As I promised Friday, I want to discuss a subject that came up elsewhere, on the topic of obedience to one's husband and how that connects to the ever-continuing discussion of whether Catholic women may wear slacks.
I don't want to get into specifics, but the situation probably isn't all that uncommon among traditional-leaning Catholic families: the husband has decided that slacks aren't modest apparel for women and has told his wife not to wear them; the wife isn't sure slacks aren't modest, finds them practical on some occasions, and would like the choice to be hers.
How does wifely obedience relate to discussions like this one?
I know the subject matter, involving as it does the husband's opinion that slacks are never modest for a woman, is a bit of a side-track. Since I don't believe that slacks are always immodest, or that women should never wear them, and since that belief is strengthened by the fact that the Church doesn't seem to find slacks immodest for a women, and lets women tour the Vatican in slacks (but will turn away a woman in a too-short skirt), I could easily zero in on the topic instead of the general question. But I think that the general question is one of interest to many of us, because many of us have, at times, been asked to accept our husband's judgment in matters where we believe our opinion should have more weight, or where we resent being asked to do something contrary to our will.
Perhaps it's a spending issue--we want to buy something for the home, but our husbands think that the current item is perfectly good and doesn't need replacing. Perhaps it's a division of labor issue--we might believe that some particular task ought to be his responsibility, but he expects us to take care of it. Perhaps it's an educational issue--we want to switch to a different math textbook, but our husbands believe that the program already in use is superior and that we just need to work harder to make it appeal to the child. Or perhaps it has to do with dozens of other things, such as housework, family relationships, leisure time, involvement in parish groups or ministries, involvement in clubs or organizations, even the way we pray as a family; all of those are areas where a wife and husband may disagree, and a wife may eventually be called to obedience.
Notice I say, "eventually." Nothing exasperates me more than the notion that wifely obedience ought to be the same immediate and unquestioning obedience which should be given by a minor child, a servant, an employee or subordinate, or someone else in a dependency relationship. The various encyclicals that involve marriage and women are clear that this is not so; the obedience a wife owes her husband is the obedience of love, given by an equal, not the obedience of fear, given by an inferior.
So it is perfectly proper for a wife to discuss with her husband those decisions he wishes to make for the good of the family, to let her opinions and even disagreement be clearly known. If they can't agree, though, the wife may have to obey for the sake of family peace and harmony, and out of love for her husband.
How strong is her duty to obey her husband? I don't know if this has ever been spelled out, but my belief is that the duty to obey one's husband is in direct proportion to the extent to which his decision is for the good of the family.
So if the husband expresses a desire that his wife should clean the house in a certain order, for example, believing this to be the most efficient and best way, she should have the latitude to clean in a different order when the occasion warrants it--and he should respect and support that, knowing that the matter is of small importance and that she, the one doing the cleaning, may have to deal with practical realities of which he is largely unaware.
But if the husband decides that he and the whole family should make an effort to attend daily Mass together a certain number of times in a week, and there is no serious impediment to this from a family perspective, then this is a more important matter on which the family ought to come together. The example being set for the children by the parents in this matter is one that will be spiritually beneficial to all of them, fostering grace within the family and serving as an opportunity for growth in the spiritual life, and unless she has some practical reason not to join in with his wishes the wife should make every effort to go along with such a good decision.
The problem that may occur between husbands and wives in regard to the wife's duty to obey is that sometimes the matter at hand isn't at all a matter which relates to the good of the family. To revisit the original question, if a husband truly believes that any woman wearing slacks is (objectively speaking) committing a sin of immodesty, then the wife ought to insist that he discuss the matter with a holy priest, because he may be suffering from scrupulosity, or be struggling with a greater level of temptation than the average man, or in some other way be at a place of spiritual imbalance, to see sin where there is none. She can't help him to overcome this by meekly acquiescing in his request that she never wear slacks, not even alone in the house; but if he refuses to see a priest or seek spiritual counseling than she ought to wear the skirts--but not out of obedience, merely out of her loving concern for him. She should pray for his spiritual healing, find some good books that might help, suggest a retreat for married couples if one becomes available nearby, and do whatever else she can to foster improved communication and greater trust between them: because if a man insists that all slacks are immodest for women and that his wife must give them up to avoid sinning, then he is really saying that he does not trust her to make morally sound decisions without his commands, and that he may not even trust her virtue--a terrible thing for a husband to say, even without words.
It would, of course, be different if the wife suddenly started wearing halter tops and mini-shorts at home, in public, around their teenage son's friends, etc.--then there is a definite and legitimate moral concern, and a husband's desire that his wife not dress this way would indeed be motivated from his concern for the good, the spiritual health and well-being, of the family. But the man who sees his wife's appearance in a long pair of loose-fitting slacks and a modest shirt as being the moral equivalent of the halter top and mini-shorts must be humored, not obeyed, in his request that his wife only wear skirts; as his wife is doing no harm to the good of the family by wearing the slacks, she is not required to obey her husband's request that she not dress this way, and her humoring of his request is proof of her abiding love for him.
How do we know the difference? How do we know when to obey our husbands, when to humor them out of love, and when to make a stand? Again, we look to the good of the family: if what they are asking is an important thing that is ordered toward the family's good, we ought to do it; if it's a less important thing or if it isn't really ordered toward the good of the family we may need to humor them, depending on the situation. But if what our husbands want is something disordered, or ordered against the good of the family, we must insist that this not be done, and not only owe no obedience, but could even be more in danger of sinning if we give it. Examples of this would be the introduction into our homes of truly spiritually harmful forms of "entertainment," the adoption of a casual attitude toward Mass attendance, or other seriously wrong practices--we must not make obedience more importance than the protection of the family, and a husband who is erring in one of these ways must neither be obeyed nor humored, but reminded of his duty to lead the family to holiness.