Pope Francis Foot-Washing Controversy Redux

Pope Francis Foot-Washing Controversy Redux March 26, 2016

When Can Laws Properly be Broken? Dialogue with Three Catholic Papal Critics


Christ Washing the Apostles Feet (c. 1616), by Dirck van Baburen (c. 1595-1624) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


Now we again have complaints from the usual suspects that the Holy Father “broke the law of the Church” regarding the foot-washing ceremony. Someone tagged my name and I got involved in a public Facebook discussion about this.  As usual, it was three on one side of the debate and me on the other.


Jeffrey Stuart‘s words will be in blue, David Smith‘s in green, David L. Alexander‘s in purple, and Fr. Erick Richtsteig‘s in red.

* * * * *

The first chapter of my book about Pope Francis was about foot-washing. I devoted twelve pages to it. Fellow apologist Jimmy Akin wrote about it in March 2013, stating:

The pope does not need anybody’s permission to make exceptions to how ecclesiastical law relates to him. He is canon law’s ultimate legislator, interpreter, and executor.

And it’s not uncommon, at least in recent decades, for a pope to make exceptions to the law in how papal ceremonies are performed.

John Paul II frequently held liturgies that departed from what the Church’s liturgical texts provide, particularly when he was making a form of dramatic outreach, and Pope Francis seems to be following in his footsteps.

You seem to continually miss the point. No one question that he has the authority in this case.

A good example of how Akin’s “spin” on the Pope’s actions makes things worse. As a side note St. John Paul II was often criticized for his liturgical oddities — or at least his MC was!

Not to mention the Kissing of the Koran or whatever it was. The Office can survive criticism. Always has. Unfortunately, measured criticism like you have by the host of this thread is almost always met with a somewhat rabid defense by a certain segment. It’s like being bookended by extreme positions. Either the Pope is the worst or he is the best thing ever.

Yeah, that’s kinda what bothers me about these conversations. A good man is capable of making very imprudent judgments, even a pope. That doesn’t make him any less a pope, nor does it, by itself, make his judgment any less imprudent. We can apply that to any one of us, given our humanity. Is the pope more than human? Less than human? Every bit as human???

I don’t think he is the best ever. I agree, he is a human being like us (though we’re not the Vicar of Christ, and there is a major difference there). Many traditionalists seem to think he’s pretty bad, based on the frequency of their criticisms. Reactionaries (e.g., The Remnant) are literally calling for him to resign, so that’s definitely up there among the worst ever. There is no “equivalence of extremity” here at all.

I have no problem with critiques of prudence. I don’t think he’s the best pope ever. My problem is with the wrongness and wrongheadedness of particular criticisms (including the present one) and with the absurd frequency of same, and the (usual) irreverence and smug condescension associated with such frequent criticisms.

Thus in this thread I am not necessarily reacting with the individuals in every particular I say. I am making statements about the “narrative” that is now prevalent about Pope Francis: that he is some loose cannon who is screwing up on a weekly basis. I react to the mentality that seems to think that it knows better than the pope. “More Catholic than the pope . . .”

I know something about it because I’ve been out here defending the pope. I follow this stuff as an apologist. I’ve studied and documented the loony histrionics of, e.g., a Hillary White or a Chris Ferrara and have debated them in writing.

So it’s my opinion, based on objective observation.

* * * * *

Why is this news? Jesus freely broke Sabbath laws, and appealed to the fact that David had done so. “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

The first council of the Church made circumcision non-binding on Christian. This had been in place for some 1800 years. The early Church moved the primary day of worship from Saturday to Sunday.

The move from Old to New Covenant involved hundreds of modifications.

In my house we have rules. Those rules are set by my wife and I and of course we have the authority to dispense ourselves if we want. But how can we expect our children to follow those rules if we say that we are free to break them?

How does that reply to what I just wrote? Do you never have any exceptions, ever, for the children?

Sure, and generally we tell them that they are exceptions and why. Otherwise they might come to the conclusion that we change things arbitrarily and without thinking.

