An Unpopular Teaching On Marriage in the Light of Recent Debates and Interviews

Yesterday on the blog we discussed some of the media back and forth on some statements by candidate Michele Bachmann. On of the issues is of a wife being submitted to her husband. Mrs. Bachmann at first indicated support for this biblical principle but has since, in the face of questioning backed off from it more than a little. You can read more of that in yesterday’s post here: Michele Bachmann Interview A portion of the video interview on marriage is also at the bottom of this post.

In yesterday’s post I indicated I wanted to spend some time today setting for this biblical principle of the headship of the husband. It is a headship rooted in love and service, not in power, but it is a headship.

There are cultural and worldly notions that underlie the rejection by many Catholics and Christians of  the biblical teaching on the Headship of the husband. Indeed, such a concept is unpopular in our culture which usually gets pretty worked up over questions of authority in general. But that is because the worldly notion of authority usually equates authority only with power, dignity, rights and being somehow “better,” rather than equating authority with love, and service. Consider what Jesus says about authority:

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority and make their importance felt. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mk 10:41-45)

Jesus describes then sets aside the worldly notion of authority wherein those in authority wield their power by “lording it over” using fear, and the trappings of power. But in the Christian setting there is authority (there has to be) but it exists for service.

Consider a teacher in a classroom. She has authority. She has to in order to unify and keep order. But she has that authority in order to serve the children, not to berate them and revel in power over over them. The same is true for a police officer who has his authority not for his own sake, but for ours so he can protect us and preserve order.

Further, having authority in a Christian setting does not make one better, for authority is always exercised among equals. Our greatest dignity is to be a child of God, and none of us are more or less so because we hold any position of authority.

But, truth be told, worldly notions of authority affect Christians and many harbor resentments to authority because they think of it in worldly ways. Further, many who have authority (and most of us have some) can also fall prey to worldly notions of authority and abuse their leadership role.

The key to understanding the authority of a husband and father in the home is set aside worldly notions of authority and see the teaching in the light of the Christian understanding of authority as existing for love and service, to unite and preserve.

With that in mind let us turn to the “unpopular” and politically incorrect notion of wives being submissive to their husbands.The teaching is found in a number of places in the New Testament: Ephesians 5:22; Col 3:18; Titus 2:5; 1 Peter 3:1. In all places the wording is quite similar that wives are to be submissive, that is under the authority, of their husbands. In each case however, the teaching is balanced by an exhortation that the husband is to love and be considerate of his wife.

The most well known of the texts is from Ephesians 5, wherein the infamous line is: Wives should be subordinate to their Husbands as to the Lord. For the Husband is the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is the Head of the Church…so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything; (Eph 5:20-21, 23)  Apparently the Holy Spirit didn’t get the memo that we don’t think and talk like that today! 🙂

Alright, so maybe it grates on modern ears today but don’t just dismiss what God teaches here. One of the great dangers of this passage is that it is so startling to modern ears that many people tune out after the first line into their own thoughts and reactions and thus miss the rest of what God has to say. It will be noticed that there is text that follows, and before a man gloats at the first line, or a women reacts with anger or sadness, we do well to pay attention to the rest of the text, which spells out the duties of a husband. You see if you’re going to be the head of a household there are certain requirements that have to be met. God’s not playing around here or choosing sides. He has a comprehensive plan for husbands that is demanding and requires him to curb any notions that authority is about power and to remember that, for a Christian, authority is always given so that the one who has it may serve. And before we look at submission we might do well to look at the duties of the husband.

So what are the requirements for a husband?

1. Husbands, love your wives– Pay attention men, don’t just tolerate your wife, don’t just bring home money, don’t just love in some intellectual sort of way. LOVE your wife with all your heart. Beg God for the grace to love your wife tenderly, powerfully and unconditionally. Did you hear what God says? LOVE your wife! Now he goes on to tell you to love her in three ways: passionately, purifyingly and providingly.

2. Passionate love – The text says a man is to love his wife: even as Christ loved the Church and handed himself over for her. The Greek word, παραδίδωμι (paradidomi), translated here as, “handed over,” always refers in the New Testament to Jesus’ crucifixion. Husbands, are you willing to give your life for your wife and children? Are you willing to die to yourself and give your life as a daily sacrifice for them? God instructs you to love your wife (and children) with the same kind of love he has for his Bride the Church. That kind of love is summed up in the cross. Love your wife passionately, be willing to suffer for her, be willing to make sacrifices for her and the children.

