I’ve been reading the articulate and punchy Elinor Dashwood lately. Naturally, I’ve never said anything to her about enjoying her blog, but have waited until I have something to complain about. (So much for that chivalrous and gentlemanly image I’ve been cultivating …)

Actually I don’t really have a complaint, just an observation and some questions. She’s been arguing with another blogger about male headship, and she seems to imply that male headship isn’t defined doctrine. http://mommentary.blogspot.com/2003_11_02_mommentary_archive.html#106797195817550700 Mrs Dashwood writes:

“The point is that this Aranda person continues to write as if what he vaguely describes as a ‘traditional teaching’ is the same thing as a defined doctrine. What can I say? It isn’t. Don’t take my word for it, bubbeleh, read the Catechism.”

Now this is all very confusing to a non-theologian. In the first place, the Catholic Church teaches that Sacred Scripture is inerrant in all its parts: doesn’t it then follow that all doctrine contained therein is “defined doctrine”? Anyway, if it isn’t “defined”, it is still inerrant and therefore true — and if it is true then it would seem to be binding whether technically defined or not.

Still, Catholics don’t need to wonder whether their Church sanctions the teaching of Saint Paul on male headship. We also have, at minimum, the following recent encyclicals:

Arcanum Divinae

“The husband is the chief of the family and the head of the wife. The woman, because she is flesh of his flesh, and bone of his bone, must be subject to her husband and obey him; not, indeed, as a servant, but as a companion, so that her obedience shall be wanting in neither honor nor dignity. Since the husband represents Christ, and since the wife represents the Church, let there always be, both in him who commands and in her who obeys, a heaven-born love guiding both in their respective duties. For ‘the husband is the head of the wife; as Christ is the head of the Church. . . Therefore, as the Church is subject to Christ, so also let wives be to their husbands in all things.'”

Casti Connubii

“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.'”

Now whether the above constitutes “defined doctrine”, I do not know and leave the question to theologians. Nevertheless it would seem that, as papal encyclicals with a clear intent to teach something very specific, they are authoritative and binding upon Catholics.

Of course there is much more to marriage than this. The popes go on to explain what headship in marriage actually means — and doesn’t mean — in practice. Perhaps Mrs. Dashwood is right to question the motives of men who seem to be obsessed with the topic. (I would also question the motives of women who seem to be obsessed with the topic.) Any teaching may be stripped of its context and perverted into something awful, and certainly this can happen with male headship.

But the problem today is not that too many Catholics believe in male headship and abuse it. The problem today is that too many Catholics reject or ignore male headship altogether. Men, in particular, are embarrassed by it, and are afraid if they bring it up they will be thought insecure at best, or secret wife-beaters at worst. That is unfortunate because marriage and family will not be restored in this society without addressing the subject of headship. In this most rebellious and egalitarian age of ours, I think all Catholics need to ask themselves whether they intend to conform to what their Church teaches about marriage in its totality.