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It’s hard to find answers when the questions are ignored

April 6, 2013

The German edition of the Radio Vatican blog, authored it seems by Fr. Bernd Hagenkord, SJ, has opined at length on Pope Francis’ foot washing. While not trusting my German to have caught all of the nuance of Hagenkord’s remarks, I think he defends Francis’ actions along the well-worn lines that “liturgy is a living thing and needs to adapt to the times” etc, etc. I agree. Indeed, who could dispute that in principle?

What I find disconcerting in Hagenkord’s blog is that, having linked to my 2006 critiques of the Mandatum rite itself and to my recent critiques of Fr. Lombardi’s inept defense of Francis’ disregard for the rubrics of the rite, Hagenkord seems not to have read them, or he does not understand them, or he simply ignores them. My comments therein, I suggest, turn on points quite different from whether the liturgy may undergo change.

In my 2006 commentary on the annual and unseemly conflicts occasioned by the foot-washing rite, I expressly suggested that Scripture scholars and theologians should help the Church understand the symbolism of Christ’s action (which I’m guessing operates at several levels, some sacerdotal, some charitable, but all ministerial) whereupon, as appropriate, Rome could either open the rite to women (if the symbolism is primarily that of charitable service) or transfer it to a liturgy wherein the bishop and priests could perform the rite among themselves (if the example is primarily that of apostolic ministry). But Hagenkord ignores these 2006 points—which actually support his analogy of the liturgy as a living thing able to be adapted over time—and instead uses them as an occasion to make a joke about “foot-gate”.

Meanwhile, in my recent critique of Lombardi’s ‘explanations’ of Francis’ actions, I tried to point out the serious negative pastoral consequences of his encouraging every liturgist to become, in effect, a legislator unto himself. But again, Hagenkord ignores this point, which makes one wonder why he even bothered to link to it.

In any case, once again one may ask, what is so difficult about following this line of thought? (A) Rome rightly claims nearly exclusive competence to direct the liturgy (c. 838 § 1), one of the principle characteristics of which is unity (c. 837 § 1); (B) The foot-washing rite, though optional, is restricted to males (viri); and (C) a pope has the authority to modify this rite, but no one else does (Sacrosanctum Concilium 22.3).

Now, did Francis disregard the rubrics? Indisputably. Does his action constitute an abrogation of that rubric? (I would argue No, but have others contrary arguments?). If Francis’ action does not constitute an abrogation of liturgical law, where does his example leave many priests next year who, still being bound by the rubrics, will doubtless be pressured to ignore them based precisely on Francis’ example? Or, if Francis’ action does constitute an abrogation of liturgical law, are other liturgical norms likewise abrogated by similar papal actions (and if so which ones), and if not, why not?

I think, and I think I am reasonable in so thinking, that these are questions worth asking. What I don’t understand why so many folks seem frightened by the very possibility that these questions have been put in play, and go to such lengths to deny that they have been raised.

There are, I am sure, very good answers to such questions, but those answers won’t be explored as long as people ignore the questions.

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Additum: The always excellent Dcn. Keith Fournier has weighed in on the foot washing incident. Like most commentators, he prefaces his comments by wondering why so many people are commenting on it.

I on the other hand understand why so people keep talking about this: it’s because most of the foot-washing discussion (which immediately dives into what the rite means, with most folks thinking it’s about service, and some arguing that it’s about ordination—an argument I stay out of), but anyway, most of the discussion, as I say, avoids a crucial point, one that won’t go away till it’s honestly addressed: namely, what does Francis’ action teach about the import of liturgical law when Rome keeps repeating the law, even though the law makes people uncomfortable, and then exempts itself from the law?

My concern is legal (not Scriptural, not theological), legal. I think law contributes, on the whole, to the welfare of society; I think disregard for law sends a bad (or at best, a mixed) message, and that Francis’ action needs to be considered in this light. The question isn’t going away because it’s not being acknowledged, let alone considered.

Or so it seems to me.

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