Women covering their heads was the custom of all Catholic churches for nearly 2,000 years. The custom only fell out of use among western Catholic women in just the last 50 years.
A primary force in the end of wearing the chapel veil was the feminist movement, which brought about some good changes and some not-so-good ones. One change was the disappearance of the chapel veil. When the 1983 Code of Canon Law failed to mention the subject at all, it was simply assumed that veiling was no longer required. Personally, I prefer veiling as optional. I simply think trying to force women to veil not only comes across as condescending but defeats the purpose of veiling to begin with. So, in that regard, I think the feminist movement, in making it a choice for women, was a good thing.
Unfortunately, since veiling had simply been mandatory, most people didn't know why it was done such that they would be able to have an informed understanding such that they might choose to do it. It was simply viewed as a dominating put-down of women, which was not a good thing, such that there are numerous women today who find the tradition beautiful, but, like myself, are perplexed as to just why it is done and just what it means should a woman choose to wear one as well as women who do wear it for good reasons and are criticized or had made assumptions about them simply based of their choice to veil.
Now, the most common argument I came across involved St. Paul. In 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, Paul writes
I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold fast to the traditions, just as I handed them on to you. But I want you to know that Christ is the head of every man, and a husband the head of his wife, and God the head of Christ. Any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered brings shame upon his head. But any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled brings shame upon her head, for it is one and the same thing as if she had had her head shaved. For if a woman does not have her head veiled, she may as well have her hair cut off. But if it is shameful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should wear a veil. A man, on the other hand, should not cover his head, because he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; nor was man created for woman, but woman for man; for this reason a woman should have a sign of authority on her head, because of the angels. Woman is not independent of man or man of woman in the Lord. For just as woman came from man, so man is born of woman; but all things are from God. Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears his hair long it is a disgrace to him, whereas if a woman has long hair it is her glory, because long hair has been given (her) for a covering? But if anyone is inclined to be argumentative, we do not have such a custom, nor do the churches of God.
This passage is easy to jump at. I do it myself. And, in modern language, it comes across as sexist and even offensive. Upon a face-value reading, parts of it make me cringe. It simply was not written for the modern reader. So I had to do a little digging to try to make some sense out of it and see if St. Paul could be redeemed given the passage.
The Catholic Knight argues that the entire chapter is Eucharistic in its context; that is, it revolves around the celebration of the Mass. So, presuming he is right, "prayer" here is not just general prayer, which would make Paul ridiculous to me, but specifically the Mass. He goes on to argue that Paul is trying to make theological applications of the Incarnation.
When Paul says the head of every man is Christ, what he's saying is that Christ came in the form of a man. He's making a statement about the incarnation. He's saying that Christ came in human form, and because of this, the man becomes a physical representation of Christ -- particularly if he is a husband. When he says the head of every woman is her husband, he is not saying that women are inferior to men in any way. What he's saying is that if a husband becomes the physical representation of Christ's incarnation, than his wife becomes the physical representation of Christ's spouse -- or the Church. When Paul says "husband" here, he is referring both to earthly husbands, and to Christ himself. That being the case, wives take on the symbolic role of the Church.Of course, such an understanding of men and women, husbands and wives, Christ and the Church appears again in Ephesians 5, which was read at my wedding. In this light, Paul is making no hierarchy between men and women or husbands and wives. Christ himself said He came not to be served but to serve (Matthew 20:28). If you want to take the "head" analogy literally, Paul would be arguing that husbands need to wash their wives feet! So I think both passages need to be taken very carefully, by men and women alike. Rather, a better way to view it, is to see men as representatives of Christ and women as representatives of the Church. The consequences of this understanding I'll go over later.
The Catholic Knight does a nice job explaining the "glory of man bit":
Paul calls man the "image and glory of God" for one reason and one reason only -- because Jesus Christ (who is God) was made incarnate as a man. Then he expounds on this by pointing out that the woman is the "glory of man" (or mankind). This is meant to be a complement. Of the two human genders, women are far more "glorious" then men in their appearance, beauty, voice, fashion and general gracefulness. ... Beyond that, women bear the special gift of motherhood. In that, God touches them in a way no man has ever experienced. The Scriptures tell us that God Himself fashions the unborn child in the womb, and plants a living human soul inside the body of a women when she becomes pregnant (Psalm 139:13-16). In this way, God touches the body of a woman in a way he never touches a man's body. This makes the woman's body a sacred vessel of God's creative powers. It is something that is particularly holy, and must be respected as such.I think the insight into the vocation and dignity of women is a very valuable one, presuming this was the understanding Paul intended. Feminism seems to very quickly lose any understanding of women in this perspective. But if you understand Paul not to be talking about shame or women glorifying men but rather women as living images of Christ's bride the Church, women as the glory of the human race, and women as exceptionally graced and touched by God in the gift of motherhood, then Paul can become quite the champion of women, much more so than most women would be for themselves.
