Women's Head Coverings at Mass: Won't Say I Told You So, But ...

Some time ago I did a post (possibly more than one) dealing with the subject of women’s headcoverings at Mass—a practice that was required by the 1917 Code of Canon Law but that then fell into desuetude after the Second Vatican Council and was abolished by the release of the 1983 Code of Canon Law.

I have no problem with women wearing head coverings. In fact, I’m rather partial to the practice, and I fully support any woman’s right to wear one.

But I’m not going to falsify what the law requires concerning them.

My post was occasioned by queries I got from time to time about whether the former practice of women wearing some form of headcovering at Mass is still required.

Some of these queries were prompted by a maker of headcoverings who was trying to gin up business by running ads that quoted the old law as if it was still in effect.

Others, including canonist Dr. Edward Peters and Fr. John Zulhsdorf, also wrote on the subject, pointing out the same thing: The law requiring head coverings ceased no later than the release of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, which abrogated the prior law requiring this (found in the 1917 Code).

Yet that hasn’t stopped people from making spurious arguments to the contrary.

Now Ed Peters has a post in which (after noting Fr. Z’s and my replies and saying some extremely kind things about us) he reports Cardinal Raymond Burke has weighed in on the subject as well.

For those who may not be aware, Cardinal Burke is the prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, which “functions as the supreme tribunal [in the Roman Curia] and also ensures that justice in the Church is correctly administered” (John Paul II, Pastor Bonus 121). That means: He heads the highest Church court.

In a letter to an inquirer, Cardinal Burke writes:

The wearing of a chapel veil for women is not required when women assist at the Holy Mass according to 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.

Ed notes:

Burke’s note is not an “authentic interpretation” nor a formal sentence from the Signatura: It’s simply a calm observation by the world’s leading canonist (not to mention a man deeply in love with the Church and her liturgy) about whether women have to, as a matter of law or moral obligation, wear veils at Mass. Any Mass. And the answer is No.

I’d like to add a couple of remarks to Ed’s concerning Cardinal Burke’s reply. I think it is extraordinarily balanced and well phrased.

His first statement—that the use of chapel veils is not required when women assist at (i.e., attend) the ordinary form of the Mass—is quite true. The 1983 Code abolished the requirement established by the 1917 Code. That much is absolutely clear and straight forward. But what about the celebration of the extraordinary form of Mass according to the Missal of 1962 (i.e., the approved form of the traditional Latin Mass)? Here is where Cardinal Burke’s statement is remarkably well crafted.

He makes two points: First, it is “the expectation” that women attending this form of Mass will wear a head covering, but “it is not ... a sin” to refrain from doing so.

Note that Cardinal Burke does not say that the use of a chapel veil is required under the 1962 Missal. This is because it wasn’t the 1962 Missal that contained the requirement. It was the 1917 Code of Canon Law, and that requirement has been abolished. Thus there is no clear legal obligation to do so. The degree to which an obligation that existed in 1962 but that is not mentioned in the Missal would be applicable to the celebration of the Mass according to this Missal today would be, at the least, debatable. According to the 1983 Code,

Can. 14 Laws, even invalidating and disqualifying ones, do not oblige when there is a doubt about the law.

Because of the debatability of such a requirement in the extraordinary form of the Mass today, the law concerning head coverings does not bind (at least until such time as we get further clarification from Rome on the matter).

Thus a woman attending the extraordinary form of the Mass could not be accused of violating the law, much less of sinning.

Nevertheless, it is clear that those who participate in the extraordinary form of the Mass are intending to celebrate it as it was celebrated in 1962, to the extent provided by present law, and that included head coverings. Those regularly celebrating this form of the Roman Rite thus have an expectation that head coverings will be used. Failure to use them could be cause for puzzlement, even if it is not legally required. And the expectation (without legal requirement) may extend higher up the hierarchical chain, though Cardinal Burke does not make this clear.

In any event, it strikes me that Cardinal Burke’s statement is exceptionally well crafted. It acknowledges the clear lack of legal requirement for the use of head coverings (at both the ordinary and extraordinary forms of Mass) while acknowledging the practical expectation but not-legally-required use of them at the extraordinary form of Mass, together with the non-sinfulness of their non-use.

It’s a difficult set of points to make in a short space, but Cardinal Burke’s statement navigates these difficulties well.

If only everyone were so careful on this issue.

What do you think?