One of the most cryptic and difficult passages of the Bible is found in 1 Corinthians 11:7-10. Here, St. Paul discusses the issue of women’s head coverings when praying. He says:
For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. (For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.) That is why a woman ought to have a veil on her head, because of the angels (1 Cor. 11:7-10, RSV).
What is the meaning of this phrase “because of the angels”? What angels, and why do they care whether or not a woman has her head covered?
The first clue is the translation of the word “veil.” The RSV uses of the word “veil” is a sloppy translation, as is any edition of the Scriptures that uses the word “veil,” for the Greek word in verse 10 is exousian, which is best rendered as power or authority. Some older editions use this translation, such as the Jerusalem Bible and the Douay-Rheims; hence, it should say “That is why a woman ought to have power on her head.”Look at the Latin translation from the Vulgate and notice the use of the word “potestatem” (power):
Vir quidem non debet velare caput quoniam imago et gloria est Dei mulier autem gloria viri est non enim vir ex muliere est sed mulier ex viro etenim non est creatus vir propter mulierem sed mulier propter virum ideo debet mulier potestatem habere supra caput propter angelos.
The first thing we can establish is that the veil Paul is referring to is best understood as a sign of authority or power, challenging the prevalent idea that veils are signs of submission. But more interesting is the fact that the women bear this sign of authority “because of the angels.” Paul does not go on to explain anything else about this cryptic statement, which suggests that he thought the Corinthian congregation sufficiently familiar with what he meant that he did not need to say anything more.
One interpretation given by some of the Fathers, especially Tertullian, is that this phrase refers to the fallen angels described in the apocryphal Book of Enoch; these angels, called the “Watchers,” were not among the angels that rebelled with Lucifer but were nevertheless led astray by lusting after the daughters of men. Acting out of lust, these angels took on human forms and mated with human women, giving birth to the “giants.” God punished these angels by casting them down into the netherdarkness to be reserved for punishment at the end of the world. This is described in the Book of Enoch VI and VII and merits quoting at length:
And it came to pass when the children of men had multiplied that in those days were born unto them beautiful and comely daughters. And the angels, the children of the heaven, saw and lusted after them, and said to one another: ‘Come, let us choose us wives from among the children of men and beget us children.’ And Semjâzâ, who was their leader, said unto them: ‘I fear ye will not indeed agree to do this deed, and I alone shall have to pay the penalty of a great sin.’ And they all answered him and said: ‘Let us all swear an oath, and all bind ourselves by mutual imprecations not to abandon this plan but to do this thing.’ Then sware they all together and bound themselves by mutual imprecations upon it. And they were in all two hundred; who descended in the days of Jared on the summit of Mount Hermon, and they called it Mount Hermon, because they had sworn and bound themselves by mutual imprecations upon it. And these are the names of their leaders: Sêmîazâz, their leader, Arâkîba, Râmêêl, Kôkabîêl, Tâmîêl, Râmîêl, Dânêl, Êzêqêêl, Barâqîjâl, Asâêl, Armârôs, Batârêl, Anânêl, Zaqîêl, Samsâpêêl, Satarêl, Tûrêl, Jômjâêl, Sariêl. These are their chiefs of tens.
And all the others together with them took unto themselves wives, and each chose for himself one, and they began to go in unto them and to defile themselves with them, and they taught them charms and enchantments, and the cutting of roots, and made them acquainted with plants. And they became pregnant, and they bare great giants, whose height was three thousand ells: Who consumed all the acquisitions of men. And when men could no longer sustain them, the giants turned against them and devoured mankind. And they began to sin against birds, and beasts, and reptiles, and fish, and to devour one another’s flesh, and drink the blood. Then the earth laid accusation against the lawless ones.
This story is obviously an explication of Genesis 6 and was very well known in the time of St. Paul. It is mentioned in the Book of Jude 1:6 (“The angels too, who did not keep to their own domain but deserted their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains, in gloom, for the judgment of the great day”) as well as some other apocryphal works like the Book of Jubilees and the Testament of Adam. Relating this story to St. Paul’s admonition that women wear veils in Church “because of the angels,” Tertullian says: “What angels? In other words, whose angels? If he means the fallen angels of the Creator, there is great propriety in his meaning. It is right that that face which was a snare to them should wear some mark of a humble guise and obscured beauty” (Contra Marcion 5:8).The meaning is plain – because the angels once were led astray by the beauty of human women, it is fitting that women cover the heads so as to not arouse the lust of these fallen angels who may be lingering about.
