Monday, December 15, 2008

Wifely Obedience

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.


Karie, the Regular Guy's Extraordinary Wife said...

Wow fantastic post Red! I wish more priests would use your points when they get to "Wives obey your husbands" passage in the NT. I completely agree with what you have said. If it is for the benefit of the family (and not necessarily for the woman) then taking an "obedient" approach is reasonable. And if it is _not_ good for the family, then resist and call upon your priest to help. And finding flexibility in between. Brilliant!! Thanks for this post.

Deacon Dean said...

Thank you for this excellent post! I am working on a homily for the Feast of the Holy Family and this year's epistle is that of St. Paul to the Collossians, where he admonishes "wives, be subordinate to your husbands". This gives me much good food for thought.

I thoroughly enjoy your blog, btw.

Rebecca said...

Okay, I have a couple of questions. I'm not trying to be difficult; these are real questions I have had for some time:

1. There is a passage where St. Paul says "Be subject to one another". How is this different from the particular obedience that a wife owes her husband? Or, in other words, if you had been addressing in your post in what ways husbands should be subject to their wives, how would your words to them have been different?

2. Red, it almost seems from your post as though the norm is for the husband to basically be ordering his wife around about various things, and then she in turn must deliberate about whether or how far she must obey the order, from order of cleaning to Mass attendance. Maybe that's not what you intended and maybe I shouldn't have carried away that impression, but in any case, isn't it important to address what in fact is a healthy dynamic between spouses? Did God intend for the husband to go around constantly making decisions and then awaiting input from his subordinates? I am truly not trying to be difficult or feminist here; I am a convert and still trying to get a grasp of what it is that God intends. It seems to me that if two friends were getting together to clean a house or something, it would be kind of weird if one were to say, "Okay, I'm in charge, but I'll listen to your advice". Doesn't it seem more normal that they would just work together as a team, and sort of both be willing to defer to the other if some preference were expressed? It doesn't seem right or healthy to me that a husband would give an order to his wife about the order or method of cleaning house, any more than that she would give him such an order. It could very well be that my own ideas are lacking in this area, but I have yet to hear this explained in a way which makes sense to me, or goes with my picture of how lovers or even how friends would behave toward one another.

3. Along the lines of the above--in your discussion of what ought to be obeyed or not, what would you say about a husband who inappropriately orders his wife and children around, whatever "inappropriately" may be? What if he is really exceeding the bounds of his authority--let's say the matter is really something he ought to be leaving to her judgement, if there is such a thing, or let's say he is really commanding her about every least thing, from the manner in which she brushes her teeth, to what books she is reading (I mean e.g. reading the Pope's writings instead of some canonized saint he prefers).

Would it be right, or not, for the wife to say, "I'm sorry, it's really inappropriate, and not nice, for you to be telling me what to do constantly, and so I'm not going to obey you." Is that permitted? Good? Super-bad?

David L Alexander said...

Most people handle this subject badly. It's hard to say who is worse; the feminazis who expunge certain texts from the readings at Mass, or the rad-trads who adopt an essentially Calvinist understanding of "obedience."

"Be ye submissive to one another." Your first big clue that this is a two-way street. "Wives should submit to their husbands as to the Lord." The husband is spiritual head of the household, and carries the authority that goes with it. The example set by Our Lord is the model. Since He didn't spend his earthly ministry pulling rank on everyone in sight, one wonders where the rad-trads get the idea.

Authority and responsibility go hand in hand, and so Paul saves his sharpest admonition for the man: "Husbands, love your wives AS CHRIST LOVES HIS CHURCH." How does Christ love His church? By laying down His life for Her. Notice Paul does not make this demand of the wife. Hers is a different form of submission, as hers is a different essential nature.

This has been inculcated in our Western culture, as in when a ship is sinking, it's "women and children first." It is the understanding in Christendom that the men lay down their lives for the women, who are caregivers for the children. Thus the human race is best preserved when ultimately threatened.

All this is a far cry from "bossing women around." The husband in having the authority he does, must also ensure the happiness of those over whom he has it. If the wife isn't happy, ain't nobody happy.

In the end, both submit to one another, albeit differently according to the essential nature of the respective parties. But mutual submission it is. Just as Paul said at the outset.

