Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Did the chapel veil kill the head covering requirement?

I'm so late posting this (is it already Wednesday, technically?  Sigh...) that I almost didn't, and after you read this, some of you will probably think I shouldn't have. :)

But after reading Jennifer Fulwiler's veil-wearing post, I had some things to say.

In fact, I've said them before:


and here,

and here.  For example.

My main point is this: since the Church no longer requires women to cover their heads at Mass, women are not required to cover their heads at Mass.  Women are still free to wear hats indoors, including into churches and at Mass.  They are also free to drape themselves in lace veils through which you can see their hair quite plainly.  They can do so as personally pious practices, or to look nice, or because they're having bad hair days, or, in fact, for any reason at all.  The only thing they are not free to do is to insinuate that women wearing a head covering is required or even strongly preferred by the Church at this time, because, quite simply, it isn't.

Many people have wondered why the Church stopped requiring women to cover their heads at Mass.  Was it feminism?  Was it a misunderstanding during Vatican II that led to women abandoning the head covering before the rules were clear?  Was it a recognition in Canon Law that the practice had already fallen into disuse?  Was it an understanding that in a relatively short time period women went from customarily wearing hats in public all the time to almost never wearing them, and was that because of feminism, of shortages after World War II, or for some other cause?

I think all of those things may have played a role; Church historians may, from a distance in the future, be able to see more clearly just what happened to hats at Mass or even in Protestant churches where they also disappeared.  But I have a radical new theory as to one thing that may have signaled to authorities in the Catholic Church that it was time to say goodbye to this particular requirement: the dawn of the chapel veil itself.

Oddly enough, as I've mentioned in previous posts, a lot of women today seem to have this rosy idea that generations of past Catholic women always wore lovely lace veils to Mass.  Unfortunately for this rosy view, handmade lace was very expensive, and machine-made lace didn't get its start until 1768; it took the next century or so for handmade lace to dwindle as it was replaced by the much cheaper machine-made variety.  Lace mantillas were certainly the custom among wealthy Spanish women, but even in Spain and the Spanish colonies ordinary women didn't own lace veils.  Most women covered their hair when they were outdoors, and whatever sort of hair covering they owned, they wore to Mass--certainly their newest or nicest one, but the same sort of thing, whether it was a twist of fabric, a hat or bonnet of some sort, or whatever the case might be. 

So where does this idea come from, this idea that to cover one's head at Mass meant some sort of lace drape?  Aside from places where the influence of the Spanish mantilla might have been felt, I think it's safe to say that for most American Catholic women today, the notion that the lace veil is the traditional covering comes from that vintage hair accessory known as the chapel veil.  But what, exactly, was the chapel veil?

Most of the information I can find about this little lace cloth worn on the head indicates that it was initially an abbreviated form of the customary Spanish mantilla, and it was originally adopted for use in warm climates.  How exactly it traveled to the United States is something I still haven't found, but from everything I've found its widespread use was adopted just as customary hat-wearing was declining: because a woman no longer put on a hat, a head-shawl, a heavy scarf tied under the chin, a bonnet, etc. to go outdoors, she might actually find herself in the position of being near a Catholic church, wishing to enter or make a visit, and being unable to do so because she didn't have the proper headgear on.  Enter the chapel veil--not usually the long, lovely lace folds we see today, but a little round or oblong bit of lace that could be folded up and kept in a pouch in one's purse--something like this.  With this, a woman could make a spontaneous visit to the Blessed Sacrament or even pop in for a daily Mass when she wasn't wearing a hat--a more and more common occurrence after about 1960, when she was more often hat-less than not.

But then something happened.  I suspect that it was something rather simple, really.  Women who realized that hats were going out of fashion, who searched in vain for hats appropriate for Mass as the styles became more outrageous, women who got used to wearing that little scrap of lace over their heads and thinking it satisfied the Church's rule that they had to cover their heads--they saw Jackie Kennedy wearing a slightly longer bit of lace to Sunday Mass and thought--well, why not? If the First Lady, who can afford any hats she likes and who has designers just waiting to make hats especially for her, thinks it's perfectly okay to ditch the outdated and cumbersome hat for a simple drape of sheer fabric that really doesn't hide one's coiffure at all, why shouldn't we?

