Last year on Holy Thursday Pope Francis visited a prison and famously washed the feet of a Muslim girl. Traditionalists were tut tutting that he had broken a church rule. The rubric for the liturgy for the Mass of the Lord’s Supper stipulates that men are to be chosen for the foot washing.
The arguments went back and forth: “Men are to be chosen because they represent the twelve apostles. This is the thin edge of the wedge. If this wall is breached the push for women priests will increase…”
“Don’t be silly, said those who liked the innovation, the symbolism of foot washing is more important than your liturgical rules and rubrics. This is a sign of the church’s ministry of service. The Pope is the servant of the servants of God. This is a beautiful, radical symbol of our vocation to service. Women–especially Muslim women–are treated like dirt. That the pope honored her is in important sign.”
“Okay, but the action is not first and foremost a social statement. It’s a liturgical action tied up intrinsically with the ordination of priests and the renewal of their vows on Holy Thursday. The Lord washes the feet of his apostles and the Pope washes the feet of priests and priests wash the feet of laymen to show the unity and solidarity of the priesthood. When the Pope washed a laywoman’s feet he broke that.”
“Nonsense. All that is theological clutter that has been added to the core event–which was a simple and humble act of service. The Pope’s gesture gets us past all the liturgical frippery and folderol and gets back to that basic, humble action of Christ the Lord.”
So join the tug of war and have fun with the argument. I can see both sides of the fuss and don’t really mind if Pope Francis washes a woman’s foot. He’s the pope. He can do what he likes.
The problem I have is not with the practice, but the precedent. When a Pope or Bishop takes a radical step away from the tradition we ordinary priests have to deal with the fallout. On the one hand, I appreciate the radical sign, the willingness to break the tradition to make a more important point and the willingness to be subversive in order to get back to basics.
On the other hand, the precedent is set, and those who have an agenda of change for the church will take that inch and go ten miles. An example of this is the Pope saying that we must not be obsessed with abortion, contraception and same sex marriage. Now if these subjects even come up the progressives will dish out their usual passive aggressive tactics and smilingly say, “Pope Francis has instructed us not to discuss these matters anymore.” Then they take it the next mile and say, “Pope Francis has said these things don’t matter.”
Progressives will take what was a simple and beautiful gesture by the pope and intentionally promote it for their cause. Women will be chosen for foot washing on purpose to make a political point and thus the liturgy will be used once again as a political preaching point. This is the real problem with the innovation–not what the Pope has done, but what others will do in his wake. Then, in reaction to the progressives choosing women on purpose to turn the Holy Thursday liturgy into a political rally the traditionalists will be prickly about the subject and reject women’s foot washing on purpose to make their political point. The whole thing then descends into a stupid, petty mess.
A similar problem arises with the baptism of the child of lesbian parents in the cathedral in Argentina. The priest doubtless felt he was doing the right thing. Why should the child be penalized because the parents are living outside the church’s teaching? But as soon as it is over the two women pose for a kiss outside the cathedral and the progressives run with it. “How wonderful to see the church embrace same sex marriage in this way! And it happened in the Pope’s own Argentina. It must have been done with his approval!”
The precedent has been set and every other Catholic priest has to enter the argument whether he wants to or not. When another same sex couple arrives to have their baby baptized or enroll in Catholic school, if the priest has a difficulty they will trot out the example of the priest in Argentina who baptized the baby of a lesbian couple and the pressure will be on for this to become the norm.
Whether the child of same sex couples should be baptized or enrolled in Catholic school is a debate to be had. The problem is that by going ahead and breaking the rule in order to be pastoral or to make a preaching point, the priest who does so makes it difficult for all his brother priests.
The rules are there to make our job easier. That’s why, when I was asked yesterday if we were washing the feet of women my reply was, “The rubrics don’t allow that and I don’t have the authority to do otherwise.”
This is the advantage of liturgy. It stands on its own and it makes its own core statement. You don’t have to elaborate and push your own agenda onto the liturgy. You just say the black and do the red. This is why Pope Benedict in The Spirit of the Liturgy said that the liturgy was not the place or time to be creative. When you get creative with the liturgy you are inevitably pushing your own message and agenda onto the liturgy.
Doing so is like spraying feminist graffiti on the Mona Lisa.
More on this subject from Fr Ray Blake here.