The Personalist Project

I do think that in this on-going conversation we should try to imagine our way into the truth implied in both Eph. 5: 21 (be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ) and Eph. 5: 22 (wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord). We all agree that this does not involve literally giving orders and simply expecting obedience, which would quite evidently violate Casti Connubii as well as the teaching of JPII.  Thus, whatever “headship” means—the man as the head of the family, the woman as the heart, each with their own responsibilities and priorities—it must be within the mutual subjection to Christ.  Still, if man and woman are truly complementary and thus not merely the same, this mutual subjection (recognizing an equality) will have different nuances and manifestations.  This is worth considering, rather that throwing out the concept of headship itself, with all its richness and history.  Thus also, in light of complementarity, by discussing the role of the man we are perforce also discussing the woman, not ignoring her.  Sheldon Vanauken has likened this positive role of the man as one of initiation or leadership without the least command.  I want to investigate this in light of “creative negation”—what we can see positively from the description of certain mistakes, in this case about the man-woman relationship in marriage. 

Individual personalities evidently can fit together in quite different ways and thus a given relationship may be quite “out of whack” with what we might consider a natural or healthy balance while nonetheless appearing "content."  A given lady (wife) might have a thoroughly dominant personality—“bull in a china shop” variety—and a given man might be very passive and unassertive.  If these two types find each other—as sometimes happens—they might seem to be a perfect fit, even though it reverses the image of an initiatory or leadership role to the man. Conversely, an especially dominant man might marry an especially passive woman—again, not uncommon—and they might seem perfectly content, though the woman might be getting squelched in the relationship. Naturally, “contentment” in these cases would seem to be a “false peace” which would be upset if the passive individual begins to grow more mature, independent, and self-assertive.  

Over the last fifty years I’ve seen a number of marriages of both these types.  However, there is a difference.  The overly-dominant male rarely complains about his dominance and, in fact, is often blind to it.  He doesn’t see it as a problem or a fault, even though he may be quite extreme in this direction.  In other words, this kind of a fault is particularly dangerous for a man due to his natural bent in that direction.  After original sin, he can easily go too far in the legitimate manly role and not realize it.  As has been mentioned, this is part of the list of punishments resulting from original sin (Gen. 3:16: “and thou shalt be under thy husband's power, and he shall have dominion over thee” [Douay-Rheims]; “your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” [NAB]).  This doesn’t mean that male leadership is itself a result of sin, but that false forms of it certainly are the result of sin.  As an analogy, labor is itself noble and good, but after original sin it also becomes more of a cross and even part of a punishment. 

However—and you are all welcome to correct me if your experiences are different—in the female dominant-male passive marriages I’ve seen (only a handful, so just anecdotal evidence), the lady in question, while insisting on dominance, will also complain about it fairly regularly.  She may have participated in or completed the emasculation of her husband, but she’s not particularly happy about it.  This comes out in off-hand comments at times, such as the following, all of which I have heard: “I wish he would give me a real answer instead of always saying, ‘Whatever you want, dear!’”  Or, “Why does he always leave everything (every responsibility, every decision) to me?” Or, “I wish I had a real man around the house!”  Or, “It’s such a pain to have a husband who’s like another child!”  Or, “I wish he would stand up to me more, challenge me more!”  Or even, “I wish he would just really tell me off one time!”  I hear dominant woman speak this way much more so than dominant men (even if they should). 

Now the implication I take from this is that, despite personality differences, there are also certain natural bents (which would only be sinful or “at fault” if taken to extremes) to the male and female personalities that are part of the equal I-Thou consensus, part of the mutual submission in Christ.  The man has a natural tendency to lead such that his danger is being insensitive about going overboard in this direction—when he should be self-consciously questioning his tendencies and their effects on his wife.  The woman does have a desire for an initiator or a leader (not a “dominator”—none of the “quoted” exclamations in the above paragraph should be understood as wanting to be run roughshod over or dominated), in the midst of the I-Thou equality and with all due deference to the “non-commanding” nature of the leadership.  Thus when the woman dominates, she more quickly senses that something is indeed out of whack; she wants her man to have more spine, even though she may have been the very one to wear him down or cement his weakness.  Tragic flaws in either case, i.e., where one’s very strength becomes a debilitating weakness or causes one’s downfall (or that of the relationship).  Again, as Vanauken says: 

Although we should have fiercely denied it, except perhaps for Davy in that last year, I say that I had exercised a sort of headship—in the sense of an initiatory or leadership role—that was accepted, even desired, by Davy without either of us being aware of it.

