Help With Your Mother's Rule

Help With Your Mother's Rule is a forum for women who want trouble-shooting help with their Mother's Rules or about any aspect of the 5 Ps of the married vocation.

Ask Holly: This blog is composed of your questions. Contact me at the address listed on Holly's Helpers page and I will respond. Please share your unique ideas as well. The more ideas and experience we share, the more successful every mother will be in designing her own unique Mother's Rule.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Does Hubby Have "REAL" Authority?

Dear Holly,
I love your book and have read it several times. I recently pulled it out again to refer to the section you wrote on pages 87-90 about, as you called it, “The Submission Issue”. I wanted to read this again because I recently discovered that a woman I have a growing friendship with seems to always defer to her husband in major and minor decisions about their family. She referred to her husband as the “spiritual head of the household” in explaining this. I have great respect and admiration for this family – my purpose in researching this issue is only for my own understanding, not to take issue with the way that they make decisions.

In one of your comments in your blog you said, “A husband... does have real authority given by God for the smooth running of the home and proper education of the children.” Could you elaborate exactly what you mean by this? Does this mean that a husband has a greater authority than his wife in these matters? If so, could you please site some helpful references (Church documents, etc.) to help me understand this? It seems to contradict the way you explained the “submission issue” in your book and the way you described that decision-making in a marriage when there is disagreement should be “satisfactory compromise”. I also looked up the document you referenced in your book, “JOHN PAUL II ON THE DIGNITY AND VOCATION OF WOMEN” and found what I believe to be your “counter edge gripping moment” (page 89 of your book): “in the relationship between husband and wife the ‘subjection’ is not one-sided but mutual.”

Maybe it would also be helpful to ask you to comment on some specific examples when answering my aforementioned question. For instance, should a husband, by virtue of his “God-given authority” make the decision or have the final say (over his wife) on issues such as what school a child should attend? What activities the children should participate in? What courses of study they should pursue?


  1. Part 1
    First of all, the 'spiritual head of the household' often relates to Protestant theology and in some situations, the wives consider their husbands as their spiritual directors. We don't, as Catholics. Our spiritual directors are priests. And even they don't 'tell us' what to do - they help us discern God's Will so WE can freely choose the good.

    Secondly, there is no real cohesive theology of the family to be had yet, even in Catholic teaching and circles, and much of what is being done now in the field is pioneer work.

    Meanwhile, in my own research into authority in the family for my Masters, what I have come to so far, is that all authority in the family is a reflection of the authority of God the Father, and in a few scattered references in Catholic encyclicals and teachings, this 'authority' rests in 'fatherhood' which is in the image of God the Father.

    However, what I have noticed in the references to the authority of the father, unlike Protestant writings, the Catholic understanding appears to be a shared authority of the 'parents'. My understanding would be that parents have the mutual authority in the family, aimed of course at unity as this is their calling. And as per my writings in Mother's Rule, I consider that this authority is a 'responsibility' to care for the 'good' of the family, and it is 'shared' by the parents. The 'very real authority' is a reality based on fatherhood, but it would be shared as parents.

    Still, that is not to diminish the gifts given to the 'husband' (not just father) in his own masculine way, and we can't remove from the husband, in favor of a false equality, the real authoritative gifts God has given him specifically.

    In Trinitarian theology, the 3 persons of the Trinity may be equal, but they are 'distinct', different. So too, man and woman are 'different'. I believe the 'real authority' of the husband (not 'over' his wife but 'for' the family good) is similar in kind to the real life-nurturing ability of the woman - while both man and woman contribute to the creation and development and nurturing of the child, the woman has a more direct, intimate and concrete involvement that can't be disputed. This does not interfere with the equality of man and woman, nor with their cooperation.

    So too, I believe that the husband, by virtue of being husband, also has specific gifts regarding authority - ie: the insight and ability to govern the family life together, and the right to do so, for the good of the family. This is not an autocratic rule. It is instead a taking-on-of-responsibility to ensure the good is done in relation to all aspects - education, income, family interaction, etc.

  2. Part 2
    The wife shares in these, has a right and duty to input and the couple are called to unity, yet the husband has a specific gift in this by virtue of his spousal role. This doesn't change anything. He is not to rule as a despot over the family; he still does not 'rule over' the wife. What he does, with her, is seek to order family life so that the best good of it's members can be fostered.

    And in the end, should husband and wife disagree and real efforts have been made to work it out, the husband has the right, in my personal opinion, to act within his role, for the good of the family, even when those times happen that the wife disagrees. He also has, and note this - the right to listen to the valid arguments of his wife and choose her way over his own, if her way makes more sense.