Red Cardigan said...

Rebecca, you're right, and when I've written before about submission I've tried to show how the healthy family is one where respectful teamwork is a two-way street. I see a wife's duty to obey as being primarily about those moments when an impasse has been reached, but a decision must be made. But certainly the wife ought also to be making decisions for the family too, and her husband shouldn't use his "veto" power lightly.

That said, there are lots of families who are in less than ideal situations, and it's harder to see the "teamwork" in action when the wife is being called to carry a heavier burden with an unreasonable husband, or a husband called to a heavier burden with a contentious wife.

Ordinarily, though, it is love, not obedience, at work when a wife takes her husband's wishes into consideration. Mine doesn't like to do a lot of outdoor decoration at Christmas, for one tiny example, and it wouldn't be loving of me to insist on it anyway--but because of his love for me, he found a reasonable amount he's willing to do each year (and a timer to turn it on and off automatically, which was a big help).

I don't know how the Church sees it for sure, but I sometimes suspect that obedience is a lesser virtue that should come into play when love fails--but that could probably be its own topic.

Kimberlee said...

I do not understand this post. If a husband states that he prefers his wife to wear skirts, why wouldn't a wife want to honor her husband's wishes and wear the skirts? And if he wanted her to wear blue jeans, then wouldn't she want to wear the blue jeans? She has only one man to please in the world - wouldn't she naturally want to please her husband out of love? Wouldn't the wife want her husband to know she cares about what he wants and is happy to please him? Why does the 'obedience' issue even come into the discussion? It is not as if you are mentioning clearly illicit things like birth control or Sunday Mass obligation. I can't imagine that a wife 'insisting' that a husband discuss something with a priest would go over well with any man. If we are concerned about 'the good of the family' then we first must be concerned about the good of the marriage. The question should not be 'how strong is her duty to obey her husband' but rather how great is her desire to please him and make him feel loved, respected and appreciated. If a husband is always made to feel loved, honored and respected that makes for a happy marriage, and the issue of 'obedience' need never even arise in such a marriage.

Melanie B said...

I wonder too if the particular admonition to women to obey their husbands as the head of the family doesn't address a particular temptation faced by women: to treat their husband as just another one of the kids. I see it all the time on television, and sadly sometimes in real life as well: the stereotype of the wife who sees her husband as just another irresponsible person she has to keep under her control, to nag to do things around the house, etc. A reminder of the dignity and respect she owes to him as the head of the house can help counteract that tendency to be a mother hen. Of course, you can argue that it comes back to love and that the best way to love a husband is to recognize his need for respect and admiration. Just my thoughts on the subject.

David L Alexander said...

"If a husband states that he prefers his wife to wear skirts, why wouldn't a wife want to honor her husband's wishes and wear the skirts?"

One answer might be, because she has wishes of her own. It's a prospect that often accompanies having a MIND of one's own. Does another man need to be involved for this to happen?

Having said that does not negate a wife's desire, and sometimes an obligation, to please her husband. At the same time, the husband's desire for the wife to be happy and content -- in other words, for him to please her in return -- requires a certain latitude on his part.

How this happens will vary from one couple to the next.

Red Cardigan said...

Kimberlee, I see it as a difference between a husband who says, in effect, "Gee, honey, you look so pretty in skirts; I wish you'd wear them more often," vs. "Wife, I have decided slacks are immodest for a woman, and your request to continue wearing them only when I'm not at home for the brief time period when you are scrubbing the kitchen floor and cleaning the bathrooms is hereby denied--your virtue and your soul are at stake."

Most women would be inclined to adapt to the first request, even with a few reasonable exceptions. I think the second violates Casti Connubii's reminder that women are not to be treated like minors or like mindless subordinates, and thus would want such a man to receive sound spiritual counseling.

John Thayer Jensen said...

Red said:

Kimberlee, I see it as a difference between a husband who says, in effect, "Gee, honey, you look so pretty in skirts; I wish you'd wear them more often," vs. "Wife, I have decided slacks are immodest for a woman, and your request to continue wearing them only when I'm not at home for the brief time period when you are scrubbing the kitchen floor and cleaning the bathrooms is hereby denied--your virtue and your soul are at stake."

