A Clarification on Veiling

There is a common misunderstanding in the post-conciliar era that the tradition of veiling at sacred services—commanded by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 11 and reiterated by the laws of the Church for centuries—was based on the need for women to be modest. While it certainly is true that for centuries, it was socially customary for women, especially married women, to cover their heads in public, the specific command to veil in church was not primarily motivated by reasons of modesty. Rather, many commentators only mention modesty as a minor reason for this command, and some even omit it altogether. According to Scripture and Tradition, the primary reason why women are to veil in church is to show a sign of submission to the supernatural order, and this is a point on which the Patristics are unanimous.

St. Paul states that women must veil “because of the angels” (1 Cor. 11:10), and St. Cyril of Alexandria teaches that “the angels find it extremely hard to bear if this law is disregarded”. If all sins—such as fornication and drunkenness—displease the angels, why is it that this particular act of disobedience is “extremely hard to bear”? While the angels will never know what it is like to become drunk or commit sins of the flesh, they do very well know what it means to reject hierarchical order, which is precisely what a woman signifies externally when she refuses to veil at sacred services, regardless of her subjective intent. This rejection of hierarchical order is what caused one-third of their fellow spirits to be ejected from the heavens, the memory of which renders the disregard of veiling particularly displeasing to them.

The angels “veil” in heaven, albeit in a metaphorical way due to their lack of physical bodies: “each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew” (Isa. 6:2). The angels do not veil due to modesty; it would be absurd to consider the possibility that they might incite their fellow spirits to lust, as angels do not even have physical bodies. Rather, they do so out of submission to their Head, God Himself, and thereby demonstrate their acceptance of hierarchical order. In the traditional liturgy, this is symbolized by the subdeacon veiling his face during the Canon of the Mass, and the chalice and tabernacle are veiled out of reverence for what is sacred and has life-giving potential. Likewise, women acknowledge headship by veiling in church, either covering their hair or cutting it off (1 Cor. 11:6), while men do so by leaving their heads uncovered.

When St. Paul rebuked the Corinthians on this subject, he did not have in mind a cultural custom confined to a specific time and place, as many modern Catholics dismissively assert. In fact, he actually contradicted culture by criticizing the Corinthians’ illegitimate custom of allowing women to participate in sacred services without veiling. Rather than speaking of human culture, he taught that the houses of God had no other practice (1 Cor. 11:16); the original house of God is in fact heaven with the first worshipers being the angels, who were obliged to “veil” their glory in the presence of God. While St. Paul was certainly imposing a disciplinary law upon the Church, this disciplinary law is simply a precise formulation of the eternal law which obliges creatures to humble themselves before God.

This ecclesiastical law has been abrogated since 1983 when the current Code of Canon Law took effect, but the lack of canonical legislation should constitute no impediment to women who wish to continue the venerable tradition of veiling in church. On the contrary, Catholic women should rejoice in continuing to uphold the eternal law and submitting to the supernatural order, especially in an era when feminism and other anti-woman ideologies have tried to strip women of their dignity by telling them they ought to act like men. It is no surprise that the abandonment of veiling has coincided with the denigration of virtues such as purity, modesty, chastity, and obedience. The complicity of the hierarchy in omitting such an important law from the current Code is a problem that must be rectified for the suppression of error and the salvation of souls.