Popes, like dads, don’t have a choice in the matter
Pope and dads set examples whether they want to or not. If I have dessert despite not having finished my supper, my kids do not experience that family rule as something presumably oriented to their welfare, but rather, as an imposition to be borne until they, too, are old enough to make and break the rules. Now, none will dispute that Pope Francis has, by washing the feet of women at his Holy Thursday Mass, set an example. The question is, what kind of example has he set?
As a matter of substance, I have long questioned the cogency of arguments that the Mandatum rite should be limited to adult males (a point lost on Michael Sean Winters in his recent nutty over a Mandatum-related post by Fr. Z that linked to my writings on the subject). But I have never doubted that liturgical law expressly limits participation in that rite to adult males, and I have consistently called on Catholics, clerics and laity alike, to observe this pontifically-promulgated law in service to the unity (dare I say, the catholicity) of liturgy (c. 837). Pope Francis’ action today renders these arguments moot. Not wrong, mind. Moot.
By disregarding his own law in this matter, Francis violates, of course, no divine directive, nor does he—to anticipate an obvious question—achieve the abrogation of a law which, as it happens, I would not mind seeing abrogated. What he does do, I fear, is set a questionable example at Supper time.
We’re not talking here about, say, eschewing papal apartments or limousines or fancy footwear. None of those matters were the objects of law, let alone of laws that bind countless others. (Personally, I find Francis’ actions in these areas inspiring although, granted, I do not have to deal with complications for others being caused by the pope’s simplicity).
Rather, re the Mandatum rite, we’re talking about a clear, unambiguous, reasonable (if not entirely compelling or suitable) liturgical provision, compliance with which has cost many faithful pastors undeserved ill-will from many quarters, and contempt for which has served mostly as a ‘sacrament of disregard’ for Roman rules on a variety of other matters. Today, whether he wanted to, or not, Francis set the Catholic world an example, about solidarity with outcasts, certainly, and about regard for liturgy.
A final thought: we live in antinomian times. One of the odd things about antinomianism (a condition that, by the way, does not always imply ill-will in its adherents though it usually implies a lack of understanding on their part) is that antinomianism makes reform of law not easier but harder: why bother undertaking the necessary but difficult reform of law when it’s easier simply to ignore it?
It’s a question with reverberations well beyond those of a foot-washing rite.