Wifely Obedience in Catholic Teaching

True Marriage

There are only two types of true marriage before the eyes of God, a merely natural marriage, and the Sacrament of holy Matrimony. Natural marriage was established when Adam and Eve were created, that is, at the beginning of the human race. And natural marriage prevailed as the only true marriage from that time until Christ. So during Old Testament times, the Israelites had only natural marriages, though they had the benefit of the beginning of Divine Revelation. The Jewish Law concerning marriage only pertained to natural marriage. And natural marriage still prevails today among the unbaptized.

Christ established the holy Sacrament of Marriage at the time of the wedding at Cana. When He changed water into wine, this miracle was symbolic of a greater, yet hidden, miraculous event, occurring at the same time. Christ elevated natural marriage to the dignity of a Sacrament. He gave the outward sign of this elevation by changing water into wine. The water symbolizes natural marriage and the wine symbolizes the Sacrament of Marriage. This is a fitting symbol, because wine includes water, just as the Sacrament of Marriage includes natural marriage. Every valid Sacrament of holy Matrimony is also a natural marriage. All the goods of natural marriage are present within this Sacrament, but in a higher form. For the entire marriage bestows grace on the husband and wife, the children, the extended family, the Church, and all humanity, grace upon grace, through this Sacrament.

When the Virgin Mary told her Divine Son Jesus that they had no wine, she understood that the human race had only natural marriage, and that they needed a Sacrament for married life. Mary was asking Jesus to establish a Sacrament of Marriage based upon the Sacrament of Baptism that He had already established when He Himself was baptized in the Jordan by John. Since the Sacrament of Marriage is based upon the Sacrament of Baptism, only the baptized can receive the valid Sacrament of Marriage. No other type of marriage is possible for two baptized Christians, other than the Sacrament of holy Matrimony.

Pope Pius XI: “And since the valid matrimonial consent among the faithful was constituted by Christ as a sign of grace, the sacramental nature is so intimately bound up with Christian wedlock that there can be no true marriage between baptized persons ‘without it being by that very fact a sacrament.’ ” [Casti Connubii 39]

Reciprocal and Asymmetrical

The relationship between husband and wife is a figure of the relationship between Christ and His Church. In one sense, Christ and His Church have a reciprocal relationship. The mutual love between Christ and His Bride, the Church, is not two different types of love, nor two different meanings of the word ‘love’. Christ loves His Church, and the Church loves Christ. This love is reciprocal; it is the same type of love in both directions, Christ to the Church, and the Church to Christ. Although Christ as God has greater love for the Church than the Church has for Christ, the type of act is the same: a true and pure spiritual love.

Certainly, Christ is not only man, but also God, and as God He is infinitely greater than all Creation, including the Church. But here we are considering Christ and His Church only to the extent that their relationship is a figure for the marriage relationship. So any point that pertains to Christ as God would not pertain to the husband, and any point that pertains to the powers of the Church (the Sacraments, the Magisterium, etc.) would not pertain to the wife.

But the role of Christ in this blessed relationship is not the same as the role of the Church. And so this relationship is not entirely reciprocal; it is not an entirely mutual relationship. Christ is the head of the Church, but the Church is not the head of Christ. Christ leads the Church, and the Church follows. Christ has a role of authority, teaching, and leadership over the Church, and the Church has the role of subjection (submission, obedience) to Christ. This role of headship is asymmetrical. Christ and His Church do not have the same roles.

The obedience between Christ and His Church is asymmetrical. The Church must obey Christ, her Lord and Savior. Christ does not obey the Church, as if She were leading Him, as if She had authority over Him, as if He were required to be submissive to Her. And yet, when the Church asks Christ for anything good, He grants the Church her request, which is a type of obedience. Similarly, Mary (a figure of the Church) is obedient to God, but God grants to her all that she requests; and this, too, is a type of obedience. So there is a type of obedience in both directions, but it is fundamentally unequal, that is, asymmetrical.

The relationship between husband and wife in the Sacrament of holy Matrimony is reciprocal, that is, mutual. The husband should love his wife, and the wife should love her husband. Both are equally subject to the eternal moral law, and both follow the same path to salvation (though the particulars will vary from one person to another). Their relationship is mutual in many ways, just as the relationship between Christ and the Church is mutual in many ways — but not in every way. And this is the great lie that sinful secular society tells everyone who will listen about the marriage relationship: that a husband and wife have exactly the same role in every way, and that they are exactly equal in every way. For sinful secular society is ignorant of Christ and His Church.

