Obviously, as a Catholic wife and mother, I believe in the concept of wifely submission, as outlined in the fifth chapter of St. Paul's letter to the Ephesians. I especially appreciate this homily of Fr. Miguel Marie Soeherman, MFVA, given last October to the EWTN sisters in Hanceville, AL. Fr. Soeherman points to a quote from Pope Pius XI's encyclical Casti connubii:
“The submission of the wife neither ignores nor suppresses the liberty to which her dignity as a human person and her noble functions as wife, mother, and companion give her the full right.
It does not oblige her to yield indiscriminately to all the desires of her husband; and his desires may be unreasonable or incompatible with her wifely dignity.
It does not mean that she is on a level with persons who in law are called minors. And minors are ordinarily denied the unrestricted exercise of their rights because of their immature judgment and not having enough experience."
Fr. Soeherman goes on to point out that as the husband is the head of the family, the wife is the heart. To me, this means that the wife's true submission is like that of the heart to the head, or of the emotions to reason--not that the husband is always reasonable and the wife always emotional, mind you, but just as a conflict between one's emotions and one's reason is often best settled in favor of reason, so a conflict between husband and wife is often best settled by the wife accepting her husband's role as the head of the family, and deferring to his judgment.
That said, this act of willing deference or submission is not, to me, the first thing a wife should do when a conflict arises--nor should it be the first thing a husband demands. If there is a true difference of opinion about a matter which affects them both, and indeed the whole family, I think that the first duty of both husband and wife is to have an open and honest conversation about this difference of opinion. Each should be willing to listen to the other, to respect what the other is saying, even to agree to reflect on it and discuss it again. A spirit of prayer and a willingness to seek God's will for the situation is valuable too. [N.B. : praying out loud in front of your husband "Dear Lord, please soften my husband's heart so that he will come to see that what I want is truly Your will," is as presumptive as it is passive-aggressive, and should never be done.]
If conversation doesn't resolve the issue, a compromise should be sought if such a thing is possible. Many everyday household issues can be resolved by a compromise in which each spouse gets part of what he or she wants. A husband who loves to watch baseball games on T.V. might agree to limit his viewing of these games in favor of some family activities, while the wife might agree to join him for some of the games in exchange for his willingness to give T.V. baseball up some of the time. These sorts of compromises should never be thought of as a failure of the wife to be genuinely submissive: they are the foundational sort of give and take which characterize a healthy marriage.
Only when both conversation and compromise have failed should the wife be prepared to submit to her husband's judgment, always presuming, of course, that the three points outlined in Casti connubii are respected; that is, that the wife's liberty is not being ignored or suppressed, that her wifely dignity is respected, and that her husband isn't treating her like a minor. Given that those points are respected, given that conversation and compromise have not resolved the issue, the wife should be prepared to submit, even if at this point her husband generously decides to let her have her way after all, something which is quite within the realm of possibility for a truly Christian gentleman to do.
Let's take an example which might have occurred in the lives of some of my readers.
Suppose two deeply Catholic parents have their children in the local diocesan school. The wife begins to be frustrated with the school's lack of authentic Catholic teaching and the unceasing bureaucracy of the administration, not to mention the rising tuition costs. Having done some preliminary investigation into homeschooling, she approaches her husband to discuss the matter.
Her husband agrees to look into homeschooling, and after he has done so, they have a good conversation where they agree that homeschooling might be a better option for their family than the diocesan school. However, a conflict arises owing to the fact that the wife would like to begin homeschooling immediately, while the husband thinks it would be less disruptive to the children to wait until their next school year begins.
They discuss the matter, weighing the pros and cons of each position. They pray about it, reflect on it, and agree to revisit the subject in a few days.
At this point, one of two things could happen: they could reach a compromise (perhaps waiting until the next semester, or after Christmas, to begin homeschooling); or the husband could reiterate his desire to have the children remain in the school until the next school year.
It is at this point that I think the Christian wife, knowing that her husband has the children's welfare as much at heart as she does, and understanding that he wants her to take the time to assemble a curriculum etc. which might be difficult in the middle of the year, will agree to wait until the next school year to begin homeschooling, trusting in God that the decision is a good one.
And if God wants a different outcome, He might surprise both the husband and the wife by making it both possible and necessary for them to begin homeschooling much sooner than that, at which point He will make His will clear to the family that seeks to know it.
The point of all of this is that any view of wifely submission that sees the wife as some sort of glorified doormat, unworthy of her husband's help or consideration, is not a true Catholic understanding of the principle. Submission out of love, entered into willingly for the sake of family harmony and peace is a virtue; but a view of submissiveness that sees the wife as somehow duty-bound to enable any sort of selfish or demeaning behavior on the part of her husband is a view contrary to Catholic principles.