In Saint Paul’s letter to the Ephesians he instructs wives to be
subject to their husbands as to the Lord; because a husband is head of the wife, just as Christ is head of the Church, being himself savior of the body. But just as the Church is subject to Christ, so also let wives be to their husbands in all things.This short passage seems to get the lion’s share of attention in discussing this issue.What is often not read or considered is what Saint Paul instructed to both husbands and wives immediately before this passage,
Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.They also ignore Paul's instructions to husbands immediately after his instruction to wives.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the Church, and delivered himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, cleansing her in the bath of water by means of the word; in order that he might present to himself the Church in all her glory, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she might be holy and without blemish. Even thus ought husbands also to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife, loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh; on the contrary he nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ also does the Church (because we are members of his body, made from his flesh and from his bones). ‘For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery – I mean in reference to Christ and to the Church. However, let each one of you also love his wife just as he loves himself; and let the wife respect her husband.Is it not ironic that Saint Paul wrote more than twice as much instruction to husbands here than to wives, but Christians seem to spend much more time instructing wives than husbands?
The key theme of Saint Paul in this passage is that the relationship of husband and wife is like that of Christ and the Church. Indeed, the relationship of Christ to the Church is often referenced with spousal terms in the Bible. Christ demonstrates the Christian ideal for marriage relationships by his relationship to the Church he founded. Since Saint Paul instructs husbands to love their wives as Christ loves the Church, we must examine how Christ demonstrated his love for the Church to learn how husbands must love their wives.
Christ Loves the Church
Christ loves his Church completely. Everything he did was for the Church. Husbands should likewise love their wives and keep them second only to God in everything they do.
Christ declares that in marriage a husband and wife become one flesh. Part of the meaning of this is that husband and wife should view each other as an integral part of themselves. While there still exists a distinctiveness of roles, they are complementary to each other and all are oriented toward the same goal, the sanctification of the family. When one spouse is degraded, the other is as well. If a husband is disrespectful toward his wife, he is also to himself. He can not gain honor by belittling his wife or allowing her to be belittled. If he would defend himself, he must also defend his wife for she is now part of him. What happens to her also happens to him. Christian marriage is truly a union.
Christ respects the Church and husbands should respect their wives. This respect manifests itself in a different way because, unlike the relationship between Christ and the Church, husband and wife are equals in the eyes of God. Christ established the Church and bestowed upon her his own holiness, but the husband did not establish the wife. Her virtues and graces come not from the husband but from God, and he should therefore reverence her as a sacred and holy person. She is not something to be possessed, but someone to be honored. Although they are united to each other in marriage, they remain unique to themselves. Both possess their own strengths and weaknesses. They should aid each other with their weaknesses and allow their strengths come forth for the benefit of the family.
To what extent is a husband required to love his wife? To the same extent that Christ loves his Church. Christ gave all for the Church and a husband should be willing to give all for his wife. Christ’s was a sacrificial love and he endured much for the benefit of the Church. Christ prayed three times to be spared from the Crucifixion, but willingly endured it so the grace of salvation would be made available to the world through the Church. A husband’s love for his wife (and family) must also be sacrificial. He must never allow pride to interfere with this. Consideration for the overall good of the family must take precedence over anything that may be of real advantage only to the husband. If there is a chance to advance himself, he should be willing to reject it if accepting will cause some harm to his wife and family; for he cannot truly advance without also advancing his wife. If the family is deprived of husband and father for the sake of career advancement, there is no true gain because the family has suffered a greater loss.
Christ voluntarily endured many hardships and even crucifixion in order that the Church would be sanctified. He respects the Church and commands others to do likewise. Christ's example shows that husbands are to do likewise for their wives.
A Christian husband is one who models his relationship with his wife according to Christ's relationship with his Church. Christ does not belittle the Church, but glorifies and respects her. Christ's love of the Church is a sacrificial love that puts what's good for her above other considerations. It is by following Christ's example that husbands fulfill their role as head of the family. Wives can then love and respect their husbands, as Scripture instructs, and work in union with their husbands' authority for the good of their families, just as the Church works in union with Christ for the good of the world.
Christ is Head of the Church
In examining how the husband is to be head of the family, we must look at how Christ acts as head of the Church. To begin with, although Christ is Lord, He always acts with humility and compassion toward the Church. He is not quick to anger but quick to forgiveness. He does not exalt himself, but always acts to exalt the Church. His actions were done to establish and benefit the Church, so that she would be glorious in the eyes of others. Therefore, a husband should exalt his wife. His words and actions should always reveal a true respect for her and serve to honor her.
