The Personalist Project


So, exactly how are we to regard the personalist insights and interpretations of John Paul II in relation to the traditional Church teachings about marriage, man and woman, equality and leadership, headship and submission?  Evidently, he offers us a tremendous development of the tradition on equality between the marriage partners.  How does this relate to the notion of authority in marriage?  Is JPII's teaching simply a rejection, not only of scripture (as deeply erroneous?) but also of hundreds of years of tradition (no longer indefectible, much less infallible?)?  What would this do to our notions of inerrancy in Scripture and of guidance of the Church by the Holy Spirit in fundamental questions of faith and morals?  I want to discuss these questions especially in relation to Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Casti Connubii. 

First, let us review the parts of this encyclical which are clearly in agreement with JPII, having to do with equality between man and woman in marriage and mutual submission in Christ as the deepest truth about the marital relationship.  In Paragraph 23, Pius writes: 

23. “This conjugal faith, however, which is most aptly called by St. Augustine the "faith of chastity" blooms more freely, more beautifully and more nobly, when it is rooted in that more excellent soil, the love of husband and wife which pervades all the duties of married life and holds pride of place in Christian marriage.  For matrimonial faith demands that husband and wife be joined in an especially holy and pure love, not as adulterers love each other, but as Christ loved the Church.  … This outward expression of love in the home demands not only mutual help but must go further; must have as its primary purpose that man and wife help each other day by day in forming and perfecting themselves in the interior life, so that through their partnership in life they may advance ever more and more in virtue, and above all that they may grow in true love toward God and their neighbor, on which indeed "dependeth the whole Law and the Prophets."[27]

Already, this seems to imply a primacy of a mutual submission in Christ, mutual help toward transformation in Christ, “pervading” all other levels of relationship in marriage.  This is key in Casti Connubii, and will be brought out much more explicitly as key in Mulieribus Dignitatis.  But Pius goes on to further emphasize the point in the following two paragraphs.

24. This mutual molding of husband and wife, this determined effort to perfect each other, can in a very real sense, as the Roman Catechism teaches, be said to be the chief reason and purpose of matrimony, provided matrimony be looked at not in the restricted sense as instituted for the proper conception and education of the child, but more widely as the blending of life as a whole and the mutual interchange and sharing thereof.

25. By this same love it is necessary that all the other rights and duties of the marriage state be regulated as the words of the Apostle: "Let the husband render the debt to the wife, and the wife also in like manner to the husband,"[28] express not only a law of justice but of charity.

So, “mutual molding” is the “chief reason and purpose of matrimony,” not forgetting but not limiting marriage to its natural procreative end, but seeing it as a “blending of life” and “mutual interchange and sharing thereof.”  Moreover, “all other rights and duties of the marriage state must be regulated” by this equality and mutual obligation toward one another in Christ, the man and the woman in debt to each another equally before Christ both in “justice” and in “charity.”  Again, all this is foundational and key in interpreting what follows, the affirmation of the more traditional teaching of the “order of love” involving the leadership or headship of the husband. Pius proclaims the fundamental equality before Christ and then a relative inequality.  Before addressing how JPII deals with this teaching, however, let us first list what I count as 9 qualifications of the husband’s “primacy” or the wife’s “subjection” (words used in Para. 26).  

According to Para. 27 (my outline form and my comments in parentheses but all quotes from the encyclical), this “subjection, however, does not deny or take away:”

1)    “the liberty which fully belongs to the woman both in view of her dignity as a human person” (and which JPII elaborates on with his personalist philosophy);

2)    “and in view of her most noble office as wife and mother and companion” (or as Sheldon Vanauken says in A Severe Mercy, “comrade-lover”);

3)    “nor does it bid her obey her husband’s every request” (contrary to an article on "obedient wives," which Katie mentions in an earlier post);

4)    “if not in harmony with right reason” (clearly implying that the woman has a responsibility to make a judgment as to whether the request is in harmony with right reason—she has to use her own brain and take her own responsibility here—which may, of course, then provoke intense dialogue with her husband);

5)    “or [if not in harmony] with the dignity due to the wife” (clearly implying her rights and her responsibility to defend them in marriage and in the family);

6)    “nor, in fine (and by these words he is emphasizing the following point), does it imply that the wife should be put on a level with those persons who in law are called minors, to whom it is not customary to allow free exercise of their rights on account of their lack of mature judgment, or of their ignorance of human affairs.” (Here he is clearly emphasizing the equality and maturity of the marriage partners in any healthy relationship).  He elaborates: “But it forbids that exaggerated liberty which cares not for the good of the family; it forbids that in this body which is the family, the heart be separated from the head to the great detriment of the whole body and the proximate danger of ruin. For if the man is the head, the woman is the heart, and as he occupies the chief place in ruling, so she may and ought to claim for herself the chief place in love.”  (Here he seems to imply, what JPII will again much more clearly elaborate, a complementarity in the midst of the equality, each with his or her own rights and duties and relative priorities).

7)    Moving on to Para. 28, Pius XI affirms further that both the degree and the manner of this relation of wife to husband, i.e., the meaning of “subjection,” “may vary according to the different conditions of persons, place and time.”  (Thus he is acknowledging that the notion of “headship” is a very fluid one, difficult to describe, not one-size-fits-all, but rather which must be creatively worked out between the unique personalities, and which must be adapted to different times and places—thus it is certainly not time-bound to the historical circumstances of St. Paul.  Therefore, he leaves ample room here for the historical development of a deeper understanding of the marital relationship, which JPII will be happy to offer us.)

8)    Further in Para. 28, Pius XI affirms that “if the husband neglect his duty, it falls to the wife to take his place in directing the family.” (This means, quite evidently, standing up to the husband if necessary, telling him off if he needs it, refusing his “lead” or rejecting “subjection” for the true good of the husband himself, or for the true good of the wife, or for the true good of both as a couple, for the true good of the children, or for the true good of the family as a whole.)