So, it seems Paul finds women to be quite awesome. But why the veil? I think this is where Paul may be a bit dated. I don't think women's hair is still regarded as "her glory." Short haircuts are hardly uncommon or unaccepted. I have long hair but I hardly think of my hair as my glory. I don't go to a salon or get perms or dye it. I don't do much special with it. Mostly it keeps my head warm. The understanding of hair as women's "glory" has, as I see it, been long lost. If I think of anything physical as "my glory" it would be my children. Hair as glory just baffles me. But the fact is a woman's hair was, for centuries, regarded as her glory and cutting it off was never considered a stroke of beauty. But it only makes sense that, as a woman's hair was viewed as her "glory" then the wearing of a veil came to be a sign of humility, modesty, purity and chastity. It is reasonable to ask, if a woman's hair is no longer viewed as such, should a veil be viewed the same? But there is another point to consider.
Since ancient times brides wore veils. Even in the Bible, Rebekah veiled herself as a bride when she went to Isaac. For centuries, at least in the West, bridal veils signified the modesty, purity and chastity of the bride, just as the tradition for the bride to wear white symbolized her purity and virginity. Now, it is true that not as many women today who wear white bridal gowns know or perhaps would even be applicable (ahem) to such a meaning but it doesn't change the fact that, at least in the West, it is still traditional for brides to wear a white gown and a veil. Exactly what such brides think the significance of the white gown or veil is I don't know, but the fact they still wear them is evidence that the tradition continues despite the lack of understanding. It does make me wonder why feminists would protest a chapel veil but not a wedding veil?
So even if we disregard any understanding of hair as a woman's glory, there remains this continued use of the veil at a wedding. Even if the understanding of its intention has been largely lost, the tradition has continued such that even though we may no longer view a woman's hair as her glory, the significance this original understanding attached to the veil has not been lost. The veil continues to bear the symbolism of purity, chastity and modesty.
There is another continued use of a veil, though not on a person. Biblically, a veil was also used in the temple to distinguish the sacred and to shield it from sinful eyes. In churches, a veil is used to adorn that which is sacred: the tabernacle, the ciborium, the chalice, an even the priest when he is carrying the monstrance with the Eucharist. So, liturgically, a veil has been and continues to be a symbol of the sacred.
So now I'd like to put the three pieces together. Women are then (1) living images of Christ's bride the Church, (2) the glory of the human race, and (3) exceptionally graced and touched by God in the gift of motherhood and the veil acts as a physical witness to the (1) purity and chastity of the Church, (2) the humility of humanity before God and (3) the modesty and sacredness of the female body and especially her role as a mother.
The veil then symbolizes humility, modesty, purity, chastity and sacredness. Of course, most people are completely ignorant of this understanding of the veil and a great deal of that fault lies at the feet of catechists and priests who have failed miserably to instruct the faithful in the meaning of the tradition. But while the veil is meant to symbolize these things in general, it is also a physical reminder to the woman wearing them. She is a sacred temple not only of the Holy Spirit (which men are as well) but of the gift of life. She is a woman but she is also a bearer of human persons, male and female alike; she places not only herself but also her children before God. And, as if a woman could not be more highly exalted, she represents the entire Church before God, his people and her family, becoming, in this sense, a bride of Jesus Christ.
The bride of Christ, the Church, constitutes the entire body of Christ's faithful, men and women alike. But women bear this truth in a special way striving to live as a chaste, pure and faithful image of the Church. Married women and consecrated women live out this image as a bride of Christ in different ways but the ways are complimentary. The consecrated woman, taking on the habit and the life of a community, witnesses very publicly to all the world of the Church as Christ's chaste and faithful bride and offers herself through poverty, chastity and obedience for the salvation of souls bearing rich fruits through her contemplative and apostolic ministries. The married woman is a much more subtle witness living the life of Christ's chaste Church within her home and her community and offers herself as a wife, mother and community member for the salvation of souls, taking upon herself in a unique way especially those of her husband and children. Within her home she builds a "domestic church" constantly calling her husband to live as Christ and nurturing her children in the faith to raise them to God. Outside her home, her domestic church witnesses to her community this same truth and, during the Mass, she brings a small reminder to the faithful community as well as herself the amazing role she has been called to live.
So, the veil then is tangible witness and reminder to the dignity and vocation of women yet few women understand it in this way. As I said earlier, a big reason for that is the complete and utter failure of priests and catechists to relay this understanding properly. But that answer only goes part way. That explains why people don't know the true reason for wearing a chapel veil but not why so many view it so negatively. There are two reasons it has been viewed so negatively. First, it was required. Anytime we are required to do something it is natural to rebel against it. We have free wills. We don't want to be told we must do something, especially when we don't understand why. It also undermines any merit when there is no choice in the matter. Second, as the more commonly recognized veil wearers are Muslim, veils and head-coverings are understood to mean a commonly understood Muslim interpretation, namely to control and subordinate women to men. Without the Christian understanding made clearly known and understood, it is easy for people to latch onto the Muslim meaning as the only meaning.
I apologize for the vast length of this post but I simply didn't know how to make it shorter and felt every part was necessary. I also did not think it would be just to break it into pieces for the sake of dividing it. But maybe now you and I have a little bit better understanding of the chapel veil and why some women choose to wear one.
I have been discerning wearing one to Mass for some time. I think, for myself, I finally have a firm enough grasp on the meaning behind the veil that I can embrace wearing it myself.