Like the relationship between Christ and His Church, the relationship between a husband and wife is asymmetrical. The husband is the head of his wife, but the wife is not the head of her husband. A marriage cannot have two heads, for then it would be a monster, and not a figure of the Church. [cf. Unam Sanctam] The wife should be submissive to her husband, but he should not be submissive to her. For the Church is submissive to Christ, but Christ is not submissive to the Church. The wife should be obedient to her husband, but he should not be obedient to her. However, as is true also for Christ and His Church, when the Church is obedient to Christ, He gives Her all that She asks.

The husband has a role of authority, teaching, and leadership over his wife, just as Christ has a role of authority, teaching, and leadership over the Church. The wife does not have the role to give orders to the husband, or to teach him (1 Cor 14:35), or to lead him. The wife does not have the role to be a co-leader of the family, if by co-leader is indicated a role that is the same for both spouses. For the husband and wife are both types of leaders of the family, but the husband has the higher station. Sinful secular society teaches a type of false equality, in which gender is irrelevant to marriage. But Sacred Scripture teaches the truth.

{3:22} and he sent letters to all the provinces of his kingdom, so that every nation was able to hear and to read, in various languages and letters, that husbands are to be the greater rulers in their own houses, and that this should be published to every people.

Saint John Chrysostom: “The wife is a second authority. She should not demand equality, for she is subject to the head; neither should the husband belittle her subjection, for she is the body…. Where there is equal authority, there is never peace. A household cannot be a democracy, ruled by everyone, but the authority must necessarily rest in one person. The same is true for the Church….” [On Marriage and Family Life, Homily 20, p. 53]

Whenever a wife usurps the role proper to her husband, she sins (Esther 3:1-22). And if she does so to a grave extent, or in a grave a matter, then she sins gravely. A wife who attempts to make her husband subject to her, as if to authority, offends Christ, who created Eve from the side of Adam in order to be a helper to him, and who created the Church from His own side, on the Cross, in order to be a helper to Him.

Now because of sin and imperfection, some husbands are lacking, to one degree or another, in their ability to fulfill this role. In such cases, the husband and wife should strive to avoid all sin, and to conform their marriage as much as possible to the perfect plan of God. But some degree of failure to conform to this perfect plan is not sin, but imperfection. So if her husband is lacking, she should support and assist him, so that with her help he will no longer be lacking. And if he is still unable, or is obstinately unwilling, she may do whatever is necessary for the family, even tasks that her husband ought to be doing. But in no case is she to take the role itself of the head of the family. For the Church does many great and selfless deeds to assist the work of Christ, but She never usurps His role as the head of the Church, neither on the excuse of necessity, nor for any reason.

But if the husband sins gravely, or attempts to cause his wife to sin gravely, he has lost his authority in one of two ways. First, if his grave sin is only in one particular matter or only on a few occasions, he has no authority to cause his wife to sin, nor to cooperate sinfully with his acts, at those times or in those matters. She need not obey him in anything that pertains to sin. All persons are always under the moral law, above all other authorities, because the moral law is the authority of God. Second, if the husband has gone so far astray from truth and justice that he no longer guards the common good of the family, no longer takes his proper role as husband and father at all, then he has lost his authority over his wife. She must still obey the moral law, and do whatever she can for the good of the family. But she need not be obedient or submissive to him. However, a wife should never exaggerate the sins and faults of her husband in order to remove herself from her proper role, subordinate to him, within the family.

{5:21} Be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.

Sacred Scripture teaches us to be subject to one another in the fear of Christ. This fear of Christ is not the emotion of fear, but a holy acceptance of Christ’s role over each of us. We are each mutually subject to one another, under Christ, to love one another and to assist one another in Christ’s work of salvation. The fear of Christ is not an emotion, but is our subjection to Christ. We are all subject to Christ. We must all be submissive and obedient to Christ. We are all equal in this role of subjection. And we must all practice the fear of the Lord. (See the Book of Sirach, and numerous other passages in the Bible, on the fear of the Lord.)

But this verse (5:21) does not refer specifically to the role of husband and wife. Rather, it is a general command to the whole Church to be subject to one another in Christ. And since the submission of the Church to Christ is the basis for the submission of the wife to her husband, the Apostle next discusses subjection in marital roles. The husband and wife are both mutually subject to Christ, but not mutually subject to one another; for each has a unique role.

{5:22} Wives should be submissive to their husbands, as to the Lord.

Since the Lord has ordained a different role for the wife than for the husband, her submissiveness to her husband is a submission to the plan and will of the Lord. And when she rejects this role, she rejects the will of God. Whoever rejects the teaching that wives should be submissive to their husbands, rejects the teaching of Christ.

