Pope washes lady feet. Causes alarm.

This article was originally published in the very wonderful Siren. Illustration by Mice Hell

“Pope alarms traditionalists by washing women’s feet”

I laughed when I read this headline and tweeted “Have they nothing better to be alarmed about?.” I often try to copy the cool responses of real atheists to daft religious prejudice. If I was indifferent to the Catholic Church then I wouldn’t be hurt by it. Sadly, even though I’m not a Catholic anymore, I’m not not a Catholic either.

I find the foot-washing idea bizarre. While walking the Camino de Santiago I stayed in a hostel where every evening a local man washed the feet of the pilgrims. I  was so uncomfortable that I put both my feet in the basin when it was meant to be just one, the washer violently grabbed the offending foot and pulled it back out of the bowl, everyone else laughed and I got (very unfairly) scolded for not respecting the ritual.

All the same, the symbol of the washing of feet is powerful – recalling how Christ washed the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper, showing that he came to serve and not to be served. What the Catholic Church tells us is that  Jesus (yes, friend to sex workers – that Jesus) came not to be served by men, but to serve men.

This Holy Thursday, the ceremony took place in a juvenile detention centre on the outskirts of Rome, where the Pope washed and kissed the feet of twelve young offenders, including Muslims and two women. As the Papa himself put it:

“This is what Jesus teaches us. This is what I do and I do it with my heart. I do this with my heart because it is my duty. As a priest and bishop I must be at your service.”

And the response of Church traditionalists is to express outrage and horror that the Pope has shown himself to be at the service of women. Washing the feet of priests, homeless men or male criminals displays humility and compassion. But washing the feet of any woman in the world sets a worrying precedent. It suggests that the world’s most powerful religious and moral leader might believe that women are equally deserving of Christian love and must be served equally by his Church.

The justification for only allowing men to participate in the ritual is the same as the justification for disallowing female ordination; only men were apostles and only the apostles had their feet washed at the last supper. Other true things: all the apostles were Jewish, all the apostles were middle-eastern, most of them were fishermen and probably had beards.

The Church doesn’t preclude beardless men from having their feet washed, yet it does women. Why? Because it’s an institution riven with the most appalling structural misogyny imaginable and isn’t even bothered coming up with non-ridiculous excuses for it.

A conservative Catholic commentator, Chris Gillibrand, wrote on his blog that “we will see if it is a particular case as Lombardi [Vatican spokesperson] suggests…one can only be concerned that he could be prepared to ordain women.”

I think the traditionalists are blowing this out of proportion. Francis, as bishop and cardinal, has explicitly stated his opposition to female ordination and he remains extremely conservative, despite his unusual eschewing of luxury and conspicuous status indicators. Indeed, his spokesperson has come out saying that they don’t want a theological debate about this issue, that this ceremony was “a specific situation in which excluding the girls would have been inopportune in light of the simple aim of communicating a message of love to all.” Ambivalent, at best.

However, despite all of its failings the Church has the loyalty of hundreds of millions of women and through its teaching influences the lives, health and wellbeing of those women. So, for their sake, I’m with the conservative Catholic commentators on this. As a new Church year begins, one can only hope that the Pope could be prepared to ordain women.


3 thoughts on “Pope washes lady feet. Causes alarm.

  1. This is brilliant. Non-ridiculous excuses are unknown to the Vatican. I think the logic there has been skewed so much and reinforced by far too much support that it can no longer think any other way, not unlike a science fiction dystopia. When the Catholic Church brings up women and their place in the church it always makes me think of Gloria Steinham’s forward to the Vagina Monologues, here:

    “If a book with vagina in the title still seems a long way from such questions of philosophy and politics, I offer one more of my belated discoveries. In the 1970s, while researching in the Library of Congress, I found an obscure history of religious architecture that assumed a fact as if it were common knowledge: the traditional design of most patriarchal buildings of worship imitates the female body. Thus, there is anouter and inner entrance, labia majora and labia minora; a central vaginal aisle toward the altar; two curved ovarian structures on either side; and then in the sacred center, the altar or womb, where the miracle takes place—where males give birth. Though this comparison was new to me, it struck home like a rock down a well. Of course, I thought. The central ceremony of patriarchal religions is one in which men take over the yoni-power of creation by giving birth symbolically. No wonder male religious leaders so often say that humans were born in sin—because we were born to female creatures. Only by obeying the rules of the patriarchy can we be reborn through men. No wonder priests and ministers in skirts sprinkle imitation birth fluid over our heads, give us new names, and promise rebirth into everlasting life. No wonder the male priesthood tries to keep women away from the altar, just as women are kept away from control of our own powers of reproduction. Symbolic or real, it’s all devoted to controlling the power that resides in the female body. Since then, I’ve never felt the same estrangement when entering a patriarchal religious structure. Instead, I walk down the vaginal aisle, plotting to take back the altar with priests—female as well as male—who would not disparage female sexuality, to universalize the male-only myths of Creation, to multiply spiritual words and symbols, and to restore the spirit of God in all living things. If overthrowing some five thousand years of patriarchy seems like a big order, just focus on celebrating each self-respecting step along the way.”

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