Jimmy Akin takes on the thankless task…

of trying to reason with hysterics shrieking in condemnation of Francis, announcing the End of Days, and threatening to apostatize over the fact that the Pope really is the Supreme Legislator of ecclesial law and can wash anybody’s feet he chooses on Holy Thursday.

The comments on Jimmy’s piece are a giant farrago of paranoia, angry condemnations, ignorant pronunciations of doom, rants based on rumor, legalism, phariseeism, and puritanism, punctuated by some attempts to call people back to reason and sanity.  It’s bleak stuff on a day when Christians have every reason to rejoice since Jesus Christ has conquered death and given us a hope so gigantic we should be doing nothing but singing.

Here’s reality:  “The rules” exist for man, not man for the rules.  They are subservient to the law of love.  The washing of feet on Holy Thursday is not a sacrament.  It is an optional rite that is rooted in a gesture done by Jesus in order to teach.

Teach what?  Well thereby hangs a tale.  For the gesture is, like most of the things Jesus says and does, polyvalent.  That’s a three dollar word meaning “It’s full of various meanings and a good teacher can emphasize which meaning he wishes for the sake of his audiences needs.”  In the text of John, it is obviously linked to baptism and the gesture can refer to the baptised.  It is also done for the apostles, so it’s possible to link it to the priesthood as has often been done.  And it is done in order to teach the necessity of becoming the lowest and the servant to all.  That is obviously what the Pope was meaning to emphasize on Holy Thursday.  No.  Really:

In response to the many questions and concerns raised over Pope Francis washing the feet of 12 young people at the Roman Juvenile Detention Centre on Holy Thursday evening, especially that two were young women, Fr. Lombardi has sent me the following information to be shared with you.

One can easily understand that in a great celebration, men would be chosen for the foot washing because Jesus, himself washing the feet of the twelve apostles who were male.  However the ritual of the washing of the feet on Holy Thursday evening in the Juvenile Detention Centre in Rome took place in a particular, small community that included young women.  When Jesus washed the feet of those who were with him on the first Holy Thursday, he desired to teach all a lesson about the meaning of service, using a gesture that included all members of the community.

We are aware of the photos that show Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, then-Archbishop of Buenos Aires, who in various pastoral settings washed the feet of young men and women.  To have excluded the young women from the ritual washing of feet on Holy Thursday night in this Roman prison, would have detracted our attention from the essence of the Holy Thursday Gospel, and the very beautiful and simple gesture of a father who desired to embrace those who were on the fringes of society; those who were not refined experts of liturgical rules.

That the Holy Father, Francis, washed the feet of young men and women on his first Holy Thursday as Pope, should call our minds and hearts to the simple and spontaneous gesture of love, affection, forgiveness and mercy of the Bishop of Rome, more than to legalistic, liturgical or canonical discussions.

I once knew a priest who remarked that there are two distinct traditions of law in the West.  The Latin/Mediterranean tradition, which makes laws about everything and then comes up with all sorts of exceptions (canon law is a magnificent specimen of this conception of law); and the Anglo-Saxon tradition, which likes as few laws as possible and then insists on obeying them even when it’s stupid and counter-productive.  This, he remarked, explains American and Italian driving.  Americans stop at stop signs in the Mojave desert.  Italians… well, let’s just say that driving “laws” in Italy are more like guidelines.  It also explains why people from the Anglo tradition keep freaking out when the Church treats its own ecclesial laws in such a loose fashion.  They’re *laws* dammit!  You’re supposed to obey them no matter what!  To which our very Latin Pope says, “Meh!  Loving these people is more important” and carries on with the lesson he means to teach.

Don’t believe me?  Here’s canonist Pete Vere, no modernist and a friend of the Extraordinary Form:

the Roman approach to law (including liturgical rubrics) has always been subject to the Roman legal mindset, which historically has been much more flexible and broad-minded in the interpretation and application of legal text than the strict legal-positivism of Anglo-American jurisprudence. Hence the traditional Roman legal principle of “favors are to be multiplied, and burdens restricted.”