The fact that men don’t complain, although they should, when they are oppressive or overly dominant, while women—in my experience—do complain about their men when they dominate them reveals a valid natural tendency here.  It thus confirms a subtle truth to Eph. 5:22 in the midst of Eph. 5:21.  There is such a thing as a legitimate initiatory or leadership role to the man (not captured by any image of  “commanding” authority) even in the midst of the I-Thou equality.  It also fits with the creative interplay of the head-heart relationship. This, it seems to me, is part of or one [removed]among others) of the complementarity of the sexes.  To deny this kind of thing is to move in the direction of “unisex” or of a disembodied Platonic personalism—which itself opens onto a Manicheanism.  We must do justice to the complementarity and the difference, not only to the equality—and this would be fully in line with JPII.


Comments (21)

Katie van Schaijik

#1, Sep 26, 2012 9:23am

But Michael, since the Church is the authoritative interpreter of Scripture, don't we look to her to interpret the passage for us—especially since the advent of feminism has rendered its long-standing interpretation controversial?

And when we do, what do we find?  We find (I claim) that since Vatican II, the Church (which has put a huge emphasis on teaching about marriage and family life) does not work to "preserve male headship."  On the contrary.  She has worked to emphasize the dignity of woman and to show that the former understanding was culturally conditioned.  What she preserves and deepens is the stress on sexual complementarity and mutual love and service. 

I can't understand why you think abolishing male "headship" (i.e. the idea that the husband should be the "leader" in marriage) entails androgeny.  To me it doesn't seem so at all, either in theory or in practice.

Clearly, husbands serve their wives best when they are really men, just as wives serve their husbands best by being  truly women.  When each fully lives his and her identity as persons and as man and woman, the mysterious head/heart reality emerges naturally from their communion of love.

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Sep 26, 2012 9:34am

I think the fact that, as you note, there is a particular danger for men in leadership, viz., the tendency to be domineering, is further evidence of the disvalue of insisting on "headship."

The correlative fault in women is a tendency to be too passive, even slavish toward her spouse, instead of standing on her own two feet as a person.

The post-JP II emphases, therefore, on the mysteries of sexual complementarity, interiority, self-determiniation, self-donation, mutual service, etc. seem to me exactly right.

This vision challenges men to recognize that true manhood is about service-in-love.  It challenges women to become more self-standing without abandoning their feminity.  

Needless to say, it's a bumpy road, culturally.  But, as I've said elsewhere, I think the radiant witness of "JP II marriages" (among which I count yours) proves it works in practice.

Personalist that he is, JP II (and the Church with him) wants the harmony between the sexes to be established from within, rather than imposed from without by a hierarchical structure.

Michael Healy

#3, Sep 26, 2012 10:23am

It doesn't sound like we are too far apart.  I think we shouldn't try to expunge parts of scripture (headship), just understand them in a new way.  I think JPII's "complementarity" and different roles of man and woman is the way--but again it is not the same role.  Otherwise the danger of androgeny.  Moreover, we shouldn't try to be more Catholic or more infallible than the Pope--he never says we should drop the whole concept of headship, but understand it in a new way. 

You yourself have said in a previous post that there is some positive meaning to speaking of the man as the head and woman as the heart of the family.  I'm simply trying to work out a true meaning of that within the context of a deeper equality.  Both husband and wife are mutually subject to Christ, yet still in different ways according to their complementary natures and roles.

Michael Healy

#4, Sep 26, 2012 10:23am

I think what we still desperately need in this age of the disappearance of fathers, husbands, and real men who live up to their responsibilities, is an encyclical on manhood.  I think Mulieribus Dignitatis is incomplete without it.  Though the oppression of women continues as a problem, the new crisis is the denigration of men and assertion that they are no longer needed.  Many men (and women) now live this way.

Katie van Schaijik

#5, Sep 26, 2012 11:50am

I too, hope we're not too far apart.  Still, I find not insignificant differences in emphasis.

