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Francis right to break the rules


Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio washes and kisses the feet of residents of a shelter for drug users during Holy Thursday Mass in 2008Good symbols create ripples. They get you musing and making unexpected connections. They are apparently superficial but quickly draw attention to the foundations.

Pope Francis' Holy Thursday expedition to the juvenile justice centre to wash the feet of young people, male and female, Christian and Muslim, was a case in point. It was a symbol of pastoral outreach to the disadvantaged outside the Catholic community, but it also prompted discussion about the place of law in church and society.

This reflection is much needed in Australia today.

Catholics have often seen rules about liturgy and other aspects of Catholic life as sacred in the sense that they are unalterably binding. And although the laws of the state may be bent to fit self-interest, many Australians also see them as sacred and not to be broken under any pretext. The mythical cavalier Australian approach to law and rules in our day is just a myth. Those who break laws for whatever reason are inordinately blamed.

That is evident in the common Australian attitude to asylum seekers. Although they have arrived legally in Australia to claim protection, they have only to be described as illegals to lose any support they had.

It is now also rare for idealistic people to commit such symbolic breaches of the law as trespassing on military bases in order to proclaim the injustice of Australian military ventures. For most Australians it is enough to hear that they have broken a law passed by Parliament to condemn them and their action without further reflection.

Missing in these approaches to law is the recognition that rules and laws serve a higher purpose.

They shape an order that protects human flourishing. The flourishing of persons in their relationships to others and as a society and to the world is what matters most deeply. In the language of Catholic canon law, 'in the Church the salvation of souls must always be the supreme law'. The reason for state laws, too, is to create a space within which human beings can reach their human potential in a way that enhances all people.

This means that rules are to be obeyed not simply because they are enacted legally, but because they support human flourishing.

For this reason they may allow explicit exceptions, and courts will allow room for implicit exceptions. Police and ambulance drivers for example, are entitled to disregard traffic laws when lives are at risk, provided they can do so safely. Any citizen would justifiably do the same if their child's life was at stake, again providing it was safe.

And if people were threatened with death in their own nation, it would be right for them to seek protection in another country whatever the laws of that nation prescribed.

Similarly when Pope Francis breached liturgical rules on Holy Thursday he was right to do so. Not because popes make the laws, and so can break them, but because the self-respect of the young prisoners (the salvation of souls) was at stake. In the same circumstances any celebrant would rightly do as the Pope did.

Because laws and rules exist to make space for human beings to flourish, we have a responsibility to challenge government laws and actions that we judge to be seriously detrimental to human flourishing. Such symbolic and peaceful breaches of the law as stepping over the boundaries of military bases and chaining oneself to trees are a way of drawing attention to the perceived wrong of military actions and environmental destruction.

Those reviled as lawbreakers in their own time are often retrospectively honoured as custodians of the national conscience. They are both hated and applauded because their actions impelled people to ponder what is right.

Of course there is a cost to human flourishing when laws are broken. As a canon lawyer said of Pope Francis' action, it can diminish respect for the law. Instead of prompting people to ask about what is right, it can encourage them to believe that the law is to be obeyed only when it is in one's own interests.

That is why the virtuous context of conscientious law breaking is so important: its insistence on what matters, its peacefulness and its respect for those who administer the law.

Both church and state laws are securely grounded when there is a shared sense of the importance of human flourishing. When this is absent, manipulation of the law out of self-interest, vindictive attitudes to wrongdoers and servile adherence to rules flourish. These apparently incompatible pathologies have a common root: a lack of respect for the values that law serves. 

Andrew Headshot smilingAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street. Image: Catholic Herald

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Pope Francis



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Existing comments

Close but no cigar for you, Andrew. I'm sure you have no wish to deliberately mislead anyone but since we're talking about law, then you should know that it is not true that an asylum seeker cannot be an illegal entrant or indeed be an illegal immigrant. Neither asylum seekers, nor refugees have a right to enter, without authority, a country which is not their country of nationality. This is international law.

