On Pope Francis, Feet Washing, Tradition, and Canon Law

Pope Francis - Foot Washing, Mandatum, Holy Week
Pope Francis washes the feet of young ‘offenders,’ including two women, during Maundy Thursday Mass.

The Catholic world is in an uproar right now. In fact, the AP posted a story: “Pope’s foot-wash a final straw for traditionalists.” The problem is focused on the Mandatum Mass, where there is an optional “foot washing” that can be done during the Mass by the priest. The Rubrics, which are supposed to be followed – because they exist, call for men’s feet to be washed.

Many Catholic blogs through the years have focused on this, again option, portion of the Mandatum and have written extensively, myself included. As I, and others, have said – the Rubrics are clear and priests should follow the Rubrics.

This isn’t to say that the Rubrics must say this, or that priests even elect to do this ceremony during the Mass.1 Some have gone so far as to argue that the foot-washing should remain men only because of its symbolic link to the priestly ministry. Yet, some others have argued that it isn’t that women’s feet shouldn’t be washed ever, but that the Rubrics say what they say, and therefore should be followed.

The issue is rather complex actually, because it touches upon several areas, and layers, of Church law. No one better than Dr. Ed Peters can break down a complex issue, and speak about it in a way that educates, analyzes, and charitably explains it in the simplest of ways. So when I was his post on this issue I was reminded of just how well he does exactly that.

So on this issue, he is really worth reading. His post: Retrospectives on the Mandatum rite controversies is very well done. You should read this whole thing, and I concur almost completely with the entire post.

A part I found to be the most well said, really affects both traditionally minded Catholics that are full of anxiety due to the Pope’s actions, and those that are attempting to argue that it means more than it probably does. Peters says:

 A pope’s ignoring of a law is not an abrogation of the law but, especially where his action reverberated around the world, it seems to render the law moot. For the sake of good order, then, the Mandatum rubrics should be modified to permit the washing of women’s feet or, perhaps upon the advice of Scriptural and theological experts, the symbolism of apostolic ministry asserted by some to be contained in the rite should be articulated and the rule reiterated. What is not good is to leave a crystal clear law on the books but show no intention of expecting anyone to follow it. That damages the effectiveness of law across the board.

I agree. One of my favorite bloggers said it best, Terry – Abbey-Roads:

I get the feeling everyone is so busy pigeonholing the Pope, scrutinizing everything he does or says, measuring him according to their preconceived notions on what and how he is supposed to be doing things, that they are hardening their hearts and not listening to what the Holy Spirit is doing or saying.

Unfortunately, that is probably true. Although, I do agree with Peters, that the best thing to do is keep with the Rubrics, or to change them and provide Catechesis.

Not to compare the brother Popes, but what Benedict always did well, was to provide Catechesis for any changes or reforms. We knew exactly what and why.

Lex orandi, lex credendi.



  1. In fact, I have pondered whether the ceremony might be done prior to the Mass, for many reasons, as are other various rites for certain occasions. []
  • Justin

    Utter bullshit. If the Holy Father arbitrarily disregards Canon Law with no explanation or modification prior, what signal does that send to the Catholic world? What other laws and regulations might be arbitrarily abrogated? Horrible precedent, of course the Conciliar Brigade will defend it as a totally prudent act.

  • Diana Hayden

    I personally don’t see the problem here… because he’s not the only one I’ve seen celebrate a Mass on Holy Thursday and wash woman’s feet along with men… There are many priests I’ve seen do this as well… In fact, the reason why there is a washing of the feet on Holy Thurs. is to show not only humility but love for those less fortunate …”Whatever you do to the least of my brothers, you have done to me.” Look it up.

  • Diana Hayden

    The reason there is washing of the feet on Holy Thurs. is because it shows great humility and love of neighbor. “Whatever you do to the least of my brothers, you have done it to me.”

  • Mac McLernon

    In the TLM, the Mandatum was actually carried out after the stripping of the altars.