 I think we shouldn't try to expunge parts of scripture

I agree.  What's "expunged" in my view (taken from JP II) is not Scripture, but a particular interpretation of Scripture, viz., one that reads it as assigning authority to the husband over his wife.  What's also gone, in my reading of Church teaching, is the assigning of roles and/or functions in marriage.  

Moreover, we shouldn't try to be more Catholic or more infallible than the Pope

I don't like the suggestion that I am doing this.  I take it unkindly, especially when you drop it like a slur, instead of backing the charge up with evidence from what I say.

he never says we should drop the whole concept of headship, but understand it in a new way. 

He perhaps doesn't directly say we should drop the concept (though I think he comes very close to it in MD), but neither does he say we should keep it.  As a matter of fact, I argue, it has been dropped in post-counciliar Church teaching.  This is a point that you haven't yet addressed.

Katie van Schaijik

#6, Sep 26, 2012 11:55am

Michael Healy, Sep. 26 at 10:23am

I think what we still desperately need in this age of the disappearance of fathers, husbands, and real men who live up to their responsibilities, is an encyclical on manhood.  I think Mulieribus Dignitatis is incomplete without it.  

If the Pope sees fit to issue an encyclical on the dignity of men, I will welcome it with joy and gratitude.

Meanwhile, I will continue to see MD as a vital remedy for long-standing mis-appreciation of the dignity of women in history, including Christian history.

Michael Healy

#7, Sep 26, 2012 1:49pm

You comment in an earlier post, "I want to stress more unambiguously that I think we need to lose the "headship" concept altogether."  I think this clearly goes beyond what the Church (including since Vatican II) and JPII teach.  If presented just as your opinion, clearly acknowledging that you are now speculating on you own, fine!  But if presented with all the teaching authority of Church and the Pope, you go too far.

A current emphasis in Church teaching is not the same as a final word.  Sometimes "current emphases" themselves are unduly influenced by current opinion and, thankfully, are not the final word.  There are embarassing moments in the history of Church teachings--leading people like Hans Kung to deny infallibility.  I think he is quite mistaken, of course, but we can only save such historical problems by a very careful analysis of the exact authoritative status of various Church documents.  So we have to be careful how we interpret the current emphasis and not go overboard with it.  

After Vatican I's definition of papal infallibility (beautiful and true), the Ultramontanists took it to an extreme--causing many difficulties.  Any overemphasis here has the potential to do the same.

Katie van Schaijik

#8, Sep 26, 2012 6:25pm

Generally, when a person prefaces her statement with "I think", it indicates that she is expressing her opinion, no? That's certainly what I meant.  I'll say it again: In my opinion, Catholics (especially Catholic men) should drop altogether the notion of male headship in marriage.  The main reason I think they should drop it, is because I think the Church herself has dropped it, both in her formal teachings and in the way "normal faithful Catholics" live and thrive in marriage.

If you think I'm wrong about that, could you point to post-counciliar Church documents that teach "male headship" in marriage?

Another reason I think it should be dropped is because I think it doesn't do full justice to feminine dignity or to the nature of marriage.

Another is that I think the notion of "headship" stripped of the sense of "office of authority" is too vague to be practically helpful.  

In any case, nothing I have said is justly deemed as trying to be "more Catholic than the Pope," never mind more infallible than the Pope.  I think you owe me an apology for that slur.

Michael Healy

#9, Sep 26, 2012 9:34pm

I think legitimate intellectual disagreements should not be reduced to accusations of personal slurs.  We can legitimately disagree about the status of "the man as head, the woman as heart" of the family--a statement you have said their is some truth in.  

I've been trying to find that truth and give a positive interpretation to headship in conformity to JPII's teaching on "mutual subjection to Christ." I'm looking for a new meaning compared to past interpretations which we both clearly reject. Despite my attempts at something new, you always seem to interpret "headship" in the old ways and criticize me for trying to find something positive here--on a topic that goes back to revealed scripture and is rich with tradition!  I think you are wrong to reject this attempt at a positive line of interpretation, to assert that there is no legitimate meaning to headship, and to assert that the Church since Vatican II and JPII are with you in these assertions.  These are legitimate intellectual disagreements about substance and authorities.