And so they did.

Granted, that's just speculation on my part, as is what follows.  Because I think that what follows is that the Church, in the person of her authorities, realized that if average women thought that the point of covering one's head at Mass was just to put something on the hair, even if that something was nothing but a scrap of lace or a bobby-pinned handkerchief or, worse, a paper napkin or some tissues held in place by art or mystery or one determined if unfolded hand, then the meaning of the custom had long since been dissipated, and the legalistic attempts to satisfy the letter of the law were reaching the point of silliness.

None of that is meant to cast the slightest bit of aspersion on those of my fellow female Catholics who have started to wear something on their heads at Mass and who feel that by making this special effort they are doing something that enhances their ability to pray, to stay focused, and to make a particular sacrifice for God.  He loves our little voluntary sacrifices; I am sure of that.  And since there's no longer any requirement that the hair actually be covered, a bit of see-through lace is as capable of being a meaningful voluntary act of penance and sacrifice as anything.

So long as people aren't twisting themselves into knots to justify why they are or are not wearing a hat, headcovering, chapel veil, mantilla, scarf, knit cap, hood or snood, or other covering, I have no problem at all with this form of voluntary penance, and neither should anybody else, in my opinion.  As long as everybody is clear that that is what it is, of course.  Because if the Church actually were to require women to start covering their heads at Mass again, we might have to request clarification as to whether today's modern machine-made lace, which is so transparent and which tends to enhance rather than to obscure female beauty, really fits the bill.


Deirdre Mundy said...

Erin-- I saw another interesting take on the origin of Chapel Veils in Knox's Enthusiasm.

He posits the headcovering came from a need to stamp out a burgeoning prophetess cult. Because the veils at the time were more like burkhas. So you could either sit quietly at Mass unveiled, or veil yourself and prophesy, but you wouldn't be able to rend your clothes and faint prettily and make a scene. Prophesying veiled meant that attention was on the words spoken, not the speaker.....

So, in Knox's estimation, the Pauline command about head coverings was for women trying to be the center of attention, not the one in the back who just wanted to get to Mass, and the point was to take the fun out of being the center of attention.

Anyway, Knox is not infallible, but I thought his take was interesting. I'd type out the passage for you guys, but.... dishes are more important at the moment....

Tony said...

A veil signifies a woman's humility before God. What does a blog post saying: "I don't need to wear no stinkin veil" signify?

Connie Rossini said...

I'm so glad this issue brought me back to your blog. I haven't visited in a while, and I sure enjoy your insights. I admit I got a little defensive yesterday, reading comments by so many women who wear or want to wear veils. Really I have no desire to do so, and I don't like the implication that I am somehow less reverent because I don't follow a Church directive that no longer exists. Thanks for your clear and fact-based posts on this!

Charlotte said...

About Jennifer Fulwiler wearing a chapel veil, can I just groan and say UGH! I say this not to denigrate her decision - hey, if a woman feels called to do this, fine, go for it, Catholicism is wide and broad enough to accommodate lots of stuff.

My problem is the legions of Catholic women who hang on every word she says, almost unthinkingly. So now she'll be sparking a chapel veil fad. Score one for Father Z.

I remain largely unconvinced by Fulwiler, lovely person that she is. Does that sound contradictory? It doesn't have to. She IS a lovely person with interesting things to say and quite the talent for telling her story. I read her blog. I've gained from it.

But there is just too much of a fandom, media hype around her, and either she or someone behind the scenes knows how to market that. I feel her soon to come out book about conversion to Catholicism is too early, although it does beg the philosophical question of how soon does one accept that a conversion is complete?

I cringe at this development. What's next? Live blogging from a TLM?

JMB said...

