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Washing a woman’s feet on Maundy Thursday didn’t mean that the Pope will ordain women: but it was unsettling and it does mean something

The adventure begins: and it’s going to be a bumpy ride

By on Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Pope Francis washes the foot of a prisoner at Casal del Marmo youth prison in Rome (Photo: CNS)

Pope Francis washes the foot of a prisoner at Casal del Marmo youth prison in Rome (Photo: CNS)

“Pope washes feet of young Muslim woman prisoner in unprecedented twist on Maundy Thursday,” reported the Telegraph the following day. “Pope Francis continued his gleeful abandonment of tradition,” continued the Telegraph (gleefully), “by washing the feet of a young Muslim woman prisoner in an unprecedented twist on the Holy Thursday tradition.”

“Abandonment of tradition”? Hardly. Tradition is a very important word for the Catholic religion: it refers to doctrines not necessarily explicit in the Bible but held nevertheless to derive from the direct teaching of Jesus and his Apostles, or from some other divinely inspired source. It’s a pretty fundamental thing. For the priest to wash the feet of men only during the Maundy Thursday liturgy is not in this sense a tradition but a rubric; in my missals, the wording is as follows: “The men who have been chosen are led by the ministers to seats prepared in a suitable place” (Novus Ordo) or “The celebrant … begins to wash the feet of 12 clerks or 12 lay men chosen for the ceremony” (Usus Antiquior). The rubric doesn’t convey a tradition in the strict sense, but a custom. Things get complicated here, however: this is a custom enshrined in ecclesiastical law. That’s why for the Pope to do it made news. Can the Pope do what he did? Well, obviously: he did it, didn’t he? In the words of the canon lawyer Ed Peters, quoted by Father Z “the question is not … whether the Pope is bound to comply with the law (he probably is not so bound), but rather, how he can act contrary to the law without implying, especially for others who remain bound by the law but who might well find it equally inconvenient, that inconvenient laws may simply be ignored because, well, because the Pope did it.”

It’s a bit of a problem all right: but what it doesn’t mean is that because a Pope has ignored a rubric on some particular occasion, then all Church law is meaningless, and liberals can just do as they like; or that in a particular area — in this case, what is permitted to women and what isn’t, the rules, all rules, should or will be swept aside. The Pope’s actions, reported Ruth Gledhill on Saturday, “raised hopes among liberals that he might one day relax the Roman Catholic Church’s ban on female ordination”. The fact is, however, that we are not now one millimetre closer to the ordination of women to the priesthood: and of course, the liberals know it perfectly well.

Quite simply, some ecclesiastical laws are more fundamental than others. Actually, Pope Francis, as Cardinal Bergoglio, had already included women in the Maundy Thursday foot-washing. But he has always firmly opposed their ordination to the priesthood: what you can’t now say, however, is that that’s because he doesn’t think that (to quote one liberal calumny) “women are part of the human race”: he has made it very clear that he thinks they are.

Father Z isn’t entirely happy about Pope Francis’s foot-washing activities. But, he says, we need to understand what the Pope is really up to:

“Firstly, we are not succeeding in evangelising. We are going backwards, globally. Francis knows this. This has to be foremost in his mind. This fact was probably foremost in the considerations of the College of Cardinals. How could it not be? So, Francis is faced with the obligation to address the problem of evangelisation.

“In the wealthy west, the Church is often perceived (and it is so very often portrayed) as not being compassionate. The Church doesn’t care about women in crisis pregnancies (and therefore we don’t condone abortion or contraception because we are not ‘compassionate’. The Church doesn’t care about the divorced and remarried (because we don’t admit them to Holy Communion and therefore we are not ‘compassionate’). Likewise, getting down into the nitty-gritty of defending small-t traditions and fighting over their meaning, their larger value, history and worth today, we are not compassionate (because we talk about the details of worship we are therefore ignoring the real needs of people and we are therefore not compassionate).

“There are all sorts of ways in which people have lost the sense that the Church is actually about compassion, properly understood… We’ve lost the message and we have to get it back.”

Pope Francis — by making an implicit distinction between the metaphorical dimension implicit in washing the feet of 12 men (who dramatically represent the apostles) and the sacramental, that is to say absolutely fundamental, symbolism implicit in ordaining only men, a symbolism which conveys that a priest not merely represents Christ in some metaphorical way, but that he is truly and in his being an alter Christus —is making it clear that there exist, on the one hand, ecclesiastical laws which may not be in any way changed or abrogated because they convey some fundamental reality, and on the other hand, laws which are not fundamental but which tabulate custom and ordered observance, and which may on occasion be not so much abrogated as transcended.

“I think,” says Fr Z, that “what Pope Francis is up to is trying to project, re-project, is an image of the Church as compassionate. He is trying to help people remember (or learn for the first time) that she is actually all about compassion, charity in its truest form”.

And if the washing of a woman’s feet on Maundy Thursday helps us to get that message back, then whether or not we are easy with it really couldn’t matter less. I have already written that Pope Francis has done things (fairly minor things to do with style rather than substance) to make a point about his office that made me feel slightly uncomfortable, but that maybe that’s what I needed to feel: well, he’s just done it again; and I think we’re probably going to have to just get used to it. The Herald’s headline in the first print edition after his election was “Pope Francis: the adventure begins”; well, we’re off — and so far it’s all looking pretty good to me. Hold on: it’s going to be a bumpy ride.