Women and Footwashing

Women and Footwashing April 4, 2012

I tremble to post this correspondence since it will probably earn me another 15 minute hate from Pewsitter, but what the heck!

A reader writes:

I just heard that a local parish in my town will have “the washing of the feet”; actually it seems to be a disappearing aspect of the Triduum from those that I have attended (just as midnight Mass for Christmas seems to be disappearing – which may depend on the Diocese). I haven’t seen the washing of the feet in a long time at the Triduums I have attended. 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. Women today are trying to place themselves in roles under liberal priests that are, in my mind’s eye, just trying to act out their overused desire for feminist victory.

I realize this is not phrased diplomatically, but I do intend on retiring and leaving this Diocese. There is only one conventional Catholic church in the Diocese. We even had Scott Hahn speak at our parish this year!

This is one of those things I don’t worry much about. I leave such matters to the bishops and they seem to say that it’s permissible for women to have their feet washed in the US.

I’m skeptical the custom has changed in parishes due to rebellion. I suspect it’s just a natural tendency toward inclusiveness coupled with the rather typically loose Catholic attitude toward coloring outside the lines. This is largely a matter of custom, not law or apostolic tradition and customs tend to reflect the culture in which they live. Ours is an egalitarian culture. Look no further than that for an explanation. And it would appear the bishops are not going to the mat over it but are recognizing that cultural difference.

At my own parish (not a liberal one) we’ve had the washing of the feet for as long as I can remember: and women have always been a part of it in having their feet washed. That’s not due to some covert plot to ordain women. It’s been because off what the USCCB document says: the “the element of humble service has accentuated the celebration of the foot washing rite in the United States over the last decade or more. In this regard, it has become customary in many places to invite both men and women to be participants in this rite in recognition of the service that should be given by all the faithful to the Church and to the world.”

I’m glad you had Scott out to speak. He’s the bee’s knees!

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  • LaVallette

    I wonder how soon we will have a portrayal of the WII invasion in Normandy that will include the military nurses charging up the beaches alongside the menfolk and tending to the wopunded on the spot!.

    After all they were there, way “behind the lines”, and we must be inclusive and somehow represent their contribution.

  • Samantha Thomas

    If it’s okay with Scott Hahn, I wouldn’t worry about it. I just wouldn’t do it; it’s just weird.

    • 1. Where in the letter writer’s comments did he say that Scott Hahn approved of it? All he said was that Hahn spoke at his parish this year.

      2. No disprespect to0 Scott Hahn, whose knowledge is far superior to mine, but he’s not the Magisterium. And he would be the first to tell you so.

    • Mark Shea

      You misread my correspondent. He says nothing about Scott’s views on this.

  • Deanne

    In my old parish the men and women of the RCIA class had their feet washed on Holy Thursday. Not a liberal parish (or archdiocese) at all – just their own custom.

  • Fr. JC Maximilian

    It is unfortunate that you made reference to the response of the USCCB from 1987 for it is no longer accurate. It refers to an instruction from the Vatican in 1955 which liberal liturgists took as leaving the question ambiguous, saying that was the last statement from the Vatican on the matter. Within a year the Vatican issued a letter on the celebration of the Triduum which again used “selecti viri” so select men. In the 1990s the USCCB realized that it needed permission from Rome to use the more liberal view of emphasizing the issue of charity in the foot washing instead of the institution of the priesthood. While the proposal passed the USCCB, it was never approved by the Vatican. Since then I know of 2 dioceses in the US who have been given permission to also wash the feet of women, Boston and Atlanta, because of sexual abuse scandals in those dioceses. The fact that the recognized that the needed permission from the Vatican implies that the norm is to only wash the feet of men.

    • Mark Shea

      I’m confused. So are you saying the document on the USCCB website is out of date? Why is it still on the website? Is there some other document from the American bishops I should see? As you might guess, I don’t have anywhere near the burning interest in this matter that some of my readers do, and I can readily believe that whoever is webmaster at the USCCB hasn’t kept up with every jot and tittle of this (to me) intensely trivial matter. If you can point me to some more up to date URL, I’d be grateful, Padre.

