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. 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.