I wish to revert to what I am convinced are some important questions about the implications of the Holy Father's controversial choice last year concerning whose feet to wash and kiss on Maundy Thursday.
Fundamentally, it seems to me that his action ran the risk of multivolent signification: of being a gesture which could bear a variety of different possible meanings, whether one at a time or in combination. I refer, of course, to the Holy Father's disregard of the law restricting the pedilavium to viri, males.
His action is able to mean at least three quite radically dissimilar things; either that
(1) we must love and respect and serve all men and women, even the lowest in society; or that
(2) law may be disregarded whenever we think we know better, or that
(3) the Sovereign Pontiff is above the Law; that his position is so exalted that, unlike every other Christian, he is under no legal or moral or even prudential obligation to obey the Law or to appear to do so. (Morris West, writing during the maximalising papacy of Pius XII, gives imaginative, if chilling, expression to such an inflated attitude to the Papacy in The Devil's Advocate: " ... the Chair of Peter ... was a high leap, halfway out of the world and into a vestibule of Divinity. The man who wore the Fisherman's ring and the triple tiara ... stood on a windy pinnacle, alone, with the spread carpet of the nations below him, and above, the naked face of the Almighty. Only a fool would envy him the power and the glory and the terror of such a principality ..." Oh dear. No, I don't think I want to go down that sort of path.)
I will disregard (2). Furthermore, we must notice that, logically, if meaning (1) is intended, then (3) would have to be intended together with it. This because the Sovereign Pontiff could have gestured to express (1) without breaking the Law. He could - he is the undoubted Supreme Legislator - have changed the Law before his action; he could have devised a different and lawful gesture to express this love and respect; he could have performed the pedilavium lawfully in exactly the way he did, even on Maundy Thursday itself, by doing it apart from the Maundy Thursday Liturgy (as English Sovereigns did until the Dutch Invasion, and still vestigially do). Meaning (3), on the other hand, could be intended on its own without presupposing (1).
Frankly, I am not keen on (3). This particular, populist, papal gesture undoubtedly seemed attractive and liberating to those who find gesture more important than substance. But even papal chickens eventually come home to roost, and this un-legal action must, once its implications are fully understood, have a very detrimental effect upon ecumenical relationships. The closest historical parallel I can think of is the principle expressed by Ulpian in the third century that Emperors are legibus soluti - free from the Law; an attitude exemplified by the Arian Emperor Constantius, who ordered Egyptian bishops to renounce S Athanasius and, when they declined on the grounds that this was not the Church's rule, replied All'hoper ego boulomai, touto Kanon nomizestho ("My wish has gotta be regarded as having the status of Church Law"). (Who was it who said "L'etat c'est moi"?)
Modern media are understandably impressed by a pope who does his transactions in their coinage: soundbite, impulse, gesture. But we should beware lest the other side of that same coin have an older and a scarier name: Arbitrary Power.
Since I first drafted this piece nine months ago, one or two other things have happened. I have read ... December 19 ... Sandro Magister's piece in which he describes the style of this papacy as "monocratic and centralising"; and, of course, the business of the Franciscans of the Immaculate has erupted and shown no signs of reaching a resolution. I continue ...
It is for a similar reason that I am most uneasy about the decision of the Commissioner ad interim of the Franciscans of the Immaculate, to require them not to celebrate the Vetus Ordo without a special indult from himself: a decision which he appears to think is within the bounds of the powers given to him, through the dicastery for Religious, by the Roman Pontiff. Of course, I neither have knowledge of what Fr Volpi's faculties allow him to do, nor, since I am most certainly not a canonist, do I have the forensic skills to gloss them. I can only talk about the appearance of things. This action looks like a prohibition inhibiting the friars from doing something which the general law of the Church allows them to do "without permission either from the Bishop or even from the Apostolic See". It looks like a capricious act of tyranny within a legal system in which anybody can be deprived of their rights in universal law at any moment, and even by the extraordinarily delegated powers of a fairly low-ranking official.
This presents the world with an image of papal jurisdiction which will confirm the worst suspicions of Orthodox or Anglican Christians about what being subject to the See of Peter implies.
I spent 43 years as a priest in the Church of England working for unity cum et sub Petro, and I am now incardinated into an Ordinariate. I do not feel the need to prove to anyone either my profound respect for the papal office and its occupant or my deep personal concern for Christian Unity. I would be distressed if, absolutely unintentionally, this pontificate were to lead to an imaging of the Petrine Ministry which put further obstacles in the way of the Lord's prayer that they all may be one.
Surely this is not what our beloved Holy Father wishes to do?