Monday, January 25, 2016

Thoughts on the Change of Rules for Washing Feet on Holy Thursday

Emphasizing a Different Aspect of a Teaching Does Not Equal Changing Teaching

So the Pope made a change in the Holy Thursday rite of Washing of Feet and both Progressive and Traditionalist Catholics tend to see it as a harbinger of change in the Church. They only disagree over whether it is a good or a bad thing. I think the assumption that this signifies change to areas of doctrine is false. I think that people are forgetting a few things, and forgetting these things lead to bad conclusions.

The point I would make is that when Our Lord acts, there is a great deal of depth to His actions. It would be foolish of us to limit the meaning of His actions to only one aspect. So the Church can decide to emphasize one aspect of this depth of meaning at one time in her history and another aspect at a different time. In doing this, the Church is not contradicting the other aspects of meaning.

The account of the Washing of Feet is found in John 13:1-17. In it, Jesus washes the feet of His disciples. It’s a scandalous action. It’s something a servant would do, not someone as important as Jesus Himself. But Jesus stresses that it is something they must do for others, just as He has done it for them. Now, for years this action has been emphasized as part of the Institution of the Priesthood and the role of the Priest’s service to others, and this emphasis is good. The Church has not “lost her way” in giving this emphasis. But it’s not the only emphasis to be found in Our Lord’s actions.

Because there is another compatible emphasis to be found in Our Lord’s words and actions. In this emphasis, we see the Priest as carrying out the words in John 13:15-16. "I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do. Amen, amen, I say to you, no slave is greater than his master nor any messenger greater than the one who sent him."

Reading these verses, I see the Pope’s actions in changing who might take part in this ritual as showing that the Priest is carrying out Our Lord’s actions by washing our feet. His change does not change the meaning of Our Lord’s actions and does not change the Church teaching on who may be ordained to the Priesthood. It merely emphasizes a different action that might be summed up as: "Just as Jesus washed the feet of His disciples, we now wash the feet of our parishioners, serving Him by serving you."

There’s nothing wrong or objectionable in that approach. It certainly does not contradict Church teaching or undermine Our Lord’s words or actions. Nor does this aspect block the Church from changing it again later if she felt a need to emphasize the link to the priesthood again. The idea of a discipline is it can be changed if the magisterium thinks it is for the good of the Church.

On the Other Hand, Change Does Not Justify Previous Disobedience

That being said, I would like to address one common response made by some when this news came out. That response was “We’ve been doing it for years.” To which I say, “Yes, but doing it when it was forbidden is to do wrong.” The thing to remember is that while a discipline is changeable, it is not something we can reject on our own preference. Before Vatican II, the Church forbade meat on Fridays. Now, she permits other options as a penitential act. However, before the Church made that change, the person who did eat meat on Fridays did wrong. Not because there was anything wrong with meat, but because they rejected the authority of the Church on how to do penance on Fridays.

In the same manner, those Catholics who knew the Church teaching prior to 2016 and still admitted women to the rite of washing of feet did wrong because they rejected the authority of the Church on how to celebrate the rite.

One can’t point to the actions of Pope Francis on Holy Thursdays between 2013 and 2015 to justify their actions. He had the authority to make a one-time exception on each occasion. We didn’t. The priest would have had no more right to wash the feet of women prior to the Pope’s decree that a priest would have to make use of the extinct Mozarabic rite just because St. John Paul II did in 1992 and 2000.


Disciplines can change. There are several examples of this over the history of the Church. However, these changes are never legitimate when done contrary to what the magisterium rules to be the norm. It’s not inconceivable (though extremely unlikely) that some day may see the Church lift the requirement for ordaining only celibates. But even if she should (again, extremely unlikely) that would not validate the behavior of priests who married before such a change was made.

The important thing to remember is this:

  • What Our Lord has called evil, the Church does not have the authority to call good or neutral. What Our Lord has called good, the Church does not have the authority call evil.
  • What the authority of the Church binds, the authority of the Church can loose. What the authority of the Church looses, the authority of the Church can bind.
  • The individual has no authority to loose what the Church binds or call good what God has called evil. Nor does the individual have the authority to bind what the Church looses or call evil what God calls good.

Once we remember these things, we can keep things in perspective.

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