9)    Finally, in Para. 29, Pius quotes Leo XIII saying the type of obedience envisioned here is “not as a servant but as a companion (implying equality, maturity, co-responsibility, and perhaps again Vanauken’s “comrade-lover” image), so that nothing be lacking of honor and of dignity” in the relationship.

Now, before moving on to JPII’s creative innovation and development of these teachings—and the reasons why he refuses to put things in the above terms of obedience and subjection, even with all these qualifications—let me make three remarks. 

First, review the above nine clarifications, qualifications, restrictions, and exceptions to the notion of “headship” and then notice that any crude, reductionistic interpretation here (as seemingly has been the case in certain covenant communities, in fundamentalist approaches, and—in my opinion—in the writings of Steve Clark) is deeply at odds not only with JPII but also with Pius XI and the great Catholic intellectual tradition of interpretation on this theme.  So it is not only JPII who is our source for rejecting false notions of authority in marriage, but also Pius XI, Leo XIII, and the tradition.  JPII innovates here but he also deeply develops what is partially expressed and what is still latent in the tradition. 

Second, sometimes certain Christian authors try to get out of the embarrassment (in the modern age) of notions like “headship,” “authority,” and “obedience” by trying to maintain that these notions in marriage are only embarrassing if a “worldly” meaning is attached to them rather than a “Christian” meaning.  So “authority” really just means “service” in the true “Christian” understanding.  This is the approach of Msgr. Charles Pope which Patrick Dunn refers us to here: [].  I have to confess that I have never really liked this approach.  It always seems to me an attempt to skirt around the embarrassment of the “headship” teaching, rather than to face it.  Furthermore, despite deep truths in the authority-service connection, it doesn’t seem to me to be exclusively Christian by any means.  So I don’t think we can just redefine our terms to get out of the problem. 

Third, in the past I have attempted at times to deal with the equality/mutual-submission-in-Christ dimension of marriage vs. the headship/obedience-submission dimension of marriage in the following way.  We can distinguish two different levels and types of communion in human relationships and in marriage: an I-Thou communion and a We-communion.  The image capturing I-Thou communion is of two people facing one another, gazing into each others’ eyes, and is the perfect image for the fundamental equality and mutual submission in Christ of comrade-lovers united in what Vanauken calls “inloveness,” what Wojtyla calls “betrothed love.”  This is the dimension in which any hint of “command” or demand for “obedience” would be abhorrent, completely out of place, insulting, unheard of.  However, the image of the We-community is of two people standing side-by-side facing the world together, looking out from themselves as a couple (or a family) and making decisions about the world and their life in it.  It seems to me that arguments like that of C.S. Lewis (and others) that two equals can’t really govern (e.g., a company, etc.), but that someone has to have the deciding vote or there will be paralysis, these arguments only seem to hold for the We-community model.  But the I-Thou communion of spouses goes much deeper and is much more all-encompassing.  So, along these lines, I attempted to interpret JPII’s teaching on equality and mutual submission in Christ as true on the deepest level of I-Thou conjugal intimacy, while the traditional understanding of some qualified authority to the husband as true on a secondary level in terms of the We-community (in relation to the rest of the world) that marriage also represents.  Both valid, but JPII deeper and guiding the whole tradition to a more genuine level of interpretation and understanding.  Equality on the deepest personal level, headship only on a restricted practical level if needed to resolve an impass. This sort of "compromise" interpretation (although not the same as the one I outlined above--there are many variations along the spectrum of this kind of approach, I would think) seems to be where Fr. Paul Check comes down in the article referenced by Patrick Dunn here: [].

However, I think this approach does not yet do justice to JPII and to the radical innovation and creative newness of his thought (while still being a development of the tradition).  The Holy Father goes much further than the above paragraph’s image of two valid levels, the one deeper than the other.  I think his real innovation, and the reason why he never brings up the notion of authority and obedience in marriage, but only mutual submission to one another in Christ, is that in meditating on the theme of equality in the conjugal I-Thou love relationship (already acknowledged in Casti Connubii as the deepest level in light of which all else must be interpreted) he concludes that the level of “authority,” of operating out of the We-communion model, would only be necessary if there has been a prior failure in the intimate I-Thou conjugal level of relationship and communion.  This too, I think, is where the notion of sin comes into play.  It is only if the I-Thou consensus is broken due to pride, selfishness, sloth, neglect, etc., that there would ever arise an occasion for authoritative decision-making.  In this light, let us recall Sheldon Vanauken’s description in A Severe Mercy

…and this brought us to decision-making—we should decide everything of importance by discussion, discussion until agreement is reached.  No laying down the law by anybody, ever. 

We can recognize here exactly how a couple behaves toward each other when they are deeply in love, each more eager than the other to sacrifice, to put the other first, to accommodate for the sake of the other, to yield where possible, looking happily for ways to yield to the other, while both take responsibility for the good of the whole.  Self-surrender for the sake of the other becomes a source of intense joy, even ecstasy, in the depths of such a relationship.  C.S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain, Chapter 5 on “The Fall of Man,” describes this as follows [my brackets]: 

The self-surrender [to God and to one another] which [“paradisal man:” i.e., Adam and Eve] practiced before the Fall meant no struggle but only the delicious overcoming of an infinitesimal self-adherence which delighted to be overcome—of which we see a dim analogy in the rapturous mutual self-surrenders of lovers even now. 

