When one studies the origin of certain ecclesiastical disciplinary rules which, at a glance seem insignificant, one is astonished both by how old they are and by their significance.
Such is the rule with reference to the obligation of women to have their heads covered when entering the place of worship. This rule, thought to be of minimum importance, was given, (and the general consensus admits to it) by the first successor of St. Peter, Pope St. Linus. In an article of the Liber Pontificalis, dedicated to Pope St. Linus, one can read the following phrase: Hic, ex praecepto beati Petri, constituit ut mulier in ecclesia, velato capite, ntroiret. “He [Pope St. Linus] in conformity with the orders of blessed Peter, decreed that women would enter the church with their heads covered.” Msgr. Duchesne, the author of this article from the Liber Pontificalis states that St. Linus, acted as vicar of St. Peter, the latter being still alive. So, the obligation in question would have been imposed by the first head of the Church himself, St. Linus promulgating it only.
There exists however and older and more venerable document where one is able to see that this custom dates from Apostolic times. It is a passage taken from the first Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians (Chap. 11). In Greek cities women had greater liberty and freedom. Some women who lived in Corinth assisted at religious ceremonies their heads uncovered and even went so far as to speak in church St. Paul condemns this practice as being inconvenient and as being contrary to the customs of other churches as well as being opposed , to his own teaching.
According to the customs of the time, to have one’s head uncovered was a sign of authority and autonomy whereas the veil symbolized subjection. However albeit that Christianity was there to emancipate the woman, to lift up her social condition and situation, to give her her place of honour in the home, it did not give her any place in sacred ceremonies of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, and this in opposition to the heresy of Simon Magus [Simon the Magician] who, from time to time, invested women with the priesthood.
According to God’s law and according to the order of nature, the wife is subject to her husband and her exterior bearing must show this dependency. This exterior manifestation consists for the woman who comes into church to assist at ecclesiastical ceremonies in having her head cover. In doing so, she conforms to the custom in practice in all churches.
In the paintings in the catacombs, a woman is never seen without a veil on her head writes Darras in his General History of the Church. Sometimes one sees paintings of the Blessed Virgin Mary between the Apostles Peter and Paul. Our Lady has her head covered, the Apostles do not. The historian Darras concludes “Let it be well understood, that under an apparently insignificant title the Apostolic constitution, once established by St. Paul at Corinth, decreed a second time at Rome by St. Peter and promulgaed by St. Linus, resolved one of the most significant questions that could trouble society.”
The same Apostolic constitution defined equally that the priesthood, instituted by Our Lord Jesus Christ, was reserved exclusively for men only, and that women, in spite of their personal holiness and the merits and graces with which the Holy Ghost enriched their souls, could never become priests.