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Papal Preacher: Wives
Should Not Obey Husbands


Marian T. Horvat

Husbands love your wives, this is good. Wives, submit to your husbands, this is unacceptable. This was the revolutionary message of a recent sermon by Capuchin Fr Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher to the Pontifical Household.

Fr. Cantalamessa was commenting on the passages of St. Paul (Eph 5:21-32) that includes the verse that has long upset feminists, specifically, “Wives, be subject to your husbands” (5:22). According to a Zenit report, Fr. Cantalamessa had no problem with St. Paul’s words recommending husbands to love their wives: “This is good.” The snag for the papal preacher is “that he [St. Paul] also recommends to women that they be submissive to their husbands, and this – in a society strongly (and justly) conscious of the equality of the sexes – seems unacceptable” (“Fr. Cantalamessa on Marital Submission,” Zenit, August 25, 2006).

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Fr. Cantalamessa: Paul is outdated

He goes on to explain that we do not have to read the passage literally, since on the point of the authority of the husband in the marriage, “St. Paul is conditioned in part by the mentality of his age.” Cantalamessa resolves the problem by explaining that what Christ and the Apostle really meant was for husbands and wives to love and submit to each other mutually (ibid.).

Now, this interpretation is frontally opposed to and subversive of what the Catholic Church had constantly and consistently taught since St. Paul until Vatican II.

Is an uproar or protest against Fr. Cantalamessa’s commentary impending? It doesn’t look like it. In fact, this conclusion of the papal preacher in ways just repeats the teaching of John Paul II in his Apostolic Letter Mulieris dignitatem (August 15, 1988). In it JPII considered that the verse in question “Wives be subject to your husband” would be rendered effectively null by the previous verse 5: 21 “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” This would be the governing verse of the passage, Wojtyla affirms, so that anything regarding 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’” (n. 24). With this “Gospel innovation,” the authority of the husband over the wife in marriage should be set aside.

This sits quite well with the feminists and the whole progressivist agenda, which would like to abolish the monarchical structure of all the traditional institutions. The family, like society, would be undergoing a supposedly healthful process of evolution, away from monarchy and toward self-government. It can still be admitted that the husband and wife have different complementary roles. But by no means should the wife submit to the husband, because this would be a violation against equality of the sexes, a modern norm which the Conciliar Church is promoting.

This change in approach, however, is an abandonment of Catholic tradition and perennial teaching of the Magisterium.

Past teaching emphasized the wife’s submission to her husband

There is hardly a point on which the Church had insisted more than the father being the head of the family. The father’s authority is ordered to the good of the family as a reflection of authority of God. The Council of Trent reiterated the teaching of the Church Fathers, instructing that the father should act as head of the family, and the mother should yield to him “a willing and ready obedience in all things not inconsistent with Christian piety” (“The Duties of Married People,” Catechism of the Council of Trent).

Perhaps with an eye to feminist currents already rumbling at the beginning of the 20th century, Pope Leo XIII addressed the question of authority in marriage straight on in his Encyclical Arcanum divinae sapientiae (February 10, 1880), reaffirming the age old teaching:
“The husband is the chief of the family, and the head of the wife. The woman, because she 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 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.” (n. 26)
In his Encyclical Casti connubi of December 31, 1930, Pope Pius XI warned about the “false teachers” who, in the name of “human dignity,” would try to persuade wives to abandon the obedience owed to their husbands. “This is not emancipation but a crime,” he strongly stated (n. 74). Further on, he stresses that the essential order of domestic society cannot change, because it is founded on something higher than human authority and wisdom, that is, the authority and wisdom of God (n. 77).

Frontally opposing this teaching, Fr. Cantalamessa announces we can disregard the admonition for obedience by wives because St. Paul was “conditioned by the mentality of his age.”

Pope Pius XII spoke similar words of caution, instructing Catholic women to ignore “modern influences” telling them they are in every respect the equal of their husbands. Speaking to a group of newlyweds, he told them: You are equal in dignity, but this equality does not preclude a hierarchy that establishes the husband as head, and the wife as subject to him. This hierarchy is not just necessary, but indispensable for unity and happiness. Catholic men and women have the duty to combat the changing social conditions that undermine hierarchy in the family. (“Allocution to newlyweds,” of September 10, 1941 in The Woman in the Modern World, ed. by the Monks of Solesmes, Boston: St. Paul Editions, 1959, pp 64-6).

That is to say, the perennial teaching of the Church affirms precisely the opposite of the commentary by the papal preacher.

The hierarchy in the family was subverted after Vatican II

Before Vatican II, we see, then, that the Supreme Pontiffs were addressing the importance of the proper family order, exhorting women to a proper obedience of husbands. They were not afraid to use the word “submission.”

After Vatican II, however, we have seen how John Paul II promoted a different, revolutionary teaching in Mulieris dignitatem. He and the other conciliar Popes were silent on the subject of obedience of wives to husbands. I do not know of a single instance of any of them advising women to submit to their husbands. Instead, there is an unvarying insistence about the equal personal dignity of spouses. But ne'er a word stating that the wife should submit to the husband.

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In the decades of the 1960s and '70s, women's right groups noisly demanded complete equality
Vatican II would appear to legitimate this omission, because none of the documents directly addresses the theme of a husband’s authority. Instead partnership and equal personal co-dignity in marriage are stressed. Gaudium et spes describes marriage as “an image and sharing in the partnership of love between Christ and the Church (n. 48) and speaks of the “equal personal dignity” of spouses (n. 49). As far as I could see, there is nothing else. It is a quite serious omission. At the very time the Revolution was trying to overthrow the traditional hierarchy in family life, Vatican II seems to have endorsed that stance.

As for The Catechism of the Catholic Church, promulgated under JPII in 1992, it likewise pays no heed to the previous teaching of the Church regarding the authority of the father in the family. It states that men and women are equal as persons, and complementary as masculine and feminine. In my view, it is a language intended to conciliate Feminism and Progressivism.

All these post-conciliar teachings are at total variance with the constant and uniform Magisterium of Holy Mother Church. In effect, they serve to promote the Revolution in Catholic social doctrine and invite chaos into the family.

This is the lesson that we receive from the papal preacher.


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