3. Purifying love The text says of Christ, and the husband who is to imitate him, that Christ wills  to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word, that he might present to himself the church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. Now a husband cannot sanctify his wife in the same way God can. But what a husband is called to do is to help his wife and children grow in their relationship to Jesus Christ. He is first to be under God’s authority himself, and thus make it easier for his wife and children to live out their baptismal commitments. He ought to a spiritual leader in his home, praying with his wife and children, reading scripture and seeing to it that his home is a place where God is loved and obeyed, first of all by him. His wife should not have to drag him to Church, he should willingly help her to grow in holiness, and pray with her every day. And he should become more holy as well and thus make it easier for his wife to live the Christian life. He should be the first teacher of his children, along with his wife in the ways of faith.

Too many American homes do not feature a man being the spiritual leader of his house. If any one is raising up the kids in the Lord it is usually the wife. But Scripture has in mind that the husband and father should be a spiritual leader to his wife and children. Scripture says, Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord (Eph 6:4). Fathers and husbands need to step up here and not leave all the burden to his wife.

4. Providing loveSo also husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it – Husbands, take care of your wife in her needs. She needs more than food money and shelter, these days she can get a lot of that for herself. What she needs even more is your love, understanding, and appreciation. She needs for you to be a good listener and wants an attentive husband who is present to her. Like any human being she needs reassurance and affirmation. Tell her of your love and appreciation, don’t just presume she knows. Show care for your wife, attend to her needs just like you instinctively do for your own self. Encourage her with the kids. Confirm her authority over the kids and teach them to respect their mother. Show her providing love also by taking up your role and duties as a father who is involved with his kids. That’s what God is teaching here.

OK, so scripture DOES teach that a wife should be submitted to her husband. But what kind of husband does scripture have in mind? A husband who really loves his wife, who is a servant leader, who is makes sacrifices for his wife, who is prayerful and spiritual, submitted to God’s authority and who cares deeply for his wife and her needs. The same God who teaches submission (and he does) also teaches these things clearly for the husband. The teaching must be taken as a whole. But all that said, there IS a teaching on wives being submitted to their husbands (properly understood).

And there is just no way around it, no matter how much the modern age wants to insist there doesn’t need to be headship, there does. Every organization needs a head. Consider your own body first. With two heads you’re a freak, with no head you are dead. The members of your body need a head to unify the parts, otherwise there is disunity, death and decay. Every organization needs headship, a final decider, to whom all look when consensus on significant issues cannot otherwise be reached. The Protestants have tried to have a “church” without a head, without a Pope, and behold the division. Even this Country, which we like to call a democracy, is not actually a pure democracy. There are legislators, judges, law enforcers and many other people and mechanisms who exercise local, federal and final headship and authority.

Thus in a family, where consensus and compromise may often win the day, nevertheless needs a head, a final decider,  to whom all look and all submit, to resolve conflicts that cannot be resolved otherwise. Scripture assigns this task to the husband and father. Headship just has to be. But please remember to shed your worldly notions of headship when considering the teaching of Scripture and remember, headship, authority, is for love and service, it is for unity and preservation, not for power, prestige, trappings and superiority.

For more on this consider listening to my sermon Teaching on Marriage in mp3 format. But beware, It is 35 minutes! Consider downloading it if you can’t listen just now. You can download this and other sermons of mine by going here: and then right clicking on the title of any talk and selecting the “Save Target As” option. You can also get my sermons at iTunes. Just search on my name.

Here is the video clip where Michele Bachmann is attacked for saying a woman should be submitted and then backs down. Please note however, I am not sure a husband’s servant leadership means that he should force his wife to take a law course she does not want to take. Such an exercise of authority hardly seems necessary or proper.

This video clip is from the movie Fireproof and depicts a heartfelt apology from a husband who realizes he has not loved his wife as he should. A beautiful movie available at Amazon if you have never seen it.

54 Replies to “An Unpopular Teaching On Marriage in the Light of Recent Debates and Interviews”

  1. This is the best discussion of this teaching I have ever heard/seen. As a woman who came of age in the narcissitic/feminist 70s (and who has been married for 37 years) I have taken all kinds of heat from women friends–and even my own mother-in-law– who simply did not understand how I could comfortably and cheerfully and confidently rely on my husband’s judgment and love and support and care, and how I could let him take the lead in our married life. And for the record, we had this model of marriage when we were only nominally Christian and long before we found our way into the Catholic Church–it just made SENSE. You explained it better than I ever could. And I can testify, when a husband loves his wife in this way, it is so easy to be married and to enjoy his leadership. And I can also tell you that marriage lived out this way sanctifies both spouses and makes present God’s love even for the unchurched. For me the reality is beyond words, but you did a fantastic job putting it all on paper. We need to hear this from the pulpit, in religious ed classes and in adult enrichment, because it is key to fruitful, joyful Catholic life. Thank you thank you thank you.

      1. Thank you Msgr. For voicing support that good Catholics need. There are a lot of clergy that do not wish to counter the culture we live in. The priesthood is not for sissies. Thank for being a man about this. and showing support. The married traditional Catholic couples need it.

