Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

The Mandatum Issue: Beware of Superficial Judgment

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 04, 2013

Pope Francis’ decision to wash the feet of women in the prison in which he celebrated the Mass of the Last Supper has created a bit of a stir, especially among liturgically-conservative Catholics. Critical responses have ranged from a mild concern about the larger impact on rubrical observance of the Pope’s decision to outright condemnation of the Pope, as if he has somehow revealed “his true colors”. The former reaction is reasonable; the latter is not. There are simply too many aspects of this issue to consider for anyone to be jumping to conclusions.

Let us first recall that there is no question of the Pope “breaking the law”. In the Catholic Church, the Pope is the author of all ecclesiastical law (Canon Law, liturgical rubrics, particular policies). As the author or source of the law, the Pope is not bound by it, any more than the father in a family is bound by the rules he makes for orderly family life. A prudent father will follow the rules he establishes as a general principle, because this gives good example and encourages respect for rules designed to foster the good of the family. But all good parents sometimes relax or contradict a rule, when circumstances warrant it, and they are not somehow being “disobedient” when they do so.

In just the same way, the Pope is able to prescind from any of his rules and laws, without the least disobedience (the concept is simply inapplicable) and without disrespect for the law on his part, even though his action might be misunderstood in a way that fosters disrespect in others. This potential for fostering disrespect is certainly worthy of consideration, but it must be weighed against the merits of suspending the normal rule in a particular case.

Some have argued that if the Pope fails to observe a particular rule, then the rest of the Church is free to ignore the rule as well. But this is not at all theoretically justified unless and until the Holy Father indicates that he wishes the rule no longer to be the norm. His publicly-expressed will in such matters has the force of law, but one cannot conclude from an occasional departure from a rule that the Pope does not wish that rule to govern typically. If that is his intention, he will no doubt make it clear soon enough.

The Law of Charity

While Catholics who are not the Pope do not have the same freedom—that is, the possibility of actual disobedience does apply to everyone else—all Catholics do have a certain freedom with respect to Church law when it comes to the demands of charity. A simple example which most of us have encountered relates to the laws of fast and abstinence. If we are abstaining from meat (or fasting) according to Church law on a particular day, but we are visiting someone else, our host may place a meal (or meat within a meal) before us. The law of charity demands that we refrain from hurting the host’s feelings. We are to eat what we are served, without any show of reluctance or distaste.

For those of us who pride ourselves on sticking to the rules, this can actually be a salutary act of humility, producing the desired spiritual attitude more effectively than the actual fast or abstinence would do. But if we should delight too much in the respite the host offers, we can always substitute another penance later!

The same holds true for the obligation to attend Mass under pain of serious sin. If it is significantly difficult to get to Mass, we are absolved of this obligation under the law of charity. Perhaps the nearest Mass is 100 miles away, or the only Mass time available is when one is all alone caring for a sick child; in  these and many other cases the law does not bind. And the same holds true for those who actually have the power of enforcement of Church laws, such as priests or bishops. A priest might not always insist on the fulfillment of each normal requirement for marriage preparation, for example, if there is a good reason in charity to relax the rules in a particular case. Or he might say Mass in a private home under unusual circumstances, even if is against the normal rules his bishops has established. Again, the law of charity prevails.

Sometimes rules-oriented persons, pastors and laity alike, can become so preoccupied with laws and rules that they lose sight of the dispositions which the laws and rules are designed to foster. When this happens, they become pharisaical. The same description legitimately applies to us when we quickly condemn others each time some rule is violated, leaping to uncharitable conclusions about the state of their souls—when we should really be concerned for our own.

Dangers: Motivation and Context

The danger in all this is the classic danger of Christian freedom, the danger of “love and do what you will” (St. Augustine). And that danger is that we typically do not know how to love perfectly. Too often we experience a temptation to relax a rule out of self-love, which is exactly the opposite of what we should be doing. For this reason, a decision to prescind from a rule should be made on serious reflection and, unless our own legitimate need is very clear, for the sake of others, not for ourselves.

