A new study has interesting implications for how external gestures affect our state of mind

Pontius Pilate got his timing wrong. He should have washed his hands before releasing Jesus to his enemies – not after.

An interesting recent study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology tells us that subjects who had been asked to wash their hands, apparently for incidental reasons, made significantly harsher moral judgments when later completing an evaluation questionnaire on subjects such as pornography or littering. Complementary studies, which followed, gave the same results.

We infer that our sense of being externally clean affects our self image and so raises our moral disapproval. No doubt Pilate got some relief from washing his hands afterwards but, had he done so before, he would have been more comfortable in the first place about handing over this renegade Jew.

What practical lessons do we learn about how our external, even ritual, gestures may affect our internal attitudes? My wife would speedily tell me if I ponged, but beyond that, I take washing rather lightly. As a result I am a benevolent and tolerant being – even if I now have to put it down to a lack of soap and water.

It certainly reinforces (and Pope Benedict agrees with me here) the importance of ritual in liturgy. The nominal washing at the Lavabo (most celebrants accept only a drop or two of water) would not be enough to make the priest intolerant but would, I expect, be enough to remind him of his share in moral frailty. The external action may make him open to inward repentance. (However other work, which I will not detail here, suggests that being in a position of power makes for moral hypocrisy; it may cancel out the Lavabo effect.)

And while I am on the subject, I believe that there should always be water, perhaps with mild disinfectant, and a towel, on the altar. Since many infections are passed by hand the priest with a cough or a cold may well be a locus of infection for a whole congregation receiving Communion. Plain charity requires this simple precaution.