  2. Only love can understand submission. Carnal love cannot understand it, because it only knows pride.

    Let us ask God to humble the proud so that they can understand love, and therein, every good thing.

  3. But, the haustafel in Ephesians uses the middle-voice verb “hupotassetai”, which means, in the roughest of senses, “to mutually order-under”. This has been wrongly translated by the Latin fathers (including, much to my chagrin, St. Thomas Aquinas) for ages. “Hupotassetai” doesn’t *quite* mean “submit” in the way that English conveys the word.

    1. Well, I’m no Greek scholar, but I am rather dubious of your parsing of the verb here especially when you tell me that the Latin Fathers and Aquinas et al. mistranslated this. I would rather be in their company. That said, your point still does not address the main thrust of the scriptural text which says that the husband is head of the wife. The point of this post, and I think the scriptural text, is headship rather than a sparring on exactly what the word submission means.

      1. Offered below is an explanation of the Greek word. These three paragraphs are an excerpt from a much larger explanation of Ephesians 5, authored by three JPII Institute graduates for a wedding program booklet…

        To understand St. Paul’s point, a short lesson in Greek grammar is helpful. The “offensive” word is hupotassō (ὑποτάσσω), and it is in the Greek middle voice. In English, verbs can only be in one of two voices: active (as in “I hit the ball”) or passive (as in “I was hit by the ball”). In the active voice, the subject of the verb acts as “doer” of the action, while in the passive voice, the subject acts as “receiver” of the action. In Greek grammar, however, there is a third option – the middle voice – where the subject is not only the recipient of the action but is also actively involved in doing the action. The Greek language makes use of this middle voice to make explicit the active involvement of the recipient of an action.

        Since the English language does not have a middle voice, hupotassō is very difficult to translate from the Greek without its being misunderstood. Hupotassō is often translated as submissive – as in “wives be submissive to your husbands.” But what does St. Paul mean by “submissive”? In Ephesians 6, he exhorts children to “obey” (in a sense, “be submissive” to) their parents, but he uses a different form of the verb: hupokuo. This word is rightfully in the passive voice, since children cannot be responsible for (i.e. participate in) their own upbringing. They need not fully understand the reasons for the instruction given by their parents, but they must obey in order to learn as they grow into adults. This is not the case with wives and their husbands. The marital relationship is clearly and distinctively different, thus St. Paul deliberately uses the middle voice. In order for the relationship between spouses to be healthy, a wife must freely and actively consent to the relationship.

        St. Paul’s point is extremely important for the health of the marriage and for the understanding of its deepest meaning. The marital relationship – not the parent-child relationship – is the paradigm of the relationship between Christ and the Church. In other words, marriage is an earthly sign to the whole world of how God loves us. St. Paul is emphasizing that the relationship between God and His people is one of love and not slavery! The difference between “doing what one is told,” and genuine cooperation with another in the act of loving, is vast and a key distinction in St. Paul’s text.

        1. All well and good, but as I pointed out, none of this addresses the key phrase in terms of this blog post, that of headship, the text clearly states that the husband is head of his wife as Christ is head of the Church. For all the ink being spilled on voices and tenses and moods, this post really isn’t about submission at all, its about headship.

          1. “headship” – does that have a Greek term in Scripture? My head doesn’t do very well without my body, and vice-versa…. Msgr. seems to want to keep things simple, but the relation of the head to the body is not a simple relationship. Bio-feedback is what it’s all about these days. And what is your “head” anyway, your brain? The husband is the brain of the family? I don’t think that’s it either. We must always be careful lest we pontificate on subjects where the Church Herself has not made definitive statements. St. Paul, Msgr’s main source here, also accepted the reality of slavery without explicitly condemning it as an evil social arrangement. So, social arrangements change, and marriage is also a social arrangement subject to certain changes over time and within different cultural contexts – within the general context of what determines a marriage, i.e. one man, one woman. I really appreciated Christina’s explanation about the Greek, and was disappointed that Msgr. so offhandedly dismissed the Greek source. I suggest Msgr. purchase the Anchor Bible series for further reference. I would like to note to Christina that the marital relationship is NOT “the paradigm of the relationship between Christ and His Church,” but vice-versa – which is what makes it technically a “mystery” of faith to be explored forever, which is what we are trying to do here despite the Msgr’s attempts to pound it into a definitive mould. Christ’s relation to the Church is the paradigm for marriage. Which is how the mystery of the Sacrament of Marriage should be meditated pursued.

      2. Don’t worry — I’m not breaking any new ground. Others (both modern, and the ancients who could read Greek) have this interpretation as well. You’re right that I’m not questioning headship, but I think “hupotassetai” is important to note when we talk about headship and what it implies. I doesn’t *need* to be an inflammatory thing at all — it’s really quite reasonable. Headship and authority go together, but perhaps not quite like a teacher in a classroom. I think especially salient is, of course, the head of the church comparison which is also in the Scripture. The head of the church orders himself to serve the church (servant of the servants of God), and the church orders itself to serve the head of the Church, Christ. A mutual submission/ordering-under in love, as you say above.