DavidSt | 10 April 2013  

Sorry, I'm a bit dumb on this: how was the salvation of the female and non-Catholic prisoners' souls at stake if the Pope hadn't washed their feet as part of a Catholic liturgy? Think about it: the Pope, God bless him and his worthy intentions, could have washed their feet in a non-liturgical context (as many saints have done - eg St Louis IX, King of France) but in this case contiguous with the Holy Thursday liturgy. No problem there. But I understand that as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he also washed the feet of women at the Holy Thursday liturgies. So, if Fr H is on the money, and I suspect he is, it's Pope Francis' longstanding and sincere belief that the liturgical law which requires men only to have their feet washed is inimical to the salvation of souls (I have the opposite opinion). The least that could have been done to reconcile law and practice, thereby minimising the angst among quite a few of the flock at no cost, would have been a prior announcement that the Holy Thursday papal variance from liturgical rules would be a precursor to a change in the liturgical laws for that very reason: the salvation of souls. Instead, Catholics got a garbled, illogical apologia from the hapless papal spokesman. Which makes for total confusion next time a Pope tries to enforce a rule. Liturgical - or otherwise.

HH | 10 April 2013  

Davidst, you remind me of the child who can only look at the finger, when the teacher is pointing at the stars.

LolaLiz | 11 April 2013  

I think we have rules (liturgical or otherwise) to maintain order, which, psychologically, we need. Jesus' and Francis' breaking of these rules was and is a sign that there is something deeper than rules. In both cases these were not attempts to subvert "the Law" (Jesus' words) but to maintain it at a deeper level. Applying a "no rules" policy across the board means anarchy.

Edward F | 11 April 2013  

Yesterday, I was about to walk into my local bank when I heard an ambulance siren. I watched as an ambulance raced down the highway that splits our town, with shoppers hurrying through pedestrian crossings and cars manouvering out of the way. The safety of the ambulance crew and passengers (and onlookers) depended on some quick reactions. Likewise, if my child's life were in peril I would take any action to get my child to life-saving treatment - if this involved racing through the streets to a hospital I cannot foresee, though, if another child will step off a footpath directly into my way - I have to depend on quick reactions on the part of other people (and myself). In saving my child, I can't always guarantee safety for other children. Something to think about.

Pam | 11 April 2013  

I am baffled! Which law did pope Francis break?

Theo Verbeek | 11 April 2013  

Like other bloggers here I admit to bafflement. Andrew in his articles is usually clear in the steps of his argument, but on this occasion has not included a critical step, he has not said what law the new Pope has broken. It seems to be some liturgical rubric, or perhaps Vatican mode, that has been breached, but what is it? Andrew obviously knows, but has not told the rest of us.

QUESTION MARK | 11 April 2013  

Thank you for your requests for information about the pope's transgression of liturgical rules. The instructions for Holy Thursday prescribe that the feet of twelve men be washed, symbolising the twelve (male) apostles. Pope Francis included two young women (and two Muslims) among the prisoners in his twelve, symbolising Jesus' outreach to the most needy and despised.

Andy Hamilton | 11 April 2013  

Yes, it was a symbol of pastoral outreach to the disadvantaged outside the Catholic community, but it also prompted discussion about the place of law in church and society. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lvcaxumeiKc

Game Theory | 11 April 2013  

I suspect the 'law' broken is unclear for many Catholic Australians because for several years, men and women have been part of the foot washing ritual in parishes throughout the country. Is an instruction for the Holy Thursday liturgy 'unalterably binding'?Is an instruction a law?

Dada | 11 April 2013  

Personally I regard the foot washing as recalling Jesus and male Apostles,I found the papal innovation as somewhat precious,my reservation[hardly high octane dissent];His Holiness has my total assent on those grave matters like his opposition to women priests,euthanasia, gay marriage etc-but not fussed over water on female feet,methinks the article is overkill on relative trivia. By the way J23 visited prisoners too,nothing big deal

Father John George | 11 April 2013  

Good on Pope Francis! The most moving Holy Thursday Mass I ever experienced was one where the priest came down into the congregation, walked around and washed and dried the feet of 12 men, women and children. It was such a contrast to the usual highly stylised version where the men go up on the altar and the priest, accompanied by acolytes bearing basin, jug and towels, pours a bit of water and the acolyte gives the towel to the man to dry his own foot. At our parish this year we could only get 7 men willing to have their feet washed - so we were short 5 apostles! There was no suggestion that women be asked - but that was before the Pope did it. Hopefully next year..........

