Well, it finally happened. A friend I attend Mass with regularly asked me why I wear a veil. And since the reasons are varied (and often interconnected), I wasn't sure how to answer her, at least not in a brief and concise way. So I sat at my computer, and I attempted a blog post on the topic, because we all know I express myself in writing far better than I do when speaking. And it was too complicated, largely because I'm aware that a significant percentage of the ten or so of you who read my blog posts aren't Catholic. Some aren't even Christian. And so I found myself trying to explain the history and Catholic theology behind every point I was trying to make. Can we say "headache?"
So I'm going to begin again. And this time, I'll try to keep it simple, and personal. If you don't have a basic understanding of Catholic theology and history to begin with, you may want to skip this post. If you choose not to, questions are welcome, but I simply can't foresee and address them all in the body of a blog post. I should know; I tried already. :P
To begin with, I'll say that women wearing a veil or some form of hat or headcovering in church was the norm in the Catholic Church (and most Protestant churches) throughout most of Christian history. Besides history, the practice is rooted in sacred scripture, specifically I Corinthians chapter 11, verses 3-16. In 1917, the first official Code of Canon Law was promulgated by the Catholic Church, and it enshrined the practice in Church Law, stating that women were not to enter the church building, and most especially not approach Holy Communion, with their heads uncovered. (Men were also forbidden to do these things with their heads covered, but for some reason, no one talks about that.) In 1984, a new Code was published, omitting any mention of headcoverings. Some contend that this is not enough to do away with centuries of tradition, as new codes must be interpreted in light of old ones. Others say that the notation in the new Code abrogating the entirity of the old is evidence that veiling for women was, in fact, done away with, or at the very least, no longer required. Still others believe that while the new Code removes the legal requirement for women to wear a hat or veil, it remains a worthwhile devotion, and pleasing to the Lord. A good comparison to this would be the fact that Canon Law does not require any Catholic to pray the Rosary; however, it is still considered a very worthwhile practice that pleases our Lord. I'm not a Canon lawyer, armchair or otherwise, so I'll leave the picking apart of such things to those who are. My personal beliefs place me in the third group, but I'll not insist my view is the correct one. In doubtful things, liberty.
The practice fell out of favor in Western culture, particularly, with the rise of feminism in the 1960s. A protestant-influenced (and perhaps poorly-catechized) culture insisted that the veil was a symbol of woman's oppression by man, and as such, it needed to be done away with. And if one reads the above-noted scripture passage, it's easy to see where they're coming from. The passage from Corinthians, along with a corresponding one (in my opinion) in Ephesians (5, 21-33), has often been used by men to justify mistreatment of women. The correct relationship between men and women, particularly man and wife, would be an easy side street to get lost down, but I'm going to do my best not to do so, because while related, it's not really the topic of this post.
The veil has many potential meanings, and Catholic thought doesn't tend toward seeing one meaning of something as correct and all others as wrong. A few examples: The veil is an imitation of the Blessed Mother who is rarely (some insist never) seen without her veil. The veil signifies women's status as sacred (all sacred things in the Church are veiled--the vessels before the consecration, the ciborium inside the tabernacle, the altar itself) and as bearers of new life (the very "life" of Christ is veiled in the tabernacle, or in the monstrance if no one is present for adoration). There is a great deal of thought to be found on the topic if one cares to go looking for it, but I do recommend Catholic sources, as Protestant sources tend to focus very heavily on the modesty and submission to one's husband dimensions.
To insist, however, that the veil is not about submission at all (as I've seen some try to do) is dishonest. Scripture clearly points out that it is. This is, in fact, the point that places me in the third camp noted above regarding the legal status of veiling. If veiling is an expression of submission (which, one must remember, is actually considered a virtue in our faith, and not only for women), then requiring it by law under pain of sin or threat of censure is to offend the heart of the matter. For something to properly express a spirit of submission, it must be offered voluntarily. However, to see the practice of headcovering as being solely, or even primarily, about women's submission to men, or even wives' submission to their own husbands, is, I believe, to largely miss the point.
Christian theology, and Catholic theology in particular, teaches us that the relationship between husband and wife is properly understood as an image of the relationship between Christ (the Bridegroom) and His Bride (the Church). In the sacrament of matrimony, the husband and wife give themselves, freely and without reservation, as a gift to one another, much as Christ gave Himself for the Church and the Church (made up, let's remember, of individual Christians) gives herself to Christ. And so, if husband and wife are an image of Christ and the Church, then the veil, properly understood, also signifies the Church's submission to Christ.
So why do I veil? In summary, I would say that I veil out of reverence for Christ, present in the tabernacle and on the altar at every Mass. I veil as a sign of my personal submission to him, and for my part in expressing the submission of the Church as a whole to her Bridegroom and Savior. I veil because, while the Church no longer requires it by Law, scripture and history teach us that it is still a practice that is pleasing to our Lord--and if I can please Him by such a simple gesture, why would I not?
I would like to offer, as a postscript of sorts, that the Vatican still requires (or at least strongly encourages?--someone may be more up to date on current practices than I am) ladies to wear a veil for an audience with the Pope. If you would veil in the presence of the Steward, how much more appropriate is it in the presence of the King?