        I guess what I’m saying is that I agree with you, but I would soften my rhetoric (without going limp on it) in light of the much easier-to-swallow Greek. Heck, I would submit that if “hupotassetai” were properly understood/explained, nobody would have a problem with it. But, perhaps I am overestimating some of the more liberal-leanings of others.

        Also, these sorts of linguistic hiccups are inherent in any of the Latin Fathers who did not read Greek (as Aquinas did not), and some working off Jerome’s translations. There were minor linguistic errors which did not affect the broader orthodoxy of teaching.

        P.s. Msgr, we’ve actually met, but I don’t think you’d remember me.

      3. Also, I found the question to Michelle Bachmann annoying and intentionally inflammatory, and I think she gave the best shorthand answer she could. Although who knows what her actual theology on this point actually is.

  4. Epistle 230
    My some thoughts about “the homily” of Msgr. Charles Pope are here below:
    Firstly, in the homily, Msgr. Charles Pope preached unpopular teachings on marriage Father promised us on yesterday (On yesterday Father said that “I want to devote more time to this “unpopular teaching” on marriage tomorrow on the blog”).
    Thus, topic of the homily is “unpopular teachings on marriage”.
    Secondly, now permit me to add some matters to relate to topic of the homily hereafter:
    First of all, I tell you the truth, for most Vietnamese people including Catholics, Father’s unpopular teachings on marriage called popular teachings on marriage.
    The popular teachings on marriage were descended from Lord’s Supper in Luke 22: 14-20, 24-27.
    Here, Lord’s Supper called Lord’s Last Supper. Last Supper is meal eaten by Jesus and his twelve disciples on the evening before he was crucified. Jesus gave everyone bread and wine, and Eucharist today or Mass is based on this meal.
    In Vietnam, Catholics learn Lord’s teachings in order to practice Lord’s teachings, but is not learn Lord’s teachings in order to analyze them are right or wrong.
    Lord’s teachings are truth. Lord’s teachings are gospel truth./.

  5. “Every organization needs a head. Consider your own body first. With two heads you’re a freak, with no head you are dead. The members of your body need a head to unify the parts, otherwise there is disunity, death and decay. Every organization needs headship, a final decider, to whom all look when consensus on significant issues cannot otherwise be reached.”

    I probably will never “submit” to my husband. Agree? Yes, often. Disagree? Yes, often. As for authority being necessary, like a head for the body or a leader in an organization, if we had to operate that way in our marriage, I would suggest that we take turns being “the head.” Maybe 1 year term limits. One spouse gets even numbered years while the other spouse gets odd numbered years. That way each gets the mandate to “love the other as Christ loves the Church.” And if he or she falls short….???? Well, they will be on the receiving end the next year.

    All I can say is that if I knew when entering into marriage that I’d have to live this way you are describing, then I would have opted to remain single. But that was not how I was told it would have to be, so I guess it’s a valid marriage. Anyway, it has lasted 32 years and show signs of lasting even longer.

      1. I think I’m disagreeing with your application of the Biblical passages to contemporary life, and, more specifically to my particular marriage, which seems to have worked well for all these years without thinking about who’s submitting to whom. Give and take and mutual love and respect accomplish the same goal. Sometimes forgiveness comes into play as well. I believe the Lord would approve.

  6. All that is said here is true. I would however correct one thing. I do not think Michele Backmann backed off on anything. Her explanation of love and respect covers it. Since she respects her husband so much she followed his direction and expressed the fact that it was God’s Will for her, be shown her by her husband. Also she would hardly be given the time to give the explanation the priest gave.

    Good lady.

    1. agreed, good lady. My problem was when she said, “both our words go” which is in effect a setting aside of the notion of headship. That said, I understand she got caught with less time that I have to make an answer.

  7. This is theoretically quite interesting, but I do wonder what practical implications this model would have as opposed to a more egalitarian model. For example, my wife and I have an egalitarian marriage, by which I mean that neither of us claim a special or peculiar authority over household affairs or each other and each submits in turn to the other according to the affairs of the moment; in the end, each of us practically assume more authority in areas of our own expertise or according to the situation (for example, my wife assumes authority when she is cooking dinner, and I manage the rest of the house and the children as it best suits her, and vice versa). Many times a household decision has more implications for one of us than the other, and in these cases the person for whom the decision will be more difficult or burdening has the “final decision,” inasmuch as there is one. It seems to me that even if I assumed a theoretical mantle of “the head of the household,” this would still practically be the case, the only seeming difference being that when my wife is cooking there would be an extra implicit decision on my part of “allowing” her to assume a temporary provisional headship.