In Christ, authority is a service, so the authority bestowed to the husband as head of the family also gives him the responsibility, the obligation, to serve its needs. Christ bestows his own authority on the Church and she exercises that authority in union with him in a very real way to fulfill her own responsibility to teach the Faith as a mother teaches her children. In this, both Christ and the Church serve each other, using their authority for each other and for the Church family.
In bestowing authority as head of the family on the husband, Christ intends that the husband will bestow that authority to his wife. Just as Christ gave his own authority to the Church so that she could raise children to God, a husband must bestow his authority to his wife so that she can raise their children to God. Likewise, both husband and wife are to recognize, respect, and utilize each other's strengths appropriately for the good of each other and their children.
Past and Present
Some may try to argue that I am presenting a modernized view of the Christian call to husbands, that this is different than the teaching of the Church in the past. It is true that societal views of the relationship and appropriate roles of husbands and wives have changed, but the fundamental teaching of the Church has not. The Church has always taught that the husband is the head of the family and that the wife is subject to him, but did not teach that this relationship was one of total subjugation where the wife was little more than a servant in her own home. The Church has always acknowledged that this differentiation of roles does not imply that one is lesser than the other, but has insisted that the dignity inherent in each must be respected by both.
The Catechism of 1566 (known as the "Roman Catechism") states the following.
Matrimonial fidelity also demands that they love one another with a special, holy and pure love; not as adulterers love one another but as Christ loves His Church. This is the rule laid down by the Apostle when he says: Husbands, love your wives as Christ also loved the church. And surely (Christ's) love for His Church was immense; it was a love inspired not by His own, but only by the advantage of His spouse. ...Here we can see that even in the 16th Century the obedience of wives was not absolute. It was conditioned on consistency with Christian piety and second to God. Therefore, if a husband were to act in a way inconsistent with Christian piety, or to instruct his wife to do so, she was not to obey him. Additionally, husbands are to show a genuine respect for their wives, treating them generously and honorably, not as an object to be possessed or a servant to be ordered about and mistreated.
It is the duty of the husband to treat his wife generously and honorably. It should not be forgotten that Eve was called by Adam his companion. The woman, he says, whom thou gavest me as a companion. ...
On the other hand, the duties of a wife are thus summed up by the Prince of the Apostles: Let wives be subject to their husbands: that if any believe not they word, they may be won without the word by the conversation of the wives, considering your chaste conversation with fear. ... Again, and in this the conjugal union chiefly consists, let wives never forget that next to God they are to love their husbands, to esteem them above all others, yielding to them in all things not inconsistent with Christian piety, a willing and ready obedience.
In the traditional Catholic rite of marriage (as in the modern), the vows are identical for the husband and wife.
I, (name), take thee, (name) for my wedded (wife/husband), to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness, and in health, till death do us part; and thereto I plight thee my troth.There is no additional vow the wife is required to make. Although their roles are different, their dignity is not. However, the husband is required to make a further vow in the traditional rite. In addition to the ring, the groom is also to present his bride with gold and silver, saying,
With this ring, I thee wed; this gold and silver I thee give; with my body I thee worship; and with all my worldly goods I thee endow.The ring represents the union of the marriage and the wife's exclusive claim to her husband. Interestingly, while it may have been done, there was no requirement for the bride to present the groom with a ring. The pieces of gold and silver represented the man bestowing all of his worldly goods to his bride. By taking possession of these tokens, she had claim to everything that was his.
In 1930, Pope Pius XI wrote Casti Connubii, an encyclical on marriage.
The love, then, of which We are speaking is not that based on the passing lust of the moment nor does it consist in pleasing words only, but in the deep attachment of the heart which is expressed in action, since love is proved by deeds. This outward expression of love in the home demands not only mutual help but must go further; must have as its primary purpose that the man and wife help each other day by day in forming and perfecting themselves in the interior life, so that through their partnership in life they may advance ever more and more in virtue, and above all that they may grow in true love toward God and their neighbor, on which indeed "dependeth the whole Law and the Prophets." ...We can see that the Christian idea of being a husband I have presented here is not new. It was taught by the Church decades before the recent trend advocating more respect for wives in the marital relationship, which was a reaction to the Victorian era's misconception of what it should be. That teaching was merely a restatement of what the Church had taught nearly four hundred years earlier, which was, at the time, a restatement of what the Church had taught for centuries.
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 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. ...
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."
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 the 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.
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 fundamental structure of the family and its fundamental law, established and confirmed by God, must always and everywhere be maintained intact.