In such a state of genuine mutual devotion and self-giving, the couple deeply in love will find a way to work things out, each ready and eager to sacrifice and to yield if that is better for the other or for the whole, and delighting to do so.  Consensus can and will be reached by lovers having these attitudes, even more so if their natural “inloveness” is itself regrounded in the sacrificial love of Christ and the example he has set.  Only if all this is lost (ultimately through neglect based in sin) would “authority” ever rear its head.  Therefore, in purifying the ideal for marriage and genuinely developing the past teaching, yet not breaking with it, Wojtyla takes what has always been presented in the tradition as the light in which all else is meant to be interpreted (equality and mutual submission), and reasons that there is actually no place for “authority” or “headship” when the couple is really hitting on all cylinders in betrothed love.  Thus he no longer discusses headship as part of the ideal. Perhaps there is a parallel here to what he calls "the absorption of shame by love" in Love and Responsibility: just as there is no need for shame in the midst of genuine conjugal love grounded in Christ, so there is no need for authority--as long as that specific bond of love is truly active and formative.

This deeply reinforces the notion that the married couple have to keep their genuine romantic love alive!  The romance of their relationship must be constantly renewed and committed to anew.  This isn’t just prudent psychological advice for the sake of a more satisfying marriage; it is necessary for the deepest experience of the marital relationship, of mutual self-donation and self-giving, so that marriage doesn’t settle into a mere “We-communion” wherein a creeping dominance or submission may subvert the equality and dignity of the partners and depreciate their experience of one another. 

This also means that all that remains of “headship” is subsumed in the “I-Thou” sharing of the face-to-face consensus and can only operate now in a much more subtle and indirect way having nothing to do with commanding and obeying, as Vanauken describes, quoted in my earlier post on Equality and Leadership in Marriage (but now replacing the “charged” term “headship” with his own description): 

—in the sense of an initiatory or leadership role—that was accepted, even desired, by Davy without either of us being aware of it.  It had been loving and gentle, all decisions were discussed, there was never a hint of command, and yet, despite the mutual tenderness and deference, it was, I now saw, there: that veiled and loving [initiatory or leadership role].  We had eschewed husbandly authority from the first, Davy was combative and intelligent, we believed everything a modern feminist would have urged: yet something of [leadership] had all along been there.  Having known one woman deeply, having myself made every effort to see with a women’s eyes [such that C.S. Lewis even chastises him for going too far in this, saying “Did you want her to feel she had a woman in bed with her?”], I could not now believe that my subtle [initiatory or leadership role] or Davy’s acceptance of it was merely conditioning.  Now I wrote to her about it [posthumously], wondering without decision whether, despite all feminist denial, such a relationship were not inbuilt in the creation and effectively denied—which, after all, we, loving deeply, had not been able to do—only at a heavy cost to love.  

As Devra said in a comment to my earlier post, “This is fascinating, but it’s a mystery to me what he means, exactly!”  I agree, but this is as far as I can go at the moment.  Perhaps psychology can actually be of some help here as to masculine and feminine traits, and their role in the lives of real men and women.






Comments (37)

Katie van Schaijik

#1, Aug 31, 2012 7:25pm

Thanks very much for this, Michael! I think we're getting somewhere.

In the way you unfold the development of your own understanding on the issue, we can visualize more clearly and concretely how the Church's understanding and teaching develops over time.

Your presentation of Casti Cannubii helps me see that the Church was plainly already "leaning" in the direction of JP II.  The development has been gradual, not abrupt.

Here are some initial thoughts in reply.  

1) As I said in reply to an earlier comment by Patrick.  Obviously, no authentic development of Church doctrine can involve an actual rejection of or "rupture" with what had previously been taught. But, it might entail an apparent rejection and a startling reversal on the level of understanding, culture and custom.

Vatican II's teaching on freedom of conscience is a case in point.  

I suspect the teaching on "headship" is of a similar kind.  The contradiction is only on the cultural level, not the deepest theological level.

As I read JP II, he understands the "real lesson" of Ephesians 5 to be about the redemptive mystery of self-oblating love.  It was not meant to be prescribing gender roles.  

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Aug 31, 2012 7:32pm

In the ancient world, the authority of men over women was an unquestioned given of culture and custom.  

He wasn't prescribing it.  

Nor, if I'm right that the Church no longer teaches that the husband has authority over his wife, does it mean that it's no longer true that she is called to "subject herself" to him.  That remains.  But it is balanced by a new understanding that the husband also is to subject himself to her.  The teaching isn't undone; it's completed.  

What remains, too, is a recognition of the meaningfulness of sexual difference.  The way a husband submits himself to his wife will be different from the way she submits herself to him.

Katie van Schaijik

#3, Aug 31, 2012 7:39pm

I like what you say about "authority" only coming into the question when there has been a break-down on the level of love.  I think you are right that that partly explains why JP II eschews the language of headship and authority.  It shows an essential incompatibilty between the idea of authority and the ideal of conjugal love.

But I don't agree that it's necessary to preserve some notion of authority either 

1) to preserve Scriptural inerrancy or the validity of the tradition, or

2) to resolve a practical impasse when love has broken down.

On the contrary, I think making the husband the authority in case of an impasse is a horrible, impractical idea, likely to cause more problems than it solves.

Scott Johnston

#4, Aug 31, 2012 11:35pm

This is great, Dr. Healy! A very helpful and insightful exposition. Thank you.

If Dr. Healy is on target here (I think he is!), there is the implication that although when spousal love is flourishing according to an ideal Christian form, there is perhaps no need for an initiatory leadership role, nevertheless, there may be situations in marriage when the ideal of spousal love is not being realized. And in such times, a difference between the I-Thou and the We stances of the couple would emerge. And in such times when the We stance has a real distinction from--is not absorbed into--the I-Thou stance, there perhaps remains a genuine need for a leadership role to apply, however rare it may be, and assuming totally all of the qualifications Dr. Healy notes above from Casti Conubii.

May I also note that not being married, I am mindful of needing extra caution in such a discussion, not being able to speak from direct experience.

Perhaps, Katie, the difficulty you seem to have with the idea of there ever being a need for a leadership role within marriage, could be because your own experiece is so immersed in the I-Thou? I say this sincerely.

