Having read a fraction of the things written about Pope Francis’s decision to disregard the Roman rubrics for the Mandatum by washing the feet of women as well as men (see: Vatican Press Office; Rorate Caeli; Caelum et Terra; Pius Pietrzyk, O.P.; Stratford Caldecott), I was struck by the fact that hardly anyone one mentioned what seems to me the obvious reason for the rubric.
In the Middle Ages it was customary in many places for the king to wash the feet of poor men on Holy Thursday, but when a Queen was regnant she would wash the feet of poor women. It seems to have never occurred to any one that a king might wash women’s feet or a queen men’s. The reason seems to be that there was a culture of what I suppose one would call “modesty.” That is, the recognition that the relation between men and women has been rendered fragile through disordered, post-lapsarian concupiscence. “Modesty” in dress and manners is a way of protecting that fragile relation.
It has often been noted that one of the reasons why people were so scandalized by the woman (or women) who anointed Our Lord’s feet (an action with interesting parallels to the washing of the feet at the Last Supper) is precisely a feeling that it violates modesty. In His whole Umgang with women– not only Mary of Bethany, but also the Samaritan woman at the well et al.– Our Lord gives a kind of preview of a redeemed creation in which the relation of men and women is no-longer strained by disorder. He shows an astonishing freedom.
Now, I think the reason why the whole discussion of Pope Francis’s Madatum has tended to ignore the question of modesty is because of the cultural gulf which separates us from past generations. So-called “sexual liberation” has had the effect of making things which once seemed immodest seem totally modest. One could say that there has been a kind of de-sensitization. This means that certain things that would have given scandal in another age simply don’t in ours. Modesty and immodesty are not wholly “objective” predicates. I suppose, for instance, that while it would have been immodest for a woman to wear trousers in the 19th century, it simply isn’t now. People are so used to women wearing trousers, that it doesn’t give any special occasion to disordered concupiscence. Whether on deplores or applauds this, it seems to be a fact.