GENERAL AUDIENCE OF WEDNESDAY 11 AUGUST 1982
During the general audience of 11 August the Holy Father gave the
1. Today we begin a more detailed analysis of the passage of the
Letter to the Ephesians 5:21-33. Addressing husbands and wives, the
author recommends them to be "subject to one another out of reverence
for Christ" (5:21).
Here it is a question of a relationship of a double dimension or degree:
reciprocal and communitarian. One clarifies and characterizes the other.
The mutual relations of husband and wife should flow from their common
relationship with Christ. The author of the letter speaks of "reverence
for Christ" in a sense analogous to that when he speaks of the "fear of
God." In this case it is not a question of fear which is a defensive
attitude before the threat of evil. But it is above all a case of
respect for holiness, for the sacrum. It is a question of
pietas, which, in the language of the Old Testament, was expressed
by the term "fear of God" (cf., e.g., Ps 103:11; Prv 1:7; 23:17; Sir
1:11-16). Arising from a profound awareness of the mystery of Christ,
this pietas should constitute the basis of the reciprocal
relations between husbands and wives.
2. The text chosen by us, as likewise the immediate context, has a "parenetic"
character, that is, of moral instruction. The author of the letter
wishes to indicate to husbands and wives the basis of their mutual
relationship and their entire conduct. He deduces the relative
indications and directives from the mystery of Christ presented at the
beginning of the letter. This mystery should be spiritually present in
the mutual relationship of spouses. The mystery of Christ, penetrating
their hearts, engendering in them that holy "reverence for Christ"
(namely pietas), should lead them to "be subject to one another"—the
mystery of Christ, that is, the mystery of the choice from eternity of
each of them in Christ to be the adoptive sons of God.
Husband not the "lord"
3. The opening expression of our passage of Ephesians 5:21-33, which
we have approached by an analysis of the remote and immediate context,
has quite a special eloquence. The author speaks of the mutual
subjection of the spouses, husband and wife, and in this way he explains
the words which he will write afterward on the subjection of the wife to
the husband. In fact we read: "Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to
the Lord" (5:22). In saying this, the author does not intend to say that
the husband is the lord of the wife and that the interpersonal pact
proper to marriage is a pact of domination of the husband over the wife.
Instead, he expresses a different concept:
that the wife can and should find in her relationship with Christ—who
is the one Lord of both the spouses—the
motivation of that relationship with her husband which flows from the
very essence of marriage and of the family. Such a relationship,
however, is not one of one-sided domination. According to the Letter to
the Ephesians, marriage excludes that element of the pact which was a
burden and, at times, does not cease to be a burden on this institution.
The husband and the wife are in fact "subject to one another," and are
mutually subordinated to one another. The source of this mutual
subjection is to be found in Christian pietas, and its expression
No one-sided domination
4. The author of the letter underlines this love in a special way, in
addressing himself to husbands. He writes: "Husbands, love your
wives...." By expressing himself in this way, he removes any fear that
might have arisen (given the modern sensitivity) from the previous
phrase: "Wives, be subject to your husbands." Love excludes every kind
of subjection whereby the wife might become a servant or a slave of the
husband, an object of unilateral domination. Love makes the husband
simultaneously subject to the wife, and thereby subject to the Lord
himself, just as the wife to the husband. The community or unity which
they should establish through marriage is constituted by a reciprocal
donation of self, which is also a mutual subjection. Christ is the
source and at the same time the model of that subjection, which, being
reciprocal "out of reverence for Christ," confers on the conjugal union
a profound and mature character. In this source and before this model
many elements of a psychological or moral nature are so transformed as
to give rise, I would say, to a new and precious fusion of the bilateral
relations and conduct.
5. The author of the Letter to the Ephesians does not fear to accept
those concepts which were characteristic of the mentality and customs of
the times. He does not fear to speak of the subjection of the wife to
the husband. He does not fear (also in the last verse of the text quoted
by us) to recommend to the wife that "she respect her husband" (5:33).
It is certain that when the husband and wife are subject to one another
"out of reverence for Christ," a just balance will be established, such
as to correspond to their Christian vocation in the mystery of Christ.
"Out of reverence"
6. Nowadays our contemporary sensitivity is certainly different. Our
mentality and customs are quite different, too, as is the social
position of women in regard to men. Nevertheless, the fundamental moral
principle which we find in the Letter to the Ephesians remains the same
and produces the same results. The mutual subjection "out of reverence
subjection arising from the basis of Christian pietas—always
produces that profound and solid structure of the community of the
spouses in which there is constituted the true "communion" of the
A great analogy
7. The author of the text to the Ephesians, who began his letter with
a magnificent vision of God's eternal plan in regard to humanity, does
not limit himself to emphasizing merely the traditional aspects of
morality or the ethical aspects of marriage. He goes beyond the scope of
teaching and writing on the reciprocal relationship of the spouses. He
discovers therein the dimension of the mystery of Christ of which he is
the herald and the apostle: "Wives, be subject to your husbands as to
the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head
of the Church, his Body, and is himself its Savior. As the Church is
subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their
husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave
himself up for her..." (5:22-25). In this way, the teaching of this
parenetic part of the letter is inserted, in a certain sense, into the
reality of the mystery hidden from eternity in God and revealed to
mankind in Jesus Christ. In the Letter to the Ephesians we are, I would
say, witnesses of a particular meeting of that mystery with the essence
of the vocation to marriage. How are we to understand this meeting? In
the text of the Letter to the Ephesians it is presented above all as a
great analogy. There we read: "Wives, be subject to your husbands as to
the Lord...." Here we have the first component of the analogy. "For the
husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church...."
Here we have the second component which clarifies and motivates the
first. "As the Church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject
to their husbands...." The relationship of Christ to the Church,
presented previously, is now expressed as a relationship of the Church
to Christ, and this contains the successive component of the analogy.
Finally: "Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave
himself up for her...." This is the ultimate component of the analogy.
The remainder of the text of the letter develops the fundamental thought
contained in the passage just now quoted. The entire text of the Letter
to the Ephesians in 5:21-33 is completely permeated with the same
analogy. That is to say, the mutual relationship between the spouses,
husband and wife, is to be understood by Christians in the light of the
relationship between Christ and the Church.