This is not the only time Tertullian mentions this. He says, in his essay On Veiling of Virgins, that the countenance of a woman can be a “stumbling stone” even as far as heaven:
For if (it is) on account of the angels— those, to wit, whom we read of as having fallen from God and heaven on account of concupiscence after females— who can presume that it was bodies already defiled, and relics of human lust, which such angels yearned after, so as not rather to have been inflamed for virgins, whose bloom pleads an excuse for human lust likewise? …So perilous a face, then, ought to be shaded, which has cast stumbling-stones even so far as heaven: that, when standing in the presence of God, at whose bar it stands accused of the driving of the angels from their (native) confines, it may blush before the other angels as well; and may repress that former evil liberty of its head—(a liberty) now to be exhibited not even before human eyes. But even if they were females already contaminated whom those angels had desired, so much the more on account of the angels would it have been the duty of virgins to be veiled, as it would have been the more possible for virgins to have been the cause of the angels’ sinning (Veiling of Virgins, 7).
He mentions a similar argument in Apparel of Women 2:10, where he states that because it was through the agency of the evil angels that women first were taught to wear costly items (gold, silk) and use eye-powder and make-up.
While tempting for its exotic nature, this argument is problematic for a few reasons: first, according to the Book of Jude, Enoch and the other apocryphal works that mention this episode, the angels that lusted after human women are being kept in “chains” by God and are “reserved” for punishment; we do not get the idea that they are freely roving about, least of all hovering around over the Church’s liturgies looking for unveiled women to lust after. Second, we can’t ignore the huge problem of how an immaterial, spiritual being like an angel is capable of carnal lust, something that pertains to the flesh. Thus, the problem of angels looking down from heaven and lusting after the daughters of men is highly questionable.
It is also questionable that St. Paul, who so frequently warned his flocks not to go astray after Jewish fables and mythologies (1 Tim. 1:4 and 2 Pet. 1:16, for example) would go ignore his own words and base an ecclesiastical discipline upon such fables.
Nevertheless, we don’t want to rule it out entirely; St. Augustine says in The City of God (Book X), that the demons are attracted by certain sensible things, not as animals to food but as spirits to signs. Therefore, it is not impossible for demons to be attracted by sensible realities, though not in the way that a person would be attracted to something by sense perception. This is how Augustine explains the demon’s attraction to the rites and sacrifices to the pagan gods. It is also a common interpretation, from Augustine on down to Aquinas, to insist that it is indeed possible for angels to have intercourse with human beings, although there are differences of opinion on how this is possible (remember Aquinas on the issue of demons begetting children?) – Even Pope Benedict XIV, in his famous De servorum Dei beatificatione, says of Gensis 6:4, “This passage has reference to devils known as incubi and succubi”; he went on to say, “Some writers deny that there can be offspring…Others, however, asserting that coitus is possible, maintain that children may result.” Opinion on the matter is obviously divided, and I do not want to make any certain determinations one way or another.
St. Thomas Aquinas also deals with this verse in his Commentary on First Corinthians. He begins his treatment of this passage by saying that the veil is a sign of woman’s submission to man, but that through this orderly submission, she actually submits to God’s design and thus to God, and this is her glory:
Then when he says, “That is why”, he draws the intended conclusion, saying: “That is why”, namely, because man is the image and glory of God, but woman the glory of man, a woman ought to have a veil on her head, when she places herself before God by praying or prophesying. In this way it is shown that she is not immediately under God, but is also subjected to man under God. For the veil put on the head signifies this. Hence another translation has it that the woman ought to have power over her head, but the sense is the same. For a veil is a sign of power.
Then, regarding the verse “because of the angels,” Aquinas speculates that the word “angel” refers either to the good angels, who are present when the Church comes together corporately to worship, or perhaps is another word for priest. According to Aquinas:
[W]hen he says, “because of the angels”, he gives a third reason, which is taken on the part of the angels, saying: “A woman ought to have a veil on her head because of the angels.” This can be understood in two ways: in one way about the heavenly angels who are believed to visit congregations of the faithful, especially when the sacred mysteries are celebrated. And therefore at that time women as well as men ought to present themselves honorably and ordinately as reverence to them according to Ps 138 (v. 1): “Before the angels I sing thy praise.”
