter, and the Letter to Titus: I've listed the passages here. Ephesians 1:21 is the only apparent qualification to the principle that husbands have authority over wives and wives should be subordinate to husbands, and not the other way round. So what does Eph 1:21 mean?

A comment on a recent post this blog suggested that it is a general remark to the effect that some Christians be subject to other Christians, not only within marriage but in the household (children to parents and slaves to masters) and in society (everyone else to the Emperor). Given the structure of the letter, this suggestion makes sense.

An alternative view, which is somewhat closer to the exegesis of Mulieres dignitatem, and has the support of some Fathers of the Church, is that it is not legal submission which is at issue here, but the kind of submission made by Christ when he washed the disciples' feet. Christ did not give up his authority in this action, but illustrated the spirit which should animate it, a spirit of service. This service is proper to all Christians, who should seek to serve all, whether they have legal authority or not. So, far from being incompatible with authority, such service may be performed through the exercise of authority. So St Jerome tells us, of this verse:

Let bishops hear this, let priests hear, let every rank of learning get this clear: In the church, leaders are servants. Let them imitate the apostle...The difference between secular rulers and Christian leaders is that the former love to boss their subordinates whereas the latter serve them. We are that much greater if we are considered least of all.” (Migne PL 26:530A, C 653-654).

(I owe this quotation to a short book on this subject by Robert Sungenis, Does St. Paul Teach Mutual Submission of Spouses?, which can be bought here and is online here. He puts a number of handy quotations together, particularly from the Fathers.)

Both interpretations make sense, and it isn't necessary to decide between them here, since both messages are implicit and explicit in Scripture in other passages. It is clearly the teaching of St Paul that Christians should submit to legitimate authority, and it is clearly also his teaching that leaders should exercise authority in the interests of the community they are leading, and not for their own benefit alone. It is on the basis of the second reading, perhaps, that a 'pious reading' of Mulieres dignitatem could be constructed, to the effect that all St John Paul II really meant (when read in light of the tradition) is that, like all Christian rulers, husbands should use their authority in service to the community they govern. In any case, what is not the teaching of St Paul is the idea that wives in some sense have an authority over their husbands, such as rivals or cancels out the authority of the husband over the wife. 

The final question is of the teaching of the Church. Naturally the Church does not have the authority to overturn Scripture, and we find the teaching of Scripure accepted very clearly, and applied to modern conditions, in the Papal Magisterium.

The locus classicus on this subject is Pope Pius XI's 1930 Encyclical Casti conubii, but Leo XIII (in his 1890 Encylcical Arcanumwrote in the same vein on the subject, as did the darling of the liberals, Pope John XXIII, in his 1959 Encyclical Ad Petri Cathedram, which was written after Vatican II had been summoned. Bl. John XXIII wrote:

53. Within the family, the father stands in God's place. He must lead and guide the rest by his authority and the example of his good life.
54. The mother, on the other hand, should form her children firmly and graciously by the mildness of her manner and by her virtue.
55. Together the parents should carefully rear their children, God's most precious gift, to an upright and religious life.
56. Children must honour, obey, and love their parents. They must give their parents not only solace but also concrete assistance if it is needed.

This nicely illustrates the point I have made on this blog before, that the doctrine of male headship does not deprive the wife of authority: her authority over the household, rather, derives from the authority of the husband, even when, as may commonly be the case in practice, it is has more frequent practical application.

What can be said about the rejection of the authority of the husband over the wife in Mulieres dignitatem and Amoris laetitia? I have noted the direction a 'pious reading' might come from, but I do not want to say that the neo-conservative reading of Mulieres dignitatem is unreasonable in itself: it is, for example, consistent with what St John Paul II said in various sermons and speeches. What is unreasonable, for a Catholic, is the acceptance of a teaching at variance with the teaching of the whole Church. My question for the neo-cons at this point is simply this: can you explain why it is more scandalous, more disloyal to the Papacy, or in any way more theologically problematic, to question the teaching of an Apostolic Letter and an Apostolic Exhortation, one by a canonised Pope, rather than of three Encyclicals, one by a beatified Pope?

Encyclicals carry more magisterial authority, but this is far less important than the fact that Leo XIII, Pius XI and Bl. John XXIII are reiterating the constant teaching of the Church, the consensus of the Fathers, and the teaching of Scripture, this last both according to its most obvious meaning (a meaning to which feminists ferociously object), and its meaning according to the interpretation given by the tradition of the Church.

The stability of the Ordinary Magisterium on this can be illustrated from the liturgy, itself a 'theological source'. The traditional Nuptial Mass has as its Epistle Ephesians, 5:22-33, missing out 5:21 on 'mutual submission'. Why does it do that? Well, 5:21 has traditionally been seen as the conclusion of the previous section of the letter, a point Robert Sungenis illustrates by reference to St John Chrysostom's Homilies, so it is logical to start the lection with v.22. Accordingly, and without any qualification in terms of 'mutual submission', the lection sets out the teaching of headship as a matter of authority of husband over wife being complemented, not with more authority of the wife over the husband, but by the husband's obligation of love and self-sacrifice to his wife. It begins:

Let women be subject to their husbands, as to the Lord: Because the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is the head of the church. He is the saviour of his body.

