Are Women Required to Cover Their Heads in Church?

Q: In a Catholic magazine I frequently see advertisements for chapel veils. The ad always says, “canon 1262 is still in force.” I guess that this canon says that women must wear chapel veils. Is this true? Are all women still required to wear chapel veils in Church? If we are, how come nobody ever mentions this? I’m sure many women would wear them if they knew they were supposed to.  –Marianne

A: There is much misunderstanding about this question these days, especially in more traditionalist Catholic circles. Let’s look first at which law is the current law. Then we’ll take a look at what the current law actually says about women covering their heads in church, and finally, we’ll examine several possible reasons for the confusion.

The Code of Canon Law which is in force today was promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1983. It was the result of long years of hard work by canonists who were instructed to reorganize the Church’s laws in light of Vatican II documents.

The 1983 code abrogated (i.e., replaced) the 1917 Code of Canon Law, which had been promulgated by Pope Benedict XV. Canon 6.1 n.1 of the 1983 Code specifically states that the entire 1917 Code of Canon Law is abrogated by the new one.

Much of the Church’s law actually remained the same, although it was largely reorganized. A significant number of canons, however, were removed entirely. The entire code revision process was guided by the principle of subsidiarity, which holds that if a matter can be handled by a lower authority—a diocesan bishop or a parish pastor, for example—then it should not be addressed by a higher authority. In other words, the new Code of Canon Law was arranged with the deliberate goal of avoiding micromanagement by Rome!

The canon 1262 which this advertisement cites is from the 1917 code. For the record, the complete text of the canon was as follows:

1262.1 Conformable to ancient discipline, it is desirable that the women be separated from the men in church.

1262.2 Men are to assist at sacred functions, whether in the church or outside of it, with their heads uncovered, unless a reasonable national custom or special circumstances justify a departure from this rule.  Women, however, should cover their heads and be dressed modestly, particularly when they approach the Lord’s table. (My translation.)

There is no equivalent canon in the 1983 code. Current law is, therefore, silent on the issue of women covering their heads in church.

And considering the principle of subsidiarity, this should not be surprising. It is easy for us Americans to forget that the Church’s laws are not intended only for the Western world. They govern all Catholics, from Milan to Mumbai, from Seoul to Seville, from Atlanta to Accra. Obviously there can be vast and radical cultural differences between Catholics worshipping in, say, an obscure African village, and those attending Mass in the great cathedrals of France—yet all are equally bound by the same canon law as Catholics. Accordingly, through her Supreme Legislator, the Pope, the Church has declined to require all Catholic women to cover their heads while in church. It may, after all, be an inappropriate or unreasonable request in some cultures. (Note that the old canon 1262.2 makes a passing reference to this fact.) That does not mean, of course, that women may not wear chapel veils if they wish.

Why, then, do so many conservative Catholics continue to insist that the law still holds? I know nothing about the particular advertisers to whom Marianne refers, so cannot speak to their motives. It is entirely possible that they err in completely good faith, unaware of the change in the law. After all, how many Catholics are really aware that the Church was given a new Code of Canon Law during the pontificate of John Paul II?

Unfortunately, however, many of us are perhaps familiar with traditionalists who consciously reject the notion that the 1917 Code of Canon Law has been abrogated by anything new. By doing so, they are in fact refusing to acknowledge the authority of the Holy Father, who is the Church’s Supreme Legislator (cf..c. 331), to change church laws if and when he sees fit. It is difficult to see how such people could be construed as anything other than schismatics, those who withdraw their submission to the Supreme Pontiff (c. 751). In any case, a practicing Catholic cannot deny the existence of church law which is currently in force, or the duty to obey it!

Recently I myself came across a particularly confusing website, presenting yet another erroneous argument why women are allegedly still required to veil their heads. According to the author, the wearing of chapel veils is a custom which has acquired the force of law, and cannot be abrogated by new canons to the contrary.

On a superficial level, this appears to be a clever and convincing argument. Canon 26 notes that if a custom does not contradict current canon law, and has been observed for 30 consecutive years, it acquires the force of law. Additionally, universal law does not revoke a custom unless it expressly says so (c. 28; cf. also c. 5.2). The web author asserts that women wore chapel veils for well over 30 years, so this was a custom that has in effect become a church law. Furthermore, he claims, since the 1983 code does not specifically mention the subject of chapel veils, this custom has not been revoked, and must still be followed.

But the author of the website fails to make an important distinction. Women were required for over 30 years to cover their heads by the previous canon 1262, and not because of universal custom. The fact that Catholic women followed canon law for so long did not somehow transform the then-existing law into a custom. By that logic, any canon of the 1917 code which was faithfully observed by Catholics worldwide has become a custom which could not be revoked by promulgation of the 1983 code!

Another distinction which is being lost in this argument is that between permitting women to wear chapel veils, and requiring them to do so. The silence of the 1983 code on the topic of women’s headcoverings does not imply that they are forbidden to wear them; it simply indicates that they are not obliged to wear them. There’s a big difference!

(By the way, what is the real purpose of the laws on custom, if they do not apply in this instance? Well, a correct example of custom acquiring the force of law might be seen in the practice of Polish Catholics who bring Easter baskets to church to be blessed on Holy Saturday. Blessing baskets is certainly not contrary to canon law, and it has been done for generations, so it can be argued that the practice has acquired the force of law. So if, for example, a bishop suddenly decided to forbid the blessing of Easter baskets on Holy Saturday, the canons on custom would apply. He could not forbid the blessing; but at the same time, the custom does not mandate that Catholics must bring Easter baskets to be blessed on Holy Saturday.)

In the wake of Pope Benedict’s recent motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, permitting wider use of the 1962 Missal, some are already suggesting that women will be obliged to cover their heads if attending a Tridentine Mass. Once again, this argument has no merit. The text of Summorum Pontificum does not in any way suggest that canons that were abrogated by the 1983 Code of Canon Law are now back in force. The current canon law still applies. The motu proprio simply permits the faithful to use the 1962 Missal, and none of the Mass rubrics it contains have anything specifically to do with the wearing of chapel veils by members of the congregation. It is understandable that many people associate the two in their minds, since the 1917 code, requiring women to cover their heads, was in force back when they attended the old Mass. But the permission to say the old Mass does not in any way include a return to the obligations of the former canon 1262.

The bottom line is that the advertisement which Marianne quotes is factually incorrect. Women are free to wear chapel veils if they choose to, but they cannot be required to do so. And to refuse to allow them to enter a church and attend Mass if their heads are not covered would be a violation of their rights under the current Code of Canon Law.

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