Friday, March 29, 2013

A Reader Writes: What's This Foot Washing All About, Anyway (and Is There a Red State/Blue State Divide Here)?

In response to my posting earlier today about Pope Francis's choice to include women among those whose feet he washed in the Holy Thursday liturgy yesterday, a reader bosicO writes:

As i posted at commonweal site, I did not know that there were dioceses that excluded women from the foot-washing ritual. For forty years or more, parishes I have been in, including my current one, have included women. Is there a red state/blue state divide in the church as well as politically in the country? I find much of what the trads obsess about to be puzzling, but this one even more so. The foot-washing ritual is about our Christian obligation to serve others, not about a reenactment of the passover meal in the upper room. Yes, Jesus washed the feet of his male disciples, but the point was about humbly serving others, not about serving only your sidekicks. I thought this was pretty basic, and well, orthodox. How could they get this so wrong?

Bosic's asking good questions: where has the washing of women's feet on Holy Thursday been forbidden (is there a red state/blue state divide)? And isn't the core symbolism here about our calling to serve others, and so how do those fixated on gender issues in this ritual get it so wrong?

I'm not a liturgist, and I have only a passing acquaintance with many parameters of this discussion, but here's the little bit I do know: I don't know precisely what dioceses in the U.S. (or elsewhere) have adhered to the Vatican regulation that only the feet of men be washed on Holy Thursday. It would be interesting to note whether there is the kind of red state, blue state breakdown about which Bosic asks.

This I do know: I had never had any experience with this controversy that seems so to engage the passions of right-wing Catholics until Steve and I moved to the Charlotte diocese in 1991. But we were moving there from the Southern state of Louisiana, from New Orleans, where I can't recall any furor at all about whether men's feet or women's feet were chosen to be washed on Holy Thursday, nor do I recall any such controversy in my home state of Arkansas.

So not all red states seem to have been worked up over this issue. I do seem to recall that the bishop of South Carolina forbade washing women's feet, however, as did the bishop of Charlotte in the past--though I may be wrong in this vague memory.

As far as I know, the divide is more accurately not between regions of the U.S., but between reactionary "reform of the reform" Catholics and the rest of the church--and this may also be true in other parts of the world. For anyone who cares to google, there is any number of articles online showing how reactionary Catholics have made a shibboleth of excluding women from the Holy Thursday ritual, and why they've done so:

1. If you can stomach Michael Voris, here he is holding forth on how it is absolutely and categorically forbidden to wash women's feet on Holy Thursday, because "the washing of the feet is directly related to the male-only priesthood"--though Voris also notes that the "very grave abuse" of washing women's feet was occurring all over the U.S. by 2012. Voris is featured in this article at the Restore-DC-Catholicism site whose author was furious, just furious, I tell you! that the conservative cardinal of D.C., Cardinal Wuerl, had washed women's feet on Holy Thursday in 2012.

2. Predictably, all the conservative Catholic websites that provide answers to anguishing questions of the faithful such as, "What am I to do when I see my parish priest participating in liturgical abuse by washing women's feet?," provide oodles of information about how wrong, wrong, wrong this practice is. Here's Catholic Community Forum reiterating what Voris says about the foundational symbolism at work in the Holy Thursday foot-washing: 

The washing of men’s feet during the Holy Thursday celebration of the Last Supper is a rich sign of the priest’s role in the community. Rooted in Sacred Scripture, this sign primarily reminds the priest that he comes to serve the congregation as Christ came to serve all. The presence of the congregation is a passive affirmation of his purpose and call to ministry.

Got that? Quite literally, the faithful are at the Holy Thursday liturgy to sit "passively" and watch a priest affirm his ministry by washing the feet of men who represent the apostles--who were men, so how could it ever be imagined that a woman should be included in this priest-affirming ceremony at which the laity are expected to be passive priest-affirming onlookers?!

And here's Fr. Edward McNamara of the Legionaries of Christ university in Rome, Regina Apostolorum, courtesy of EWTN: 

. . . [T]here has been no change in the universal norm which reserves this rite to men as stated in the circular letter "Paschales Solemnitatis" (Jan. 16, 1988) and the rubrics of the 2002 Latin Roman Missal.  
No. 51 of the circular letter states: "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.' This tradition should be maintained, and its proper significance explained." 

Fr. McNamara does note that Rome had, by 2005, given permission to "a U.S. bishop" to wash women's feet "if he considered it pastorally necessary in specific cases." But he's quick to add that this exception was for a particular case only and "from a strictly legal point of view has no value outside the diocese in question."

And the USCCB office itself has considered this issue sufficiently critical for USCCB to upload a similar USCCB-explains-it-all-to-you answer to Catholics anguished by uncertainty about whether women's feet should be washed on Holy Thursday, which notes (and it does so well) that the symbolism of the ritual has everything to do with service and charity, and the inclusion of women is appropriate given that core symbolism.

3. What now has reactionary Catholics concerned is that the precedent the pope has just set explicitly disregards the Vatican directive to restrict the rite to viri selecti--to men--and in this way, it provides a "questionable example," as canon lawyer Edward Peters states in this New York Times article. (Note that Jesuit Fr. Jim Martin also underscores in this article that some dioceses have banned washing of women's feet on Holy Thursday.)

And there's also this: as British Catholic blogger Chris Gillibrand notes in this Guardian article by Lizzie Davies, what if the pope is moving towards women's ordination?!! And, echoing Peters, "How can the pope maintain discipline in the church if he himself does not conform himself to prevailing ecclesiastical legislation?"

4. Finally, if you really, really want the skinny on what right-wing Catholics think about these issues and why they are now so exercised that the new pope broke church law and washed women's feet yesterday, read the inimitable Fr. Zuhlsdorf a mere two weeks before Francis did what he did yesterday. Fr. Z. is responding to a question from one of those many anguished Catholics who has heard that his/her pastor intends--oh God!--to wash women's feet on Holy Thursday for reasons of "hospitality," "inclusivity," or "pastoral" example (dreadful reasons, Fr. Z. tells us in a bright red gloss).

Fr. Z. gets the pastor told:

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.

How a mere two weeks can change things. Now poor Fr. Z. must tuck into a distasteful dish of corvum franciscanum for his Easter meal.  (I use the objective case since eating crow is an action requiring a subject [in this case, Fr. Z.] and an object [in this case, the crow itself]).

Poor, poor Fr. Zuhlsdorf and all those faithful Catholics who thought they were going to Holy Thursday liturgy to be passive mirrors reflecting the refulgent splendor of the church's all-male clerical elite as it reaffirmed its importance in the foot-washing ritual, and whose liturgical expectations were so badly dashed by the pope himself yesterday.

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