Pope Francis: Is the liturgical law changed that only men should have their feet washed on Holy Thursday?

Pope Francis: Is the liturgical law changed that only men should have their feet washed on Holy Thursday?

Question: The Pope recently washed the feet of some women on Holy Thursday. Does this papal action automatically mean that the liturgical law is changed which prescribes that only men should have their feet washed within the context of the liturgy?

Answer: The principles involved in the answer to this question strike at the very heart of the nature of the authority of the papacy. This subject has been treated at length by the First and Second Vatican Councils. The normal term to express this authority is “infallibility.”  The pope is, of course, the Vicar of Christ on earth, and, as such, is the supreme authority on earth in the Catholic Church. According to Catholic doctrine, the authority was given by Christ to St. Peter, and his successors, while he was personally present on earth.

Infallibility means that the Church, as a whole, cannot err in believing what Christ taught, either directly, or by logical connection to formal revelation. However, the authorities, which speak for what the Church has always believed, are the pope’s alone when he intends to define a teaching in faith or morals; and the college of bishops, when speaking as a whole. The first is directly taught by Vatican II, and is the result of a charismatic grace which the pope personally exercises in his office as supreme Pontiff. This was defined by Vatican I, and the teaching of the Church on this subject has not changed. “For the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church, has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered” (Catechism of the Catholic Church {CCC}, §882; Cf. Lumen Gentium, 22). The second is the college of bishops, which is not a parliament set against the pope, but includes the pope. “The college or body of bishops has not authority unless united with the Roman Pontiff, Peter’s successor, as its head” (ibid.). The pope is the only bishop who has a right to speak for the college as a whole, and there can be no collegial act apart from his approval, or at least his reception. Teachings of the college are also infallible, but they are not the same as the infallibility taught by Vatican I concerning the ability of the pope, alone, to define a doctrine. The infallibility of the college of bishops is taught in Vatican II. Both the ordinary, and the extraordinary, Magisterium exercise teaching in this way. A denial of these teachings would be under the sanction of either formal heresy or schism.

There are also teachings of the Church made “without arriving at an infallible definition and without pronouncing in a ‘definitive manner’” which involve a teaching of the ordinary Magisterium that “leads to a better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals.  To this ordinary teaching, the faithful ‘are to adhere to it with a religious assent.’” (CCC §892; Lumen Gentium, 25). Denial of teachings like this would be a sin of disobedience, but not formal heresy.

The practices of the liturgy are not teachings, as such, but are an extension and implementation of faith. Still, if one were to divert from liturgical practice, this would be disobedience and a sin. But unless it involved the matter and form of the sacraments, it would not be heretical or even schismatic. Liturgical practices, outside the issue of form and matter, are human law, not divine or natural law. The only person who could dispense from human law would be the authority who declared and promulgated it. This is the dicastery in Rome, which implements the directions of the pope and, thus, the whole Church, in liturgical practices.  Dispensation would normally occur in the law through legal channels, but since the authority who made the law was under papal mandate, the pope could, in prudent circumstances, dispense himself from its observance. This is not a norm for the whole Church anymore, that a given dispensation for an order, or diocese, would involve general law or practice.

In light of these facts, it seems absurd to conclude from an act of a given pope—albeit an act at variance with common law—that this is determinative for the whole Church, unless the pope himself declares he is intending to make this a practice for the whole Church. Those who want to destroy the unity and ritual of the liturgy should not take a given papal action, on a special occasion, as a justification for declaring it a license to do what they want to regarding liturgical practice.  By the same token, those who declare that since the Pope did it, the proclaimed norms have been changed, should not take this as a precedent—unless, of course, the Pope himself says it is, or the dicastery in question changes the norm and its language. Regarding this practice of washing the feet of men only during Holy Thursday services: at the time the Pope washed the feet of women as well, the norm on this issue was still sufficiently clear, and so this norm of washing only mens’ feet should continue to be observed unless a dubium (“doubtful question”) is resolved by the Congregation in Rome saying it should not be restricted to men only.

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