Washing Women's Feet as a Matter of Conscience

There is a bit of a stir online this week over comments made by Cardinal Robert Sarah, the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, last month (I know, but the Vatican news cycle is weird that way). He clarified that no pastor is obligated to include women in the foot-washing rite on Holy Thursday, and “that every bishop or priest ‘has to decide in accord with his own conscience, and according to the purpose for which the Lord instituted this feast.’”

Per the revised text, that is clearly correct. There is no requirement that the group include both sexes. I said as much in a blog post when the reform was first announced.

I also wrote, “One big difference I would note between this and the announcement that females are permitted to be altar servers is that this time there is (so far as I know) no hand-wringing letter from the CDW about how confusing it could be to the faithful, about how they will need it to be carefully explained to them if their bishop or pastor should choose to include women.” Even now, in his clarification, Cardinal Sarah is not going out of his way to make any argument in favor of the men-only practice. I would have liked him to also point out that, per the revised text, no pastor is obliged to include any males in his foot-washing rite, but we can’t have everything.

What we’re seeing now—the pushback, or “concerns,” Sarah is responding to—is what always happens when women are granted some new ability to participate fully in the liturgy, on the same footing (so to speak) as men: maneuvering to protect the privileged space that was formerly reserved to men. It’s a broader social phenomenon not restricted to the church: a minority or disadvantaged group is allowed greater representation or participation, and reactionary forces in the majority group move to oppose or limit that extension of privilege. For example:

In 1970, as part of the liturgical reforms that followed the Second Vatican Council, laypeople were given the right to read from the Scriptures (but not the Gospel) at Mass. The document announcing those changes, Liturgicae instaurationes, says, “The conferences of bishops are to give specific directions on the place best suited for women to read the word of God in the liturgical assembly.” Translated, this means: Yes, you can still keep women out of the sanctuary if you like.

When the Congregation for Divine Worship finally affirmed that women and girls could be altar servers, it took care to point out that this did not restrict the prerogative of any priest to refuse to allow them and reserve the role to boys and men alone, at his discretion.

So, when the pope approved a revision to the rites for the Mass of the Lord’s Supper spelling out that the group chosen for washing "may include men and women," I knew the loophole of “may, not must” would be seized on by liturgical conservatives. Yes, the decree explicitly says that now “pastors may choose a group of faithful representing the variety and unity of every part of the People of God.” So the intent is pretty clear. And it would have been strange to mandate the presence of women in the process of undoing an irrelevant gender restriction. And, let’s posit that there may be some communities where an all-male group is representative: a seminary, a monastery, etc. But, by that same token, there are also communities where an all- or largely female group would be representative. Now such a community will not have to scramble for gentlemen to press into service, as was the case at a nursing home where I used to work, where the population was mostly female, the home was run by nuns, and the foot-washing ritual, in conformity with the letter of the law, was sadly sparse.

Let’s also remember that it could well be the case in certain communities known to Cardinal Sarah that a man, even a priest acting in persona Christi, touching a woman in this way would be considered improper. That’s structural sexism, obviously, but like all sexism it has to be undone gradually. In such a culture, if such a culture exists, a mandated change in practice that would overshadow the meaning of the rite itself is perhaps best avoided for now.

But we do not live in such a culture, which is why in this country the “viri selecti” of the Missal has been interpreted as referring to men and women for many years now. Still, if the CDW won’t speak up for the male-privilege dead-enders, there are those who will! Diane Montagna quotes Joseph Fessio, SJ, reminding her that “this is a permission, not a requirement.” And he’s not above sowing doubt as to the legitimacy of this so-called permission. “As canon law now stands,” he says, “duodecim viri (not duodecim homines) is specified.” This is the same Fr. Fessio who said, in 2008, “I have it on authority of a Roman canonist who has been involved that even to this day, technically, female altar servers are not permitted by the Code of Canon Law.” Now, as then, I would be interested to know why the decision of the CDW is not authoritative enough for him.

So: by the letter of the law, a pastor may still restrict his or her foot-washing group to men alone. The question now must be: why would he? In a parish context, where the people he serves are male and female, young and old, etc., why would he ignore the instruction that directs him to wash the feet of a group that represents the community in its diversity? To preserve male privilege is the only answer I can think of. It’s the only answer Fr. Fessio can think of, too, though he doesn’t put it in quite those words. To insist on a now officially marginalized interpretation of the rite as having to do primarily with ordination, or to insist on the sex of the apostles as binding in this one situation, amounts to the same thing. It’s the same reason one might consider erecting a second-class ambo from which the Scriptures will be proclaimed when women's voices are doing the proclaiming, or worry about protecting a priest's right to keep girls away from the altar while calling boys forward.

Fessio and others have pointed out that the foot-washing rite itself is optional. If a priest really can’t stomach the idea of allowing women to participate, and is just self-aware enough to know that excluding them will be difficult for him to defend, he can skip the rite entirely. It would impoverish the liturgies of Holy Week, yes, but would it be more detrimental than a public demonstration of his desire to go on excluding women? For such a priest, as Cardinal Sarah suggests, this Holy Week may well be an opportunity for an examination of conscience.

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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