We must also perceive the connection between particular rules and the doctrinal, moral or sacramental realities which the rules are designed to protect. These realities are of divine origin; they are not within our power to abrogate or reorder as we will. If the decision to contravene a particular law or rule is likely to engender disrespect for the truth or moral laxity, the argument against this decision is extremely strong. On the other hand, when a particular rule or law becomes outmoded, no longer playing a significant role in protecting and fostering permanent realities—or when circumstances conspire to make the rule or law counter-productive in a particular instance—then the argument for dispensing with it is easier to make and, in the latter case, extremely strong.

But who is making the judgment and why? It is precisely these questions which haunt deeply-committed, orthodox Catholics. Over the past fifty years, the overwhelming number of rules that have been suspended all up and down the hierarchy, from the man in the pews to the bishop in the chancery, have been suspended not as exceptions but more or less permanently, and not in order to preserve spiritual goods but in order to bring those spiritual goods into disuse or even disrespect. To put the matter simply, too many rules—not to mention doctrines of faith and moral laws—have been abandoned or even formally changed by secularized Catholics who simply do not appreciate the fullness of the Catholic Faith.

Truly, context is everything.

But I would also argue that, in general, the context in which the rules are being reconsidered now is not the same context as twenty or forty or fifty years ago. The situation still varies from place to place, but in general the episcopate and the priesthood is healthier now than it was a generation ago. The tendency now is to revive respect for law in the Church as necessary to foster a salutary reverence for the sacred realities. And I would certainly argue that Catholics have no need to fear for the sacred realities at the hands of the Pope, as if his every action is to be judged on its potential to reveal a secret heretic.

The Mandatum Itself

It is sometimes amusing to see certain kinds of Catholics become fearful and defensive about priestly and episcopal dignity when the Pope (or anyone else) makes a decision not to insist on a particular dignity of office—such as a reluctance to be called “Your Holiness” or “Your Eminence” or “Your Excellency”. There is almost a reverse clericalism here, and it is at least potentially as dangerous as the tendency to blur the line between priest and layman, which diminishes our awareness of the Church’s sacramental power. The washing of the feet on Holy Thursday is called “the Mandatum” because Our Lord mandated that his disciples treat others in exactly this way, as servants. It is somewhat odd, therefore, that it should be the Mandatum ceremony which throws this whole problem into relief.

Beyond the letter of the liturgical law, which specifies that those whose feet are to be washed are to be male, there is a fear that if the rule is not observed, it will undermine the distinctiveness of the rite in recalling Our Lord’s own actions and in emphasizing the importance of the apostles. Some would argue that this disvalues the episcopate, the priesthood, and the sacramental system. But surely this is a case of misplaced fear. An emphasis on the hierarchical status of the apostles does not appear to have been Christ’s intention, and in any case the rubrical emphasis on specifically lay males does not preserve any genuinely apostolic association. Rather, the primary point of the ritual seems to be the service demanded of priests by their Christian discipleship, which in turn should be imitated by all.

Let us consider the relevant Scriptural passage:

Then he poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples' feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which he was girded. He came to Simon Peter; and Peter said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not know now, but afterward you will understand.’… When he had washed their feet, and taken his garments, and resumed his place, he said to them, "Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them. (John 13:5-7;12-17)

Now I do not mean to pretend that this was not done at the Last Supper or that it was not the apostles who were present. But note that St. John does not use the term “apostles” but “disciples”, making this an example which applies to any follower of Jesus. Also note that there is no emphasis here on any sacramental value, let alone on the suitability of the disciples to take Orders. Instead, the whole point of Our Lord’s explanation is that anyone who calls Him “Teacher and Lord” ought to follow His example, for the “servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him.” The point is simply this: If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.


It seems to me that there is ample warrant for permanently changing the liturgical rule which restricts foot-washing to males, as maleness plays no significant role in this context. The priest represents Christ; in washing the feet of those who depend upon him for spiritual good, he demonstrates the essential note of ministerial humility and self-abasement in genuine service. And any person who receives such service is called, in Christ’s name, to do the same for others.

