A correspondent writes:
“Can you point me to a good reference for why women are no longer required to wear a head covering during Mass?”
Throughout history it has been common for women to wear head coverings. This is something that has precedent in St. Paul’s epistles (see 1 Cor. 11:2-16).
It was mandated in the 1917 Code of Canon Law. Canon 1262 states:
1. It is desirable that, consistent with ancient discipline, women be separated from men in church.
2. Men, in a church or outside a church, while they are assisting at sacred rites, shall be bare-headed, unless the approved mores of the people or peculiar circumstances of things determine otherwise; women, however, shall have a covered head and be modestly dressed, especially when they approach the table of the Lord.
This is something that fell gradually into disuse.
In the 1970s there was a judgment issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in a document titled Inter Insigniores that basically stated that since chapel veils were not a matter of faith, it was no longer mandatory for women to wear them. In paragraph 4 it states:
It must be noted that these ordinances, probably inspired by the customs of the period, concern scarcely more than disciplinary practices of minor importance, such as the obligation imposed upon women to wear a veil on their head (1 Cor. 11:2-16); such requirements no longer have a normative value.
You can read the whole document here.
In the 1983 Code of Canon Law—the one in effect today—the canon about head veils was not re-issued. Now, you might be thinking, “Well, just because they didn’t reissue it doesn’t mean that it’s not still in effect, right?” Wrong.
Canon 6 of the current code states that all subsequent laws that are not reissued in the new code are abrogated:
Can. 61. When this Code goes into effect, the following are abrogated:
1. the Code of Canon Law promulgated in 1917;
2. other universal or particular laws contrary to the prescriptions of this Code, unless particular laws are otherwise expressly provided for;
3. any universal or particular penal laws whatsoever issued by the Apostolic See, unless they are contained in this Code;
4. other universal disciplinary laws dealing with a matter which is regulated ex integro by this Code.
While it is not obligatory for women to wear mantillas, I personally think they’re a beautiful and elegant way to show reverence for Christ. If you’re a woman contemplating wearing one, let me encourage you to go ahead and give it a try!—just my two cents.