    This doesn’t mean that things are always easy. There are arguments and disagreements. But our promise of love, strengthened and confirmed by the sacrament of marriage, has always provided us a mutual bond. Interestingly enough, we chose the reading from Ephesians for our wedding Mass. But I’ve always understood this verse in perhaps too egalitarian of a light: obedience and love are two sides of the same reality. True love involves submission and obedience, and true obedience requires love, so the command for wives to obey or submit and the command for husbands to love are ultimately equivalent relationships described under different terms. Please correct my understanding if I am missing something: if a husband is to love his wife, he must also obey and submit to her, just as for a wife to truly submit and obey her husband she must truly love him. Just as Christ willingly placed himself in a role of submissive servant, so should a husband: and the relationship of husband and wife has this huge difference from the relationship of Christ and the Church, which is that Christ is God and the Church is a communion of creatures, while husband and wife share the same essence.

    In other words, what practically would be the difference in my marriage if I followed the model you describe?

      1. We don’t do things like that unless we both agree. We’ve moved several times over the past four years, and each time it was a joint decision. This doesn’t mean that we don’t try to persuade each other, but in the end those sorts of decisions must be a joint decision in our family. I’d hate to “force” my wife to move to a city she doesn’t want to live, even if I thought it would be a good idea!

  8. When I hear the phrase ” behind every successful man is a good woman” I cringe. I once heard a man say that at a meeting and I said to him that you sound like a Catholic priest (joke guys). As it turned out, he was a Catholic priest in civvies. It began a conversation that echoes in my mind every time I hear that.

    Thank you for this post Msgr. I think one can glean the opposite from that conventional wisdom that blames women for the failure in a relationship. I think that unless a man takes that leadership role you describe, a woman has a very difficult time submitting. In other words, the man’s leadership is the sine qua non of such a Godly relationship.

    Ask any woman who has a child for a husband. Those poor women end up submitting to a man who expects her to do everything, while he plays golf or watches TV.

    1. I have very little to offer other than contempt for a man who can’t or won’t treat his wife well. Alright, prayers are probably better than contempt, and if he’s in my life in a manner that makes it appropriate, advice and correction.

      There are a lot of cultural factors at work to keep our young men in a condition of elongated adolescence. But, I’d guess that somewhere north of 80% of the women who find themselves with “a child for a husband” would have managed to avoid that particular impediment if they had sought and heeded their own fathers’ (and mothers’) input.

      Well, prayer and fasting and a holy example. Dr. Laura, for what it’s worth, thinks that women hold the key to 90% of the success in the husband/wife relationship. I think there’s merit in what she has to say, or at least the way she says it. It wouldn’t hurt some men to act like they hold the key to 90% of the success. (Actually, both parties should act like they hold the entire key.)

      Then too, she was probably wiser than many when she was being courted.

      1. I think that it is in the nature of man to initiate and woman to respond, at least in a marriage relationship. A woman who submits to a child man enables him.

        The woman who submits to a man who has initiated his marital leadership first, and from the depths of his very manhood is empowered and then she herself calls forth the mutual submission from her husband.

        I think that MAY be something like what JPII was talking about with the phrase mutual submission.


          1. Ann I couldn’t agree more.
            It is part of a woman’s nature to respond and to be open – the feminine genius!

            I was married to a profoundly damaged and immature man. Submitting which I did much of the time meant enabling. Finally I had to make decisions to not submit because things requested were morally wrong or would end up bringing absolute disaster on everyone. Prayer fasting were practiced on my part but never helped.

            He finally left and I have recognized this for the blessing it is. I can live a good Catholic life and have tried to raise our 4 children in the faith. I have not remarried, though I’d love to and I quite agree that a mature man WANTS to lead his family.
            The problems I had with him, our children now also have.

  9. Msgr. Pope,

    Thanks for expounding on a topic that in my experience has received only embarassed silence from the pulpit.

    I think there are a few additional pathologies at work in undermining this Christian teaching. Firstly, many (most) modern Americans’ experience of fatherhood is significantly abnormal – either through illegitimacy or divorce, their fathers just weren’t around and left them and their mothers in a very difficult situation. And many of us who were raised by conscientious fathers are tempted by popular culture to think they are not the norm, which of course they actually are.