But it remains to be seen whether Pope Francis intends to change this rule. Retaining the restriction has one value; it makes the current liturgical context seem materially more similar to the context of the Last Supper, even though the use of layman renders the scene theologically dissimilar, and this particular similarity or dissimilarity seems to be essentially irrelevant to Our Lord’s point. It is at least possible that restriction to males has become something of a patriarchal anachronism. It is certainly possible that insistence on this rubric actually now obscures what it was originally intended to clarify. But again, whether the Pope intends to change the norm remains to be seen.

What is important, however, is that we ought not to be jumping to conclusions about Pope Francis based on his suspension of a rubric when washing feet at a special Mass for prisoners who were both male and female. The effort to read something deeply sinister into this is not only futile but sinfully presumptuous. It suggests a certain Pharisaism which those who pride themselves on tradition and orthodoxy must be very careful to guard against. In fact, I think the wisdom of an old adage is once again verified in this case of the Mandatum: When your only tool is a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail. And that is not a good thing at all.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Apr. 16, 2013 11:24 AM ET USA

    I agree that we must ever be on our guard against scrupulosity. I would like to make two points: (1) we are to avoid the near occasion of sin, (2) we are to _follow_ Christ. To follow Christ means to do as He commanded us; we can never _be_ Christ, but we are called to conform our will to His will to the greatest extent humanly possible. Are we free from concupiscence? No. Is Christ free from it? Yes. Thus Christ's freedom from internal conflict allowed Him to act in ways more risky for us.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Apr. 15, 2013 5:50 PM ET USA

    Obviously I cannot say that those who think they would be tempted by washing the feet of a woman would not be tempted, but I think this argument carries the concupiscence question way too far. If a priest could not deal with this, I would wonder whether he could deal with any contact with women at all. In any case, let us not forget that Christ permitted His feet to be washed by women. Surely the same considerations apply, whether washing or being washed.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Apr. 15, 2013 12:43 AM ET USA

    I am arriving late to this party, but a respected priest and I agree with Canonigo Regular below. To wash the feet of a woman not his wife is for any man (excepting Christ) to subject himself to the near occasion of sin. Whether or not he will be able to control possible lustful thoughts today, tomorrow, in the future, or in his dreams, prudence dictates that he should avoid this form of physical contact unless necessary for the purpose of, say, saving a life, or other medical reason.

  • Posted by: Duns Scotus - Apr. 08, 2013 1:22 AM ET USA

    It seems the reason why what Pope Francis did was wrong keeps changing. First, it was because he washed the feet of women contrary to the rubrics. Second, it was because he washed the feet of Muslims, even though the rubrics don't limit the Mandatum to Catholics only. Third, no man should wash the feet of a woman who is not his wife. In other words, some people seem determined to find fault with what the Pope did, no matter what that fault might be. "Pharisaical" is just the right word.

  • Posted by: Duns Scotus - Apr. 07, 2013 1:00 PM ET USA

    To add to what was said earlier, Pius XII added the Mandatum to the Holy Thursday Mass in 1956. For an excellent survey of the history Mandatum before and after 1956 see Peter Jeffery's superb article in the March, 1990 issue of WORSHIP. Jeffery argues convincingly that the 1956 revision was an inovation and departure from the immemorial tradition of the Mandatum, which before 1956 included both men and women. BTW, the authentic tradition would also allow the inclusion of non-Catholics.

  • Posted by: abc - Apr. 06, 2013 6:36 AM ET USA

    Thank you so much. The commenter below stole my words. This was, by very far, the best analysis of this conundrum I have read so far. Those who insist that the Mandatum is about the Apostles should wonder, then, if the rite should not call for washing only bishops' feet!