I wear a wool knit hat to mass during the winter months because our parish does not heat the church during the week for daily mass.

Were mantillas popular in the northern climate regions of the United States in the winter time? What did ladies do - take off their winter hats and don the mantilla? It seems so silly.

Red Cardigan said...

Tony, I quibble at the idea that a veil--or, more properly, a hat or other culturally appropriate head covering--signifies a woman's humility before God. Back when wearing a head covering was required, doing so signified, primarily, obedience. Saying that it signifies humility is problematic, to me. It's sort of like saying that obeying the fasting regulations signifies asceticism, when lots of very non-ascetic people will fast out of obedience, and when obedience to the fasting regulations is what is required.

In the same Scripture passage St. Paul spells out that men and women must always sit separately from each other in church, and this is also an ancient custom that has fallen by the wayside. Amazingly, I don't see very many men agitating for this or insisting that it is unseemly and prideful for women to insist on being seated with the male members of her family. This makes me suspect that something else is going on when men start insisting that women ought to cover their heads in church.

freddy said...

Tony said, "A veil signifies a woman's humility before God."

Where did you learn that?

I often call wearing a headcovering "a practice in search of a theology." Holy Mother Church has made it clear that wearing a headcovering was a discipline that was imposed and is no longer.

If a woman wants to wear a headcovering to Mass, fine. If she wants to attach some *personal* spiritual significance to it, also fine. But no one has the right to make authoritative statements for all women.

As Erin pointed out, men and women were also required to sit on opposite sides of the church. In fact the 1917 Code of Canon Law, the very same canon that required headcoverings for women also required men and women to sit separately. If I recall correctly, it's just one sentence; two clauses connected by the word "and," which would tend to give both requirements equal weight.

Charlotte (WaltzingM) said...

"A veil signifies a woman's humility before God."

I've known some proud, vain women who wore head coverings, especially those who insisted on "fine Spanish lace, not that cheap polyester stuff". To them, a veil only signified their standing as "real Catholics".

eulogos said...

I like customs. I am glad to follow them. I have worn a scarf to Conservative Orthodox churches.(and I rather like the look.) I don't have a chapel veil and the Catholic church where I might wear a scarf is so darn hot that I always wind up tearing it off because I can't breathe, and also can't hear. I like hats and have a few, but I can't imagine where I would put enough hats to match all my clothes, and besides, what is humble about buying a bunch of hats? I don't really *like* chapel veils, for myself. But it looks as if I might have to get a couple to satisfy the custom at the traditional Latin mass. However, I am under no illusion that it will make me humble to do so!

Anyway, aren't men supposed to be humble before God too? What item of clothes do they wear to show it?

As I said, I will follow this custom anywhere it exists, without complaint. But I don't really believe in it as something which has much intrinsic meaning.

Susan Peterson

Karen said...

Just a few points to ponder:

1) I Corinthians 11 (where St. Paul gives the instruction that lead to the tradition)

2) In all of Church History, things of 'value' were veiled (like the Tabernacle). In this sense, women are greatly revered by God and veiling is desireable.

3) 1983 Canon Law 20 & 21 states that unless a previous Canon Law is specifically removed, it remains. Veils were not removed

4) I always believe it better to ere on the side of traditional conservatism so as not to inadvertently offend The Lord, rather than follow current customs that don't offend today's women.

5) To follow the most submissive and honoring behavior in the presence of Our Lord is prudent. Heis worthy of humbling ourselves by setting aside our own desires and human understanding of an issue, and instead to fall on our face before Him.

All should follow their inclination after great research and even greater prayer. The mere fact that this keeps coming up is an indication to me that God is not through with us yet on the issue of veiling. Of course, I'm a bit biased now because since my own conversion of heart, I began a business selling my own version of veiling....just kidding. I was biased even before that BECAUSE of my conversion of heart.

Blessings to all...keep open to the lead of the Holy Spirit.

Lady Jane said...

Bless this post. Thank you SO VERY MUCH for writing this, which basically contains my own thoughts on this.