    Additionally, modern Americans are very functionally oriented, and are unable to view headship/submission in terms of relationship instead of function. What if the man in this marriage is just not as capable as the woman?
    1) That is a good question to ask before the wedding. Of course, how many Americans approach marriage soberly and seriously, able to look past romantic attraction and consider whether this is someone I could see myself submitting to, or giving holy direction to? God bless St. Joseph, there couldn’t be one man in ten million
    2) So, having followed the raging hormones into marriage, one finds oneself yoked to a man who makes bad decisions. We’ll slide past snarky comments about the decision-making abilities of someone who would marry a man like that, and instead propose the pastoral examples of holy obedience from the monastic traditions of East and West. This is a school of holiness; the family’s physical circumstances will undoubtedly suffer under the headship of a man who isn’t very skilled at it, but the spiritual lives of the wife and children will prosper. Small comfort to modern Americans, who can’t see very far past physical circumstances.
    3) Apart from that, marriage isn’t even all about the man and woman who are married. The children will grow up learning how creation (the mother) relates to the Creator (the father) and how the Church relates to Christ, from how they experience the relationship of their parents. Can you even imagine a cosmos of which the Father is not the head, or a Church of which Christ is not the head? This was a system God set up to make it easier for all of us to know and love Him, so if we want our children to love the Father through Christ in the Church, we will order our family’s life in the way that makes it easy to see.

    I think I had something else, but now it’s gone.

    This is a very good website. Your parishioners are truly blessed if these are the sermons they are getting.

  10. I agree with Ruth Ann. A good relationship and marriage should involve respect for each other. The man I am going to marry has respect for my point of view, and I have respect for his. Our relationship would not work very well if either of us was totally submissive, and we’ve both been in relationships where submission was not a good thing.

    I do also agree with you Msgr Pope, on the point that relationships and marriage is not simply about providing food and shelter for your loved one. It is most definitely about love, respect, trust, and the ability to listen. Without that, relationships and marriages are liable to fall apart. Arguing is a good thing so long as you are able to say “I love you” and mean it by the end of the argument. You don’t have to always agree with someone to make peace with them, but there should definitely be respect and maturity involved.

    Great post, and I am grateful for each post that each author posts, as it gives me insight into topics that I may not have thought about before, or in a long time.

  11. What I like best in this entire post is the mention of the requirement of husbands to love their wives in such a way as to treat them respectfully (my interpretation so, while it may not be exact, I think it’s close) All too often I’ve read comments, complete with Scriptural quote(s), on this concept; by those who both support and oppose it; whith only the mention of the responsability of the woman and not the man.
    I ask myself how a person can bring themselves to comment on one side of a balance; ignore the other; and claim that it is, or is not in balance.
    The discussion on translation was very interesting.

  12. I think one reason this can be so hard for some people is that they have been harmed by extremes, or seen it happen to others. A woman who has been told she must “submit” to her husband in participating in sexual practices she does not care for and are considered sinful by traditional Christians, or that she is not allowed to follow her conscience to convert to a different church than her husband chooses for her, or that submission means predicting his whims and meeting them, is probably going to be a bit gun-shy whenever she hears about headship and submission. There are women who have watched their husbands abuse the children and believed they had no way to stop it because anything other than allowing it was “unsubmissive”. There are women who can’t go to the doctor when they get sick because their husbands don’t allow it. I know a woman whose husband won’t let her go to the grocery store by herself. I have heard “There has to be someone to make the final decision” too often used as an excuse to completely disregard any contrary opinion or evidence.

    I guess this all adds up to: How far is too far? Does she have to be Baptist because her husband tells her she can’t become Catholic? Etc. I suspect the good Father would not say yes to these questions, but I, and other women like me, need to know how far to take this. Those who grew up in fundamentalist groups don’t have a good basic idea of what’s reasonable – we grew up with crazy, not with reasonable.

    And, no, these questions aren’t just theoretical. Every single example is something either I or someone I know has experienced. If you haven’t seen it, thank your lucky stars you’ve never been a fundamentalist.

    1. There is an old saying that “Sob stories make bad case law.” In other words, norms embrace ordinary circumstances. For example, aspirin is a good medicine. But a certain number of people overdose on it to kill themselves each year. Therefore aspirin is bad? And should be banned? No. Any good thing can be abused, but bad things like you mention should not guide the outcome. Special circumstances need special solutions that do not override the norm.

      1. My point isn’t that we should throw out any notions of headship or submission. My point is that there are many people who don’t understand it. Those people need to be taught specifics about how it works. They don’t need to be told again that it really is Biblical. They need to hear that it doesn’t give men the right to abuse and bully. And they need to hear that even in a framework of submission and headship, there are times it’s appropriate for a woman to say, “no” and be taken seriously. And, sadly, there is so much confusion, they need a clear voice explaining exactly when to know that a man has crossed the line and exactly when it’s appropriate for a woman to resist his false authority.