Katie van Schaijik

#5, Aug 31, 2012 11:50pm

Scott Johnston, Aug. 31 at 10:35pm

Perhaps, Katie, the difficulty you seem to have with the idea of there ever being a need for a leadership role within marriage, could be because your own experiece is so immersed in the I-Thou? I say this sincerely.

 I don't think so, Scott.  (But thanks for the compliment!)

I think a conflict between the spouses is exactly the moment when the question of authority has no role and ought to have no role. 

Imagine, if you can, you're a wife.  You are in a dispute with your husband about something you think important.  You feel he is not listening to you, not understanding your concerns.  He says, "Well, this is my decision and it's final."

Bad, bad, bad.

What he ought to do in that situation is not assert his authority, but open himself more fully to his wife.  She ought to open herself more fully to him.  Each should examine his or her conscience.  "Am I being stubborn?  Is he (or she) right here?"

The idea that the fallback position is that the couple should go with the husband's is disastrously wrong-headed, IMO.  Its tendency will be to reinforce and exacerbate unlove.

Scott Johnston

#6, Sep 1, 2012 12:01am

As Catholics (and thus, believers whose theology is always rooted in Scripture--the Word of God), Dr. Healy is certainly right to be concerned to always recognize and embrace the primacy of the Word of God in all efforts to faithfully interpret, understand, and develop the theologcial tradition.

In this regard, I want to recall a few things that are a part of the formal teaching of the Church.

1. All of Sacred Scripture is inspired by the Holy Spirit, with all its parts. (Thus, there are no unimportant parts of Scripture; every bit of it is an expression of the Word of God)

2. The Holy Spirit asserts as true everthing that the inspired human authors assert.

[both are in Dei Verbum 11]

So, if we interpret Ephesians 5 in such a way as to essentually empty Paul's language of headship in marriage entirely of any specific meaning, we will end up having violated the doctrinal teaching of the Church (above) about the Word of God.

How? By not recognizing number one. Every passage of Scripture has a meaning that the inspired human author meant to be asserting. Thus, so too, the Holy Spirit, in and through those human words.

Scott Johnston

#7, Sep 1, 2012 12:15am

So, if we interpret Ephesians 5 in such a way that, for all practical purposes, we end up depriving the headship passage of any real meaning of its own, we would be doing the equivalent of saying that Paul didn't have anything of lasting importance to assert here, and thus, neither did the Holy Spirit. As I understand things, I don't think we can do that and say we are being faithful to what the Church teaches about how we are to treat the Word of God.

I think to truly take all of Scripture, with all its parts, as the Word of God authored by the Holy Spirit (in the words of men), we have got to have some way of understanding what St. Paul says here that is able to recognize some real meaning in regard to headship.

And of course, whenever we wrestle with Scripture, we have to humbly never lose sight of the fact that English is not the language Paul wrote in. We open ourselves to all sorts of trouble if we permit our reaction to the contemporary baggage of a particular English word to completely obscure our openness to what Paul himself was asserting.

Scott Johnston

#8, Sep 1, 2012 12:32am

You are in a dispute with your husband about something you think important. You feel he is not listening to you, not understanding your concerns.


I agree this would be a bad situation and potentially poisonous to spousal love. But, I think, Katie, in your use of this example it seems to me you somewhat actually implicitly agree with my remark above. I think it would always be a husband's obligation (indeed, of both spouses) to always truly listen--especially when his wife disagrees. If he attempts to lead in such a way that his wife is not heard, he has already failed in an essential obligation he has to always treat his wife as an equal.

Any legitimate exercise of "headship" leadership (whatever this really is) in marriage, certainly, if it can ever be legitimate, would have to be done in such a way that the full dignity and equality of each is never demeaned. Your example already breaks this, and thus is disqualified from being an example of legitimate husbandly leadership. See, Dr. Healy's nine traits above, specifically, nos. 1, 2, 5, and 6, if not others. Your example doesn't meet the minimum requirements of Casti Canubii.

Scott Johnston

#9, Sep 1, 2012 1:11am

Also, thinking more about it, as I see it Katie, living in something less than an ideal "I-Thou" communion relationship does not necessarily imply conflict between spouses. Do you think it does?

Perhaps you're right, that during conflict is not the time for an exercise of headship (again, whatever this really is in the assertion of St. Paul and the Holy Spirit). But isn't there a wide area of a relationship possible where there is no conflict going on, but yet, there is something less than a full absorption of both into the "I-Thou" communion?--an area where a kind of immediate and full mutual understanding is not taking place, even though there be no argument? Perhaps this is more like the space within which headship might possibly be operative, provided it were in full keeping with the Healian exposition above?

Scott Johnston

#10, Sep 1, 2012 1:32am

Also, the way you put forth your example suggests that the husband is culpable for his lack of fully understanding his wife. I think you would agree that, while it certainly might be the case with husbands that they are to blame for not listening to their wives (and thus for the resulting lack of understanding), it is also possible that they could be making every sincere and loving effort to understand, truly listening, and yet through no fault of their own the wife still does not feel understood. Sometimes there is simply no avoiding the situation of two human beings not being able to completely put themselves in the other's shoes, no matter how hard they sincerely try--even, at times, between spouses who truly and deeply love each other.

Sometimes, the experience of not being understood in the way that we yearn to be understood is an unavoidable consequence of our fallen condition upon the eyes of our soul, and not due to a blameworthy lack of care or attention. I say this because I think it's true that when a real lack of understanding is at play between spouses, personal culpability may not always be truly relevant.

Scott Johnston

#11, Sep 1, 2012 2:51am

One more for now. . .

Perhaps the following is overly simplistic? But, I have heard (was it a homily?) a take on St. Paul's idea of headship/submission that made a lot of sense to me. It is a simple idea, rather than a full exposition. It leaves a lot unsaid, much room for mystery and for different ways of living it for particular couples. But also, it's more subtle than a mere "husband-is-decider-when-there-is-disagreement" sort if notion. I think it complements nicely Dr. Healy's thoughts above.