    The key issue, in my opinion, comes with our society's inability to see equality with difference, and think that each sex actually having different capacities and gifts is somehow a threat. My husband's gifts to the family of insight into it's government is not a threat to me, just as my ability to nurture a child physically should threaten him. Nor should we draw lines so severe and so black and white that we ostracize the other from valid and necessary participation in unity within the same spheres.

    Regardless, the husband does not hold authority 'over' the wife and cannot legitimately 'tell her what to do', no matter what. We are born free and remain free - ie responsible for our own souls. This is Catholic teaching. We also know the Catholic understanding of freedom is not cowed submission, but free participation in the good that is discerned.

    The type of power-over-blind-followers is not the authority I am talking about. In fact, it is not authority at all, but an abuse of authority.

    Authority is instead the ability to discern the good and the capacity to oversee it's implementation, supported by God, and by right. By virtue of fatherhood, which is to create, to care, to protect, to provide - the mission of fatherhood is to be able to use whatever legitimate tools to ensure these missions are enacted.

    THe husband has, to me, an ability to see a different side of things, to remove himself from the subjective aspect that may confuse, the gift of God to help him discern for the needs of his family, and his decisiveness in uncertainty - these and many other gifts, that combined with the woman's way of looking at things, can help discern God's Will and the 'good' of the family, as a legitimate husbandly ability, in dialogue with his wife. Again, this is my understanding.

  3. "And in the end, should husband and wife disagree and real efforts have been made to work it out, the husband has the right, in my personal opinion, to act within his role, for the good of the family, even when those times happen that the wife disagrees. He also has, and note this - the right to listen to the valid arguments of his wife and choose her way over his own, if her way makes more sense."

    I am glad that you included the point that this is your opinion. Pope John Paul II bends over backwards to note the husbands and wives are equal in RESPONSIBILITY as well as dignity. A husband does not have the right, from anyone, to make a decision that his wife disagrees with. Mutual subjection forces a couple to compromise. A husband's role is too provide and protect not decide. Yes, I understand that compromise is more difficult than just allowing one spouse to be the decider, but I think that is the point. Marriage is supposed to make us holy and working with our spouse to truly decide what is best for our family makes us holy.

  4. In a perfect world, there would never be any disagreement between husband and wife, and never any need for one to make a necessary decision without the full support of other. Fair enough. If both spouses always act in grace and intent to live the truth, there will most probably be few times such a problem will arise.

    But that is unfortunately not always the case. And I can think of many times a husband may have to make a solid decision without the consent of the wife, (and vice versa... ), given the reality of sin, or stubbornness, or a time limit imposed that hampers ongoing dialogue, and sometimes, just simple disagreement, which in itself may not be a sign of disunity at all, but of difference of opinion, and legitimately.

    For example, if the husband is certain that his moral viewpoint, say regarding contraception use, is correct and his wife's is not, then he is unable to 'compromise' isn't he? He 'must' hold to the truth and 'decide' to act accordingly, making the decision without his wife's agreement, for the good of the family. This is one small example.

    This does not dismiss or minimize the need of cooperation, unity and mutual input and responsibility, and holiness, but may account for those times, in this real world, where there is real disagreement and a stalemate has been reached - hoping that this would be minimally occurring.

    (Personally, I would always pray, because I believe that the Holy Spirit will assist in changing hearts, the husband's or the wife's, depending on who needs it most!)

    In addition, authority carries within it the right to make decisions - where there is a responsibility assigned, there must be the ability to make decisions to live it out, and the ability to ensure it occurs. Shared by husband and wife, but not capriciously, meaning all decisions must be aimed at the common good of the family.

    The reality is, there still needs to be developed a 'theology of the family'. There is little written on this 'officially' from a Catholic perspective and there needs to be. JPII started the new wave, so to speak. In the meantime, we need to use our faith , our reason and experience to do our best. If anyone finds any solid resources on this - feel free to post.

  5. Here is something from JPII's "Guardian of the Redeemer", about St Joseph in his fatherhood (who did not exercise physical paternity):

    "His fatherhood is expressed concretely "in his having made his life a service, a sacrifice to the mystery of the Incarnation and to the redemptive mission connected with it; in having used the legal authority which was his over the Holy Family in order to make a total gift of self, of his life and work; in having turned his human vocation to domestic love into a superhuman oblation of self, an oblation of his heart and all his abilities into love placed at the service of the Messiah growing up in his house."(7)

    Note - the real 'legal authority' over the 'family' as a service, and in the same apostolic exhortation,

    "[The Holy Family] is therefore the prototype and example for all Christian families."(8)

    Note - that this authority, while not a master-slave submission issue of husband over the wife, is part of the definition of 'fatherhood' and the wife 'shares' in this work of the father