    • causafinitaest.blogspot.com/2012/04/viri-selecti-washing-of-feet.html

      QUOTE:”The ritual of washing the feet has been often mischaracterized as merely an act of Christian service. However, there is strong evidence that the ritual is tied specifically to priestly ordination. We know, after all, that the event of the Last Supper was that in which the Lord ordained the Apostles. There is a fabulous summary of the link between the feet washing and the priesthood available here. Hat tip to the commenter below for sharing it. Given the strong connection, it is all the more support for the Roman Missal’s directive of viri selecti, or chosen men.”

  • Zach Foreman

    Perhaps it is posts like this that best show why Fr. Z trounced you in the recent voting. He writes from a position of knowledge, expertise and experience on this subject (mincing no words, I might add):

    This whole debate has been cleared up more than once by the Holy See, especially in the 1988 document Paschales solemnitatis of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments.
    Moreover, the rubrics of the 2002 Missale Romanum retain the viri selecti. Viri cannot include “females”. Viri is an exclusive term.
    I don’t believe any Conference of Bishops has ever received explicit approval from the Holy See for a variation, and only the Holy See can do that.
    Conferences of bishops, individual bishops, and pastors all lack the authority to change this on their own.
    To do it is wrong.

    Here is paragraph 51 of the CDW’s Paschalis Sollemnitatis:
    “The washing of the feet of chosen men which, according to tradition, is performed on this day, represents the service and charity of Christ, who came “not to be served, but to serve.[58] This tradition should be maintained, and its proper significance explained.” (Emphasis added)
    Finally, if you look in the comments, Dr. Ed Peters, whom you quote approvingly her quite often, also agrees with Fr. Z:
    “If I’m known for anything around here, it’s for seeking enforcement of law as written, so everything Fr. Z has set out above is correct.”

    • Mark Shea

      I claim no expertise. I speak as a deeply disinterested layman who frankly regards such matters as trivial and uninteresting and who is content with whatever the Church does. Sorry, but liturgical freakouts are and always have been a huge turnoff to me. I made a good faith effort to find out what the USCCB says in response to a request for my views from a reader. If I’m wrong, I’m wrong. But the sort of hysterics and condemnation that inevitably follow such discussion of (to me) picayune trivia only make it clear to me that one of the most unhealthy developments in the Church since the council has been the eruption of a hyper-sensitized class of lay liturgical cops who have deputized themselves to smash anybody who errs in jot and tittle. A bit more mercy and a lot less angry judgement would be a welcome relief.

      I now return to my normal posture of “just give me my lines and my blocking” with respect to the liturgy.

      • Steven A. Dunn

        Speaking as a liturgical traditionalist and the MC of our local Latin Mass, I have to agree 100%. This attitude is incredibly off-putting. I remember asking a visitor to our Mass what she thought. Everything that came out of her mouth was a criticism. I gave her a cold look and walked off.

    • “A bit more mercy and a lot less angry judgement would be a welcome relief.”

      Uh, Mark, speak for yourself; that was uncalled for. No one here is angry or is being a liturgical cop. No one is smashing you or being hyper-sensitized. No one is resorting to hysterics and condemnation. You made a good faith effort to respond to a letter writer. Find. We are making a good faith effort to show that you are wrong. I don’t know why that inaccurate, out-of-date document is still on the USCCB website either. But your research efforts should have been broadened to find out what the Church says, not what a bureaucracy says.

      Additionally, “I speak as a deeply disinterested layman who frankly regards such matters as trivial and uninteresting,” and “such discussion of (to me) picayune trivia…”

      Mark, this is the Church’s holy liturgy. There is nothing trivial about it. I freely concede that some people do get hypersensitized about it, but that is no excuse to treat the liturgy as trivial. It is the principal means, especially in Holy Mass, that we encounter Christ, not just his spirit, but also in his flesh and blood. There is nothing trivial or uninteresting about that. Time and space cease to exist, and we truly are at the foot of the cross, at the moment when the priest bread and wine to the body and blood of Christ.

      I am not saying that we should all become liturgy cops — heaven forbid! But to call anything having to do with the liturgy “intensely trivial” betrays a lack of understanding of the sublime significance of the Mass.