FWIW I took more or less the first tack with my wife. I told her I loved to see her in a dress or skirt - my objection to trousers is not at all because of any inherent immodesty but because dresses and skirts are more beautiful on a lady and much more feminine. Obviously - it seemed to me - trousers were work clothes. I have always thought the 'modesty' thing was silly, by the way.

She has nicely accommodated my prejudice. I could not imagine taking the second approach :-)


John6:54 said...

The whole topic is a bit nauseating. I'm pretty sure God is not concerned if a bit if wives wear slacks, long skirts, or kimonos. And husbands who demand their wives to wear only certain clothes they approve of need to be knocked down a notch. God gave both men and women a functioning brain. Its 2008 for goodness sake isn’t it about time we start using them.

Martha said...

I see a problem with "humoring" the husband who makes the requests and won't seek any kind of spiritual direction or counseling: 9 times out of 10, this leads to more humoring, and more humoring, and the wife's world can become increasingly hemmed in by the unreasonable demands of a man who can't hear the Lord directly and won't go through another human. I have seen more than a few homeschooling families end up with a depressed mom in counseling this way.

And to what Melanie said- it's interesting to read that someone sees that as a temptation of women, to treat the husband as another kid. I see it just as much as a temptation for the husband, to sit back, take it easy, and let the wife lead. Lots of men do not see good modeling of leadership when they are growing up; since they never saw it, it's hard to stand up and be a leader. It's easy to sit back and let the wife make the decisions. I think a lot of women would *like* their husbands to be leaders of the family -- but you know, Chesterton said that women are both more conscientious and less patient than men. I think women often see that a decision needs to be made and get tired of waiting, so they do it. It's hard to prompt a husband to get up and lead, without being a nag or ending up leading yourself.
Just thought it was interesting - I have always looked at that same problem as a failure on the man's part, as much as or more than the woman's.

Bunthorne said...

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.

I'm wondering how this is to be interpreted. Could you clarify it? Is it exemplified by this later passage:

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.

As I read this latter, it is saying that if a husband tells his wife "Don't do X," but X in fact does no harm to the good of the family, the wife is not required to obey the request, but perhaps ought to humor it in some cases. Is this right? Thanks.

Deirdre Mundy said...

I've always thought the "wifely obedience" clause should be used as a protector against improvident marriages..

As in, when you're considering marriage, you need to decide if this is really someone you can trust NOT to make stupid and demeaning demands and expect unquestioning obedience.

In my own marriage, obedience has most often come up when I'm being stupid about Doctor's orders. (Sure she said to stay off my feet, keep off the stairs, and not lift anything over 20 pounds, but i really WANT to do the laundry! I'm bored!!!)

I'm sometimes confused about why anyone would WANT to marry the barking orders, you must wear what I say, only I know what is best for the children type....

Though I've also known women who choose to homeschool over their husband's objections and let the marriage and family suffer because of their own opinion on how to school the children....

This is why I REALLY wish more priests ran classes for couples...

Deirdre Mundy said...

Oh, just wanted to add-- the mindless super-supservient, anything you-want-no-matter-how-unreasonable-dear wife always strikes me as creeping protestantism.

I mean, come ON people. We're the church that Canonized a woman whose biggest claim to fame is telling the pope he's an idiot who needs to get his butt back to Rome.

One of our newest saints was a woman who was a wife, mother AND PEDIATRICIAN!!!!

Heck, CHRIST HIMSELF obeyed his mother at the Wedding of Cana!!!!!

If anything, wifely obedience should be a check on our untrammeled ability to boss men around, NOT a license to refuse to participate in any family decisions.

(Though, I guess on the plus side, if you do something against your better judgement because of 'wifely obedience,' you can have the delicious chance to blame EVERYTHING on your husband when it goes totally awry, instead of sharing responsibility.

Because "I would have mentioned it, but I was being obedient and now we're screwed!" is such a great motto for a healthy marriage.......

John6:54 said...

Amen Deirdre

Anonymous said...

I agree that a wife's obedience shouldn't be like that of a servant, and that there should always be adult discussion as loving equals, with the wife only obeying if agreement can't be reached.

However I disagree that a woman's obedience should be proportional to how beneficial her husband's decision would be for the family. That's not her call to make, it's her husband's.