Here's the idea (perhaps you have heard this): the vocation of the husband, is the sanctification of his wife (not that he can earn it himself, but that his sacrifices pave the way and foster the greater holiness of his bride--which is, ultimately, the attainment of her greatest possible beauty and glory and fulfillment). It's his way to foster her sanctification--to lay himelf down for her. This is his primary mission in life as a husband.

Now, the "submission" of the wife, to the "headship" of the husband, is for her to willingly receive his self-gift to her of his self-oblation. Her sub-mission is to freely join herself to his mission--which is, her sanctification.

Scott Johnston

#12, Sep 1, 2012 3:06am

I think this can be translated, somehow, into situations of husbandly leadership. If, (and assuming all the conditions of the Healian exposition of casti conubii attain) the wife is able to see her husband's leadership in this way, it seems the opposite of anything demeaning or belittling. If the husband is really living his call to give himself for her benefit, then when he feels called to initiate and lead her in some way, he only does so with a desire to foster her sanctification. This has not the slightest trace of domination or tyranny or lording it over, but is suffused with self-emptying love. And it's not patronizing. It's taking his wife as the greater and more valuable person, and using his gentle, loving leadership/headship/initiation, only when he clearly perceives a call to exercise it for her benefit, with no regard for himself.

It is said that the Roman generals of ancient Rome gained respect and cemented power as military leaders by  themselves being fearless and fierce in battle. They ordered their men to fight. But they themselves led the charge. Their men grew eager and zealous to follow them because they had gained their respect in battle.

Scott Johnston

#13, Sep 1, 2012 3:12am

Perhaps there is a slight analogy there? As a roman soldier did not feel belittled by his general ordering him into deadly battle, but even honored and exhilarated (because he saw his general as a great man, and knew he would be leading the charge from the front risking his life with more vigor than any of his soldiers), perhaps a wife might not feel belittled by appropriate, Christlike husbandly leadership, but even be able to sense herself being ennobled by it? (and I don't extend the analogy to anything like, "ordering"--there should be no orders issued in marriage)

If she has reason to feel belittled/demeaned/patronized, then the husband is not leading in a way appropriate to his vocation.

Jules van Schaijik

#14, Sep 1, 2012 7:18am

I'm hesitating to jump in here because I know I won't have much time to follow up. Still, Scott, I'd like to make two points in response.

1. For all the qualifications and subtlety you surround it with, it still seems to me that your position comes down to the "husband-is-decider-when-there-is-disagreement" position. This goes even for the most ideal marriages you describe, and certainly for the actual marriages people live.

I think Katie is entirely right to reject this view as incompatible with the full equality of the spouses, and as most likely to backfire when tried (nowadays). Using authority to move beyond the sorts of disagreements we are dealing with in this discussion, will almost certainly further alienate the spouses from one another. It will introduce (or expose and grow) a dynamic into the heart of marriage that has no place there.

Jules van Schaijik

#15, Sep 1, 2012 7:33am

2. As to depriving Ephesians 5 of any real meaning. I don't think anyone here is doing that. It is a question of re-interpreting and thereby deepening our understanding of the passage in such a way that does full justice to the genuine developments of modernity. That is what John Paul II attempts to do in Mulieris Dignitatem.

Why do you think that depriving the passage of the traditional authority-submission interpretation is depriving it of any meaning whatsoever?

Katie van Schaijik

#16, Sep 1, 2012 7:46am

Scott Johnston,

So, if we interpret Ephesians 5 in such a way as to essentually empty Paul's language of headship in marriage entirely of any specific meaning, we will end up having violated the doctrinal teaching of the Church (above) about the Word of God.

 1. Keep in mind the interpretation comes from John Paul II, theologian and Pope, not from me.

2. His interpretation emphatically doesn not empty the language of meaning.  It only changes (and deepens) our undertanding of its meaning.  Where we had seen the assigning of gender roles, we now see something different.  We see in the relation between Christ and the Church, a spousal relation.  We see in the sacrifice of Jesus, conjugal love.  We see that love, even in human marriage is self-oblating, never over-lording.

3. What also remains is a difference between feminine and masculine ways of "laying down their lives."

 4. If the husband has to be perfectly Christilike in order for his "headship" not to be offensive, it's not a very practical principle, is it?

Katie van Schaijik

#17, Sep 1, 2012 8:11am

If the husband in fact (and by God's design) has authority over his wife, then in cases of disagreement, he has the right and the power to decide, while the wife has the duty to abide by his decisions.

I don't see any way around this.

The fact that those of you who want to preserve husbandly authority have to work so hard to stress that it should be exercised very discretely and lovingly I think goes to show that there's a problem with the very notion.  And it's not just that we moderns are a rebellious lot.  Rather, we moderns have learned something important.

Further, as I said somewhere else: this is not how "JP II marriages" are lived.  In the happy Catholic marriages I am familiar with, I see complementary differences in the way the men and the women serve their spouses and children.  I see no hint of authority being exercised.  None.

Michael Healy

#18, Sep 1, 2012 10:50am

If "headship" is now subsumed into mutual submission in Christ, then it must reveal itself in a non-authoritative way yet still be present.  This would seem to fit with scripture, tradition, and human experience.  Therefore, the image here should be something like a loving couple (equals) in a dance wherein someone has to lead.  You can't waltz if each partner insists on taking the first step forward--you'll just bonk heads.  This has nothing to do with authority but with harmony.  Considering both scriptural precident (Adam created first--in one account--and naming Eve, the tradition of the father of the family offering sacrifice for the whole, Christ coming as a man, the male priesthood), it would seem appropriate for the man or husband to have this initiatory or leadership role.  

In human experience, it also seems that while the woman or wife has especial guardianship of the children, the husband more represents or defends the family to the outside world.  For instance, if an intruder enters the home at 3AM, doesn't the lady of the house naturally rush to the children's room, while the man of the house may have to venture toward the living room to deal with the robber?

Scott Johnston

#19, Sep 1, 2012 12:29pm

If "headship" is now subsumed into mutual submission in Christ, then it must reveal itself in a non-authoritative way yet still be present.

Yes, I agree completely! This succinct way of putting it is what I am trying to get at in perhaps a clumsy way.

Jules and Katie, I don't intend to be supporting the notion of husbandly leadership as "husband-is-decider-when-there-is-disagreement." If I seem to be, that's not my position.

 I think I am trying to express exactly what it seems Dr. Healy means in the above remark. And in fact, I was thinking in my mind precisely of couple's dancing as a good analogy.

I do believe there is such a thing as a form of leadership that is natural to being male (and needing redemption like all other aspects of our humanity), that is not authoritative but is initiatory, always desiring the benefit of the beloved. And dancing might be the best analogy.

I love to watch couples who are great dancers. Though the man leads and the woman follows, there is total harmony. There is no conflict or clash whatsoever, but a beautiful synergy of the two complementing each other's specific roles.

Scott Johnston

#20, Sep 1, 2012 1:33pm

With great couple's dancers, though the man leads as the initiator, there is never any forcing on his part. He is not authoritative. But he is initiatory in a way that is suggestive, clear, while yet leaving the woman totally free to accept his suggestion or not. He doesn't lead her as though she must do this or that. But he initiates in a clear way, so that she can clearly accept or not.

And conflict or disagreement is not in play here. For this to work well, they can't be upset with each other. They have to be highly in-sync with one another, each very attuned and sensitive to the other.

And, as dance teachers will sometimes mention, though the man leads, a good leader's role is to highlight the woman. He may be leading, but she is the center of attention. His initiatory role within the dancing pair is to put the woman in the best possible light. He seeks to enable her to shine.

This analogy can go overboard. In dance, this situation normally attains. Whereas in marriage, I should think it would be infrequent. When engaged, always in a non-authoritative way, yet still present.

Scott Johnston

#21, Sep 1, 2012 2:06pm

It may be, Katie, that an area where we disagree is how we regard the nature of a type of leadership that I believe exists, and perhaps you don't.

I believe the natural leadership modes we are called to embrace in life do have natural differences rooted in our gender. (not that this is necessarily true of all leadership roles, but of some). And I also believe that specifically male leadership is not necessarily authoritative by nature. A man can lead as a man in a way that is initiatory and clear while still being suggestive as opposed to forceful. He can lead in a way that leaves others free from any coercion.

St. Paul's analogy of marriage to Christ and the Church, it seems to me, does more than solely point to the total, free sacrifice of Christ for His bride, though this is certainly the essential foundation. Wasn't Christ also a leader of the Church for whom He died? Surely, this is clear. And did not St. Paul have in mind anything of this leadership aspect of Christ, along with the sacrificial aspect? Doesn't the text of Ephesians 5 require taking Paul as saying something fundamental about leadership?

Scott Johnston

#22, Sep 1, 2012 2:33pm

I think it's esential here to be able to disntinguish different natural modes of appropriate male leadership, and in turn to distinguish these from their improper abuse. There is properly authoritative leadership (e.g. military officer; parent; coach). And there are demeaning abuses of it. There is a proper mode of husbandly leadership, and there are improper abuses of it.

I want to claim that there is such a thing as properly husbandly (sorry for awkward term) leadership, and that the inner nature of such leadership is not inherently authoritative (though the effect of the fall can easily make it so). I want to claim that it is real, yet it's essential inner character is not that of "husband-is-decider-when-there-is-disagreement."

 At any rate, I feel that Dr. Healy has captured the essence of what I am trying to get at in saying that headship "must reveal itself in a non-authoritative way yet still be present." For, I don't see how headship, in some real sense (in whatever sense truly meant by Paul) can be done away with without doing away with something essential to Paul's meaning (and thus, to Revelation). His analogy seems to concieve of a unique role for headship.

Katie van Schaijik

#23, Sep 1, 2012 2:41pm

I like the image of dancing a lot.  I also like actually dancing with Jules. :)  I like learning to "let go," trusting that he's keeping his eye on the walls and the other couples, choosing the moves, etc.

But, I have a caution: I think the Church does not say and men especially should not insist that they are supposed to lead, while women are supposed to follow.  "Headship" is not a felicitous term post-feminism, post-JP II, I think.

Rather, in marriage, IMO, they should just be the men that they are.  They should love and serve and protect and cherish their wives.  They should listen to their wives.  And learn from their wives.

The more cherished and respected and listened to a wife feels, the more willing she becomes to trust and rely on her husband's manhood.  When she feels that he recognizes and values the "feminine genius" in her; she naturally becomes more feminine, and more admiring of his masculinity.

In truth, in the happiest marriages I know, the husband's leadership highly responsive to the wife.  In other words, in her own way, she also "leads" him.

Katie van Schaijik

#24, Sep 1, 2012 3:01pm

Example of how this works in practice from just last week:

I was facing a difficult moral dilemma (involving a practical problem for the family).  I couldn't see at all what to do.  I couldn't tell whether my confusion was rooted in exhaustion or sin and selfishness.

I poured out my perplexity to Jules.  His patient listening and deep understanding gave me the relief I needed to at least sleep that night.  I could feel him feeling his way into my situation, sympathizing—taking account of my individuality, my particular weaknesses, strengths and sensitivities.  He didn't have an answer, but I felt his loving concern.

The next morning, he went to Mass, then sent me a text: "Here's what I think I'll long as you don't object of course."

His plan completely resolved my dilemma.  It also made me feel loved and protected.  The fact that he "submitted it" to me before he executed it made me feel respected.

