Modesty and the Washing of the Feet

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 OfficeRorate CaeliCaelum et TerraPius 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.


10 thoughts on “Modesty and the Washing of the Feet

  1. On the other hand the term ‘de-sensitisation’ would suggest that it is not simply that a cultural norm has changed, but that the appreciation of what is in itself seemly has diminished.


  2. My gripe is with his going to a prison.

    If the Holy Father actually wanted to connect with the common man he should have gone down to the local public pool on the poor side of town.So

    Since the only reason for limiting the washing of feet to men is because of decorum And given that decorum is passe, or changed to where a woman in a one piece swimsuit at Mass is only a slight breach of decorum and not the least bit immodest, the Holy Father should have gone down to where the people actually are and showed them the new church in action where tradition is likewise passe.


  3. Marco Polo was very impressed by the story he heard of a certain pious Asian (I cannot remember exactly where he was from). This Asian was a shoe maker. One day he was obliged to measure the most delicate feet of a splendorous young Asian. He was unable to stop his eyes from illicitly enjoying the ankles. So after he had finished measuring the feat, he put his sharpest awl onto the fire till it was burning hot and then, in an act off surpassing bravery, burnt one of his eyes out…
    On the other hand, until Queen Victoria, the coronation of the queens of England included the anointing with oil by the bishop of the queen’s bosom!


  4. Pingback: Holy Thursday: History - New Song

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