Sr. Louise Zdunich

January 21, 2013

QuestionFor many years, Catholic women were required to wear something on their heads when attending Mass. I am not sure when this policy was no longer in effect but is there anything saying that hats/scarves are inappropriate for church in this day and age?


AnswerThe practice of women praying with their heads covered comes to us from Paul (1 Corinthians 11.1-15). In order to understand his admonition in this letter, we need to know that Paul often wrote letters to correct situations in particular communities.

Here Paul was addressing a community he had converted in a large city whose population included business men, sailors, soldiers and military officials from all parts of the Roman Empire. It was the centre of government and commerce, as well as a sports centre, the home of the Isthmian Games every second year.

With this kind of a population, it became almost like a centre for wild activities and sexual licentiousness. Naturally, these societal problems affected the Christian community.

In this letter, Paul deals with various issues in the community (1.11). One is divisions among the faithful, where they appeal to one or other of the Apostles as being greater.

Other problems are sexual immorality, such as not even found among the pagans, questions on marriage, eating food offered to idols and even serious abuses, such as shunning the poor at the Lord's Supper.

Into this amalgamation of real problems comes the issue of women covering their heads when praying. This may have been because it was feared they were imitating women in the pagan cults who had long flowing hair, unbound and uncovered. It is in view of this context that we need to understand the head covering idea.


We know from his letters that Paul showed great respect for women's contributions to his work and the work of the Church. Paul wrote to the Galatians: "There is no longer . . . male and female for all of you are one in Christ" (3.28).

In the verses preceding his admonitions to the Corinthians, Paul tells his converts, "Give no offence to Jews or to Greeks or to the Church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do" (1 Cor 10.32-33). It was important that a small group in an often-hostile society exercise care in their general social behaviour.

In his letters, Paul always advocated good social norms for Christians. Therefore, his instructions in 1 Corinthians are meant to put that kind of good order back into the community. In this epistle, we get a picture of the numerous difficulties faced by the early converts.

The 1917 Code of Canon Law (n. 1262) prescribes the wearing of head covering for women at Mass while the 1983 revision doesn't mention it.

Why this change? As scholars studied the contexts in which various Scriptures were written, they gained a better understanding of the texts. This led to a realization of what Paul really was doing in his letters to the Corinthian Christians.


Head coverings were, and still are, worn by men and women in the Middle East because of the heat and the intensity of the sun. However, they were less needed in not-so-hot countries like ours.

Change came about in society. Hats were common for all sorts of occasions, especially formal ones until recent times. It was, therefore, natural they would be worn in church.

However, in the last 50 years or so, they became less prevalent, even for formal events, until recently when there seemed to be a resurgence.


Today, people are more aware of the ill effects of the sun on the skin and are encouraged to wear hats when outdoors. There is also a question of indoor lighting which is sometimes said to produce as much radiation as the sun. This could be harmful to both skin and eyes.

Wearing a hat in church, although not required, is never inappropriate. One can wear a hat or other head covering wherever and whenever one so desires, for protection or for other reasons.

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