In another way it can be understood in the sense that priests are called angels, inasmuch as proclaim divine things to the people according to Mal (2:7): “For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and men should seek instruction from his mouth; for he is the angel of the Lord of hosts.”Therefore, the woman should always have a covering over her head because of the angels, i.e., the priests, for two reasons: first, as reverence toward them, to which it pertains that women should behave honorably before them. Hence it says in Sir (7:30): “With all your might love your maker and do not forsake his priests.” Secondly, for their safety, lest the sight of a woman not veiled excite their concupiscence. Hence it says in Sirach (9:5): “Do not look intently at a virgin, lest you stumble and incur penalties for her.”
Note that this is the same as Tertullian’s argument, save that physical priests have replaced angels—the issue is still about a woman protecting herself from lust.
Aquinas continues on his exposition of First Corinthians:
Augustine explains the above in another way. For he shows that both man and woman are made to the image of God…considered according to the spirit there is no difference between male and female; consequently, the woman is the image of God, just as the male. For it is expressly stated in Gen (1:27) that “God created man to his own image, male and female he created them.” Therefore, Augustine says that this must be understood in a spiritual union, which is in our soul, in which the sensibility or even the lower reason has itself after the manner of the woman, but the superior reason after the manner of the man, in whom the image of God is considered to be. And according to this the woman is from the man and for the sake of the man, because the administration of temporal or sensible things, in which the lower reason or even the sensibility is adept, ought to be deduced from the contemplation of eternal things, which pertain to the higher reason and is ordained to it.
Therefore, the woman is said to have a veil or power over her own head, in order to signify that in regard to dispensing temporal things man should apply a certain restraint, lest he transgress the limits in loving them. This restraint should not be applied to the love of God, since it is commanded in Dt (6:5): “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart.” For no limit is placed in regard to loving the end, although one is placed in regard to the means to the end. For a doctor produces as much health as he can, but he does not give as much medicine as he can, but in a definite amount. Thus a man should not have a covering on his head. And this on account of the angels, because, as is said in a Gloss: “Sacred and pious signification is pleasing to the holy angels.” (Commentary on First Corinthians, 613-614)
This last statement about pious significations being pleasing to the holy angels comes closer to what was written by St. John Chrysostom on the subject. Chrysostom, in his Sermon for the Ascension (c. 407), writes:
The angels are present here. Open the eyes of faith and look upon this sight. For if the very air is filled with angels, how much more so the Church! …Hear the Apostle teaching this, when he bids the women to cover their heads with a veil because of the presence of the angels.
Chrysostom’s words draw upon the perennial teaching that, in the Sacrifice of the Mass, not only the Church Militant but the Church Triumphant is engaged as well—the angels and the saints are present along with those members of the Body still on earth as the entire Church joins together in adoring Christ. Thus, the veiling of the head during Mass becomes a sign of the acknowledgement of the presence of the holy angels. This is pleasing to the holy angels, who always rejoice when men act righteously, because in veiling their heads women in effect assent to God’s plan. Chrysostom mentions this again in Homily XXVI:5 in his series of homilies on 1 Corinthians, where he says that veiling the head is a way that women “reverence the angels.”
Chrysostom is not alone here; Origen seconds this view:
There are angels in the midst of our assembly we have here a twofold Church, one of men, the other of angels. And since there are angels present women, when they pray, are ordered to have a covering upon their heads because of those angels. They assist the saints and rejoice in the Church.
The angels take joy in seeing men and women obedient to God; likewise, in a mysterious manner they are “grieved” when God is dishonored. In his commentary on 1 Corinthians, St. Cyril of Alexandria said “The angels find it extremely hard to bear if this law [that women cover their heads] is disregarded.”
Which is the correct view? Each position has its own merit, but the last one mentioned—that of Chrysostom—seems to have become the mainline view of theologians on this point by the early Middle Ages (Aquinas mentioned this view first in his elucidations).
The wearing of the veil is something that has by and large fallen away in the modern Church; even in orthodox parishes, veils are seldom seen outside of independent Traditionalist chapels and parishes that offer the Extraordinary Form of the Mass exclusively. How rich a custom it is to know that that veil is a sign of power and authority and is meant to call to mind the presence of the holy angels at the sacred liturgy!
Phillip Campbell, “Head Coverings Because of the Angels”, Unam Sanctam Catholicam, June 29, 2011. Available online at https://unamsanctamcatholicam.com/2022/10/head-coverings-because-of-the-angels/