Pope John XXIII

To Wash Or Not To Wash

First, my apologies to William Shakespeare.

Rome is called the
“Eternal City”. Originally it was a political concept springing from a self-possessed people. But over time the term has come to mean more. For example, the Catholic Church is headquartered in Rome, technically the Vatican City State. And the church moves with such tortoise-like alacrity, that eternal has frequently been used to designate the speed of change. Then came Francis.

Not since John XXIII has a pope so energized the church with the gifts of the spirit, in particular, the spirit of humility. In Catholic theology there is a built in tension between the institutional church (tradition) and the movement of the spirit (charism). The church is neither singularly pentecostal, nor can it be fossilized in an authoritarian past. That tension keeps the church in balance. The progress may be slow, but it is steady. With a few hitches.

Yesterday, Palm Sunday, we entered into Holy Week. And Thursday evening begins the Triduum, the most sacred three days in the Christian calendar when we commemorate the Last Supper, death and Resurrection of Jesus. Although symbol is core to all the rituals of the Catholic Church, perhaps the most powerful and inspiring one occurs on Holy Thursday when the priest washes the feet of parishioners, a reenactment of Jesus’ Last Supper. Enter Pope Francis and his universal vision.

It is not overstating the case to suggest that Francis is a rare person. A Pope with the wisdom to acknowledge his own limitations and the humility to admit that he does not know everything. Unfortunately, not all his bishops share those traits.

Last year, Francis modeled Jesus, not just by washing feet, but washing the feet of women. And not just women, but a Muslim woman. It was so moving that one could be forgiven for thinking this model would be followed by others. And, indeed, some have. But in Wisconsin there is a bishop who defies not just the example of the Pope, but also the fact of evolution.

Robert Molino, the bishop of Madison, is stuck in the past. Irretrievably. He has ignored the Pope’s example in his own life and has also prohibited any priest in his diocese from washing the feet of any woman in any church. He seems to have confused his role with that of the universal shepherd. Sadly, this has caused enlightened pastors in his diocese to skip this profound symbol altogether.

I understand that the twelve Apostles were all men. But the Scriptures do not say that only men were in attendance at the Last Supper. And if women were present, washing their feet would have been an even more profound demonstration of Jesus’ humility and fully consistent with the meaning of his action.

It is so tempting to say Molino is misogynistic. But that is too kind a word. It is more accurate to suggest he is Neanderthal. But that is an insult to our ancestors. No, I’m afraid that Bishop Molino is an archeological phenomenon. He simultaneously proves and disproves evolution.

By contrasting him with Pope Francis one can prove that evolution takes place and at the same time prove that evolution is not inevitable. Francis embraces women as the equal of men and all men as equal to each other. Molino embraces only his own kind.

Of course it is possible that the contrast proves divergence. Francis, like most of humanity, is continuing to evolve. Molino, like some, is devolving. Either way this is not as comical as I pretend. It is tragic. Tragic that women in the Madison diocese are so demeaned. Tragic that the Catholic Church has a pope who has been to the mountaintop and a bishop who is still swinging in the trees.

Democracy in the Catholic Church

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Just a moment. We’re not there, yet. Pope Francis has asked that every parish, meaning every practicing Catholic, weigh in on significant issues of faith—same-sex marriage, birth control, divorce, to name just three. He’s taking a poll. But what does this mean?

First of all, it signifies that all the people have a voice in church teaching. Now before conservatives get too worked up, this is not really radical. Merely unusual. For too long, there has been a tendency to confuse the “Church” with the Vatican, or its institutional structure; a tendency to confuse the authority of the pope and bishops with the “faith” of the church. As the Second Vatican Council emphasized, the church is the people of God. Underlying every Catholic doctrine is the “sensus fidelium”, the sense of the people. In the simplest of terms, this means that the entire people cannot err in faith—they cannot believe something contrary to the truth. An individual, a parish, a diocese, even an entire country can be in error, but not the whole people. Collectively they have been given the deposit of faith.

Although possibly only an academic distinction, it should be noted that not even the pope can declare something infallible that the people themselves do not believe.

It is true that in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus declares that the keys of the kingdom belong to Peter. But in context, Jesus places Peter in charge as “first among equals”. It was not a power play. Peter was to be the source of unity, who would exercise authority in order to hold the church together. Scholars note that in all the Gospels, when any list of apostles is given, Peter is always mentioned first and only Peter speaks for the entire group. That indicates the position Peter enjoyed among the twelve. But even then, it was not absolute.

In the Acts of the Apostles we see that Paul, also an Apostle—though not one of the twelve—challenges Peter. He does so not to usurp the authority of Peter. He does not even attempt to. Rather, Paul makes sure that Peter exercises his authority correctly. That he embraces the presence and work of the Holy Spirit in the non-Jewish followers of Jesus.

In Catholic theology, the pope is the successor of Peter. So he possesses that same role of authority and unity. But there has been a tendency to over-emphasize the authority. A good example is the church’s teaching on birth control. Pope John XXIII established a commission to examine whether or not artificial contraception was intrinsically evil. Following his election, Pope Paul VI expanded the commission to 72.

It remains a sad historical reality that at the conclusion of the study two reports were presented to Paul VI. The official report was signed by 65 members—including every lay person on the commission, hence anyone who had received the Sacrament of Marriage. Their conclusion was artificial contraception is not intrinsically evil. But there was a minority report (isn’t there always?). The minority report was signed by 7 clerics (4 priests, 1 cardinal and 2 bishops), none of whom was married. Paul VI promulgated the minority report. Where was the sensus fidelium in 1967? By the way, for any Americans reading this blog, we have additional reason for shame. Two American priests drafted the minority report!

I suppose we can take comfort in the fact that Paul VI was wise enough not to claim infallibility! That would have been a mess, for the best studies indicate that the number of married Catholics who practice artificial birth control may be as high as 80%. Pope Francis has decided to give proper weight to the sensus fidelium.

Does this mean the Catholic Church will become a democracy? Perhaps not. But for the long suffering, this is the same excitement that stirred in people from the American Revolution to the Arab Spring. Pope Francis has welcomed the Holy Spirit back to Rome after far too long a vacation!