Friday, March 29, 2013

Washing Women's Feet: New Pope Captures Media Attention (and Infuriates Catholic Traditionalists)

I intended this Good Friday to write about something that seems really substantial (to me, at least). Meanwhile, a number of things I've read online this morning and last evening strike me as so noteworthy that I'd like to share these with readers, with brief commentary. And if I have energy and focus later, I'll try to gather my Good Friday thoughts to share, too.

First, as some kind readers pointed out in a thread here yesterday, at the Holy Thursday liturgy yesterday, which he chose to celebrate in a detention center in Rome, Pope Francis washed the feet of several women and Muslims. This is big news (and immediately became big news at non-Catholic media sites like Salon) because the washing of women's feet in the Holy Thursday liturgy has become controversial in some sectors of the Catholic church of late, and the choice of the pope to contravene what some Catholics consider an ironclad law against washing women's feet in the liturgy is striking, to say the least.

I'll try to flesh out the significance of this choice of Pope Francis with the following anecdote: when Steve and I took positions teaching theology at Belmont Abbey College in the Charlotte diocese in 1991, washing women's feet on Holy Thursday had been expressly forbidden by Bishop John Donoghue. One of our colleagues on the faculty at Belmont Abbey had been among a group of women whose feet were washed at the Holy Thursday liturgy at the Jesuit parish in Charlotte before we arrived at Belmont Abbey, and for years after that, she was subjected to relentless, mean persecution by the club of old Catholic boys who ran things at Belmont Abbey, who were determined to let Steve and me know we were utterly unwelcome at their college, and who spared no opportunity to remind women that they had their place and were expected to keep to it.

Donoghue played a key role in seeing that Steve and I lost our jobs at Belmont Abbey. He went from Charlotte to become archbishop of Atlanta, where he issued the same decree prohibiting washing women's feet on Holy Thursday for that diocese, and where he expelled various Catholic religious communities to bring in the Legionaries of Christ as their replacement.

And so Pope Francis's choice to wash women's feet on Holy Thursday is a big deal. During the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict, watchdog groups in many dioceses--Charlotte is a case in point--scrutinized every move many parish priests made, to find liturgical or doctrinal infractions that these groups have been hot to report to Rome. One of the hot-button issues energizing many of these temple-police groups has been the inclusion of women or girls in liturgical ceremonies from which they imagine all females are to be excluded.

For some years, these watchdog groups raised hell in the Charlotte diocese if girls were allowed to be altar servers, or if a woman carried the processional cross as Mass began. The mother of the current bishop of Charlotte, Peter Jugis, who was appointed by John Paul II, belongs to a group, Catholics United for the Faith, which has had strong influence in that diocese, and has done everything in its power to make priests and bishops dance to its politically and religiously right-wing tune.

The extent to which right-wing Catholics are energized by the foot-washing issue is evident in this response at the Rorate Caeli blog to Pope Francis's washing of women's feet at last night's Holy Thursday liturgy. As will be evident if you read the thread of astonishing, furious comments following Rorate's posting, you'll see that the thinking underlying the furious response of Catholic traditionalists to Francis's choice to wash women's feet is the following: let women get their feet in the door on Holy Thursday, and next thing you know, they'll be sashaying those same sassy feet up onto the altar and expecting to be, gasp!, ordained. 

And so the Rorate thread is full of comments like the following:

Please , don't wash a woman's feet , 12 apostolic is only man (sic; I'm replicating this verbatim).  
How hard this is for young priests. 
Pope Francis has managed to do more damage in 2 weeks than any Pope in the Church's history.

Poor young priests: how hard this all is for them. Washing the feet of women. And with a pope setting the example.

That the symbolism of some of Pope Francis's immediate moves after he became pope is rocking traditionalist Catholics for whom Benedict was a hero (and Francis is quickly becoming a villain) is evident in this National Catholic Reporter article by John Allen about Magdi Allam, who became Catholic under Benedict, who personally received Allam into the Catholic church. Allam announced this week that his Catholicism "expired" with the end of Benedict's papacy.

Allam's big issue is Islam. He's furious that Francis has made overtures to the Islamic community--to welcoming those of Islamic faith. As Allen notes, Allam also professes to be perturbed by the increasing "relativism" of the church (that word "welcome" again), its "globalism" which expects us to see those outside our tribal boundaries as members of our family, its emphasis on "do-gooders" which obliterates the interests of the tribe itself as all-important, and its "temptation to evil."

Those poor young priests: how hard all of this is for them, this "welcoming" and "doing good" and thinking in "global" and non-tribal terms! Doesn't your heart just break for the poor young priests who now have to minister under Pope Francis?! And the feet of women to wash now!! Heart-breaking.

So, yes, at a symbolic level, at least, Pope Francis is already making some big waves, and these waves are not lost on non-Catholic people of faith, non-Christian people of faith, and the secular media. As I noted recently, it's now being reported that at the conclave that made him pope, Cardinal Bergoglio strongly criticized the inward-turning "narcissism" of the Catholic church in recent years, and its inattention to those living on the "peripheries" of society.

At Religion Dispatches, Elizabeth Drescher offers commentary on this story, noting that the Cuban Catholic website Palabra Nueva has published a transcript of Bergoglio's handwritten notes detailing what he told his fellow cardinals before they elected him. The notes confirm that the pope to be stated,

The Church is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries, not only in the geographical sense but also to go to the existential peripheries: those of the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and of religious indifference, of thought, of all misery.

And he critiqued the "self-referential" sickness of a church that "seeks Jesus Christ within and does not let him out," and in this way stagnates due to its "theological narcissism." Bergoglio called for the reform of a church "living in itself, of itself, for itself." 

I certainly take heart from the new symbolism and new style of this pope--symbolism and style that I don't find new at all, but in keeping with the most ancient affirmations of the church about itself, which Vatican II tried to retrieve by removing the accretions of monarchy and triumphalism that had grown up from the Constantinean turn through the Counter-Reformation to the fortress-church model of the church determined to resist modernity and democracy.

As one of those little count-for-nothing human beings living on the nowhere peripheries, for whom the new style and heartening words have to mean something real in terms of actions that go beyond mere words, I also continue waiting and watching to see what will happen down the road with the new pope. I want to see how he intends to deal with the Curia and the Vatican Bank, what he plans to do for survivors of clerical abuse, how (or whether) he will move beyond washing women's feet to according women real justice in the Catholic church, and, it goes without saying, how or whether he will reach out to his gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.

For a continuation of this discussion in which I respond to questions a reader asks in the thread below, please see this subsequent posting.

The photo of yesterday's papal Holy Thursday liturgy is from L'Osservatore Romano by way of an AP article by Nicole Winfield.

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