      • Mark Shea

        I don’t regard the Mass as trivial. I do regard the extreme hyperventilating by self-deputized liturgy cops as deeply trivial in the sense that it prioritizes gnats of liturgical correctness over camels of charity (as, for instance, Romulus’ nasty piece of mind-reading does). I have made clear for years that I do not regard myself as an expert endowed by God Most High to pontificate on the liturgy. I have my highly personal and subjective take on it when somebody asks me what I think, and I try to refer them to magisterial sources so they can make up their own minds. In short, I speak as a lay schlub out in the pew and don’t presume to tell the Church what she should be doing. I don’t mind being shown I was wrong. You will note the distinction between my responses to Padre (who tries to explain my mistake) and you and Zach (who ream me out as having “embarrassed myself” and scold me for not being Fr. Z, as though I ever pretended to be) for the sin of turning to a magisterial source and trying to navigate by it. Sorry Sean, but as a friend, you are *way* out of line in your hysterical over-reaction here. I’m quite willing to acknowledge a mistake if one has been made here (and nobody has yet explained to me why that document is on the USCCB site if it is not reflective of the American bishops’ teaching). But I do *not* need to be screamed at for “embarrassing” myself when I made a good faith effort to find out what the bishops teach. Your prescription for treating resources from the USCCB with reflexive contempt and distrust is a formula for protestant chaos.

        I repeat: there is a person at the other end of this combox. The liturgy was made for man, not man for the liturgy. If the Church forbids women at footwashing it makes no never mind to me. I have not dog in that fight. However, i would caution self-deputized liturgy cops to stick with “This is what the Church says” and not launch off into soul diagnostics of people about whom they know absolutely nothing. So charges of “grave” liturgical abuse presume things like knowledge which I am skeptical most people have (given the fact that DOCUMENTS ON THE USCCB WEBSITE appear to permit the practice). Likewise, mindreading like Romulus’ denunciation of thousands of complete strangers do not help anything.

        There’s a person at the other end of all those attributions of bad faith, rebellion, heresy, etc. Liturgy cops would do well to keep that in mind as much as the jots and tittles of documents that 99.9% of the people–celebrating Holy Thursday with full reverence and devotion and good heart offer to the Lord–have never heard of.

        Sorry I snapped at you. I’ve cooled off.

      • I have cooled off too, Mark. I accept your apology and I also apologize for going off-message.

        I did not accuse you of bad faith, rebellion, or heresy, nor did I scream — had I used capslock and lots of exclaimation points, that’d be screaming. I presumed you made a good-faith effort — as I have already said — and merely wanted to point out that you were wrong.

        I do not treat USCCB resources with contempt and distrust, reflexive or otherwise, and I did not do so here. I said they are not magisterial, but that is because they are not. National bishops’ conferences are not part of the Church’s hierarchy. I may be wrong here but nothing produced by a national bishops’ conference has any magisterial authority unless an individual bishop decides to apply it in his own diocese.

        So what I said in no way equals, or implies, contempt or distrust on my part.

        The only actual “document” on the USCCB website you linked to is the brief excerpt from the Roman Missal (I assume that’s where it’s from — the website does not give the source). Below that is an interpretation of the rubric from the chairman of the “then-Committee on the Liturgy,” which directly contradicts the rubric from the magisterial source. In retrospect, maybe that’s what got my gander up: that you chose the contradictory interpretation over the rubric — an interpretation, I might add, that dates from when the American hierarchy was at its absolute nadir in terms of fidelity to the Church’s magisterium. Now, saying that does not make me a foaming-at-the-mouth liturgy cop who treats “resources from the USCCB with reflexive contempt and distrust.” That’s just how it was.

        In brief, it is not quite accurate to say, “documents on the USCCB website appear to permit the practice.” The only actual document says “men only.” The rest is just chatter.

        I have no idea why that erroneous information is still on the USCCB website. I wish someone would pipe up with an explaination. It sometimes seems as if the Church at all levels has an arm’s length relationship with website quality. Even the Vatican website can be exasperating at times.

  • Fr. Jeff

    To add to what has already been said by Fr. JC Maximilian, in the 3rd edition of the Roman Missal the instruction clearly says “the men who have been chosen are led to seats prepared…” Not trolling, I love the blog.

