by Dr. Edward Peters

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, I suggest, turn on points quite different from whether the liturgy may undergo change.


In my 2006 commentary of the annual and unseemly conflicts occasioned by the foot-washing rite, I expressly suggested that 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 it 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.



Dr. Edward Peters | April 6, 2013 at 10:19 am | Categories: Uncategorized | URL: http://wp.me/p25nov-B4

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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  1. abyssum says:

    The principle point that Dr. Peters is making is that one does not promote observance of the law by breaking the law. Popes are morally bound to observe the laws they or their predecessors have promulgated. If a pope wishes to change a liturgical law he can do so by simply announcing the change through the Vatican Press Office, but until a pope changes the law he should obey it, otherwise every Tom, Dick and Harry will feel free to change any of the liturgical laws and some of those laws pertain to the validity of sacraments, not just the washing of feet on Holy Thursday.

  2. Wow, I have been reading and re-reading articles and comments about the foot washing…my own “concerns” about the foot washing of women, or non-traditional recipients of this act from a liturgical law standpoint.
    If, indeed, Dr. Peters, this would be just a matter of law (and I love the law, canon or otherwise – unless of course it is unjust, but I am not addressing unjust laws at this point), my question is this – if Pope Francis is allowed, as pope, to change this law at will (though others are not), and chooses to wash the feet of women (which I was not thrilled with, but again am only addressing liturgical law here), then he has not “denied”, “overreached”, “gone against”, (etc) the law, therefore, is it possible that this conversation on Pope Francis’ action, if based solely or primarily on liturgical law, addressing the “wrong” issue?
    For example, if a Bishop, other than the Bishop of Rome, washes the feet of women, he “may” be wrong or going against liturgical law, as he has no authority, on his own, to do this, so this issue perhaps needs to be the primary issue addressed.
    I’m with you on the need to follow “law” and, if it is unjust, or knowledge has “expanded”, or for whatever other reason, a need to change the liturgical law emerges, then that law needs to be changed prior to going against it. I understand liturgical law is not that difficult to change.
    If we lose respect for the law, chaos will surely ensue, however, on several counts, I believe, if we consider ONLY Pope Francis’ action, this was in keeping with everything he is not only allowed by law to do, but perhaps called by Christ and the Holy Spirit, to do.
    Thank you for your discussion on this matter, it has been a “question” in my mind and a concern for many years. God bless, Mona Lisa

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