This may seem like liturgical abuse to English-speaking Catholics in the U.K. and North America, but please keep in mind that Christ founded the Roman Catholic Church and not the Anglo-Catholic Church.

What the pope did was perfectly licit (lawful). He may have departed from established liturgical rubrics, but the rubric in question is mere ecclesiastical law – not a matter of Divine Positive Law or Natural Law. Hence the rubric in question is subject to Pope Francis’s authority as the Church’s Supreme Pontiff. Within Roman (and Catholic) legal tradition he can either depart from mere ecclesiastical law, dispense from it, or completely change it if he believes there is good reason to do so or if a compelling pastoral reason presents itself.

A good example is that of St. Pius X who, in order to combat growing threats of modernism and moral Jansenism within both the Church and the wider culture, lowered the age of Holy Communion from that of canonical adulthood to that of the age of reason. If canon law followed the principles of Anglo-American jurisprudence, rather than ancient Roman jurisprudence, St. Pius X also would have violated several canons when he ordered that a young child who had expressed to him faith in the Real Presence, but had not yet reached canonical age, be administered Holy Communion. It was only after that experience that he changed the law.

Now, none of this was a surprise to me.  It’s been pretty obvious that a man named “Bergoglio” from Latin America has given us no indication at all that he prizes “following the rules” above the weightier matters of the law, especially a purely human construct like canon law.  It’s also perfectly obvious that he intended to use the washing of the feet rite to do what Jesus did: teach.  The question is, what did he intend to teach?  And I think it is obvious from the statement above that what he meant to teach was not “Screw Traditionalists” but “Love the least of these and serve them.”  If Traditionalists are not hearing that very clear message, I think they need to take the focus off themselves and pay attention to what the Holy Father is actually teaching.

There is Tradition and tradition.  Jesus upheld Tradition.  He was remarkably loosey goosey with tradition.  He “broke the rules” when he healed on the Sabbath and let his disciples harvest grain and eat it on the Sabbath (both forms of work and therefore technically forbidden on the Sabbath.  That’s why the Pharisees hated him). He transgressed gender boundaries (and purity rules)  when he permitted a woman of ill repute to (sound familiar?) wash his feet and kiss them.  He knew that love was pre-eminent.  So does Francis.  If we can just get past legalism to the law of love, we’ll be able to hear him as he teaches.

Rules are important.  But they exist for human flourishing not for their own sake.  When we make them more important than human flourishing, we create idols.  When our worship of idols actually tempts us leave the Church (as some Traditionalists have been announcing they will do), or to condemn the Pope, declare him a failure, etc (as many Internet Traditionalists have been doing) it is only on ourselves that we are foolishly pronouncing judgment.  I think Pope Francis will hear, on That Day, the same thing Jesus said of another rule-breaking transgressor of loveless boundaries: “Let him alone; why do you trouble him? He has done a beautiful thing to me.”

At any rate, it is now a moot point, since it is now canonically lawful by virtue of Francis’ action. As Pete Vere adds:

Canonically, given that Pope Francis is the Church’s Supreme Legislator, the rules now change by his actions. Basically, the practice of widening the pool of the twelve chosen for foot washing arose as a counter-custom within the Roman Rite. However, this practice did not previously have the force of law since it contradicted the rubric and sufficient time had not passed to give it the force of law. However, in carrying out the counter-custom, Pope Francis as Supreme Legislator automatically gives this counter-custom the force of law within the Roman Rite, meaning the counter-custom now automatically becomes custom with the force of law unless Pope Francis specifies otherwise.

Can he do that?  Well, as we are so fond of reminding progressives, the Church is not a democracy.  Yes.  The Pope can–and has–done that, according to Pete Vere.  Our task is not to scold but to ask, “What point might he be trying to make here that I should be learning?”

