Women now included (lawfully) in the Washing of the Feet

Today, the Vatican has released a letter from the Holy Father to Cardinal Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, and a decree of the Congregation, In Missa in Cena Domini, both to the same effect: women may now be lawfully included in the ceremony of the washing of feet on Maundy Thursday. The Holy Father had previously included women in the rites he personally celebrated, but the liturgical law of the Church had still referred to viri selecti. And so, for the past couple of years, as Maundy Thursday came around, there would be a little debate about whether it was proper for rank-and-file priests to follow the Holy Father’s lead, notwithstanding the rubrics in the Missale Romanum. (One’s answer depended largely on one’s ideological orientation.) New Liturgical Movement has translated the relevant portions of the Holy Father’s letter and Cardinal Sarah’s decree implementing the Holy Father’s wishes.

As you might imagine, traditionally minded Catholics have noticed.

The current rites for the washing of feet, as Cardinal Sarah’s decree notes, really go back to 1955, when the Sacred Congregation for Rites handed down Maxima redemptionis, the decree reforming the entire Holy Week liturgy. And, as even casual observers of the liturgy know, the 1955 Holy Week reforms were a sign of things to come. First, the 1962 Missale Romanum of St. John XXIII, then the various post-Conciliar revisions to the liturgy, culminating, of course, in the 1970 Missale Romanum of Bl. Paul VI. So, really, in a sense, today’s decree is simply another milestone along the road that began all the way back in 1955. However, given the connection between the washing of feet by Christ and the priesthood, it is not an insignificant milestone. The argument is already making the rounds that this weakens one of the symbolic justifications for the all-male priesthood. While Ordinatio sacerdotalis remains an essentially infallible pronouncement, given the haste and glee with which other aspects of John Paul’s magisterium have been dismantled, we are not altogether sure that Ordinatio sacerdotalis is an impregnable fortress against the innovators. So, while we are not as given to alarmism as some are, we do not wholly discount their warnings.

We do not see any indication of whether this decree is to have effect for the Forma Extraordinaria. The Holy Father did not mention it specifically in his letter and the decree did not mention it, either. Recall that the Instruction Universae Ecclesiae, which implemented more particularly Summorum Pontificum, and which remains in full force and effect, provides (no. 24) that “[t]he liturgical books of the forma extraordinaria are to be used as they are. All those who wish to celebrate according to the forma extraordinaria of the Roman Rite must know the pertinent rubrics and are obliged to follow them correctly.” (Italics in original.) Thus, it seems to us that, in the Forma Extraordinaria, the washing of feet is limited to men, but in the Forma Ordinaria, the washing of feet may include both men and women. (Father Hunwicke notes that, in both forms, the rite is limited to Christians even under today’s decree, though the Holy Father’s personal practice usually includes Muslims.) One imagines that Archbishop Pozzo will have to release some statement from Ecclesia Dei before Maundy Thursday this year, lest real confusion take hold.

Of course, we note the usual consternation from traditionally minded Catholics—though, if our instincts are right, and this change does not affect the Forma Extraordinaria, it is unlikely that traditionally minded Catholics will be affected by the change—and we anticipate that there will be more consternation over the subject. However, this practice, illicit though it was, has existed for some time in Novus Ordo parishes. The Holy Father has made it lawful, but he certainly hasn’t made it up for the first time. The real issue, as New Catholic notes at Rorate Caeli, is that this appears to be essentially an irreformable act. The Holy Father’s reform on this point is “so great and symbolic no successor of his could ever overturn [it].” (Practically speaking. Legally speaking, his successor could abrogate the decree as soon as he walks back inside from the Urbi et Orbi.)