    • Ted Seeber

      Makes me wonder if my priest will be changing our local tradition then.

  • What Fr. Maximilian and Zach both said. Jeez, Mark, what gives?

    Furthermore, I gently and charitably warn you against a creeping clericalism. “I leave such matters to the bishops”? Not to take away the respect and deference we owe them due to their station, is that aways wise? For decades, we left it to the bishops to deal with sexual predator priests. How well did that work out for everyone?

    And in the case at hand, “leaving it to the bishops” resulted in you embarassing yourself by linking to an outdated and erroneous USCCB document, which, even were it still in effect, still has no force in law. Nice going.

    “I suspect it’s just a natural tendency toward inclusiveness”

    Fr. Z cites inclusivenes as a “dreadful reason” for altering any liturgical rubric.

    “This is largely a matter of custom, not law or apostolic tradition”

    As Fr. Z. Fr. Maximilian, and Ed Peters all say, it most definitely is a matter of law and apostolic tradition.

    “Ours is an egalitarian culture.”

    So? The Church is hierarchical, not egalitarian (and, incidentally, national bishops’ conferences are not part of the hierarchy). Furthermore, we are supposed to be leaven in society, are we not?

    “At my own parish (not a liberal one) we’ve had the washing of the feet for as long as I can remember: and women have always been a part of it in having their feet washed.”

    Then your parish is committing a grave liturgical abuse.

    • Mark Shea


      Chill. For heaven’s sake, I made a good faith effort to respond to a reader by (horrors!) assuming that a document on the USCCB website gave the Church’s guidance on the matter. To relate that to sexual predation(!) is a ridiculous piece of hysteria. We are and remain a magisterial church and the notion that we must all be rugged individualists living out a hermaneutic of suspicion about every word that comes from the American bishops is absolutely poisonous to the Faith. If the document is out of date so be it. I don’t know that it is and my question is “Why is it still on the USCCB website if it is?” I trust someone will have an explanation. Meanwhile, I am not “embarrassed” that I went to a magisterial source to find out something I myself neither know nor, frankly, care much about in an effort to help a reader.

      I am, however, embarrassed that Catholics can respond so viciously to a good faith effort to help somebody, using such magisterial resources as could be found. The principle that no good deed goes unpunished is alive and well in the sector of the Church that believes man was made for the liturgy, not the liturgy for man.

      There’s a person at the other end of this combox, Sean.


      • Steven A. Dunn

        “We are and remain a magisterial church and the notion that we must all be rugged individualists living out a hermaneutic of suspicion about every word that comes from the American bishops is absolutely poisonous to the Faith. ”

        Comments like this are why you’re my favorite Catholic blogger. I come from a non-believing background where the Faith meant nothing yet I slowly came to believe. Once I converted I became more interested in the Church’s history and traditional practices, only to discover this nitpicky, vindictive subculture. This extremity of opinion over minor issues shows a people living in a vacuum: all sense of proportion has been thrown out in favor of showing who’s the strongest defender of the “real” Faith.

    • I love you Mark, but please, you chill too. There is no need to get so defensive, and there is nothing vicious or hysterical in my comments, though I concede that my use of “grave” in my last paragraph is over the top.

  • The Missal, as noted, is very specific: “viri selecti.” Yet it is true that the rubric is widely disregarded for a variety of reasons.

    I would note that the ritual is not–repeat, NOT–a required part of the liturgy. From that, I conclude that it’s hard to justify not carrying out properly; because in those situations where “men only” is a problem, there remains the very obvious, very simple solution of omitting the ritual altogether.

    As it is, the ritual can take on too great a prominence, overshadowing the main emphasis of the Holy Thursday liturgy, which is the institution of the Sacrifice and the priesthood that would perpetuate it. The mandatum belongs to this primary celebration; if it’s untethered from it, it doesn’t belong anymore.

    And as far as washing the feet of women, I will gladly do so, but not at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper.

