By Eric Stoutz | September 19, 2008
A CUF member asks…
I have recently been drawn to wearing a veil to Mass. Having not grown up with such a devotion I am not sure how to articulate why to wear a veil or even why I am wearing a veil. I have a vague idea about humility, modesty and a tradition that all thing that deserve respect are veiled. As I have surfed on the web for information I have been frustrated. Thank you for any help you can offer.
It appears that there is no obligation for women to wear a veil. Wearing a veil came from centuries of custom that eventually died out in much of the West in the mid-20th century.
You might simply relate your ”idea about humility, modesty and a tradition” in a personal way–that wearing a veil better disposes you toward worship of our Lord. If you think it helpful, you can suggest that the person you are speaking with simply try it. You can express a hope that the practice becomes widespread. I would avoid presenting the wearing of a veil as something a women should do.
Regarding the obligation, canon 1262 §2 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law maintained the discipline,
“Men, in a church or outside a church, while they are assisting at sacred rites, shall be bare-headed, unless the approved mores of the people or peculiar circumstances of things determine otherwise; women, however, shall have a covered head and be modestly dressed, especially when they approach the table of the Lord.”
Still, prior to Vatican II in the early 1960s, women in the Church began to participate in Mass without head coverings. By the early to middle 1970s, very few women were still wearing head coverings at Mass. While the Church never made a canonical pronouncement, canon law does allow for modification of a custom, provided that the Church permits the modification. In summary, the custom began to change among the faithful and the Church deemed it prudent to let the former custom “die a natural death,” as one faithful liturgist has observed.
Inter Insigniores, a 1976 declaration on the ordination of women to the ministerial priesthood published by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), by way of example confirmed the disuse of veils. As the CDF noted, some advocates of women’s ordination fail to distinguish between changeable discipline (wearing a head covering) and unchangeable doctrine (the male-only priesthood):
“Another objection [by women priest advocates] is based upon the transitory character that one claims to see today in some of the prescriptions of Saint Paul concerning women, and upon the difficulties that some aspect of his teaching raise in this regard. But it must be noted that these ordinances, probably inspired by the customs of the period, concern scarcely more than disciplinary practices of minor importance, such as the obligation imposed upon women to wear a veil on the head (1 Cor. 11:2-6); such requirements no longer have a normative value (no. 4, emphasis added).”
In other words, the CDF did not say that the discipline was lifted at a particular time by a particular law. Instead the CDF said that the obligation to wear a veil was no longer in force. Consequently, 1983 code does not contain this canon and women no longer have any canonical obligation to wear a head covering.