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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.

  • Dr Falk

    Thanks Maria, I gave Communion in the hand as an example of a return to an earlier tradition not a break with tradition. It’s great you mention making ourselves worthy to become the dwelling place of God – a wonderful call for us all. We are the Temple of God (1 Cor 3:16).

  • tramghoul

    I often wonder about the general assumption that tradition is hostile to humilty. I remember from years ago an example that I have never forgotten; a parish priest, a Monsignor (whose humility will forbid my mentioning his name, God rest his soul), was asked to attend a dying lady. She had been stuck behind the front door with inevitable results. This priest cheerfully cleaned everything up, reassuring the lady in attendance and asking her simply for a cuppa when she had time. I was amazed to hear this from the lady concerned, having only seen him before as a stern Headmaster and liturgical stickler.

  • Dr Falk

    Dear D Peter,

    The history of this is a bit of a mixed bag. Cardinal Avery Dulles mentioned how no Pope or Council ever condemned slavery as such, no early Father was an unqualified supporter of slavery’s abolition and that the Popes themselves held slaves, The article can be found on this thread –

    Alongside this the article mentions papal condemnations of the forced enslavement of people’s in places like North and South America. Cardinal Dulles writes. ‘The leaven of the gospel gradually alleviated the evils of slavery, at least in medieval Europe.’ So the Church acted as a force gradually challenging slavery. Yet in the 19th century the Holy Office said slavery was undesirable but not wrong in principle.

    So the actual picture is the Gospel doing it’s work, the Church condemning some actual enslavements but still not condemning slavery as wrong in principle. The teaching of the Second Vatican Council was and is incompatible with all slavery as it teaches the dignity of every human person and his right to freedom and following his conscience. The history of this is an example of how the Church works in society seeking some betterment and reform and yet doesn’t always see where the Gospel should point.

  • rodlarocque1931

    What I meant is simply that in attempting to retain respectability in the modern world, the bishops have fallen into the temptation of watering down the faith in order to retain worldly respectability. Whenver a bishop speaks on a controversial teaching, like for example having a Catholic clause at a Catholic school, he is hammered by the media and people within the institution until they backdown. This also has happened in the universities and hospitals.
    In practise this amounts to a willingness to limit preaching the truth in order to save the institutions and keep the appearance of credibility within the world.
    Just recall when a bishop speaks about the immorality of abortion in cases of rape, the media has a fit and they usually have to shut up or back down.
    I used to think that the church needs to save the institutions because in the past they have been the way the church evangelized, but now i see them as holding the church back because they keep the church tied to political correctness and so called ‘polite’ society.
    In addition I think a similar argument can be made about the tax exemption status in the USA and other places. It effectively has become a muzzle on what the church can preach… I wonder if the church would be better off just paying taxes so it can speak freely on any topic whatsoever….
    I hope that makes my point a bit clearer and I am certainly open to your opinion and feedback, I would love to learn how I shouldn’t be so pessimistic, but alas I can’t help the feeling these days.

  • rodlarocque1931

    Well I worked at a jesuit instituion and after witnessing Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament ignored and the chapel used as a storage room with tables and chairs while He was present, as well as mass being said in a living room on a tv tray with priests wearing flip flops and shorts, Our Lord passed around on a tray like a snack, not to mention being offered tequila shots by a jesuit at a bar, I think I can say that Jesuits don’t really care much about the objective worship of God in the liturgy.

  • Dr Falk

    Dear friend,

    Thank you for your response. It clarifies your position totally. In reading my original post it sounds a bit hard so I think I need to apologise here for it’s tone – I’m sorry. Thanks also for being open to discussion. I think on the question of pessimism I can understand why good people feel bleak about what’s happening. What helps me is the story of St Peter walking on the water. As long as he looked to Christ he could do it – when he looked at the waves or listened to the storm he sank. I think if we focus on the problems too much we start to get very worried and gloomy – when we look to the Light we can all sorts of things even walk on water. Take care and God bless

  • Adrian Johnson

    I seem to remember reading that Mother Teresa of Calcutta said that Communion in the Hand diminished respect for God, and so it was no surprise that abortion became common about the same time; for if we encouraged disrespect for God that we would at the same time lose respect for human life created in His image.