  • Fr. John Abberton

    I have argued clearly and strictly for keeping the rubric. In fact I stopped washing feet after one year when, behind my back, as I was bent down washing a man’s feet, a woman walked up and sat in an empty chair. She was not trying to make a point, just trying to be helpful, but because of the confusion that might have followed, I refused to have the Mandatum for the next three years. I was encouraged to include it again last year, but this year was challenged by the actions of Pope Francis. My instinct was to watch and “listen”. I asked myself, “what is going on here?”. Rather than condemn it I have tried to understand it. For some years now I have had the feeling that some of our rules are actually not all that good. I would not dream of changing them – who am I? However, I have begun to think about some regulations and have been asking myself “who is actually the author of these; is it the Holy Spirit or us?” The infallibility of the Church, it seems to me, does not always stretch to Church discipline though I would be the last to promote any disobedience, But when a Pope begins to act in a certain way – opposite to a rule or regulation – I have to ask myself in all honesty whether a certain rule or explanation was “of God”. I think the new Pope may be acting prophetically and showing us what, in the end, is a better way because it is based on charity whilst keeping the Lord’s actions and words in full view. In these days, which action does Christ prefer, that of the law-abiding citizen or that of the prophet who seeks to push the boundaries? We must be careful because we are on dangerous ground, but not everything that is being suggested by so-called “liberals” is wrong. Sometimes they may just be right. The danger of always arguing in favour of tradition (small t) is that we can look like the wrong kind of Pharisee.

  • tj.nelson

    Thanks for the link Joe. Happy Easter!

  • Tiffany Borges

    This is what makes Catholics sound insane ‘to the world’ (not that I particularly care, but bear with me). In my hometown, the priest left, was laicized, got married and became a Lutheran minister and a policeman. Visits were made by the hierarchy, speeches were given from the ambo, it was like a painful, public divorce that broke hearts and emptied pews. Regrettable. And he was disobedient to his vows, so know that I’m not defending any of that. I still feel ill when I think of the situation, and he wasn’t even my pastor. But ~ this same parish had a (previous) priest as its pastor for over ten years in the 1980s, who was later revealed as a pedophile preying on the children of the parish. Did anyone from the diocese ever visit? Make impassioned speeches about their broken hearts on that subject? Not one word. So while the foot-washing hubbub is entirely different, it seems to me that we have a tendency to jump onto some piety bandwagon towards (THE POPE), when perhaps there’s work to be done and we should be responding to the Holy Spirit in our own small ways. The internet seems to fuel this news-starved culture in a freaky way — can we just let him do his thing? I really like the description you wrote about this, Joe — yours is the first post I’ve read about any of it. I don’t have a strong feeling about the foot-washing generally or of women, but I do think ‘we’ orthodox Catholics are letting our buttons be pushed a tad too easily. Especially if even the AP knows just where to poke.

  • Claudio Leonel Ordóñez Urrutia

    Jesus made this action as a Catechesis itself, with no more explanation than the argument of true love and tender care among brothers reflected in this humble service. So, I believe, the Pope instead of explaining “reasons” or “consecuences” of this act, with it, he remembered that the reason is LOVE and the consecuence is CHANGE in a world that makes differences between man and woman or catholic and non-catholic. I think it is clear. Congratulations for this profound article. Claudio Leonel Ordóñez Urrutia.

  • Claudio Leonel Ordóñez Urrutia

    After few months, I think he has demonstrated he is brilliant, humble and brave. Specially for what he is doing in the Vatican’s bank. I’m waiting to know him in the youth’s day in South America. I hope to have news of our beloved Benedict XVI.

  • Guest

    As a Roman Catholic seminary graduate, I find the pharisaical musing of that appear here in this blog – from the host as well as some of the comments included – the best argument for Pope Francis and the baby steps he is taking in the right direction. God is embarrassed by the self referential idolatry.