Law catching up with practice, again.

Pope Francis Allows Women to Holy Thursday Foot-Washing
Anthony Ruff, OSB
Pope Francis made the news, and raised eyebrows, when he washed the feet of women, including non-Christians, at Holy Thursday Mass immediately after being elected pope – not least because the rules only allowed for the feet of men to be washed. Now the Holy See has issued a decree making official what he – and many other priests around the world – had been already doing in contravention of the official rule.
The decree was issued today by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, the Vatican’s liturgy department which has Cardinal Robert Sarah as its head.
Pope Francis also wrote a letter to Cardinal Sarah regarding the changes.
As NCR reports, the previous wording about “men” is to be changed to this:
Those chosen from among the People of God are accompanied by the ministers’ (and consequently in the Caeremoniale EpiscoporumNo. 301 and No. 299 b referring to the seats for the chosen men, so that pastors may choose a group of faithful representing the variety and unity of every part of the People of God. This group may consist of men and women, and ideally of the young and the old, healthy and sick, clerics, consecrated persons and laypeople.
Look for much to be made of two words in that passage: “may” and “ideally.” Note that women may be included, but there is no obligation to do so and one may still include only males. But note that ideally the group should be diverse and representative of the People of God. But does “ideally” only refer to the second part of the sentence, and not the first part saying that women may be admitted?
And then there is “People of God.” Does that include only Christians? Only Catholics? Or all God’s people of any religion (including Islam)?
I also expect much discussion about how significant the change is. Is this a real turning point and a sign of significant movement at high official levels? Or is too much being made about a rather insignificant matter? Either view has merits, whatever side of the issue you’re on.
And of course there is the important question of how liturgical law functions and how it should be interpreted. One school of thought says that it may well be legitimate to wash women’s feet – if the rules allow for it. According to this line of thinking, Pope Francis should have changed the rule first, and then changed the practice. Otherwise he’s modeling a cavalier attitude toward the Church’s norms.
But on the other side, some people would say that Francis’s violation of a liturgical rule for pastoral reasons was itself a good model for the whole church. It sent the right kind of message to those who are overly legalistic and think that the Roman Curia ought to micromanage every liturgical practice in the whole world.
For those people, we’ve now lost the sign value of a Pope admirably violating the rules for pastoral reasons. With today’s decree, rules and practice will again be in sync when Francis celebrates Holy Thursday.
Be that as it may, I’m pretty sure Francis has already made clear in many ways what he thinks about people who put rules above all else.

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  1. ….yes..AND…Who washed and anointed the feet of Jesus?…..a woman…imagine that!

  2. Eddie Finnegan says:

    Now I wonder how Cardinal Robert Sarah will react next Holy Thursday when a lesbian Muslim monogamous married couple present themselves, in good faith, for foot-washing at his titular church of San Giovanni Bosco in Via Tuscolana. I feel the Guinean boss of CDWDS may not wait to chop logic with Anthony Ruff over words like “may” and “ideally”.

  3. Maybe then a woman should wash Francis’ feet

  4. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    I think Francis would be up for a feet washing from anyone, to be honest. The Global ACP should be revelling in this information. Is it clear now gentlemen? Benedict was your biggest supporter. He knew when it was time to take a bow. Now the question is do you know when it is time to stop organizing yourselves within this emerging bureaucracy called the Global ACP and start putting your numbers to work. What is your plan? This is about celibacy and equality. Push forward.

  5. Bob Hayes says:

    Eddie (No. 2), you will be disappointed. While the decree doubles the number of Catholics ‘eligible’ (is that the right word?) by including females, it – unlike the instruction of Pope Pius XII (of 1955) – explicitly restricts ‘eligibility’ to ‘the faithful’. In reality the decree is, in many ways, less inclusive than its forerunner.

  6. Wishful thinking Bob. There is now talk from Rome that it could also include non-Catholic spouses (and why not partners, male or female?) and after Francis personal example, even non-Christians. Some are suggesting that foot-washing will go the way of altar service: a largely female affair. Let’s be honest, like so much from Francis, it’s a mess, which is what he wanted, encouraging us to make a mess. Some poor future Pope will have to get out the mop to attempt to clean it up.

  7. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    Martin @6, I love that people could see this as a mess. Foot washing to make a mess. When did Catholicism ever become a discerning club? The clarity you appear to possess where it concerns these items is fooling you. You are judging the Pope on him including others. If there is ever a reason for their not to be another Pope, it would be due to a demographic of global citizen thinking that Francis is making a mess needed to be cleaned up by the next. Thankfully, he is going to continue to set a few things straight. You best listen to what he says as you might learn something about insight and discrimination. The best judgement is knowing when not to.

  8. Sean O'Donnell says:

    I can’t imagine Cardinal Raymond Bourke washing any woman’s foot.

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