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.