If we can legitimately disagree, we can also legitimately criticize the other's postition--as well as his use of authorities.  There is no personal insult here.  

Katie van Schaijik

#10, Sep 26, 2012 10:16pm

Michael, I'm not in the least insulted by disagreements.  I welcome them.  (Ask anyone who knows me.  Peruse this site.)

If you want to preserve the idea of headship in marriage, I will think you wrong-headed; I will think it back-firing, and I will try to explain why I think so (as I have already, across several posts and comments), but I won't be offended.  Not at all.

What I find offensive is the suggestion that in stating and defending my position (partly on the grounds that I think it's what the Church is teaching) I am setting myself up as more Catholic than the Pope and even "more infallible" than the Pope!  There you went beyond the pale of civil discourse.  You imputed base attitudes to me unjustly.  

For that, I think you owe me an apology. 

Meanwhile, (and more importantly) you still haven't take up the main question at hand, viz. whether the Church herself has deliberately dropped the notion of male headship.

If she has, why has she? And if she has, why shouldn't we? Why insist on preserving it?

If you think she hasn't, show me the documents.

Michael Healy

#11, Sep 26, 2012 11:18pm

I continue to disagree on the prudent approach to the matter, the proper and careful use of authorities, and the question of the personal insult.

Please note, on the latter, that in fact my exact words were "we shouldn't try to be more Catholic or more infallible than the Pope." Now I was implying you might be going too far in this direction, but I was also cautioning myself.  I have more than once invoked authority in too limited a way, lacking in depth and nuance.  I also pointed out that many times in Church history this has been done.  In no way is this imputing base motives to you unjustly. It is simply a legitimate consideration, worthy of serious review, about a very common intellectual problematic that is in fact a universal danger.

On the substance of the question, I simply have no time to continue with multiple major posts, further research, and dozens of comments on a topic we've pretty much talked to death. However, if you will notice, in the history of our discussion many references, directly and through quite extensive links, have already been given about the substance and authoritative status of Mulieris Dignitatis. Check back.

Katie van Schaijik

#12, Sep 27, 2012 12:38am

I don't think I've gone too far in that direction at all.  All I've done is to say what I gather the Church to be saying.  And I've said (check back) that I am not resting my case on  Mulieris Dignitatis alone, but on all of the Church's extensive teachings on marriage since Vatican II taken as a whole, together with the lived experience of post-JP II Catholic marriages.

I see MD (with the Theology of the Body) as the sophisticated theological, exegetical and doctrinal working-out and explaining of a development that had been taking place within the Church and among the faithful naturally and less formally (thanks to DvH and Edith Stein, among others).

I am ready to be challenged on these points, by you or anyone else with more free time.  Since I'm not a scholar, it wouldn't shock me to learn that I've overlooked things that are worth considering.  And since I've often been wrong in the past, it wouldn't shock me to discover that I'm wrong again.  But so far these points have not been taken up.  You took up Casti Canubii (1930) in depth, but not the post-counciliar teachings.

Katie van Schaijik

#13, Sep 27, 2012 12:48am

It's easy to understand, though, that you don't have time to continue the discussion.  You've already given it a lot of time.  

And since you don't think you owe me an apology, I won't press the point further.  

But I won't to drop the subject (I mean of marriage and the right relation between the spouses) either, and I doubt I'll cease exasperating you with my intensity and forthrightness over it.  

To me, it's one worth fighting for, and fighting over.

Michael Healy

#14, Sep 27, 2012 1:15am

Thanks for the (serious) debate!  I hope it's been fruitful.  It certainly raises important questions about Church dogmatics, Church history, Canon Law, and, most importantly, reality!  Perhaps when we next see each other we can raise a toast to Man and Woman--and to JPII.  Until then, as St. Francis would say, "Pax et bonum."

Tony Palmer

#15, Sep 27, 2012 2:11pm

I may get out of my depth quickly here but as a psychologist I have had many occassions on which to consider this passage in Ephesians.  