    • KML

      Fr. Martin, I have to admit that your last line caused me to snort my coffee into my sinuses. Please, let me know when you will be opening your spa and I’ll stop by for a pedicure and confession! : )

  • I am continually amazed at the things we can get ourselves worked up into a grave liturgical snit over. Indeed, the Latin of the Missal is gender-specific: men only. And indeed, the 1987 statement of the USCCB permits participation by women, and remains the definitive statement by the conference. Part of the difficulty is that this ritual has been associated with multiple, sometimes mutually exclusive, meanings. If the footwashing is seen as conferring on the Apostles the priestly mandate of ministerial service, as it often was before the Chrism Mass was separated out from the Mass of the Lord’s Supper to carry the principal significance of commemorating the institution of the priesthood, then it makes sense for Rome to be careful about gender. If, on the other hand, the footwashing signifies the universal mandatum to “Love one another as I have loved you” (certainly spoken only to, but by no means intended only for, the Apostles), then the US custom makes complete sense. Any practice deviating from the Roman norm is, by nature, abuse, but personally, unless the extension of footwashing to women is done with the specific intent of proclaiming that women may be ordained as priests, I hardly think it’s grave, and I know we could find lots worse stuff to get irate about.

  • Spastic Hedgehog

    “Women today are trying to place themselves in roles under liberal priests that are, in my mind’s eye, just trying to act out their overused desire for feminist victory.”

    I’d love it if the letter author could unpack this further as I would understand this to roles beyond footwashing and am curious as to what roles he’s referring to. (The perenneal altar server debate comes to mind but otherwise I’m at a loss)

    • Spastic Hedgehog

      *applies to roles beyond footwashing

    • How about all those radical feminist cantors out there? 😉

  • Romulus

    It’s been because of what the USCCB document says

    Mark, Church documents are sometimes somewhat oblique. Let me translate that document for you: “Over the past decade or so, novelty-infatuated liturgists have successfully hijacked this ritual, imposing on it a new sentiment in place of the original meaning. They have been so successful that most of the faithful no longer understand what the ritual is supposed to signify. Through confusion and flattery they have come to crave the attention and moral pride they enjoy in participating, so much that they would resent a corrective that, frankly, the clergy either don’t understand themselves or else shirk for fear of the wailing complaints that would result.”

    • Mark Shea

      Wow! You have the power to read souls! Can you tell me who will win the World Series too?

      God save us from self-deputized lay liturgy cops. is it not possible to just say, “Here’s what the Church actually prescribes” without doing the Nostradamus routine on thousands of people about whom you know not one damn thing?

      • Romulus

        I don’t read souls, Mark. Neither do you, as a matter of fact.

        But I can read text — so I can’t help noticing rhetorical tricks for what they are: either the sign of a confused mind or else of a coy, evasive, subtle mind seeking to confuse unwary others.

        • Mark Shea

          Goodbye. You’re done here.

  • Mark R

    Why are religious people the first to lose their sense of priority?

    • Interesting question actually.

      I think it is due to the conceptual gap we often have between our Faith and how we live our lives. One the one hand, conceptually we surrender to God and His Church. On the other hand, we still rebel against this. And so when we argue about liturgical stuff, I think we still exhibit that notion of “I’m in control” rather than surrendering to authority. And the, uh, “intensity” is due to that nature having found a way to express itself.

    • Steven A. Dunn

      I agree this is a very interesting question. In addition to what was said in the other comment, I think it’s a result of emotional hangups. We religious people often treat the world of the Faith as a walled garden distinct from our lived experience where all our internal struggles can play out. Changing, say, a piece of music at Mass is transformed from a reasoned discussion about the merits of the piece to a Wagnerian struggle against perceived cultural forces.

      This isn’t unique to religion, btw: ask the next kid you see in tight pants and thick black glasses what they think about popular music.

    • I don’t think it’s just religious people. Religious people just get different priorities mixed up and it looks worse because their relationship with the Almighty is supposed to make double sure their priorities are, in fact, in line.

  • Devra

    At my old parish they decided women should be included, too–but the women were wearing stockings. So the dilemma was: stop in the middle for stocking removal? Keep them on and let them remain soggy? Then someone had a bright idea: they wouldn’t wash anyone’s feet–they’d just wash hands, instead. So that’s what they did. Problem solved–as long as Pilate washing his doesn’t occur to anyone in the congregation.