One last point: No matter how hard I try to make it clear that I’m not, some readers are going to take what I write above as “gloating” or some such silly thing.  I, in fact, think that gloating is repellent and, in this case, it is an extra stupid charge since I have absolutely nothing invested in whether the pope or any other priest washes the feet of unbelievers or women.  I win nothing either way and defeat nobody no matter what the Pope chooses to do since I don’t care what he does.  What I care about is people running around like their hair is on fire and denouncing the Pope as though he is antichrist because he doesn’t meet with their demands regarding a malleable human tradition. It was of the essence of Phariseeism that it raised mere human tradition to the level of Sacred Tradition (“Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’”(Mark 7:6-7)) So when people were declaring that it was “scandalous” to cross gender boundaries because nobody should touch the feet of someone of the opposite sex who is not a blood relation I pointed out that this was Pharisaic in the exact biblical sense of the word:

And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.  Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner. ” (Luke 7:37-39)

In response, various people demanded to know if 265 Popes were Pharisees.  No. First, because the rite was only instituted in 1955. Second, because the pope who have celebrated it were not trying to teach that nobody should ever have physical contact with somebody of the opposite sex who is not a blood relation.  Nor were they trying to teach that any Pope who does not feel constrained by ecclesial law is antichrist, an antipope, or a legitimate reason to reject that Church and attempt the project of salvation by canon law rigorism.  Only certain combox and blogospheric Pharisees are arguing that.  Pointing that out is not gloating.  It is mourning.  And I hate mourning at Easter.

Are there people gloating over the paroxysms in some Traditionalist circles?  Sure.  The other day, Grant Gallicho was tweeting with what read to me like glee about ‘Traditionalist heads exploding” and seemed to be really delighting in schadenfreude about all this.  I don’t want to see Traditionalists defeated and humiliated and embittered.  I want to see them happy and at peace and full of Easter joy.  I also want Mr. Gallicho to be happy and at peace and full of Easter joy.  Both Trad bitterness, rage, panic, and threats of apostasy and glee about it are a thousand miles away from the love of God.  Both extremes see the whole thing in term of power and politics.  I detest all that from both ends of the fringe.  My concern here is very different and very simple: I want people to stop with the politics and the power and the focus on things of earth and instead focus on the things of heaven where Christ risen now lives in glory.  I want us to listen and learn what the Holy Spirit is saying through the Pope he has given us.  When people are screaming about “Francis the Destroyer” and proclaiming him antichrist or antipope and are threatening to leave the Church because of stuff like this I don’t feel joy or schadenfreude or glee.  I feel sadness and frustration.  And I struggle with how to pray for such people.  I want to shout, “Open your hearts!”

So: a request:  Please pray for me because I am determined to have a joyful Easter and I do find it a challenge to start Easter with the all the nastiness of these silly earthbound quarrels about power ringing in my ears.  Your prayers that I–that we–could set our mind on things of heaven and not on earthly things would be appreciated.

Christ is Risen!  He is Risen indeed!  Let joy be unconfined!  Alleluia!

Update: Grant Gallicho writes to say that I’m “overinterpreting what I tweeted. In fact, I agree with your post. I wish those people would calm down and stop pretending they’re more Catholic than the pope. Anyway, if you won’t reconsider editing your erroneous description of my tweets, perhaps you could link to one to let readers decide for themselves.”

He also adds:

I later linked to a piece we had on dotCommonweal, and got into an exchange with Josh Marshall of TPM–strictly factual (Congregation for Divine Worship issued their document on this in 1988; Cardinal O’Malley asked them if he could include women in 2005, and they said yes, etc.). I make no bones about disagreeing with the 1988 document, and believe it is a mistake to exclude women from foot-washing (the USCCB notes that it’s common practice in the States). Nor do I deny that I think it’s a good thing for arch-traditionalists to be shaken up by Francis. As you say, some of them have come to resemble nothing so much as the Pharisees. There’s nothing wicked about thinking it’s good that they be disabused of their self-satisfied self-righteousness when it comes to liturgical correctness.

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