Veiling the Female Tabernacle: The Feminist Undertones to Catholic Women Rekindling Traditional Devotional Practice
By Emma Cieslik.
“We veil the tabernacle, to the life-givenness of Jesus in the Eucharist. We veil the chalice, again the Precious Blood, the altar … because that’s where the sacrifice of Jesus’s Body and Blood comes forth and brings life to us, and then the woman.” This striking sentiment about the sacredness of women comes from Lucy1, a 32-year-old, white, heterosexual homemaker. She is one of a growing minority of American Catholic women readopting a traditional Catholic devotional practice—veiling—during Mass.
When I first began to study this practice, I did not anticipate pulling from feminist religious scholarship as part of my analysis because many, if not all, of the veiling women who I interviewed do not themselves identify as feminist. Although they do not necessarily challenge the patriarchy, tending to conform to traditional gender roles espoused in distanced Catholic communities like St. Mary’s, Kansas, I argue that they are reclaiming a woman’s practice that is immediately connected to their reproduction and in doing so, they are creating a distinct feminine practice of religion.
As a little bit of a background, over the past decade, a select minority of Catholic American Millennial women have begun re-adopting the practice of wearing chapel veils. The practice became less popular after the Second Vatican Council indicated in 1962 that women no longer needed to cover their heads when entering a church for the first time. While some women chose never to stop veiling, many women did—taking to heart this step by the church to modernize and reckon with the growing second wave feminist movement in the 1960s. In the last decade, however, women have increasingly returned to the practice.
Eager to investigate veiling further as a femine ritual, I interviewed 30 practicing Catholic women from across the United States, ranging from 18 to 57 years old. Of the women interviewed, one owns a major for-profit veiling supply company based in Minnesota and the other runs a small organization out of Arizona that voluntarily ships free veils to interested women. Almost all these women, except for three who identify as Latina, are white and identify as heterosexual. This practice cuts across a variety of employment fields as these women work in the military, law, healthcare, teaching, homemaking and more.
As exemplified by Lucy’s quote above, these women believe that woman herself is a tabernacle because she can carry a baby. A tabernacle is the box that holds the living, consecrated hosts, or the body of Jesus Christ, outside of Mass on the altar or chapel. For women who veil, this practice shows that they follow in the footsteps of Mary, Jesus Christ’s mother, who they identify as “the first living tabernacle.” In essence, the ability of these women to hold and create life inside their own bodies is directly connected to their sacredness, their beauty, and their womanhood.
These women therefore embed their womanhood into veiling, often utilizing free-choice rhetoric to show how as Beth, a 45-year-old, white, church gift shop worker, said, “it’s a woman’s choice if she wants to veil and choose to pray that way.” While these women acknowledge that all Catholics become vessels of Christ when they receive the Eucharist during Communion, only women, they specify, can create life themselves.
“I am a vessel,” Melody, a 25-year-old, white mother, said, veiling shows that “I have Christ’s sign that I am a vessel, and it reminds me that you are veiling what can give life.” Women can give life.
Even as some who veil have already undergone menopause and can no longer carry children, they continue to veil in recognition of the abilities of their own bodies and others. As Maria, a 55-year-old old, white mother also said, “I wear a veil at Mass because all women’s bodies are tabernacles.”
I approach this study from the perspective of feminist theory, shying away from identifying this practice as explicitly “feminist” and instead viewing this experience as observant women reclaiming a feminine practice and reinforcing a religious ritual that reaffirms their distinct womanly identity. In Politics of Piety, Saba Mahmood argues that women can have agency but not be feminist, in line with the practice of these veiling women. Many of the women I interviewed hold traditional feminine values they believe are intractably tied to the practice and they do not identify as feminists.
As Ruby, a white mother in her late 30s, notes, “there are certain things that are uniquely formulated for men, and there are certain things that are uniquely formulated for women. I think veiling is a women’s thing. I never see a male in a veil and nor should I.” Similarly, white, 27-year-old Rebecca explains that veiling “calls to mind that we are different, and while there may be different practices that are targeted towards us, that’s not a bad thing, that just tells us that there are different ways to worship.”
Often, this separation from feminism is tied to how veiling women believe feminism itself is in competition with femininity. As 24-year-old white, homemaker Emily explained, the veil “does call to mind femininity, but I think in a very positive light, as a sign of respect for your femininity and glorifying your femininity and realizing that being feminine is not a bad thing.” For many, the femininity celebrated by the Catholic veil reinforces traditional gender roles.
This practice is itself a practice of religion that empowers women to take up space in religious settings, it empowers these women to claim ownership of something that is already theirs—namely, their ability to bear children— through ritual and to celebrate other women’s reproductive ability.2 Not only are they considering the veil a sacred practice tied to womanhood, but they are also identifying themselves as sacred, as something holy to be veiled and celebrated in the same way as the tabernacle in a church.
I am only beginning to scratch the surface of this practice and the nuanced belief systems embedded inside it. What would be worth further study is why women are seeking out these spaces in the Catholic Church, an institution which to this day denies them a central role in practicing their faith as priests and most recently, reinstituted restrictions on celebrating the Latin Mass, a practice immediately connected to the tradition of veiling. Why now, why here, and why is the practice spreading? Only time will tell its impact on women in the Church.
Emma Cieslik (she/her) is a graduate student at George Washington University, pursuing an M.A. degree in Museum Studies. She is eager to work as a museum collections manager to promote ethical and collaborative care of American material religion. She is fascinated by museum spaces centered around the material manifestations of religion. During her undergraduate education at Ball State University, she undertook a research fellowship project focused on the readoption of Catholic veiling practices in the United States.
- To provide these women’s anonymity, all of their names that appear in this blog post are pseudonyms.
- It’s important to acknowledge that not every woman can or desires to bear children and that women are not and should not be reduced to their reproductive capability. Many different people, of all different gender and sexual identities, can bear children. This blog post highlights the views of my informants, not my own personal views.