    • Ted Seeber

      Did it ever occur to anybody to warn the women beforehand that perhaps pantyhose would not be appropriate wear to a foot washing ceremony?

  • Andrew L

    Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum, wrote on this issue over at EWTN a while ago. and it’s worth the read.


    “One correspondent, a woman, asks: “Did the U.S. conference have the authority to change the rubric of the Sacramentary? Did it get the approval of Rome? Certain dioceses will allow men only to have their feet washed; Jesus chose 12 men, his apostles.”

    I was not unaware of this statement. But since the entire text is couched in ambiguous terms and does not claim any authority whatsoever (in spite of the aura of officialdom in its being published by the liturgy committee) I did not consider it a relevant source. What is surprising in this document is that it does not question the premise that a pastor or even a bishop has the authority to change or vary a specific rite at his own behest. He does not have such authority except where the law specifically allows him to do so. This said, other paragraphs of the above statement correctly recall that this rite was reintroduced into parish celebrations relatively recently (1955) and so, as a rite, cannot claim a long liturgical tradition directly linking it to Christ’s action on Holy Thursday — although this is the obvious interpretation. Thus, at least hypothetically, it could be subject to a reinterpretation to “emphasize service along with charity” in such a way as to be also open to women. Yet the proper authority for such a reinterpretation is the Holy See or a two-thirds vote of an episcopal conference ratified by the Holy See and not an individual bishop or pastor.”

  • Steve H.

    The issue has already been settled

  • rita


    I reserched this topic, at length, last year. I also the USCCB statement as well as the following–refering to the Cardinal O’Malley inquiry..

    Boston, Mass., Mar 22, 2005 / 12:00 am (CNA).- After angering women during Holy Week last year, Archbishop Sean P. O’Malley decided that he will wash the feet of women and men Holy Thursday, after having consulted with the Vatican, reported the Boston Globe. According to the archbishop’s spokeswoman, Ann Carter, the Congregation for Divine Worship “affirmed the liturgical requirement that only the feet of men be washed at the Holy Thursday ritual.”

    However, it said the archbishop could make a pastoral decision that is best suited for his diocese…..”

    I take the last line to infer all bishops may make a pastoral decision. If one believes this only exempts Boston, we should take the same argument a little further and say it only applies to Cardinal Archbishop O’Malley…No where did I see Archdiocese of Boston.

  • J. Thomas

    It was be easier to have loads of charity about deviations from Church law on foot-washing if there weren’t deviations from Church law every where you turn. Typically, the deviators from Church law are also the ones deviating from Church teaching.

  • Fr. Frank

    I read a comment by another blogger yesterday with which I must sadly agree. The fact that US Catholics have proven themselves incapable of discussing foot-washing without importing the secular gender wars into the conversation is compelling evidence that we are no longer mature enough to observe this optional ritual. For the greater peace of the Church in America, foot-washing should should no longer be allowed in the US. How pitiful.

  • One in God’s Squad

    Greetings of peace! For twelve years, my brothers and sisters in Christ, our Church has included women of service participating in “foot-washing” during our Holy Thursday Mass. Women also share in God’s Mission as Readers, Extraordinary Ministers,in the Offertory Procession, as Altar Servers, Welcoming Greeters before Mass, Basket Collectors, Choirs, and general Hospitality for the Community at specific times during the year (RCIA, Mission Week, Faith Formation, etc., etc.). We forget that Jesus was sent to men and women, and that we ALL are brothers AND sisters. We ALL share His Mission and our feet are “washed” to give us strength and endurance to continue to be and to be-come servants of His word, in our word and action. Because women are innately called to be true servants, we are included with the men, not to be priests, but to follow in Jesus’ footsteps by being servant. What does gender have to do with the word SERVANT? Keep it simple; St. Francis of Assisi spoke volumes when he stated: “Preach the Good News always; use words when necessary.” As I read all the above words, one image appeared before me. Jesus saying to Simon that he supplied no water to wash His feet, yet this WOMAN washed His feet with her tears and dried them with her hair; unforgettable image, isn’t it? A foot is a foot is a foot is a foot! Reach into the heart. Charity demands….peace!