The Church and Women

Francis kissing girl s foot

I love this photo. Why? Because it shows our new pope washing the feet of both women and men on Holy Thursday. 

Catholics of a certain stripe look for holiness in anything that diminishes women. Righteousness is wanting to do away with altar girls, ending the service of women readers and extraordinary eucharistic ministers. These same folk are adamant that only people with y chromosomes should have their feet washed by a priest on Holy Thursday.

In each of these cases, they will insist that no, absolutely not, misogyny has nothing to do with their insistence that women’s participation in the life of the Church be diminished to spectator and held there. No. They are only making these claims because their liturgical/doctrinal/moral purity commands that they, “in charity,” do so. 

After all, they tell you, we have a priest shortage, and the precipitous drop in vocations correlates to the use of female altar servers. Ergo, the presence of girls near the altar is what’s causing the priest shortage. As for women readers and female extraordinary eucharistic ministers … well … women, reading Scripture? Out Loud? Near the Altar? And women, touching the Host. Ewwwww. Then there’s the ugliness over foot washing on Holy Thursday. Everyone knows that when Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, He did it as part of instituting the priesthood, and the priesthood is all male. Sooooo … no foot washing of female feet on Holy Thursday.

Notice how these various excuses seek to sidestep the fact that every single one of them is aimed at women? Notice also, that every single one of them is an I-am-more-Catholic-than-the-popism?

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Let’s take these arguments one at a time, starting with everybody’s favorite; altar girls = falling vocations. There is a historical correlation between the time that girls were allowed to be altar servers and the beginning of the drop in vocations to the priesthood. However, correlations are always a bogus argument for cause. Here’s why. A correlation simply shows that two events occur near one another. The Encyclical Humanae Vitae also correlates historically to the fall in vocations. By this logic, I could claim that it was the cause. Or, for that matter, Nixon’s resignation from the Presidency correlates. Maybe that did it.

Correlations do not signify cause.

One possible cause of falling vocations that I can think of is linked to that 400 pound gorilla in the room that unwritten rules say we shouldn’t talk about. The percentage of homosexual men in the priesthood appears to have risen during these years. Homosexuals are a much smaller pool of possible applicants from which to draw vocations than the entire male Catholic population. In addition to that, as the stigma against homosexuality goes away, homosexual men have lots of other options. I am not writing this to start an attack on homosexual priests. I am writing it to explain why blaming the priest shortage on altar girls is nonsense.

Let’s look at the next argument against women actively taking part in the life of the Church: Women near the altar, or touching the host = something unclean. I hardly know how to address this argument. It is so obviously misogynist and, well, crude, that it baffles me how people who believe it can convince themselves to believe it. A woman reading the scriptures is bad? A woman extraordinary eucharistic minister defiles the Host? Did Jesus despise half the people He made? I think not.

Next, let’s go to the question of washing women’s feet on Holy Thursday. You know: Washing women’s feet on Holy Thursday = heresy or some such. To talk about this intelligently, we need to pause for a moment and consider where the custom of Holy Thursday foot washing came from. It began when Jesus washed the disciples feet at the Last Supper. 

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“Do you know what I have done to you?” Jesus asked the apostles after he washed their feet. “I have given you an example to follow.” 

He said this to men who, not so long before, were arguing about who was going to be greatest in His coming Kingdom. They didn’t get it. After three years of watching Him talk to the woman at the well, refuse to condemn the woman taken in adultery, teaching Mary and Martha and obeying His Mother at the wedding at Cana, they still didn’t get it.

He came for the least of these. And in all the world, no one is more consistently the least of these than women. Every society has it’s discriminated against. But no matter who else falls to the bottom of things, in every society, there is also always women who are beaten, raped, murdered, bought, sold and belittled from birth to death.

“Do you know what I have done to you?”  He instituted the priesthood that night, and by washing their feet, he was teaching them to be priests. “I have given you an example to follow,” He told them. 

The people who are so adamant that no woman’s foot should be washed base their argument on the fact that Jesus instituted the priesthood that night. In some translations, the Scriptures say, “… now you should wash one another’s feet.” These folks try to take that literally, without taking it too literally. It means, they say, no women. But, if you really want to be literal about it, it means only the Apostles. Taken that far, we would probably have bishops, washing each other’s feet in a room by themselves and that would be Holy Thursday.

Does anybody think that’s what Jesus intended?

I think that if you want to follow the spirit of the act, you should probably go out on the streets and bring in homeless people, drug addicts and prostitutes and wash their feet. I think what Jesus was trying to tell the apostles — and us — is that they were wrong when they argued over who would be greatest in His Kingdom. They were wrong when they thought that they were following a Teacher Who would give them the power to lord it over all the rest of humanity. He wasn’t making them kings. He was making them servants.

He was also teaching us, all of us who take His name, that we should be servants. Washing feet on Holy Thursday is a testament of humility on the part of the priesthood of Christ. it is an action of profound meaning that tells all of us what the priesthood is and who it serves. When your parish priest goes down on his knees and washes and kisses the feet of twelve of his parishioners, he is acting out the meaning of the priesthood itself. He is demonstrating what in persona Christi means.

“Feed my sheep,” Jesus told Peter. He didn’t say feed my rams. He also didn’t say feed my ewes. He said feed them all, male and female, young and old, weak and strong, without discrimination or turning any of them away.

Jesus Christ is the Lord and Savior of all people, everywhere. In my humble and theologically ignorant opinion, if you don’t “get” that, then you don’t “get” Jesus. If you don’t understand that to your core, then you have never met the Lord I encountered on that day long ago when I said, “Forgive me.”

Do you know what I have done to you, he asked. I have given you an example to follow. 


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