JRussell | 11 April 2013  

An interesting read.

Phillip Turnbull | 11 April 2013  

Where footwashing on Maundy Thursday is conducted in Anglican churches, women have been included in the twelve for as long as I can remember. This stipulation that it must be Men Only must be some Roman directive. The Pope is sending a strong message to his own people, if this is the case. I wonder what the Orthodox say about the footwashing ceremony on Thursday? Christianity is Jewish and in selecting twelve men to be his Apostles Jesus was making statements about the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Quite outrageous statements, when you think about it, as the men who chose were not leaders in their communities but fishermen and other yokel locals. The point of the footwashing has nothing to do with them being men, it’s about the servanthood of all. Presumably the idea of a man, a rabbi, washing a woman’s feet in that society would have been, as Kevin Rudd used to say, a bridge too far. We simply don’t know who all the people were at the Last Supper, as it is called, and have to be very careful with literal readings. The first apostle to the apostles and first witness to the Resurrection, however, as the Gospels make explicit time and again, was not a Man. Go figure.

GO FIGURE | 11 April 2013  

PS: What is even more extraordinary, when you think about it, is that the people who wash the feet of Jesus in the Gospels are women. What is going on there? I mean, Jesus commands that we ‘wash one anothers feet’, but in the accounts themselves, who washes his feet?

GO FIGURE | 11 April 2013  

The Pope's breaking of protocol was a symbol for the poor of the world - not for the well-fed, wealthy, privileged readers of Eureka Street who have nothing better to do with their time than intellectualize over a non issue.

AURELIUS | 11 April 2013  

Just to help connect the traffic light analogy to civil disobedience, here is a famous quote from Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr, using that very analogy: "There is nothing wrong with a traffic law which says you have to stop for a red light. But when a fire is raging, the fire truck goes right through that red light... Or when a [person] is bleeding to death, the ambulance goes through those red lights at top speed...Disinherited people all over the world are bleeding to death from deep social and economic wounds. They need brigades of ambulance drivers who will have to ignore the red lights of the present system until the emergency is solved. Massive civil disobedience is a strategy for social change which is at least as forceful as an ambulance with its siren on full."

Justin Whelan | 11 April 2013  

Also most extraordinary regarding the Pope's liturgical breach and his concern for the poor, the marginalised and the non-catholic is that as yet he doesn't appear to have attracted the wrath of Opus Dei!!!!

john frawley | 11 April 2013  

From where I am sitting, Aurelius, it is the Pope himself who is making it an issue. Your interpretation of his actions is right, but it’s not the only meaning to his actions. The action of the footwashing has meanings for the heart and the head. The action itself is about breaking down social exclusion into poor and privileged, it is a message for everyone. Jesus himself makes footwashing an issue, in fact it’s up front and personal. He commands that his feet be washed.

GO FIGURE | 11 April 2013  

Surely the most important 'law' is that we are all made in the image of God and the corollary, that we are to prefer Christ above all things.....love God and our neighbours as we love ourselves? For Christians that concretisation of ideas in ritual for the sake of order (and sense of personal security) seems to me to be entirely questionable - it actually does away with the need for faith and trust in God.........

hilary | 11 April 2013  

Could Pope Francis have interpreted men to include those with a feminine and masculine nature?

Christine Gunst | 11 April 2013  

I just love this pope. He is pointing us to the heart of Jesus' message.

Frank S | 11 April 2013  

So long as this e-magazine publishes articles that celebrate the death of another human being (viz Margaret Thatcher versus the Scots), I will regard the opinions expressed by Fr Andrew and other editorial staff as seriously compromised. It's all good to chain yourself to trees or to write articles about how the pope is challenging us by breaking rules. What does it matter if on your very own e-journal, an author breaks the two of the greatest rules'love one another as I have loved you' or 'love your neighbour as yourself'? How is human flourishing possible when homicidial hatred is not condemned, but accepted as a legitimate response to a heinous political opponent or passed over as nothing but an expression of righteous anger? I know others regard my response to Duncan MacLaren's article as an over-reaction whilst others share it. To me there could never be a clearer time when Eureka Street needed to take a stand for the principles of Jesus. Fr Andrew has written fine articles calling on Australia to answer the challenge of the gospels and to do better. Fr Andrew and the other editors of ES, here's one in right in your own backyard. I respectfully call on you to retract Duncan MacLaren's article and ensure that as far as possible such anti-Christian sentiments are not printed in this e-journal again. "Qui tacet consentire videtur." Yes or no?

