Foot-washing, law, journalists, liberal activists, and Bp. Morlino

In the Left-leaning Wisconsin State Journal columnist Doug Erikson offered a piece on 16 April called “In the Spirit: Bishop Robert Morlino’s foot-washing policy draws national press, petition effort”. Erickson’s bias against Bp. Morlino in favor of a liberal activist group is thinly veiled; he is their cheerleader.  Erickson cribbed a piece by David Gibson from RNS.   He credulously accepted several unsupportable premises asserted in the Gibson piece.

I’m involved in this, since I have now been widely quoted.  Thus, I will weigh in a little deeper.

One important fact that neither Erickson or Gibson detailed was that Bp. Morlino’s note to priests about the two licit options for washing feet on Thursday (wash the feet of men only or exclude the optional rite) was sent out in 2011. Erickson did mention in a piece in March that Bp. Morlino’s letter about foot-washing was “three years ago”.  That important bit was left out this time.  It could be that Erickson, and Gibson, wanted people to think that Morlino issued this letter after Francis became Pope, after Francis decided for himself to derogate from the Church’s liturgical law.

Here is Erickson’s cribbing of Gibson’s piece that contains his promotion of a radicalized liberal petition against Bp. Morlino.  My emphases and comments:

Religion News Service, a national news-gathering organization with press offices in Washington, D.C., has a good primer this week on the debate in the Roman Catholic Church over whether women should be included in the church’s foot-washing ritual on Holy Thursday. [Do not accept automatically that the RNS piece was a "good" primer.  It had some good information in it, but it had its problems as well.]

Madison Catholic Bishop Robert Morlino gets top billing in the article along with Pope Francis.

Last year, the pope washed the feet of both men and women. Morlino has said his priests must wash only men’s feet or forgo the ritual entirely.  [Yes, he said that.  In 2011!  So, why dredge this up now?  It’s called yellow journalism.  If you look in an illustrated dictionary for yellow journalism, you might find this column.]

“So who’s correct?” reporter David Gibson asks in the article. “Is the pope a dissenter? Or are Morlino and others being legalistic? What does the foot washing ritual represent, anyway?”

Gibson goes on to explore those issues. Ultimately, he writes, “there are no simple answers to those questions, though the weight of history and custom — not to mention authority — seems to be on the pope’s side.” [Those claims are not entirely true.  First, don’t simply accept the premise that there is a Most Wonderfullest Ehvur Pope Side and a Legalistic Meanie Morlino Side.  Also, it simply defies history and common sense to claim that history and custom support the washing of the feet of women during Holy Thursday Mass.]

But Morlino gets his share of support in the article, too. Here’s the Rev. John Zuhlsdorf, a blogger popular with the Catholic right, [I think even more from the Left read me.] on Morlino’s approach:

“The church’s law says that only men may be the recipients of this foot washing. Morlino’s guidelines — that his priests must wash the feet of 12 men or not do the foot washing at all — do nothing but reiterate the church’s laws, which bishops and priests are obliged to follow.” [Problem.  I haven’t written that the guidelines refer to “12 men”.  The actual rubrics in the post-Conciliar Missale Romanum do not specify a number.  But that is a small point.  The above is substantially correct.  There are two options according to the Church’s liturgical law: the foot-washing rite is, itself, an option.  It can be legitimately omitted.  If it is done, then only mature males are to be selected for the rite.  The Latin word is “viri”, which means “men”, and not in the sense of Facebook’s 57 genders.  It really does mean grown up male and it doesn’t mean anything else.  Latin has perfectly good words for “people… anyone… ‘man’ in the generic sense… women… anyone”, etc.]

[Here is the writer in his biased, activist mode] UPDATE: Faithful America, an online community of Christians, has started a petition urging Morlino to allow the washing of women’s feet.  [When you go HERE to look at their site, take a look at the “About” page.  Who are these people?]

“It’s unfortunate that during Christians’ most holy week, Bishop Morlino is ignoring Pope Francis’ inspiring example of love and inclusion, and instead clings to a sexist and exclusionary policy,” ["policy" is code language.  Policy seems more ephemeral, more personal, than a law.  Policies don't need much of a procedure to change.  Laws do. So, call it a policy and you distort people's understanding of the reality of the situation.] Michael Sherrard, Faithful America’s executive director [of... what exactly?  Three people and a laptop?], says in a press release. [Who is this fellow?  In this article HERE it says he has worked for move  He as a coveted MDiv from a Lutheran seminary. Beyond that.  He seems to be interested in sticking his nose into many places.]

More than 15,000 people have signed the petition so far, according to the organization.

Will either Erickson, or Gibson, write about the visit Bp. Morlino made on the busy Holy Thursday to a nursing home for two hours to anoint people and bring them Holy Communion?

I will also point you to a piece at Laetificat Madison:

Christmas morning 1998 in Scranton Pennsylvania, a priest who has recently admitted having a “foot fetish” gave a 13 year old girl alcohol and touched her feet and legs creepily. She now (16 years later) has made a police complaint, and the priest has been charged with molestation.


Meanwhile, the annual ritual bashing of Bishop Morlino for simply holding local priests to the Church’s liturgical discipline according to which the optional Holy Thursday footwashing rite, which recalls an episode at the Last Supper with Jesus and the 12 Apostles, involves the priest washing the feet of adult males (viri).

Local religion journalist Doug Erickson felt the devilish urge to dress this up as if it were news: “Three years ago, Madison Catholic Bishop Robert Morlino issued guidelines that gave priests the option of either using only men or not celebrating the ritual at all. Given the heightened attention to foot-washing last year, some parishioners thought Morlino might re-evaluate his position. This has not happened.”


The story of Fr Altavilla of Scranton is perfectly timed to underscore why the wise do not undermine, scorn, mock, or subject to media harassment those bishops who, exercising the prudence which is theirs to exercise, do not give special permission to priests to run their hands over the bare feet and legs of girls and women during Holy Thursday Mass, nor at other times.

Bishop Morlino understands that, when the Pope decides to derogate for himself from the liturgical law,  that derogation doesn’t abolish the law for everyone else.  The law remains. We priests and bishops must obey the liturgical law which we do not have the authority to break or change on our own authority.  The Church is not lawless.  The Church is not merely a display case for people’s passing whims and changing fashions.

When and if the Holy Father wants the law to change for everyone, he will make sure that it is changed for everyone in the proper way and he will let everyone in the world know about it.  Until them, the law stands.

Finally: People talk, inaccurately, about Morlino imposing a “ban” on the washing of the feet of women.  That’s isn’t true.  If it is a “ban”, then it is Pope Francis’ own ban, for he is now the supreme legislator in the Church.  It is Francis’ ban until he decides to change the law.

Get back to us after Francis changes the law.

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Author: alex

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