Contrary to our typical focus on 5:22 the passage seems to me to place any standards, "burdens" or responsibilities squarely on the shoulders of the husband.  Although the exhortation for wives to be subordinate to their husbands comes first and grabs our attention it becomes almost trivial in the light of the full context.  Even if 5:22 was meant to communicate subordination in the deferential sense, what wife would quibble about being subordinate to the husband who lived according to v. 25-29?  The problem we are called to recognize then is not wives' lack of subordination but husbands' lack of purity and virtue.  It seems to me not out of line to read the passage as "wives be subordinate to your husbands to the extent that they are the image of Christ".  And this in fact is a model for all relationships - to the extent that another personifies Christ I am called to "follow" that person as I would follow Christ.    

Tony Palmer

#16, Sep 27, 2012 2:20pm

In that way, the passage in Ephesians serves as a "corrective" to the example of Adam and Eve in the fall.  (Thus  the connection to Gn in 5:31).  There too we tend to focus on Eve's response to temptation and forget that Adam, who was created first and given some providential primacy, stood there silent and passive.  The order of creation was upheaved and Adam, God's first born who named the animals and "knew" the mind of God, failed to protect his bride.  Thus, Paul speaks "in reference to Christ and the church" because he is talking about a restoration of the original beauty of creation; a restoration that was incarnated in the person of Christ, the all-powerful who became the servant of all.  

Tim Cronin

#17, Oct 5, 2012 2:28pm

A notorious section of St Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians (5:21-33, see below) telling wives to be “subject” to their husbands is much argued over. Evangelicals tend to take it as confirming that the man should be the moral and intellectual head of the family. The Catechism of the Catholic Church draws no such conclusion, and Blessed John Paul II makes the point that Paul opens his remarks with an insistence on “mutual submission”, not the one-sided dominion of one over the other.

The whole passage is constructed to convey that, because Christ is present in the sacrament of marriage, the curse can be lifted – not simply by dissolving it, but by transforming it from within the structures imposed by sin, by the sacramental substitution of Christ for Adam, and the Church for Eve. If the wife's respect for her husband is converted into respect for Christ in her husband, and the husband's possessive love for his wife is converted into Christ's self-giving love, then the effects of sin on marriage are undone, and marriage becomes an image of the Trinity

Katie van Schaijik

#18, Oct 5, 2012 4:01pm

 Tony, I'm always glad to see new people chiming in.  But I don't see that your interpretation resolves the basic difficulty.  

Contrary to our typical focus on 5:22 the passage seems to me to place any standards, "burdens" or responsibilities squarely on the shoulders of the husband.

This thought strikes me as being as at odds with the equal dignity of women as persons.  Are we less responsible for moral wellbeing of the marriage than our husbands? 

Even if 5:22 was meant to communicate subordination in the deferential sense, what wife would quibble about being subordinate to the husband who lived according to v. 25-29? 

Any wife who is concerned with the equal dignity of women.

 It seems to me not out of line to read the passage as "wives be subordinate to your husbands to the extent that they are the image of Christ". 

This sounds to me like a recipe for disaster.  The woman is supposed to submit only if she judges her husband to be acting as an image of Christ?

The old model, wherein a wife submits because that's her "duty in the Lord" was at least practical.  This one's bound to backfire.

Katie van Schaijik

#19, Oct 5, 2012 4:03pm

Tim, I like the way you express the point.  It matches my own understanding of the way the Church is interpreting the passages, viz. that the old hierarchical order was a legacy of the fall, not part of the redemptive plan for marriage.

Tim Cronin

#20, Oct 5, 2012 9:11pm

Actually, it wasn't me, it was a direct quote of Stratford Caldecott. I think he makes a great point though about how the Sacrament of Marriage undoes the curse. Mutual submission I think is key. Christ handed himself over for the Church. Mary let it be done according to God's Word.

BTW, my family and I are planning to move to New Hampshire in November to be closer to family and friends. Maybe I'll be able to come to a future discussion group. 

Devra Torres

#21, Oct 6, 2012 4:11pm

Tony, welcome to the conversation!

Yes, I've often heard it explained that way: "Be subordinate to your husbands to the extent that they are the image of Christ."  This does address the misunderstanding that God is asking something harder of wives than of husbands, but it just doesn't seem to be warranted by the text.  Also, as Katie says, it seems much more likely to lead to discord.than the idea that she just plain owes it to God--imagine the continual case-by-case evaluations of whether the husband is being sufficiently Christ-like!

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