Sunday, 24 January 2016

The Pope and the Washing of Feet

It will not surprise my regular readers to learn that I think the Holy Father's recent changes to the rubrics surrounding the Mandatum are unwise.

I do not buy Austen Ivereigh's line, that this is the restoration of an ancient practice. Rather, as the Decree itself says, this is an innovation. (I did, in fact, have an exchange with Ivereigh on Twitter about his claim, and he sent this link to justify it.) The fact that women, in convents, have had their feet washed outside the liturgy does not, I think, justify the claim that allowing women to have their feet washed as part of the liturgy is a restoration.

Some people (judging by some of the comments online, such as Niall Gooch's on Twitter) seem to think that the traditional discomfort with this innovation 'appears to be that since there have been bad changes in the past, ALL CHANGE IS BAD.'  I don't think that is a fair characterisation. 

For myself, I have reservations on a few grounds. 

The first is that this seems to be a part of a pattern of post-hoc legitimisation of illegal behaviour. It is not as egregious as the legitimisation of altar girls. That was done by chicanery - at least this is a more official procedure. But the pattern endures - and the message it risks sending is simple. If you disagree with the Church's law, carry on - the Church will catch up with you eventually. That is clearly both wrong and dangerous.

The second is that it risks confirming a modern anthropological error: that male and female are trivial, not essential, differences. It risks appearing to bow at the altar of a modern understanding of what it means to be a woman (or a man); an understanding that sees contraception, promiscuity, and abortion as stepping stones along the road to true equality. The Church should be correcting this view, not colluding (or even seeming to collude) with it.

A third is that it risks colluding with another (related) error: that the Church has, by and large, got it wrong in the past, and needs to catch up with modern understandings in order to correct its practice and belief. I remain unconvinced that modern western liberal democracies have anything of significance to teach the Church. I would argue, rather, that there is a lot that they could learn from the Church, if only they would not harden their hearts.

My fourth concern is that it is premised on a wrong understanding of liturgy. It seems to be using the liturgy as a means of (at worst) 'virtue signalling'; or at best as a means of 'making everyone feel included.' I suggest that both of these fall far short of liturgy's true purpose.  That is not to say that the liturgy of the Church cannot, or indeed should not, change. But, as Sacrosanctum Concilium rightly ruled, nothing should be changed unless the good of the Church certainly requires it. 

Finally, the Decree says: 'In order that the full meaning of this rite might be expressed to those who participate it seemed good to the Supreme Pontiff Pope Francis to vary the norm...'  I remain unconvinced that the Holy Father has explained the full meaning of this rite, which is rich and complex; and further unconvinced that it is better expressed by changing it from 12 men to a small group of people. The impression one gets is that the word 'seems' is carrying all the weight: Francis is not a theologian, and I think he should change the liturgy only with proper advice and theological consideration - or not at all.


Niall said...

I think my response to the Trad reaction to this decision was born of a certain frustration with what I see as a growing and exaggerated hostility to Francis in some conservative Catholic circles. His every word and action are interpreted in the worst possible way, with the important Catholic principle of interpretative charity thrown out of the window (cf. the reaction to the idea that we might need to find new ways of expressing our doctrines on sexuality, because the words used to explain a teaching are not themselves the teaching).

Perhaps what I said was a caricature of the Trad response. However, if it was, I don't think it was much of a caricature. The tendency I mentioned above seems to be growing, and I say this as someone who is in many ways a trad (although not perhaps a Trad).

On this point of whether the Church has "got it wrong" in the past and whether liberal democracy has anything to teach the Church: it seems to me that the Church has got rather a lot of things wrong in the past; *not* matters of faith and morals, but rather its endorsement and acceptance of political arrangements and social practices and customs that have unchristian injustices embedded within them. The Church acquiesced for a long time in using secular power to uphold its teachings and suppress free exchange of ideas; it acquiesced for a long time in what amounted to forced marriages, often of very young girls (and the use of marriage as a dynastic tool); it acquiesced in social arrangements that narrowed the confines of women's worlds and denied them entrance to e.g. the professions, civic life and universities.

The Church does have some making up to do in terms of becoming more reflective of its proclaimed reality that men and women and equal before God, even though they are not identical. I don't think this means accepting that the creation of men as men and of women as women does not have deep and abiding significance.

Ben Trovato said...

Thanks for your reply, NIall.

I don't think that we are that far apart, in fact. I would certainly never claim that the Church has got everything right in the past: that would be absurd. I try to choose my words with some care, so when I wrote: 'colluding with another (related) error: that the Church has, by and large, got it wrong in the past, and needs to catch up with modern understandings in order to correct its practice and belief,' I meant that phrase to be taken in its entirety - and I stand by it.

What the Church needs to do, in this and every age, is better live and better proclaim the truths entrusted to it.

As for some of the madder Trad sites and individuals, I know what you mean - but they are not, I think, typical of traditional Catholicism or traditional Catholics en masse.