I wrote this article in June of 1997 for some reason. I think it was because of some issues of concern in the Alleluia Community in Augusta which had a bit of a "Protestant" approach to submission in marriage, but also practices what was called "headship and submission" amongst its members. The Alleluia Community is a predominantly Catholic community but ecumenical, but has a Protestant Pentecostal spirituality with a Catholic veneer. It's structure is protestant with Elders and clear lines of authority that sometimes would interfere in the affairs of marriage and family life. Read on for what it is worth:
The Southern Baptist Convention certainly has a way of getting discussion going on a variety of topics not only among their own members but also among our culture at large. The most recent controversy has to do with “Wives graciously submitting to their Husbands,” based upon St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians.
The Baptists, as are most Christians, are concerned about the breakdown of marriages and consequently family life. Their reiteration of a “fundamentalist” approach to interpreting St. Paul’s remarks is a desire to return the Church and society to a seemingly simpler time when strong marriages and families abounded. Their desire for this is to be commended, although Roman Catholicism and our teaching Magisterium would disagree with their “fundamentalistic” interpretation of St. Paul.
The clearest teaching I could find on this topic comes from our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II in his letter “On the Dignity and Vocation of Women” given at St. Peter’s on August 15, 1988. The Pope refers to the passage, “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife.” St. Paul 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.” 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” 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-sided but mutual.”
The Pope goes on to make another significant point about how this awareness of mutual subjection only gradually takes hold in cultures over the course of time. The Pope says, “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, behavior and customs. This is a call, which from that time onwards does not cease to challenge succeeding generations; it is a call which people have to accept ever anew. St. Paul not only wrote: “In Christ Jesus there is no more man or woman,” but also wrote: “There is no more slave or freeman.” Yet how many generations were needed for such a principle to be realized in the history of humanity through the abolition of slavery? And what is one to say of the many forms of slavery to which individuals and peoples are subjected, which have not yet disappeared from history?”
So, Roman Catholic husbands and wives, the Pope speaks. While your roles differ, you dignity is equal and your “subjection” is mutual based upon Christ’s relationship to His Church.
This brings me to my final point. Because of the laity’s dignity of equality given to them by Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Eucharist, no where in Roman Catholic doctrine or canon law will you find the terms “headship and submission,” as a one-sided principle. No lay person, husband or otherwise, can require a religious “submission” from another adult lay person, nor is another lay Catholic to “submit” to another lay Catholic. We cooperate as the body of Christ, by submitting only to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ and His great commandment of love through the leadership of our “pastors,” the pope, bishops and priests. This is a very important principal in Catholic theology and canonical practice. Church law makes clear that even the use of the term “pastor” must be reserved for an ordained priest or bishop. No lay person, husbands or otherwise, can assume the title of pastor.
Without denigrating the Southern Baptist Convention, we as Roman Catholics have an inside track in understanding Sacred Scripture and Tradition, which is handed onto us from our Magisterium, the Pope and bishops in union with him. Papal teachings, when we assimilate them, will produce abundant fruit, not only for the Church, but also for our culture.