  13. I disagree with your approach to this “Unpopular Teaching on Marriage”. It looks to me as though you simply diverted attention away from the “unpopular teaching” to a related subject, a husbands duties to his wife. But that is not an “unpopular teaching on marriage” today. But doing this almost implies without saying it, that the wife’s duty is contingent on the husband being worthy, or Christ like. But with mans original sin where will you find a man without fault? Yet this teaching is for us here in this world for the sake of unity and order, The submission owed to our superiors does not depend on how good they are. It is possible that you are trying to make the teaching more palatable by showing it in all it’s perfection when all is done perfectly by both husband and wife as a motivational starting point. But I think you have failed to address the issue as it is in the real world with imperfect men and women. I think it would have been better to discus the real obstacles to submission we have deeply ingrained in our culture with it’s false sense of “freedom” and “democracy” the difficulty that most people have in making a distinction between the person and the “office” he or she holds and that the submission is owed to the office, as in “the chair of Moses” in Mathew ch.23 1-4.

    1. Fair enough, but that does not mean I should not present the balance. Husbands should love their wives. Your insistence is found in scripture, but frankly, a wife should have to deal with the situations you describe if you let me preach to men too.

  14. Admittedly this is rather a facetious (sp?) use of the Husband as Head of Household principle, but when I’ve been approached by salesmen while minding my own business I use the line “Oh, I COULDN’T make such a purchase without my HUSBAND’s approval!” Said salesmen then scurry away.

    Works EVERY time.

  15. The fundamental issue is the modern insistence of male/female equality. I consider this idea not only heretical, but a crime against humanity.

    I think we need to recognize the differences between men and women (did NO one mention ‘complementarity’?) before we can see how those differences fit into marital roles.

      1. Monsignor, please accept that I am offering you this opinion with the respect due not only to your title but to the fact that you’re reaching out online and I appreciate not only your orthodoxy, but your courage. That said, I disagree.

        “Equal” is a heretical problem on par with any other. There is no “equal” for my image of God, yours, or my wife’s, or the autistic child’s at school. “Equal” is a mathematical term that is, in fact, STRONGER than “same” or “like” or “kind.” Applied to government, it becomes a legal term and a “right.”

        This causes no end of trouble.

        We are all in God’s image and that invests us with a worth and dignity and value beyond measuring. At the same time He has made us really, really different.

        Please don’t take Jefferson’s apt phrasing “all men are created equal” as literal. At best, this is a kind of shorthand. Focusing on equality is opening the door to envy. We have seen this play out time and time again. Liberals attack our freedoms seeking equality of outcome; Conservatives claim to seek equality of opportunity. Both are pipe dreams. Equality has come to be seen as a matter of justice and makes justice a collectivist, rather than an individual attribute. We see this in the presumption of injustice and wickedness in the fact that some people are rich. Naturally this turns into presumption of evil when someone like myself graduates from Harvard and another person graduates from V-Tech. It’s “unjust” that the V-Tech grad doesn’t have equal access to Harvard as I did.

        Sooner or later, equality talk always ends up accusing God of evil and injustice. Now the fact that I went to Harvard does not affect God’s view of my worth nearly as much as the fact that I attend weekly Mass and weekdays when I can. But I live in Boston. There are ten weekday Masses within 7 miles of me. I have unequal, superior access to the Sacraments because of where I live, as compared with people out West. So is God unjust to Catholics in the middle of Idaho?

        God doesn’t judge me equally with my wife. He judges me by how I have applied what He gives me for my situation and my role.

        “Equality” is, in fact, a really abominable and impersonal way to pretend to love my neighbor. It doesn’t care about who my neighbor is, what his situation is, his strengths, sorrows – nope! His yard is equal to mine – I can wash my hands of it.

        So let’s back off of “equal.” What we mean by “all men are created equal” is better phrased as “all men bear God’s image” except if Jefferson wrote that, he’d have to follow it up with a lot of clunky explanation.

        The existential fact of human inequality is manifested extremely strongly in the differences of the sexes. Our job is not to ignore or cover up this “truth which is self-evident,” but to reverently explore how manifold are the ways God expresses His image.


        Andrew Wolfe

          1. Suppose you and I have a net worth for 2 million dollars. But I have it in land and property and you have it in cash. We have equal amounts, but not in the same way. Men and women are both children of God, hence they are equal in dignity, but they are not the same. They have different bodies, different gifts, different roles, yet they have equal dignity before God.

            Equal: like in quality, nature, or status.
            Same: conforming in every respect

          2. Now I understand what you mean when you say “equal.” I am concerned with what others hear when they hear “equal.” Gay marriage advocates get a lot of traction in society with the term “marriage EQUALITY.” I submit this is because current usage of the term “equality” is much stronger than your usage.

            The Church (like any other long-lived institution) has of course often encountered this problem with evolving ancient words – consider “passion” which no longer connotes suffering.

            I think current usage of the term endorses redistribution of wealth and preferential hiring of minorities as well as for gay marriage. It slants every conversation in which it is used towards envy and class warfare.

  16. Have I been living in a vacuum? I am 57 years old and what you mention, in your post of 17 August, is what I have been taught since I can remember. My wife and I have been married for 29 years. It’s nothing new. Every organization needs someone to be in charge. Few, if any, are the times I have used the 51% to 49% rule. The secret to the whole disucssionis LOVE.

