Reverence for Christ, the basis of relationship between spouses

During the general audience of 11 August, the Holy Father gave the following address.

1.  Today we begin a more detailed analysis of the passage of the Letter to the Ephesians 5:21-23. The author, addressing husbands and wives, recommends them to be "subject to one another out of reverence for Christ" (5:21).

Here it is a question of a relationship of a double dimension or degree:  reciprocal and communitarian. One clarifies and characterizes the other. The mutual relations of husband and wife should flow from their common relationship with Christ. The author of the letter speaks of the "reverence for Christ" in a sense analogous to that when he speaks of the "fear of God".  In this case it is not a question of fear which is a defensive attitude before the threat of evil, but it is above all a case of respect for holiness, for the sacrum. It is a question of pietas, which, in the language of the Old Testament, was expressed by the term "fear of God" (cf. e.g., Ps 103:11; Pr 1:7; 23:17; Sir 1:11-16).  In fact, this pietas, arising from a profound awareness of the mystery of Christ, should constitute the basis of the reciprocal relations between husbands and wives.

Moral instruction

2.  The text chosen by us, as likewise the immediate context, has a "parenetic" character, that is, of moral instruction. The author of the letter wishes to indicate to husbands and wives the basis of their mutual relationship and their entire conduct. He deduces the relative indications and directives from the mystery of Christ presented at the beginning of the letter. This mystery should be spiritually present in the mutual relationship of spouses. The mystery of Christ, penetrating their hearts, engendering in them that holy "reverence for Christ" (namely, pietas), should lead them to "be subject to one another": the mystery of Christ, that is, the mystery of the choice from eternity of each of them in Christ "to be the adoptive sons" of God.

Husband not the "lord"

3.  The opening expression of our passage of Ephesians 5:21-23, which we have approached by an analysis of the remote and immediate context, has quite a special eloquence. The author speaks of the mutual subjection of the spouses, husband and wife, and in this way he explains the words which he will write afterwards on the subjection of the wife to the husband. In fact we read: "Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord" (5:22). In saying this, the author does not intend to say that the husband is the "lord" of the wife and that the interpersonal pact proper to marriage is a pact of domination of the husband over the wife. Instead, he expresses a different concept: that is, that the wife can and should find in her relationship with Christ—who is the one Lord of both the spouses—the motivation of that relationship with her husband which flows from the very essence of marriage and of the family. Such a relationship, however, is not one of one?sided domination. Marriage, according to the Letter to the Ephesians, excludes that element of the pact which was a burden and, at times, does not cease to be a burden on this institution. The husband and the wife are in fact "subject to one another", and are mutually subordinated to one another. The source of this mutual subjection is to be found in Christian pietas, and its expression is love.

No one-sided domination

4.  The author of the letter underlines this love in a special way, in addressing himself to husbands. He writes: "You husbands love your wives...", and by expressing himself in this way, he removes any fear that might have arisen (given the modern sensitivity) from the previous phrase: "Wives, be subject to your husbands".  Love excludes every kind of subjection whereby the wife might become a servant or a slave of the husband, an object of unilateral domination. Love makes the husband simultaneously subject to the wife, and thereby subject to the Lord himself, just as the wife to the husband. The community or unity, which they should establish through marriage, is constituted by a reciprocal donation of self, which is also a mutual subjection. Christ is the source and at the same time the model of that subjection, which, being reciprocal "out of reverence for Christ", confers on the conjugal union a profound and mature character. In this source and before this model many elements of a psychological or moral nature are so transformed as to give rise, I would say, to a new and precious "fusion" of the bilateral relations and conduct.

5.  The author of the Letter to the Ephesians does not fear to accept those concepts which were characteristic of the mentality and of the customs of the times. He does not fear to speak of the subjection of the wife to the husband; he does not fear (also in the last verse of the text quoted by us) to recommend to the wife, that "she respects her husband" (5:33). It is certain, in fact, that when the husband and wife are subject to one another "out of reverence for Christ", there will be established a just balance, such as to correspond to their Christian vocation in the mystery of Christ.

"Out of reverence"

6.  Nowadays our contemporary sensitivity is certainly different; quite different, too, are the mentality and customs, and also the social position of women in regard to men. Nevertheless, the fundamental moral principle which we find in the Letter to the Ephesians remains the same and produces the same results. The mutual subjection "out of reverence for Christ"—a subjection arising from the basis of Christian pietas —produces always that profound and solid structure of the community of the spouses in which there is constituted the true "communion" of the person.

A great analogy

7.  The author of the text to the Ephesians, who began his letter with a magnificent vision of God's eternal plan in regard to humanity, does not limit himself to emphasizing merely the traditional aspects of morality or the ethical aspects of marriage, but he goes beyond the scope of teaching, and writing on the reciprocal relationship of the spouses, he discovers therein the dimension of the very mystery of Christ of which he is the herald and the apostle. "Wives, be subject to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church, his body, and is himself its Saviour. As the Church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her..." (5:22-25). In this way, the teaching of this "parenetic" part of the letter is inserted, in a certain sense, into the very reality of the mystery hidden from eternity in God and revealed to mankind in Jesus Christ. In the Letter to the Ephesians we are, I would say, witnesses of a particular meeting of that mystery with the very essence of the vocation to marriage. How are we to understand this meeting? In the text of the Letter to the Ephesians it is presented above all as a great analogy. There we read: "Wives, be subject to your husbands as to the Lord...": here we have the first component of the analogy. "For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church...": and here we have the second component which clarifies and motivates the first. "As the Church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject to their husbands...": the relationship of Christ to the Church, presented previously, is now expressed as a relationship of the Church to Christ, and here there is contained the successive component of the analogy. Finally: "Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her...": and this is the ultimate component of the analogy. The remainder of the text of the letter develops the fundamental thought contained in the passage just now quoted; and the entire text of the Letter to the Ephesians in chapter 5 (vv 21-23) is completely permeated with the same analogy. That is to say, the mutual relationship between the spouses, husband and wife, is to be understood by Christians in the light of the relationship between Christ and the Church.

L'Osservatore Romano August 16-23, 1982
Reprinted with permission