If I was to pick one absolutely unique American principle, it would be a disdain for authority. It seems almost to be at the heart of the American founding. While this has led to some of the things that made our country great, when taken to an extreme can lead to its downfall. It seems this anti-authoritarian attitude permeates nearly every aspect of society. There is perhaps no other area where it has done more damage than in the family. In ceremoniously rejecting anything traditional as outdated, we may unwittingly be causing the downfall of society as a whole. If we are to stop this downward spiral we must restore a proper understanding of authority in marriage.
In order to see this as anything more than a sentimental longing for a patrimony long obsolete, we must be convinced that authority within marriage is necessary. To see its necessity we should recognize the family (of which marriage is the foundation) as the primordial society. It is the society that all further societies presuppose. All societies have as their aim the good of their members (or common good). In order to achieve any particular good, all the members must be acting towards it (or at least not against it). This only happens in two ways. Either “everyone is on the same page” as to what is good or there must be an authority figure whose judgment is final. There is no other way if anything is ever to get done because the judgment about a particular good has two aspects—whether the thing itself is good and what good things to use to bring it about. In other words it is not enough to merely agree on whether the end is good, you must also agree on the means you will use to get there. Short of agreement on every aspect of a particular action, any society needs authority (even if it is somehow exercised democratically).
The family is no different. There must be an authority structure for the sake of the common good. Parents must have authority over children and the husband must have authority over the wife. An example will help to clarify. Suppose both a husband and a wife agree on the good of education for their child. Suppose further that after much discussion they are locked in disagreement as to which school to send the child to. Both have good and valid reasons for their choices that the other does not agree with. How can they proceed? If this was an isolated incident then certainly they could come up with a compromise or even draw straws. But the fact of the matter is that in marriage there are a lot of ties to be broken. No matter how good and holy two people are, they cannot always agree as to how to accomplish something good. That is the nature of good things—there usually is more than one way to achieve them, one of which may be better than another. They have to have a principle by which they can “break the tie. One person having the authority breaks the tie always.
Why does it have to be the husband that “wears the pants”? To see why the husband has authority we have to be willing to submit to the authority of Sacred Scripture. This means we have to stop running away from the difficult section of Ephesians 5 and confront it head on. Specifically, “[W]ives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is head of the church…” (Eph 5:22-23). No matter how we attempt to twist these by substituting different translations for the word “subordinate” we are still stuck with the command that the husband is head of the wife. This means that just as Christ has authority over the Church so too the husband over the wife. This is the divinely ordered nature of the family—the husband is head of the wife.
It is also important that we understand what is not being put forth here. This is not meant to say that men have a natural authority over women in general. There is nothing in the Church’s teaching that says that. This model of authority is only for the sake of the family and does not apply to other societies. They have their own authority structures that allow women authority over men and vice versa. Although this has been used as justification in the past for men to lord over women in general, that was never the intent. And even if it was ab-used doesn’t mean we throw out its proper use in marriage.
But it has also been abused within marriage as well. This is why marriage is a Sacrament, even for those who do not believe it is a Sacrament (as an aside two people who are baptized and exchange valid consent become ministers of the Sacrament of Matrimony) because fallen man has a tendency to “lord it over his wife” (Gn 3:16). Christ came to undo all the effects of the Fall and through the Sacrament of Marriage He infuses the grace needed to live out this otherwise impossible situation. In other words the husband is given a grace of office as husband to exercise his authority in the same way that Christ does. In the same way one of the graces of the office of wife is obedience to her husband. This is no mere blind obedience due to her “urge for her husband” (Gn 3:16) but because she knows he is truly exercising his authority under the inspiration of grace.
The abuse of authority I think only gets worse in a culture of divorce. Most obviously there are many people who are not validly married, even if they live as though they are. They miss these necessary graces to live out Matrimony according to Christ’s model. But the ease of divorce also causes us to not discern the call to marriage well. If it is easy to get out of a mistake, then we are more likely to make the mistake. But when it is difficult, we discern better. Specifically women will better ask themselves whether the man they are about to marry is the type of man she would want to obey because she knows he is always going to have her best interest at heart. Likewise men will ask the question that I was advised to ask by the priest who did our Pre-Cana, “is this the women that you can spend the rest of your life making a gift of yourself to?”
The most important thing to consider is what this authority actually looks like. When St. Paul speaks of the husband and wife subordinating themselves to each other, he means they should view each other as equals. This means first and foremost that the husband’s authority is not paternal. He does not treat her as one of his children or discipline her the way a father does a child. His authority should be exercise mainly through service (again remember Christ is the model). He should lead by being the first to serve even to the point of exhaustion.
It should not be arbitrary and should be exercised with great reverence for the wife. It also needs to be used prudentially and with great caution. It should never be played like a trump card that in essence says “we can talk about this all you want, but ultimately it is my decision and I have already made it.” It should truly only be exercised when it is the last means to “breaking a tie.” To micro-manage your wife’s behavior under the pretense of authority is an abuse of it. The wife for her part should expect this from her husband and she must respect the times when he does exercise it necessarily. She needs to be faithful to her own vows to obey her husband. Although this is less common today, the wife also needs to act like a full partner and not look to her husband to make every decision for her.
Perhaps after all this, one might say, “I see the point, but what we do works for us.” I contend that one of the reasons why family life has suffered so greatly in recent decades is because we have ceased to live out the divinely planned ordering for the family that includes the authority of the husband and father. It may appear to “work for us” but appearances can be deceiving especially because authority has a spiritual component to it as well. The husband must also be the spiritual head of the household. When he does this through charity, prayer and suffering for his wife and family, he merits great graces for them. Also, by accepting the God-given order of the family, he opens the flow of grace for the whole family. Likewise the wife when she is willing to obey merits great graces for the family because she accepts God’s plan. The children too in obeying both of their parents equally do the same.
When this natural ordering of the family is upset, this makes room for the demonic to enter. This is because demons are very legalistic and where they find a vacuum in God-given authority they have room to operate. Husbands and wives, either individually or both, who fail to submit themselves to Christ’s plan open the family up to the demonic. The wife has a right to spiritual protection from her husband and when either fails in authority/obedience (rightly) that protection is lost. The husband is not just the physical protector of the family but also meant to be the spiritual protector as well—in fact more so. The number of exorcisms that are being performed on wives and children is on the rise and so, at least empirically, the rejection of this model is doing great spiritual harm. The only solution is the “traditional” one—“As the church is subordinate to Christ, so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her.” Ultimately, there is no other way.