  17. A very good study and affirmation of the clear teachings. The world has a problem with authority. The Christian should not. God humbled Himself and took on the form of a servant.

    Naturally my observation of the world supports God’s perfect understanding of human nature. The man has a duty to be the leader. This is a demanding role. It is difficult to be a leader.

    A poor husband can soon find himself henpecked. The great mistake is in thinking this means such a husband should submit to the wife. But it is more like the scene from Godfather I where Don Corleone slaps the crying Johnny Fontane who is asking what he should do and tells him he can ‘act like a man’. Wives want leaders and when the husband abdicates his responsibility the wife will often act in ways that should show the husband how much he is derelict in his duty. Children clearly do the same thing in pushing boundaries not to see if the parent will yield but in hopes of getting the parent to reveal limits and by so doing show the love, care, and most especially the protection of authority.


    If a person in authority asks or demands that another commit a sin against God or commit an illegal act, THAT IS WRONG IT IS A SIN and the person should never submit to that person in that case. Women in this country have unparalled freedom to choose a husband. Maybe there should be more education on the diocesan level to teach them the warning signs of a future domestic tyrant. But any woman who finds herself or her children being abused has both the right and responsibility to seek help through her local parish and to physically remove herself and her children from that home.

    The true incidence of actual physical abuse pales in comparsion to the garden variety excuses many women use to not obey their husbands: he’s terrible with money, he’s sloppy, he’s lazy, he’s selfish, he’s immature, he doesn’t pay enough attention to them / kids, he’s boring …. All human flaws, and we all have some variation of the same. Most of us are no picnic to live with either. Marriage due to original sin is not often “heaven on earth” for most people. What we have are unrealistic, fairy tale notions of how true love is to play out.

    If you pay attention to the Teachings of the Church and the Lives of the Saints, you’ll start seeing that suffering and self denial is the name of the game. To reach Heaven, anyone.

    God bless

  19. Msgr. Pope, I look forward to your postings and enjoy your practical wisdom. However, I want to add something to this discussion based on Pope John Paul II’s thoughts (Mulieris Dignitatem). With respect to Ephesians 5:21-33 he states that, “The author knows that this way of speaking, so profoundly rooted in the customs and religious tradition of the time, is to be understood and carried out in a new way: as a ‘mutual subjection out of reverence for Christ’ (Eph 5:21). This is especially true because the husband is called the ‘head’ of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church; he is so in order to give ‘himself up for her (Eph 5:25), and giving himself up for her means giving up even his own life. However, whereas in the relationship between Christ and the Church the subjection is only on the part of the Church, in the relationship between husband and wife the ‘subjection’ is not one-side but mutual (MD 24).” In a following paragraph he continues, “However, the awareness that in marriage there is mutual ‘subjection of the spouses out of reverence for Christ’, and not just that of the wife to the husband, must gradually establish itself in hearts, consciences, behaviour and customs.” He goes on to conclude this section by saying, “But the challenge presented by the ‘ethos’ of the Redemption is clear and definitive. All the reasons in favour 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.’ The measure of true spousal love finds its deepest source in Christ, who is the Bridegroom of the Church, his Bride.”
    This understanding also helps one discern St. Paul’s teachings about slaves and masters in chapter 6 of Ephesians. Certainly, we do not think that St. Paul is telling us that slavery is OK. John Paul reminds us that St. Paul was urging the Christians of his time to live their lives in a Christian way. He addressed them as they were in the Greco-Roman culture of their time. He was not describing a perfect Christian marriage but, rather, how to be a perfect Christian in a marriage of that time (or slavery). Elsewhere, the late pope says that to hold women as subject to men is to deny the redemptive effects of Jesus.
    I offer these thoughts not as my own but those of one I hold in great regard. Women’s dignity has been restored in all things. The curse against women in Genesis has been removed. My wife and I are equal partners in all things and have been for the last 46 years…although there have been times…

    1. Yes, and that is why I tried to set for a balance here. But, as I have been saying on a number of occasions in these comments, my focus is on the line, the husband is head of his wife….” And I carefully set forth what authority and headship is about. I specifically avoid parsing the word “submission” because of all the murkiness associated with it and because I am aware of JP IIs take, (which is controversial in its own way). Hence my point is that some one has to be the head, and scripture assigns this to the husband, “mutual subjection” notwithstanding.

    2. Thanks Msgr for distinquishing between headship and submission. I really believe after years of woman to woman talk that the husband MUST first iniate his headship before mutual submission becomes a dance of spousal love. And that initiation can be begun years into the marriage and will work wonders with a wife of good will.

  20. The problem with the whole “the Bible says so” thing is that a lot of people simply won’t buy it anymore – just like we don’t buy the Pauline view on slavery. A god who is unjust is not worth worshipping.

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