{5:23} For the husband is the head of the wife, just as Christ is the head of the Church. He is the Savior of his body.

The state of holy Matrimony is a living figure of the relationship between Christ and His Church. Christ is the Savior of His Body the Church. The husband is not the savior of his wife, but he does have a role in his wife’s salvation, and his role in her salvation is different from her role in his salvation. For marriage and family are an integral part of God’s plan for salvation, and the husband, as the head of his wife and of the family, has the role to lead the family in works pertaining to salvation. Very many graces are poured out to the Church and the world through each holy marriage and each holy family. But the wife’s role in the salvation of the family is not to lead, but to assist, just as Mary’s role in our salvation is not to save, but to assist Christ in saving.

{5:24} Therefore, just as the Church is subject to Christ, so also should wives be subject to their husbands in all things.

God created the human race and human nature, and He so ordered natural marriage and the Sacrament of marriage, so that men and women, husbands and wives, would have different roles in the family. And this order is a reflection of the order in all Creation. For just as Creation is subject to Christ (1 Cor 15:26-28), so also is the wife subject to her husband. And Eve was created from the side of Adam, but Adam was not created from the side of Eve.

{5:25} Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the Church and handed himself over for her,
{5:26} so that he might sanctify her, washing her clean by water and the Word of life,
{5:27} so that he might offer her to himself as a glorious Church, not having any spot or wrinkle or any such thing, so that she would be holy and immaculate.

The husband has a different role in God’s plan of salvation for the family than the wife has. The husband leads the family, to guard the common good, so that each member of the family may more easily seek, obtain, and keep the salvation of Christ. The wife’s role in the salvation of the family in some ways is the same, in that both pray, both fast, both do good works, but in other ways is different. For she is not the head of the family, but the heart of the family. Both head and heart cooperate, in their respective tasks, to lead the whole body, the whole family, closer to Christ, the one and only Savior.

{5:28} So, too, husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.
{5:29} For no man has ever hated his own flesh, but instead he nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ also does to the Church.
{5:30} For we are a part of his body, of his flesh and of his bones.
{5:31} “For this reason, a man shall leave behind his father and mother, and he shall cling to his wife; and the two shall be as one flesh.”

The husband and wife must each love one another, mutually. But the ways that this love is expressed differs according to the proper role for each spouse. For the love between Christ and His Church is mutual; it is the same type of love. But the ways in which Christ expresses that love differs from the ways in which the Church expresses that love. For example, He expresses that love by leading, and She expresses that love by following. So this union of two as one is a reciprocal, and yet asymmetrical union.

{5:32} This is a great Sacrament. And I am speaking in Christ and in the Church.

The word Sacrament means mystery. If anyone tells you that the Sacrament of marriage is simple, that it only means this and that, nothing more, do not be led astray. Each and every Sacrament is a great mystery, including the Sacrament of holy Matrimony. And when sinful secular society tells you that marriage is merely a 50-50 partnership, or some similar claim, do not be led astray. If marriage is a 50-50 partnership, which 50 is God’s role? The true Sacrament of Marriage is a mystery beyond complete human comprehension. For God participates in the marriage in a way which is part of His plan of salvation for the human family, and in a way which is beyond description in words.

{5:33} Yet truly, each and every one of you should love his wife as himself. And a wife should fear her husband.

This passage (Ephesians 5:21-33) began by calling every one to the fear of Christ; that fear is respectful submission to the authority of Christ. Similarly, the fear that a wife should have for her husband is not the emotion of fear; instead, it is respectful submission to the authority of her husband, which is an authority ordained by Christ. If any wife does not fear her husband, then she does not fear Christ. But all this refers to holy fear, not to being afraid of someone. A wife should fear her husband, but she should not be afraid of him.

Although some translations of the Bible have cast aside the word ‘fear,’ Sacred Scripture uses the same word (in the Latin and in the Greek) in verse 5:33 as in verse 5:21. Both verses refer to the same type of fear, the holy fear of Christ. A wife should fear her husband because his authority is of Christ. In doing so, she is fearing Christ and a role that is a figure of Christ, but she is not fearing the person of her husband. Whoever rejects the fear of the Lord, rejects the Lord.

This same word ‘fear’ is used in the Old and New Testaments to refer to the fear of the Lord. But certainly, this fear is not the emotion of fear. Even so, the word ‘fear’ is fitting, because the same type of respectful submission required of us all toward Christ the Lord, is also required of the wife toward her husband. If anyone still does not understand what this means, let him or her meditate on the meaning of the fear of the Lord. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Proverbs 1:7; Sirach 1:16; Psalms 110:10).