Tomorrow I'm going to address another aspect of the neo-conservative reading of Scripture, Genesis 3:16.

I have addressed the question of whether Patriarchy, as understood in Catholic teaching, is oppressive, here.

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  1. Great stuff Dr. Shaw! I love your articles which deal with these sort of points.

    I guess the reason why people find it "scandalous" to accept the fact that St. JP II erred is the same reason why they insisted on his canonization i.e. many liked him for those very things he said and did in deviation with tradition.

  2. But do you not miss the clear and essential point that the headship of the male is Christlike and that of a humble servant and the submission of the woman is as one with dignity and as a partner? Thus scripted, the traditional roles cancel each other out in Christian charity and human dignity. In practice, in most marriages there is dialogue and consultation, giving way to each other on this and that, deferring to the partner who has more expertise in an area.

  3. Hmm. I always just assumed Ephesians 5:21 was the header to Ephesians 5:22 - 6:10, so that "be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ" clearly means something like "respect the legitimate authorities in your own lives," rather than "everyone must obey everyone else." After all, St. Paul, after telling wives to submit to their husbands and husbands to love their wives, goes on also to tell children to obey their parents and parents to love their children, and servants to obey their masters and masters to respect their servants, and no one concludes that St. Paul means parents must obey their children or masters their servants.

  4. "What does it mean to submit to the authority of a person who, in exactly the same way, is submitted to your own authority? I might have authority over you as the Secretary of a club you have joined, and you may have authority over me as a traffic warden over the driver of a car, but we can't have authority over each other of exactly the same kind. It just doesn't make sense."

    Indeed, this is obvious even from an etymological consideration of "submit," from the Latin "sub" (under) + "mittere" (to place). Hence to submit is to place oneself, or be placed under, another, i.e., under the authority of another. And now thing can be below the thing which is below it.

  5. Don't forget that the same 'mutual submission' also applies between parents and children!!!

  6. Anonymous5:16 am

    I see that you mention the word 'authority' repeatedly, but the command to husbands in Scripture is to 'love' their wives as Christ loved the Church, handing Himself over for her (Eph. 5:25), and to love their wives as they love their own bodies. "He who loves his wife loves himself." (Eph. 5:28) The focus for husbands is to love the wife, doffing his own glory and sacrificing himself for her as Christ did for the Church. The focus for wives is to respect the husband. (Eph. 5:33) So I think it would be wise for husbands to put their focus on loving sacrificially instead of on exerting authority, and for wives to focus on treating the husband with respect, and yielding to his will when it differs with hers.

  7. Colossians 3:18 'Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.'1 Corinthians 11:3 'But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.'
    1 Corinthians 11:7-10 'A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels.'
    Ephesians 5:22 'Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord.'
    1 Timothy 2:12 'But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.'
    1 Peter 3:1 'Likewise, ye wives, [be] in subjection to your own husbands.'
    1 Peter 3:5 'For after this manner in the old time the holy women also, who trusted in God, adorned themselves, being in subjection unto their own husbands.'
    Titus: 2:3-5 'Older women likewise are to be reverent in their behavior, not malicious gossips nor enslaved to much wine, teaching what is good, so that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be sensible, pure, workers at home, kind, being subject to their own husbands, so that the word of God will not be dishonored.'

    1. Perhaps I should have used the word 'subjection' more, would that have better reflected Scriptural language?

  8. Anonymous5:40 pm

    I don't mean to argue with the husband's authority. It is clear that this is God's order and will for the family, and I can see how men are gifted in this area. Men have the detachment and objective overview, even regarding those they love deeply, to make sound decisions. What I am saying is that, while the husband's headship is clear and right, the man himself should not be thinking "authority, authority" but rather "how do I love?" (This includes 'tough love.')

    ~ "But Jesus summoned them and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave. Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” [Mat 20:25]
    This is in regards to our approach to the positions of authority conferred upon us. I would say this includes the position of authority conferred upon a man over his wife.
    Scripture also says "Let every person be subordinate to the higher authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been established by God." The authority of a husband over his wife is God-given, and should be exercised with 'fear and trembling' and not with a sense of entitlement. We will all have to answer for our actions before the Lord.

    An additional point I’d like to add is that the husband’s call is more difficult. For example:
    a. You are told to love person X as Christ loved the Church, implying that you would even give your life for the sake of that person.
    Or, alternatively,
    b. You are told to obey and respect this person.

    Which is harder? Obviously the husband's calling is harder than the wife's.

    1. Well I agree with this, and I have made the first point on this blog.

  9. Thank you for this article. I have a question that I haven't been able to find an answer to elsewhere. WHY is it the case that men have authority over their wives? It's obvious why parents have authority over their children and CEOs over their employees. That's because a CEO has more experience, is more important to the company's success, is less replaceable etc, than the employees; and parents know better than children, etc. I don't see any analogous reason why men should have authority over their wives. If you think there is a reason, I see only two options for you: (1) the reason is that men are ontologically just superior to women in the way that Christ is ontologically superior to the Church (and yet this is explicitly denied by JPII and Fulton Sheen and the Church in general) or (2) men have authority over women for similar reasons that parents have authority over children, in virtue of their 'knowing better'. But this is clearly factually untrue. I don't know where to go from here. Does anyone have thoughts on this?

    1. I address that here: