The Personalist Project

Accessed on January 23, 2020 - 10:14:37

Reading Casti Connubii (and the Tradition) in Light of the Insights of JPII

Michael Healy, Aug 31, 2012


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.