"I grew wings," as Alice von HIldebrand likes to say.  Whereas the day before I'd been an anxious mess of moral confusion, now I was feeling free and light-hearted—praising God for the great gift of my husband.

Scott Johnston

#25, Sep 1, 2012 3:02pm

Yes, I think what you are expressing Katie, is very close to what I am thinking. The English term, "headship" is problematic today and other expressions should be preferred. Yet, I want to hold that Paul's comparison to Christ and the Church, does have some kind of real leadership implications, in a way that is not entirely culturally timebound. The very image itself, the bridal imagery of Christ and the Church, is an important theme for Paul and surely has an intended meaning that outlives the contemporary context of Paul's day. Same for the Church as the body of Christ; the vine and the branches image, sheep and shepherd, etc.

I also would remark that I don't think an especially specific plan or pattern for what this looks like can be given. As I think Dr. Healy remarked, its particular and proper unfolding has an element of mystery and uniqueness to how it should be lived for each couple that is theirs to discern with the help of grace. There is not a one-size-fits-all character to it.

Scott Johnston

#26, Sep 1, 2012 3:15pm

Your real-life example Katie, seems to me to be just the sort of thing I mean! I think you might say, that Jules did exhibit a kind of leadership, yet in a way that assumed no right to any authority over you; an initiation, in deep and deliberate consonance with--with a reverential embrace of--your full equality. And yet, he did something. Your reaction it seems to me is just the sort of reaction that would hopefully attain when husbandly leadership is being engaged appropriately.

I think of dancing again. When I watch a skilled couple on the dance floor, the woman seems to take much delight in the skilled, reverential, yet clear leadership of the man. It enables them to harmonize together as a couple in a beautiful, dignified, and uplifiting way.

Jules van Schaijik

#27, Sep 1, 2012 3:39pm

I too like the dancing analogy. But we don't seem to understand it in the same way. I think it applies to the day to day spousal relationship. The husband spontaneously initiates while the wife follows. (As I am writing this I begin to feel the limits of the analogy more strongly. But I'll set that aside.) The dance is interupted, however, as soon as a serious disagreement arises. That's when the couple has to sit down and talk. 

You, Scott, seem to apply it very differently. (I agree with much of what you write, and focus on what I disagree with just because it is the most efficient way of getting at the bottom of things.)

Scott JohnstonSep. 1 at 12:33pm

In dance, this situation normally attains. Whereas in marriage, I should think it would be infrequent.

The difference is important. To me, dancing describes the way in which husbands ordinarily and naturally represent "the head" and women "the heart" of the family. But I don't think that in cases of serious disagreement the husband still initiates in this spontaneous way, while the wife gracefully follows. To apply the analogy precisely to those situations seems very inadequate.

Jules van Schaijik

#28, Sep 1, 2012 3:48pm

To add something about what I said above, viz. that I was beginning to feel the limits of the dancing analogy.

Those limits have to do with ascribing the role of initiating to the man alone. In dancing this works. And it is necessary for obvious reasons. But in marriage it doesn't. Sometimes the husband initiates, sometimes the wife. This "give and take" normally happens very naturally and spontaneously, which is what the dance analogy captures. But the head / heart analogy captures better the fact that sometimes the one, sometimes the other leads.

Above, Katie gave an example in which I somehow led. But (If I had a better memory) I could offer plenty of examples in which she did.

Scott Johnston

#29, Sep 1, 2012 4:17pm

Thank you, Jules. I did indicate above that I don't see marital headship as necessarily applying to times of disagreement. You are saying that both husband and wife take initiatory roles at various times. And actually this comports with what I meant by, "I should think it would be infrequent." The "infrequent" in marriage thing I meant here was specifically the husband being the initiator to the same degree that this takes place in dance.

Sorry for language that grasps a bit. It's difficult to be clear when trying not to take too long and also not having direct experience to draw upon.

A final remark for now, and I suspect we agree on this, is that I want to preserve seeing an inherent, natural difference between male and female leadership in marriage. It seems to me we are on target if, as we recognize that either the husband or wife may lead and either may initiate, nonetheless the nature of their leadership is somewhat different according to their being male or female.

If we can hold this, perhaps this allows us to see Paul's language as manifesting this natural difference, while referring mainly to the man's particular leadership mode?

Katie van Schaijik

#30, Sep 2, 2012 12:11pm

I was mulling this question at Mass this morning.  I want to stress more unambiguously that I think we need to lose the "headship" concept altogether.  To use the term is already to interpret "head" to mean "leader" or "captain" or "authority", rather than, say, "reason" as opposed to "affectivity", as it does in the head/heart comparison.

In an individual person, the head is not "in charge" of the heart.  The head doesn't set the agenda or call the shots. It does, though, have a specific way of being and particular excellences, answering specific needs, as does the heart.  

I will go so far as to say I think the idea of male "headship" is opposed to "what the Spirit is saying to the churches" in our day.

It's as if we are determined to hold on to the very aspect of the previous understanding that JP II explained so beautifully and compellingly no longer obtains. 

Men are not superior to women.  Husbands are in no way to be understood as the social superiors or governors of their wives.  

That's what I think the Church has been teaching since Vatican II.  It's a development, not a rupture.

Katie van Schaijik

#31, Sep 2, 2012 12:27pm

As evidence, I submit again:

1) None of the post-counciliar Church teaching on marriage treat the husband as an authority

2) Catholic marriages aren't lived in a hierarchical way

3) The frequently-heard justification--that having a designated leader is a practical necessity—isn't true to experience.  Two friends traveling together don't need to choose a leader in order to arrive at their destination; a married couple doesn't need a captain to avoid collision.

