The question of whether women need to wear head coverings (mantillas, chapel veils, etc.) at Mass keeps coming up.
With the greater freedom to celebrate the Extraordinary Form of the liturgy, it poses the question anew, since prior to the current rite of Mass head coverings were required for women.
If a woman is going to an Extraordinary Form Mass, does she have an obligation to wear one, in keeping with the law at the time?
But the question keeps coming up, and with the new twist based on the broadened permission to celebrate the Extraordinary Form, it’s worth looking into again.
So what’s the answer?
Head Coverings at Mass in Canon Law
The requirement that women wear head coverings at Mass was part of the 1917 Code of Canon Law, which provided:
§2. Men, in a church or outside a church, while they are assisting at sacred rites, shall be bare-headed, unless the approved mores of the people or peculiar circumstances of things determine otherwise; women, however, shall have a covered head and be modestly dressed, especially when they approach the table of the Lord.
Notice that this didn’t establish a requirement for any particular form of head covering. It could be a mantilla, a veil, a hat, a scarf, etc.
But when the 1983 Code of Canon Law was released, it provided:
§1. When this Code takes force, the following are abrogated:
1° the Code of Canon Law promulgated in 1917;
Laws which had been part of the 1917 Code, including canon 1262, thus lost their force and the legal requirement was officially ended. (The custom had already fallen into disuse in many places.)
Since it was the 1917 Code and not the Church’s liturgical documents that established the requirement, it would seem that when the 1917 Code lost its force, the obligation ceased for Latin Rite liturgies in general, regardless of whether they were celebrated according to the Ordinary or Extraordinary Form.
But wait . . . what about St. Paul’s mention of them in 1 Corinthians?
Head Coverings in the Bible
If St. Paul’s directive that women wear head coverings were binding today then it would apply to both the Ordinary and the Extraordinary Forms (as well as non-Latin Rite liturgies).
However, in 1976 the Congregation for the Faith dealt with the issue and judged that St. Paul’s directive on this point is not binding. In its declaration on the inadmissibility of women to the ministerial priesthood (Inter Insigniores), the CDF stated:
Another objection is based upon the transitory character that one claims to see today in some of the prescriptions of Saint Paul concerning women, and upon the difficulties that some aspects of his teaching raise in this regard. But it must be noted that these ordinances, probably inspired by the customs of the period, concern scarcely more than disciplinary practices of minor importance, such as the obligation imposed upon women to wear a veil on their head (1 Cor 11:2-16); such requirements no longer have a normative value.
So it would appear that neither canon law nor the Church’s liturgical books nor Scripture establish a requirement that women today must wear head coverings, at either Ordinary or the Extraordinary Form Masses.
Of course, women are still absolutely free to do so, and doing so can be a beautiful expression of devotion.
Common Sense & the Extraordinary Form
Given the natural expectations of many people at Extraordinary Form Masses, one can see a certain appropriateness to wearing them in that context.
People there would commonly expect the use of head coverings–precisely because there was an obligation in 1962–and not using them could cause puzzlement or consternation.
Still, it would be nice to have some additional insight on Rome’s thinking into this question, which leads us to . . .
Cardinal Burke on Head Coverings & the Extraordinary Form
I was pleased recently when I discovered that Cardinal Burke had addressed this question in a private letter that is now available on the EWTN web site.
This letter does not represent an official ruling, but since Cardinal Burke is head of the Holy See’s highest court, the Apostolic Signatura, his opinion carries weight and certainly gives insight on the kind of thinking that Rome applies to these issues. So here is what he said on the subject:
The wearing of a chapel veil for women is not required when women assist at the Holy Mass according to the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite. It is, however, the expectation that women who assist at the Mass according to the Extraordinary Form cover their heads, as was the practice at the time that the 1962 Missale Romanum was in force. It is not, however, a sin to participate in the Holy Mass according to the Extraordinary Form without a veil.
Cardinal Burke thus seems to envision a middle category of “expectation.” Not a legal requirement. And not something that must be fulfilled on pain of sin. But not a matter of complete indifference, either.
That corresponds to my sense as well. At the Ordinary Form there is neither a requirement nor an expectation that head coverings be used, though women are totally free to do so. And at the Extraordinary Form there is and expectation but not a requirement, certainly not one binding on pain of sin, that they be used.
What do you think?
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