Should wives be submissive to husbands?

Catholic FAQ

Can it still be affirmed that a wife should be submissive to her husband, given the changes in modern society?

See also: The Best Questions and Answers

By Fr. Peter Scott

The due submission of a wife to her husband can be considered on two different planes:

  • firstly that of the natural law, man and woman having each a profoundly different function in the building block of society which is the family;
  • and secondly on the supernatural plane.

This second perspective is by far the most important, and illuminates all of married life. For if the submission of a wife to her husband is totally clear in the natural law to any woman who has not been tainted by the rebellious principles of liberalism, it was explicitly confirmed in the New Testament. St. Paul, in the fifth chapter of his epistle to the Ephesians, lays down the principles. A husband has, in virtue of the sacrament of matrimony, always to imitate Christ in His love for the Church, and a wife has always, in virtue of the same sacrament, to imitate the Church in her love for Christ. Thus a man is really the head of his wife, and has the duty to take leadership, whereas the wife must strive to be the heart responding to and dependent upon the head.

Pope Leo XIII treats of this question explicitly in his encyclical Arcanum Divinae Sapientiae of Feb. 10, 1880:

The husband is the chief of the family, and the head of the wife. The woman, because she is flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone, must be subject to her husband and obey him: not, indeed as a servant, but as a companion, so that her obedience shall be wanting in neither honor nor dignity. Since the husband represents Christ, and since the wife represents the Church, let there always be, both in him who commands and in her who obeys, a heaven-born love guiding both in their respective duties.  For 'the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is the head of the Church... Therefore as the Church is subject to Christ, so also let the wives be to their husbands in all things'" (Eph. 5:23-24) (Matrimony, Papal Teachings, by the monks of Solesmes, p. 141).

Since man's nature cannot change, neither can the natural law, and since divine revelation was completed with the death of the last of the apostles, neither can this supernatural plan change either. In order to resist the corruption of nature and God’s supernatural gifts, husbands and wives need to remember that they do not belong to this world, otherwise modern-day liberalism will succeed in destroying the family. Husbands will consequently take responsibility and leadership, even when they feel inadequate, and wives will take delight in denying their own will and obeying their husbands.

It is this authority of a man over his wife (not of men over women) which the liberals detest, and which, alas, Pope John Paul II has fought against on the basis of the false rights of man. In his analysis of this change of teaching, author Luigi Accattoli does not hesitate to affirm (approvingly) that the pope "corrects the teaching of St. Paul " (When a Pope Asks Forgiveness, Alba House, pp.105-108, 1998).

In regard to the radically feminist nature of the assertion of the equality in marriage of husband and wife, it suffices to quote some passages from the above author, based as they are on the pope's September 1988 Encyclical Mulieris Dignitatem:

The boldest stroke is also found in Mulieris Dignitatem, which contains a summation of the biblical references to individual women and even corrects two thousand years of interpretation of the passages in St. Paul which describe man as the "head" of the woman. He even corrects St. Paul—or what is based on antiquity in his writings—when he states: "All the reasons in favor of the subjection of woman to man in marriage must be understood in the sense of a mutual subjection of both out of reverence for Christ" (Ibid., citing Mulieris Dignitatem 9;24).

Accattoli is certainly accurate in pointing out that this is a radical transformation in the Church’s teaching. Nobody could possibly doubt that the letter and sense of St. Paul is of a one-sided submission, and that the pope, by reinterpreting it as a "mutual subjection" is both emptying the text of all sense and going directly against divine revelation for the sake of his humanistic and false principles on the equality and dignity of man.

Truly feminine wives will consequently abhor this feminine perversion of Catholic Truth, and practice the submission and obedience which both nature and grace incline them to.