Jesus didn’t always explain everything He did. In fact, He said to His disciples,

Matthew 13:10-14 (RSV) Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” [11] And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. [12] For to him who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. [13] This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. [14] With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah which says: `You shall indeed hear but never understand, and you shall indeed see but never perceive.

Then He gave the parable of the sower and the text says, “All this Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed he said nothing to them without a parable.” (13:34). He never explained the parable to the crowd. He explained it only to the disciples (13:36 ff.).

And of course, as a parent, neither do I. But then we were speaking of rules not parables.


One of you makes light of setting bad example by breaking the law, the other does not.

It’s still not a reply to what I wrote; neither is your reply. Did Jesus set a bad example too?

No he didn’t. He followed the law, but knew its greater significance and its perspective, as I quoted earlier. And you know perfectly well that these responses address your points directly.

I do not. It was considered breaking the law at the time, but Jesus was approaching it in a far deeper way than the usual pharisaical approach. That’s true with the pope, too. So (surprise!), he is controversial just as Jesus was.

I’m afraid the analogy isn’t apt. Our Lord changed the law; He did not merely dispense Himself from it.

To the contrary, Jesus said:

Matthew 5:17-19 “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them. [18] For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. [19] Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”

He didn’t abolish the principle of rest on the Sabbath;

That was my point, Dave, as I specifically stated in another comment, if possibly in another thread.

He set up scenarios in which exceptions were quite reasonable and permissible. It’s the same thing with David eating the showbread, which was lawful only for priests to do. Jesus would say that he was hungry, and that was justification enough. The hunger overcame the technical points of the law, because the law was made for man, not vice versa.

So, can I break the law because Jesus did?


There’s a difference between lawful modifications, and persistence in breaking them, especially as a prelude to their change.

Jesus broke them. Or at least He did, in terms of how their observance or application was understood. His point was that exceptions were perfectly to be expected. It was an instance of “there is an exception to every rule.”

The classic example He gave is the sheep that falls into a pit on the Sabbath. It’s work to get them out, but Jesus said that was fine. It was an exception to the rule.

Matthew 12:1-14 [1] At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. [2] But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.” [3] He said to them, “Have you not read what David did, when he was hungry, and those who were with him: [4] how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? [5] Or have you not read in the law how on the sabbath the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are guiltless? [6] I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. [7] And if you had known what this means, `I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. [8] For the Son of man is lord of the sabbath.” [9] And he went on from there, and entered their synagogue. [10] And behold, there was a man with a withered hand. And they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath?” so that they might accuse him. [11] He said to them, “What man of you, if he has one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath, will not lay hold of it and lift it out? [12] Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.” [13] Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And the man stretched it out, and it was restored, whole like the other. [14] But the Pharisees went out and took counsel against him, how to destroy him.

Pope Francis is, of course, the Vicar of Christ on earth.

Again, the law is applied to the extent of its meaning, and as conditions allow. No such conditions exist in Pope Francis’ foot washing. There have been no extenuating circumstances preventing him from following the law, as was the case in the examples Our Lord used. The result is bad example, and making faithful priests look foolish. And this big display of “humility” is quite unlike the lack of fanfare undertaken by his predecessor, who did the same thing.

We can all sit here and criticize the pope till the cows come home. It’s the fashionable thing to do. There are entire websites devoted to it. Or we can attempt to learn from his example. Well all know that either David or Jeffrey would be a far better pope than Francis is, but he’s what we got . . .

My concern over the pope’s prudential judgment has consistently been measured, appropriate as one of the faithful who rightfully do so, and is not an attack on his person. It is confined to the actions themselves. I stand by it, even as I stand with Peter.

So is he doing a lousy job as pope? All of you critics know how to do a better job than he has done?

Has a Pope, now or ever, don’t anything that you think was not prudent? If the answer is in the affirmative, why are you allowed to pass such judgment but no one else is not?

