As I explained last year, Maundy Thursday is the day I feel least comfortable attending Mass:
I don’t like to be beholden to anyone. I don’t like accepting a favor from someone I have no way of repaying or being indebted to someone I don’t know and may not like. I frustrated my boyfriend for more than half a year by never taking food from the post-Mass receptions the campus church hosted. In my mind, the food was for people who had bought in, and it would be inappropriate to benefit from the Church’s largesse when I had no intention of supporting. Not to mention, raised on a diet of mythology and fantasy/scifi novels, I have a slight distrust of accepting food in strange places.
And this year, I might be off the hook, but I think I feel worse. There’s been a discussion going on across the Patheos Catholic portal about whether it’s appropriate to include women in this part of the service. Fr. Longenecker of Standing on My Head is adamant:
We should get this straight. The tradition and the rubrics mandate that men are to have their feet washed. Not little girls, not women, not boys. Men. Why is this? Because the foot washing ceremony is not only an example of Christ being the lowest servant of all, as Tom’s article makes clear, but it is also a consolidation of the apostolic ministry.
And Thomas McDonald of God and the Machine concurs, saying “Sadly, this [men-only footwashing] is rarely the case in modern parishes.” I don’t have the standing to criticize their interpretation of the liturgy, but that “Sadly” stuck out to me. They don’t seem to be talking about balancing two goods (the humility required to serve or accept service, which is presumably salutary to everyone in the Church versus the symbol of the apostolic ministry), but as though there is just one good, and it is under siege by the ignorant.
The simple fact is that many institutions and traditions which excluded women from participation and membership have done so for reasons which we now consider dishonorable. Absent any other data, we’d bet that the next exclusion we find is also not well-founded. So it’s unkind for the defenders of men-only footwashing to act as though the cause of the policy is obvious or that we should be in the habit of accepting these kinds of distinction uncritically.
Even after reading several posts on the subject, I don’t really understand why these bloggers have such a high degree of confidence in the purpose of the ritual. When one commenter writes:
Right now I live in a diocese that has an overwhelming majority of liberal Catholics and priests. So I asked the question “Will women be participating, i.e., getting their washed?” The response was an incredulous “Yes, of course. Why not?”. I said that would not be Biblical, since Jesus did this (according to the Gospel of John) for the Apostles, the first priests – at the first Eucharist where no women were present for a reason.
All I can think is that I don’t understand why he thinks it’s permissible for women to participate in the Eucharist either, since that sacrament was created at an event from which they were purposefully excluded. And all the Apostles were (to the best of my knowledge) Jewish, but that quality is treated as more incidental when it comes to modern practice. If you want to overcome my reasonable skepticism, you need to flesh out your arguments more.
Mark Shea had the most approachable posts on this topic. As a layperson, he sought out data and then explained it without using it as a cudgel or berating the people who had questions. Up til his post, it felt like the discussion was falling into the arguments as soldiers error that Yudkowsky describes:
Arguments are soldiers. Once you know which side you’re on, you must support all arguments of that side, and attack all arguments that appear to favor the enemy side; otherwise it’s like stabbing your soldiers in the back. If you abide within that pattern, policy debates will also appear one-sided to you—the costs and drawbacks of your favored policy are enemy soldiers, to be attacked by any means necessary.
Your ‘enemies’ are usually attacking you in good faith, and if you can’t summarize their position as something nicer sounding than a will to destroy, you might convince a straw-man, but you sure as heck won’t move your audience.
One other note: a number of the commenters on Shea’s post seemed to think the all-serving-all model was diminishing the message down to a treacly let’s-be-nice kind of thing. If any of them end up over here, I’d really ask you to read my post from last year’s Maundy Thursday. I didn’t find the practice cloying, I found it terrifying.