Casti Connubii

The mutual nature of the marriage relationship is widely accepted. But the asymmetrical nature of the relationship between husband and wife is often denied or ignored or distorted. But this asymmetry is the teaching of Tradition, Scripture, and the Magisterium. It is only the influence of secular society that has caused this doctrine to be so widely rejected. Pope Pius XI, in the encyclical Casti Connubii (Chaste Marriage), taught both the reciprocal (mutual) and the asymmetrical nature of the marriage relationship.

Pope Pius XI: “This mutual molding of husband and wife, this determined effort to perfect each other, can in a very real sense, as the Roman Catechism teaches, be said to be the chief reason and purpose of matrimony, provided matrimony be looked at not in the restricted sense as instituted for the proper conception and education of the child, but more widely as the blending of life as a whole and the mutual interchange and sharing thereof.” [Casti Connubii 24]

The mutual love between the husband and wife results in a mutual responsibility to act for the good of one another. And this reciprocal nature of the relationship unfolds in many ways in daily life, according to the circumstances of the moment. The whole of marriage life is characterized by this mutual interchange and sharing of life, based on mutual love.

However, this mutual love, which thoroughly permeates their entire married life, must not be misrepresented as if it extinguishes the difference in roles between the husband and the wife within the family. Sacred Scripture could not be more clear on this truth, as previously discussed. But the Magisterium has also taught this doctrine, clearly and definitively.

Pope Pius XI: “Domestic society being confirmed, therefore, by this bond of love, there should flourish in it that ‘order of love,’ as St. Augustine calls it. This order includes both the primacy of the husband with regard to the wife and children, the ready subjection of the wife and her willing obedience, which the Apostle commends in these words: ‘Let women be subject to their husbands as to the Lord, because the husband is the head of the wife, and Christ is the head of the Church.’ ” [Casti Connubii 26]

The Magisterium clearly teaches that the husband is the head of his wife, and his wife should be subject to him in obedience. Some commentators on Scripture, attempting to nullify this teaching, have tried to reinterpret subjection, as if it were mutual submission, or mutual obedience. This approach is half right. There is a mutual aspect to submission and to obedience. But it is a serious doctrinal error to claim that the marriage relationship is entirely mutual and equal in every way. Whoever adheres to this error, commits material heresy. Whoever teaches this error, harms the Sacrament of Marriage. God has ordained, in natural marriage, and all the more so in the Sacrament of holy Matrimony, a distinction in roles between the husband and wife, such that the husband has a role of primacy in regard to the wife and children, and the wife has a role of subjection and obedience to him.

Pope Pius XI: “This subjection, however, does not deny or take away the liberty which fully belongs to the woman both in view of her dignity as a human person, and in view of her most noble office as wife and mother and companion; nor does it bid her obey her husband’s every request if not in harmony with right reason or with the dignity due to wife; nor, in fine, does it imply that the wife should be put on a level with those persons who in law are called minors, to whom it is not customary to allow free exercise of their rights on account of their lack of mature judgment, or of their ignorance of human affairs. But it forbids that exaggerated liberty which cares not for the good of the family; it forbids that in this body which is the family, the heart be separated from the head to the great detriment of the whole body and the proximate danger of ruin. For if the man is the head, the woman is the heart, and as he occupies the chief place in ruling, so she may and ought to claim for herself the chief place in love.” [Casti Connubii 27]

Obedience and subjection to human persons is always limited. Only obedience and subjection to God is inherently unlimited. For example, Mary’s holiness is based on her obedience to God, not to Joseph. Also, the husband and wife are equal as concerns their nature. Each has the same human nature and the dignity of that nature. Each is made in the image of God. The inequality between husband and wife is not of nature, but of roles. Each has his and her own function and place in the family. And this was true even for Joseph and Mary.

During their chaste and pure marriage, Mary was obedient to Joseph; he exercised his proper role as the head of the family. When it was the will of God for the holy family to flee to Egypt, an angel was sent to Joseph in a dream, not to Mary or the Child Jesus. Joseph then decided to flee to Egypt, with his family. When it was time for them to return from Egypt, Joseph was again told that the family should return, and where they should settle (Mt 2:13-23). And Joseph held this role as head of the family despite the fact that Mary is much holier than Joseph, and that the Child Jesus is not only holier still, but is their God and Savior. Therefore, the leader of the family is the husband and father, and not whichever person is said to be most fit. Neither are the tasks of headship in the family to be dispensed to whomever has the greatest ability. God has ordained that there would be a certain structure to the family, just as to the Church. The pastor is the head of the parish, and the Bishop is the head of the diocese, and the Roman Pontiff is the head of the entire Church on earth.

