When I started doing research for the I wrote in the May 2016 issue of U.S. Catholic, I was surprised to find out that the church never issued an edict on head covering until the 20th century. It wasn’t until 1917 that the very first Code of Canon Law introduced requirements—and even then in the Latin Rite only. Canon 1262 stated that women must wear “chapel veils” or other head coverings. It also prohibited men from wearing hats in church. The rule to be followed during all sacred rites was unambiguous: Women, hats. Men, no hats.
Until it changed.
When the Code was revised in 1983, the mandate was not reissued. And when John Paul II promulgated the new code, he essentially wiped out everything in the old one. Anything that was in the 1917 law that was not mentioned in the 1983 update—and that includes head wear or lack thereof—was officially “abrogated” or repealed.
Since then, there has been neither a canonical nor a moral obligation for women—or men—related to the matter. So, cover your head or don’t cover your head: It’s no longer against the law.
Cardinal Raymond Burke confirmed this in a 2011 letter he wrote in response to an inquiry on the issue when he was Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura. While it is not a formal judgment of the Signatura, it represents the opinion of the church’s highest canonical official after the Pope.
I’m not sure who the letter was originally addressed to; the recipient is redacted in the photocopy of the letter on the EWTN website. And it’s worth mentioning that Cardinal Burke writes back more than two years after receiving the initial inquiry.
Here’s what he says in the first two paragraphs:
Thank you for your letter postmarked January 5, 2009, regarding the custom of the chapel veil. I offer you my sincere apologies for failing to respond to your letter, in a timely manner. I had placed your letter with some other papers, and have only recently discovered that I never responded to it.
The wearing of a chapel veil for women is not required when women assist at the Holy Mass according to the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite. It is, however, the expectation that women who assist at the Mass according to the Extraordinary Form cover their heads, as was the practice at the time that the 1962 Missale Romanum was in force. It is not, however, a sin to participate in the Holy Mass according to the Extraordinary Form without a veil.
Confused? For the uninitiated, the “Extraordinary Form” means the traditional Latin Mass and the “Ordinary Form” means the “new” liturgy. No worries though: Cardinal Burke states very clearly that going without a veil at either type of Mass is not a sin.
It also seems pretty clear—at least to me—that when he uses the term expectation he is referring to customs or rules of etiquette, neither of which have any weight of law behind them. It does raise the question, though: Whose “expectation” are we talking about here?
You can see how there’s still some sensibility—and sensitivity—around the issue. While you might not think twice about a woman without a veil in church, how would you feel about a man wearing a hat? Also, you can see how some women might get miffed by someone else’s “expectation” that they wear a veil, especially when there’s no longer a law on the books.
A hairy problem
Personally, I think it’s a no-brainer that the changes in the 1983 Canon gave us all freedom of choice about headgear. But a simple Google search convinces me this a matter that still isn’t settled in the minds of some Catholics.
Msgr. Charles Pope addressed this issue in a blog called “Community in Mission” on the Archdiocese of Washington’s website. It’s interesting that he calls the piece, dated May 19, 2010, “Should Women Cover Their Heads in Church?” Like it’s still a matter of debate.
It’s even more interesting how he starts out: “Now be of good cheer. This blog post is meant to be a light-hearted discussion of this matter.”
While admitting that the church currently has “NO rule” on hat wearing, he offered his thoughts to “try and understand the meaning and purpose of a custom that, up until rather recently was quite widespread in the Western Church.” He explains that even before the 1917 mandate, it was customary in most places for women to wear some kind of head covering.
He also tries to explain how the church got tangled up with this hat stuff in the first place. The reasoning is not easy to understand. He points to tradition and custom as well as feminine humility and submission.
I’m not weighing in on this one; I’ll defer to Msgr. Pope. He notes that in biblical times Jewish women often wore veils or mantillas in public worship. This custom got carried over to the New Testament by virtue of St. Paul’s letters, particularly 1 Corinthians 11:1–11, which takes up the topic of head coverings for women and men:
“For if a woman does not have her head veiled, she may as well have her hair cut off. But it is shameful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should wear a veil. A man, on the other hand, should not cover his head, because he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man.”
Msgr. Pope calls this a “complicated passage” with “some unusual references,” and goes on to say that Paul sets forth four arguments in it as to why a woman should cover her head. “Argument 1—Paul clearly sees the veil as a sign of her submission to her husband.” A second argument, based on custom or accepted tradition, is pretty straight forward and reasonable. Don’t ask me to explain the two remaining “arguments.” Even Pope concedes that Paul’s claims in the passage—that women should wear veils “because of the angels” and “nature”—are more “difficult references to understand.”
So who knows? Whether it was due to custom, a fascination with Victorian mores, or thinly-veiled patriarchy, the fact remains: After centuries of ignoring the matter, the church decided to codify regulations on head coverings in 1917 and to say nothing about them when it changed its own rules in 1983. For 66 years, milliners had a good run.
Of course, with the women’s liberation movement, most women had stopped wearing hats to church anyway. The whole idea of covering the head was a sign that had lost its meaning and even taken on a negative connotation in mainstream society. Besides, in the 1970s, in a document titled Inter Insigniores (On the Question of Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood), the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had already linked wearing chapel veils with customs that were “scarcely more than disciplinary practices of minor importance” and obligations that “no longer have a normative value.” The 1983 Code change just put the nail in the coffin.
Of course, some may still beg to differ. You have to wonder why church leaders like Cardinal Burke and Msgr. Pope would even feel the need to take up this issue. Chalk it up to the fact that old habits die hard and no one likes change but a wet baby. Today, traditional Catholic blogs advocate not only a return to the Latin Mass but pre-Vatican II accouterments like vintage attire for priests and nuns. Could a push for veils in the pews be the next big thing?
I wouldn’t bet on it.