Michael Healy

#32, Sep 2, 2012 8:44pm


While I basically agree with you, as you know, it does seem to me that at times 'Thou dost protest too much.'  You continually cite JPII for your position, but he gives us a creative, loving, innovative re-interpretation of the tradition while you seem to offer a disdainful and resentful rejection of the tradition.  You have used phrases like "I deny," "I reject," but I don't find these words in the writings of JPII on the topic. 

The way you constantly bristle at the concept of "headship" makes me think you are still reacting to past experiences of inadequacy (in how the teaching has been applied), insult, or disappointment.  

Unfortunately, it leaves me with an initial reaction of just wanting to defend "headship" to counteract your extreme.  Then I have to recollect myself, return to my depth, and work out how I agree--overcoming my initial "bristling" at your "bristling,"  This makes dialogue more difficult.

I think you should take a deep breath and cool it!  

Then you should begin a series of posts about the unique place and role of the man in marriage--what unique role does he have?  

Michael Healy

#33, Sep 2, 2012 9:05pm

We have to remember, too, that JPII gave us an Apostolic Letter on the topic, while Pius XI and Leo XIII gave us Encyclicals.  The latter do have greater authoritative weight, and have not been abrogated, in interpreting Scripture and Tradition--and Scripture still has to be recognized as divinely inspired and Tradition as divinely guided.  Therefore, I think we should be looking at the traditional ways of interpreting Ephesians with humility and reverence, while rejoicing in the breakthrough insights of JPII as the new context in which to interpret them.

Furthermore, philosophically, you have to be very careful about rejecting the idea of the "head" or "reason" or the intellect as "leader" or "captain" or "authority."  You say the head is not "in charge" of the heart.  True, as far as being able to issue direct commands to be obeyed, but false, as far as ultimate judgment and responsibility is concerned.  Not just St. Thomas, but also JPII (in The Acting Person especially) clearly sets the intellect (insight into objective truth) in a leadership role (called to form and integrate the emotional level).  So does Von Hildebrand. Though he is the first to give the heart its due, he acknowledges both a direct sanctioning/disavowing role and an indirect influence (cooperative freedom) of head over heart.

Katie van Schaijik

#34, Sep 3, 2012 10:18am

I'm sorry that you bristle at my bristling, Michael.  But I don't like being told to "take a breath and cool it."  That's condescending.  Not all bristling is bad. 

I deny that I am disdainful of the tradition.  What I reject (not disdain!) is not the tradition, but post-Vat II, post-JP II efforts to re-establish an aspect of the tradition that, in my reading of Catholic teaching in the here and now, no longer obtains, and one that I see as incompatible with both the dignity of women and the truth about conjugal love.

I do the same thing when I get into arguments with the kind of traditionalists who respond to discussion of freedom of conscience by "reminding" fellow Catholics that "error has no rights." 

I don't at all suspect you of being that kind of traditionalist.  But, as a woman and a wife, I do (naturally!) bristle when men—taking great care to qualify in various ways—seem to me, at bottom, to be re-introducing a principle into marriage that isn't fully consistent with feminine dignity.  

Katie van Schaijik

#35, Sep 3, 2012 10:33am

Michael Healy

The way you constantly bristle at the concept of "headship" makes me think you are still reacting to past experiences of inadequacy (in how the teaching has been applied), insult, or disappointment.  

Experience of how "headship" has been (and still is!) understood and applied by fellow Christians is certainly part of the reason I react so strongly against it.  I think that's a good reason to react against it.  Those experiences have made me sensitive to the problem.  I contend that the problem is not only in certain excesses or misapplications, but in the notion itself.  The excesses make the problem more conspicuous, they are not the problem.

Then you should begin a series of posts about the unique place and role of the man in marriage--what unique role does he have?  

 Michael—here I go, bristling again—why are you telling me what to do?  This makes dialogue more difficult. (Try to imagine me typing light-heartedly.)

In all seriousness, I don't see how a series of posts about the unique place and role of the man in marriage serves my aim or is quite to the point.

Katie van Schaijik

#36, Sep 3, 2012 10:48am

Michael Healy

We have to remember, too, that JPII gave us an Apostolic Letter on the topic, while Pius XI and Leo XIII gave us Encyclicals. 

I don't ground my position on one Apostolic Letter, but on the totality of the relevant teaching of the Church since Vatican II. I haven't studied it as a scholar would, but I have aborbed it it as a conscientious Catholic wife, more-than-usually alive  this question (partly because of my bad experiences in Steubenville, and partly because of my familiarity with DvH and JP II—which I got first from your class).

It seems to me clear that the Church herself is not taking pains to preserve male "headship" in marriage.  On the contrary, she no longer talks that way.  The talk is all about complementarity and mutual love and self-giving.

I find in JP II's letters and encyclicals and meditations more than ample, compellingly rich, deep and beautiful theological explanation for the shift.  I find the shift effortlessly reflected in the ordinary experience of happy Catholic marriages.  

So I bristle when I find male headship being promoted and defended by Catholic men. 

Katie van Schaijik

#37, Sep 3, 2012 11:00am

Michael Healy

philosophically, you have to be very careful about rejecting the idea of the "head" or "reason" or the intellect as "leader" or "captain" or "authority." ... Not just St. Thomas, but also JPII... clearly sets the intellect... in a leadership role (called to form and integrate the emotional level).  So does Von Hildebrand. Though he is the first to give the heart its due, he acknowledges both a direct sanctioning/disavowing role and an indirect influence (cooperative freedom) of head over heart.

Following von Hildebrand, I see the intellect and the heart on  equal spiritual rank.  Their roles are distinct but complementary.  Neither can do without the other.  Each "leads" in its own way.  ("The heart has reasons that reason does not know.") In a well developed and integrated person, they work harmoniously together.

DvH (as you know) has the will, not the intellect, sanctioning and disavowing.

In the head/heart marriage analogy, the couple together might be said to play the role of the will in the human person.  The heart and the head each do their thing, and the the will, the self, decides in each case where truth and good lie on a case by case basis.  

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