  • Posted by: - Apr. 06, 2013 5:54 AM ET USA

    For me the main caution against priests washing the feet of women lies on the symbolic level, not on the legal level. It seems unseemly for a man to wash the feet of a woman who is not his wife. If I were married I would not want another man washing my wife's feet. Call me old fashioned, but sexual mores often have common sense reasons behind them. Do we want this highly symbolic act to go against millennia of sexual wisdom? I do not.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 05, 2013 5:50 PM ET USA

    Very well balanced article, I think. The knee-jerk virulence of many of the comments on the Pope's action did more harm than good, and played into the hands of those who favor a laissez-faire attitude towards rubrics.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 05, 2013 4:19 PM ET USA

    Disagree here, Jeff. There may be a fair argument to relax the liturgical rubric such as the one you articulate. I do not think it advisable. But that is not what happened. The Pope ignored the rubrics. The context here is a prevailing antinomianism and clericalism that convinces priests they are above liturgical rubrics (see Benedict XVI's Spirit of the Liturgy). The sky is not falling but Pharisaical attitudes are less common than antinomian attitudes. This aggravates that issue.

  • Posted by: cobol39218881 - Apr. 05, 2013 4:10 PM ET USA

    You said 'But note that St. John does not use the term “apostles” but “disciples”'. Was the Muslim woman a disciple, no. Jesus condemned the Pharisees for their hypocrisy, but told disciples to follow the law. As if we haven't had enough confusion to endure the last 50 years, we may have a Pope that doesn't always listen to the Holy Spirit, but his emotions. Pray he listens to the Holy Spirit. We may be wrong. If so, the Church may have to remove the rules it created over the last 2000 years.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Apr. 05, 2013 1:10 PM ET USA

    I appreciate your comments, Dr. Mirus. I think we need to keep in mind that our new Holy Father is new to the job of being the earthly leader of the Church Universal. He may well be experiencing a reality check over this incident. He isn't in Buenos Aires any more, and both good and evil will watch his every move from now to the end of his reign. I would appreciate his paying a bit more attention to the liturgical norms, and I am sure he still desires our prayers.

  • Posted by: mario.f.leblanc5598 - Apr. 05, 2013 10:16 AM ET USA

    Thanks Dr. Mirus for bringing forth the risk of pharisaism. Meanwhile, in my parish, two baptisms of adults were celebrated this past Easter Sunday, one of an African woman, the other of a convert from Islam. Maybe the Holy Father's conduct will inspire more such events for the advancement of the Church... Amen!

  • Posted by: samuel.doucette1787 - Apr. 05, 2013 9:40 AM ET USA

    One post said that the Mandatum was "immemorial custom", but from what I heard on a trusted Catholic apologetics radio show this week, the actual Mandatum rite was placed into the Roman liturgy only in the mid-1950s by Ven Pius XII. Doesn't sound like "immemorial custom" to me. This is a tempest in a teapot, and I thank Dr Mirus for his very reasonable discussion of the controversy.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Apr. 05, 2013 9:15 AM ET USA

    Forgive me for adding a word here, but it seems to come to the point. While none of the 12 could possibly have been a Muslim, chronology being what it is, one of them most certainly was determined at that very moment to cooperate in the judicial murder of Jesus. Even Muslims escape that moral burden I believe.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Apr. 04, 2013 11:33 PM ET USA

    Thank you very much for this. It is the most reasonable and intelligent discussion of this question I have seen since the event....and the most Catholic. It has cleared my mind and set me at ease (I was one of those mildly concerned by what happened).

  • Posted by: koinonia - Apr. 04, 2013 8:44 PM ET USA

    Sinister? No. Different? Most definitely. Two females and the unbaptized. Not insurmountable for Christ's Vicar, but certainly a lot to digest in so sudden a fashion. This is particularly the case in light of the immemorial custom, and the fact that allowing women was previously a practice associated with experimentation opposing church law. It has certainly made an impression, and more than a little splash was made particularly within the Vatican. Regardless, thought-provoking for sure.

  • Posted by: Defender - Apr. 04, 2013 6:53 PM ET USA

    Though priests of many Catholic churches have ignored the mandatum for years (with the local bishop doing nothing in response, for every year it happens again), it is a tradition and one where the twelve represent the 12 Apostles (none of whom were Muslim, I'll bet). While we're at it, why don't we take the 12 stars from the crown of the Queen of the Apostles and Mother of the Church? Signs and symbols have always been important to the Church and its priests continue to give scandal.