Yes. I am criticizing the constant barrage; not the very notion that a pope can be criticized, which I have always held and taught. Now answer my questions. Thank you. Or is it personal attack time already?

Which question?

Is what I’m doing a constant barrage? This is a particular issue, for a particular reason. It’s not as if I tack it onto a diatribe of every pope since John XXIII.

I didn’t say you were. I don’t know what you do, and so I take your word for it. I was making a general statement about what I am criticizing. Many many people are criticizing Pope Francis (often unfairly and unduly); traditionalists proportionately all the more so; reactionaries in vast numbers, in an obsessive, destructive, divisive way.

Then if anyone dares criticize that and defend the pope, we get back Jeffrey’s nonsense: we’re being “rabid” and hypersensitive, ultramontanist, etc. This is why I blocked him and not you and David Smith. I don’t have time for the bullcrap. This is by no means the first time he has used this sort of polemic with me.

He’ll say it’s because I’m hypersensitive. I say it is because I refuse to enter into the “stupid controversy”: as Paul says. Once it gets down to personal attacks, it’s stupid and nonproductive.


Heck, change everything then. In fact, change it yearly.

Heck, stop criticizing everything he does, then. Stop daily!

I criticize the Pope daily? News to me. Stop being so oversensitive every time you see even a modest critique of the man in the Office.

You exaggerated; I exaggerated back, but you didn’t grasp that, and so here comes the stupid charge of “oversensitivity.” Classic!

I’m used to you being hypersensitive. I thought I was being nice in toning it down.

Right. So it is attack time. What else is new?

Do go on one of your attacks. I can’t stop you.


Just because you have the authority to do a thing, it doesn’t mean that you should do it.

And just because we have the right to criticize the pope, doesn’t mean that we ought to do it constantly, and about every imaginable thing.

Who in this thread are you accusing of “constantly” criticizing the Pope?

Another exaggeration to make a point, and again, you (like Jeffrey) missed the point.

How is one to know that you’re exaggerating?

By understanding how logic, language, and the use of reductio ad absurdum work. Also, context.

Since Easter is tomorrow, I’ll let that attack on my reading comprehension slide. :-) But I will note that I’m not the only one who read your comment that way. Maybe consider that not everyone, or even a majority, will read your comments as you intended?

You asked how one knows, and I answered. I can only describe what happened. But it’s a well-known phenomenon that when people strongly disagree, they will often miss or misconstrue essential elements in the opponent’s argument. Or they will appeal to such fallacies as ad populum, as you did above.

On the contrary, I did not make an ad populum argument; I did not say that you meant something other than what you intended; rather I pointed out (correctly) that more than one person took you in a way other than what you intended. And since that be the case, you should consider whether your meaning is really is as clear as you think it is.

You didn’t just say “more than one person”; you said, “even a majority”: which is clearly ad populum. It’s irrelevant anyway, by the nature of the fallacy. Paul was widely misunderstood (St. Peter said so). Jesus was widely misunderstood. Socrates was. Cardinal Newman was. Lots of people have been. That has exactly zero relation to the truthfulness of what they said.

Surely there is a logical fallacy involved in saying that it’s okay to be misunderstood because lots of great thinkers were.

Yes it is a fallacy, but of course, that wasn’t my argument. Mine was that being misunderstood “has exactly zero relation to the truthfulness” of what someone says (and I gave four examples of prominent teachers being widely misunderstood). Ad populum was brought in, in an attempt to “overcome” my argument: lots of people supposedly or actually misunderstand me, therefore [you conclude],  the problem lies in my content or method or style.

But that doesn’t follow logically. It may indeed be the case in fact; but logically (ad populum fallacy) it’s not certain that the misunderstanding is the result of the writer and his thoughts, rather than the reader, or even “lots” or “many” or “the majority of” readers.

Anyway, if I am guilty of a fallacy it’s projection (assuming a majority will not understand your intent because a few did not), not argumentum ad populum.

Fair enuff.

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