Pope Francis caused a big kerfuffle among some conservative Catholics last year when he washed the feet of women and Muslims on Holy Thursday. One canon lawyer, Edward Peters, said the pope was setting a “questionable example” by not respecting the rules enough. Of course the other 99% of the world saw it as a beautiful inclusive humble truly Christian act.
Well, he’s set to do it again this year. But you know what? Like so many other conservative church traditions, this is not the way things have always been, as those conservatives want you to believe. No, the guideline of only washing the feet of men was invented in 1955. 1955! Before that, washing the feet of women was not uncommon. It was traditionalists who changed and politicized things, to underscore their point about women being ineligible for the priesthood. Good overview piece on it here.
If you live long enough, or do any studying of history, you soon discover that The Way Things Are, as presented to us by traditionalists of any stripe, is often anything but. From the supposed religious conservatism of the United States’ founders to the idyllic 1950s suburban American nuclear family ideal, it turns out that these Ways Things Are are often relatively recent inventions that were themselves a nostalgic clinging to some value that seemed under threat. The 1950s nuclear family ideal was a backlash against the fact that during WWII women had had to work while the men were at war, and many didn’t want to go back to being homemakers. As I touched on in my recent post, Religious Freedom in America Isn’t Threatened — Not Even Close, the insistence that this nation’s founders had “normal” and devout religious views is a backlash against the use, or perhaps overuse, of its principle of separation of church and state in ways that seem to attack religion, while in truth limiting institutionalized religion’s influence is exactly what these immigrants from countries with state-enshrined religions, some of whom were also caught up in the spiritual-but-not-religious equivalent of their day, were aiming to do.
I’m not claiming the Catholic Church used to be a bastion of liberalism, but some things that used to be tendencies and traditions, or which varied widely around the world, became hardened into canon law or “infallible” proclamation only more recently, as backlashes. One of those is the transformation of the beautiful tradition of washing feet, from an imitation of Jesus’ act of humble servant leadership, where a person who has the right to exert authority instead bows down before another person and serves them, into another acting out of Jesus’ supposed commissioning of a group of only men to be apostles. Pope Francis, who embraces the servant leadership model to his core, is having none of it. He is reminding us that this tradition is supposed to be about humility, not piety, and not patriarchy.