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When Pope Francis washes women's feet, arguments follow. Who's right?

  • Pope Francis washes the foot of a prison inmate March 28, 2013, during the Holy Thursday Mass at Rome's Casal del Marmo prison for minors. (CNS/Reuters/L'Osservatore Romano)
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On Thursday evening, in a familiar reprise of an ancient rite, Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, Wis., will wash the feet of 12 men, all seminarians, a recreation of Jesus' action at the Last Supper, when he washed the feet of his disciples and, according to Catholic doctrine, formally instituted the priesthood.

That same evening, thousands of miles away, Pope Francis will also observe the Holy Thursday rite, though not in a cathedral like Morlino but at a center for people with disabilities. There, he will wash the feet of a number of residents, all laypeople, perhaps some of them women and even non-Christians or nonbelievers.

Francis did something similar last year, shortly after his election, when he stunned church observers by traveling to a juvenile detention center outside Rome and washing the feet of 12 young people, two of them women and two of them Muslims.

More than a few tradition-minded Catholics were aghast at the pope's example, and they welcomed Morlino's effort to hold the line against innovations, at least in his Wisconsin diocese.

"The Church's law says that only men may be the recipients of this foot washing," wrote Fr. John Zuhlsdorf, a scrappy blogger popular with the Catholic right. "Morlino's guidelines" -- that his priests must wash the feet of 12 men or not do the foot washing at all -- "do nothing but reiterate the Church's laws, which bishops and priests are obliged to follow."

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So who's correct?

Is the pope a dissenter? Or are Morlino and others being legalistic? What does the foot washing ritual represent, anyway?

There are no simple answers to those questions, though the weight of history and custom -- not to mention authority -- seems to be on the pope's side.

An ancient rite

Accounts of Christian foot-washing rituals go back as far as the sixth century. As Peter Jeffrey writes in his 1985 book, A New Commandment: Toward a Renewed Rite for the Washing of Feet, there were generally two forms: the "Mandatum Pauperam," or washing of the feet of poor people, and the "Mandatum Fratrum," the washing of the feet of "the brothers."

Neither were part of the Holy Thursday liturgy, and popes and clerics routinely washed the feet of poor people as a sign of service and humility. In convents, as well, "woman washed feet and had their feet washed," and they washed the feet of guests and children, said Rita Ferrone, the author of several books about liturgy and a consultant to U.S. dioceses on liturgical matters.

"Foot washing does have a long tradition," Ferrone said, "and it didn't exclude women up until 1955."

That's when Pope Pius XII simplified the Holy Week rites, a reform that included folding the foot-washing ritual into the Holy Thursday Mass before marking Jesus' crucifixion on Good Friday.

The problem is that back then, Catholic women were not allowed into the restricted space near the altar and, unlike today, they could not have any part in the Mass. So the rule was that 12 chosen men -- "viri selecti" in the Latin -- would have their feet washed by the priest or bishop.

With that change, the foot-washing rite also came to be seen as a kind of recreation of the Last Supper and the institution of the priesthood.

"The tradition was not to have it be a dramatization of what Jesus did at the last Supper but to be a response to the command to humble service," Ferrone said.

Modernizing reforms

While the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s ushered in numerous reforms, including of the liturgy, the rule on only washing the feet of men was never addressed.

But in the 1970s, in an effort to reflect the new openness of the church, bishops and priests in many dioceses simply ignored the old regulation and began washing the feet of laypeople, including women. Sometimes there were a dozen, sometimes more.

Indeed, there is a photograph of Pope Francis, when he was Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, Argentina, washing the feet of women with babies, some of whom were breast-feeding.

Today, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops acknowledges the letter of the law but stresses that the rite aims to signify both charity and "humble service" rather than a re-enactment of the foundation of the priesthood. It drops any reference to washing the feet of 12 people (the number of the disciples) and notes that "it has become customary in many places to invite both men and women to be participants in this rite in recognition of the service that should be given by all the faithful to the Church and to the world."

So in that sense, it is a return to a more ancient tradition and very much in line with what Pope Francis is doing.

A Vatican spokesman, Fr. Thomas Rosica, said Tuesday that Francis' decision to include women and nonbelievers was meant as a gesture "to embrace those who were on the fringes of society." The official rules, he said, can sometimes be a distraction from "the profound messages of the Gospels and of the Lord of the Church."

Still, this is the Catholic church, and rules are rules. Even though a Vatican spokesman last year said Francis' decision to wash the feet of women and Muslims on Holy Thursday was "absolutely licit" because it did not entail a sacrament, canon lawyer Edward Peters said Francis set a "questionable example" by ignoring church law.

Peters, a blogger popular with church conservatives and a supporter of the rule, said it would be better to change the rule rather than risk undermining the rule of law by flouting it.

There are, of course, others who would like to see the current rule maintained and enforced the way Morlino does, and not just to maintain good order in the church.

"This is being used by those who wish to make a point about holy orders being reserved to men," Ferrone said. The debate over the Holy Thursday foot washing, she said, "becomes yet another occasion for people who would like to see women excluded from the sanctuary."

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