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Some thoughts on the VPO statement regarding the Mandatum rite controversy

April 1, 2013

Additum (6 apr 2013): Grüße zu deutschen Lesern! Tut mir leid. Ich kann nicht gutes Deutsch schreiben, aber ich habe auf diesen Artikel auf Englisch hier geantwortet. Herzlich, Dr. Peters.

The background to this controversy is the antinomianism that prevails today.

The Church is passing through a period in which the relationship between ecclesiastical law and the life of faith is widely misunderstood and the very content of Church law is often poorly explained. My attempts to address this double problem include explaining how law is important to a faith community, but even more, I try to explain what the law is at present—for one can hardly debate how ecclesiastical law ought to read if one does not know what it already says.

The controversy over Pope Francis’ disregard of a liturgical law in the Mandatum rite exposes, I think, how many others in the Church misunderstand important aspects of ecclesiastical law and how a misguided attempt to explain Church law can actually provoke more issues for the faithful than it settles.

A Vatican Press Office statement asserts:

“One can easily understand that in a great celebration, men would be chosen for the foot washing because Jesus, himself wash[ed] the feet of the twelve apostles who were male.  However the ritual of the washing of the feet on Holy Thursday evening in the Juvenile Detention Centre in Rome took place in a particular, small community that included young women.”

Such language, I fear, confuses matters.

The basic meaning of a rite, and certainly the interpretation to be given a rubric like this one, does not depend on the number of people attending the liturgy. No theory is offered to show that in large congregations Christ’s modeling of apostolic ministry is intended by the Mandatum, but in small congregations his modeling of love is intended. Asserting otherwise only sows confusion for other liturgical questions. Similarly, to say that the interpretation of this rubric turns on the presence of “young women” is to make effectively universal that odd interpretation (really: how many pastoral settings consist only of males?)

“To have excluded the young women from the ritual washing of feet on Holy Thursday night in this Roman prison, would have detracted our attention from the essence of the Holy Thursday Gospel…”

This unguarded language risks being understood as “following this Church law detracts attention from the essence of the Gospel”. I cannot imagine that this was really meant, but that is basically what is communicated. I do not think there is a conflict between Church law and the essence of the Gospel, notwithstanding that Church laws, from time to time, need to be reformed (as I have suggested the Mandatum rubric should be). In any case, this problematic language exemplifies why Vatican press statements are not vehicles of official legal interpretation in the Church. Canon law makes clear who has authority to authentically interpret Church laws (1983 CIC 16 § 1, ap. con. Pastor Bonus 154 ff., and certain congregations in regard to certain matters).

“… and the very beautiful and simple gesture of a father who desired to embrace those who were on the fringes of society; those who were not refined experts of liturgical rules.”

Again, this is unfortunate language.

The implication seems to be that rubrics are understandable by (and ultimately applicable only to) “refined experts of liturgical rules”. I disagree: many rubrics indeed reflect deep theological truths (and thus rubrics are often exercises in something more than legal positivism), but most rubrics are meant to be easily understandable by normal priests ministering in typical pastoral settings. It is a disservice to suggest that respect for Church law is primarily the concern of “refined experts” or that ecclesiastical law has little bearing on how believers should conduct their faith life.

“That the Holy Father, Francis, washed the feet of young men and women on his first Holy Thursday as Pope, should call our minds and hearts to the simple and spontaneous gesture of love, affection, forgiveness and mercy of the Bishop of Rome, more than to legalistic, liturgical or canonical discussions.”

I agree that Francis’ action achieved this good effect.

What I find distressing is the inability to recognize (or refusal to acknowledge) that this action also had other effects, effects that might not be so benign. I have argued that among those effects was the sowing of new confusion about the binding character of liturgical laws in general, about the influence of a pope on good order in the community, and so on. Now, to be sure, there are sound answers to these questions, but they are not easily offered in the middle of the Triduum and splashed across secular news stories and blogs. This whole matter should have been handled differently from the start.

Finally, this sort of language pits “love, affection, forgiveness and mercy” against “legalistic, liturgical or canonical discussions.” Thus accepted is the well-worn but false dichotomy between the spiritual goods of the Church and her legal traditions. Such a charge is often leveled against canon law today, but it was expressly rejected by Pope John Paul II when he wrote that Church law “is in no way intended as a substitute for faith, grace, charisms, and especially charity in the life of the Church and of the faithful. On the contrary, its purpose is rather to create such an order in the ecclesial society that, while assigning the primacy to love, grace, and charisms, it at the same time renders their organic development easier in the life of both the ecclesial society and the individual persons who belong to it.” John Paul II, ap. con. Sacrae disciplinae leges (1983) 16.

Law in the Church—canon, liturgical, sacramental, etc.—is not an end in itself, but instead serves greater ends. Yet, precisely as law, it cannot serve these purposes if it is ignored and/or explained away, two fates often suffered by law in antinomian times.

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Additum: Permit me to express some impatience with the continuing recirculation of a bad theory.

Every time I turn around, someone is citing Fr. Lombardi’s comment that the pope’s washing of women’s feet on Holy Thursday is “absolutely licit” because it’s not a sacrament. Now, whatever one might finally conclude about the liceity of the pope’s action, it simply CANNOT be defended on the grounds that Lombardi uses.

Consider: the homily is not a sacrament (obviously); the homily is optional at weekday Masses (c. 767 § 3); the homily is reserved to clerics (c. 767 § 1). Okay? So, if a priest decides, as a gesture of charity and to model Christ’s inclusivity, to allow a woman (well, any lay person) to preach the homily at a weekday Mass, is his action suddenly licit?

And don’t tell us this does not really happen.

We could multiply this example many times over, of course.

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