Although the husband is ordained by God to be the head of the family, and the head of his wife, she must be obedient, first and foremost, to God. If his will is contrary to the will of God, she may decline to obey. If his will is contrary to the will of God and contrary to the moral law, she must decline to obey. Similarly, even a person who has taken a vow of obedience must always and without exception decline to obey any order to sin, and any order to commit sinful cooperation with evil.

Obedience in the family, and any type of holy obedience at all, is not primarily the giving and receiving of orders. Rather, true obedience is fulfilled mainly by a cooperative attitude, in which the wife assists the husband in his good plans and good works. Eve was created to be a helper and companion to Adam, not his slave or servant. And there are examples in Sacred Scripture in which a person with a lower station gives good advice to a person of a higher station. Sometimes this good advice is followed (2 Kings 5:12-14), and sometimes it is not followed (Acts 27:9-11).

Pope Pius XI: “Again, this subjection of wife to husband in its degree and manner may vary according to the different conditions of persons, place and time. In fact, if the husband neglect his duty, it falls to the wife to take his place in directing the family. But the structure of the family and its fundamental law, established and confirmed by God, must always and everywhere be maintained intact.” [Casti Connubii 28]

The authority of the husband over his wife is a figure for the authority of Christ over His Church. But the more the husband sins, the less he is like Christ, the less he has authority, and the less his wife must be subject to him. If he fails utterly in his God-given role as the head of the family, his wife may take up his duties, as necessity requires. However, she takes his place only in the sense of doing the necessary tasks that should have been done by him. She does not become the head of the family, for “the structure of the family…must always and everywhere be maintained intact.” [Casti Connubii 28] Similarly, when one Pope dies, and before his successor is elected, a Cardinal or group of Cardinals will take over the necessary tasks that would have been done by the Pope. But this Cardinal or group of Cardinals does not thereby become the head of the Church on earth. They take up the necessary tasks, but they cannot claim to have the role itself.

From the book Roman Catholic Marital Sexual Ethics

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

This entry was posted in ethics, Sacraments. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Wifely Obedience in Catholic Teaching

  1. Matt says:

    Great post, Ron.

  2. Grindall says:

    Even if you are not a regular viewer of The Simpsons, most of us have a sense of Homer and Marge’s marriage. Marge is in charge, Homer watches TV and plays with Bart. Question: Is a marriage null right from the start, if one or both parties never understood the nature of marriage? Would it help to think up the most extreme case of that? Maybe you were getting married to prove you weren’t gay, and then you impulsively try to reverse roles once married.

    • Ron Conte says:

      Marriage is for fallen sinners. It is not easily made invalid by ignorance or failure. However, the parties must consent to a lifelong union with an openness to life (if they are able). A bad marriage might still be valid, even if either or both parties fail in many ways.

  3. Matt Z. says:

    This is a wonderful post, much needed in our society. Thanks!

  4. Matt Z. says:

    Here is a question. Let’s say the husband wants to take away cell phones from their children for an amount of time, say a week, because of its overuse and the problems cell phones can cause for kids. The wife blatantly disagrees and gives the cell phones back to the children going directly against the husbands wishes? What if the wife goes against the husband on a major expensive purchases? Could the husband show his leadership by hiding the cell phones or blocking the credit accounts? Where does one draw the line when dealing with a non communicating non submissive spouse?

    • Ron Conte says:

      “Could the husband show his leadership by hiding the cell phones or blocking the credit accounts?” No. Bad idea.

      He should lead by example, by good advice, by being a loving father and husband. If the wife or kids are failing on their end, he should pray for them, be as supportive as possible, and be flexible when his wife disagrees.

    • Paul M. says:

      Great post.

      Being that children are developing their sense of right and wrong, wouldn’t the husband in Matt Z.’s example need not hide them, but insist upon the cell phones being removed? Is it not worse for the children to learn that the kids can be a wedge between husband and wife, pitting one against the other? If the husband is responsible before God and makes such a decision with prayerful and loving intent, should he not then have the authority to insist that (when mom and dad sincerely disagree) his judgement should be followed?

    • Ron Conte says:

      It’s a matter of prudential judgment. My opinion is that the husband should not insist on his decision being followed in ever case. He then acts like a dictator, rather than a husband and father. If the wife and children do not obey him, he shouldn’t impose his will on them.

Comments are closed.