John Ryan | 11 April 2013  

Pope Francis quite legitimately derogated a liturgical directive However in a 2011 interview with an Argentinian Catholic news agency, he called for a reform of the laity away from clerialisation. In that 2011 interview he said this contagious spiritual sickness comes from a clericalism that passes from clergy to laypeople. “We priests tend to clericalize the laity. We do not realize it, but it is as if we infect them with our own disease. And the laity — not all, but many — ask us on their knees to clericalize them, because it is more comfortable to be an altar server than the protagonist of a lay path. We cannot fall into that trap — it is a sinful complicity.” Clericalization means focusing fundamentally on the things of the clergy and, more specifically, the sanctuary, rather than bringing the Gospel to the world. Clericalism afflicts laypeople , when they begin to believe that the fundamental service God is asking of them is to become greeters, lectors or extraordinary ministers of holy Communion at Church rather than to live and spread the faith in their families, workplaces, schools neighborhoods and beyond.

Father John George | 12 April 2013  

I can remember the day Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister on 4 May 1979. Arriving at 10 Downing Street, she said, in a paraphrase of the "Prayer of Saint Francis": Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.

Game Theory | 12 April 2013  

". . . we have a responsibility to challenge government laws and actions that we judge to be seriously detrimental to human flourishing." When law and justice collide, give me justice every time. A glaring example: Inconsistent, discriminatory laws that permit the (ab)use - in unlimited quantities - of tobacco (81% of Australian drug-related deaths) and alcohol (16%); while punishing users of cannabis (no recorded deaths). For the politics behind the demonising of this valuable, versatile medicinal herb, copy this link into your browser: http://youtu.be/W0PLP2FNeQs. For another informative video, especially for cancer sufferers, family and friends, google 'The Illegal Herb that Fights Cancer'. Prof. Grinspoon's book 'Marihuana the Forbidden Medicine' also presents a powerful case for modifying current laws to align with science and justice, not vested interests. Current drug laws are not only inconsistent and discriminatory, they are "seriously detrimental to human flourishing".

Gordon Rowland | 12 April 2013  

And now Francis the 'rule-breaker' appoints Cardinal Pell, in reforming the church! Hardly a trajectory to antinomian anarchy!

Father John George | 13 April 2013  

The Holy Father's only error, in my opinion, was limiting it to only two women. Six would have been far better!

Matthew | 14 April 2013  

I agree with you GO FIGURE - I guess I was just reflecting my frustration with people treating liturgical directives as some sort of divine dogma. It's a bit like dance moves - if everyone danced the same way then it would be impossible to express any meaning.

AURELIUS | 15 April 2013  

Thanks Andy for the reflection. I am one of those who tries to speak truth to power through crossing the line on military bases as a sign of my opposition to killing and industrialised war. My husband Bryan Law,too, was someone who went further using the prophesy of Micah "swords shall be turned to ploughshares", beating on and temporarily disabling a Tiger attack helicopter... An instrument of death. We have both found a place of love and understanding in the Catholic Church because I believe well formed Catholics understand Christ as the ultimate rule breaker... In the name of love. Love must be the only law that guides the breaking of Laws. This was also Gandhi's and Kings teaching and goes to the heart of effective, principled nonviolence.

Margaret Pestorius | 15 April 2013  

I certainly enjoyed your reference to those who challenge both Church and State laws through virtuous, conscientious, peaceful law breaking.

Tricia | 15 April 2013  

Ok so he kissed a womans foot ,but yesterday His Holiness vowed to crackdown on LCWR. I warned you guys elsewhere Francis is a replay of Pius IX who started out as adored liberal and morphed into defining papal infallibility and promulgating Syllabus of Errors! Tricked them all!

Father John George | 16 April 2013  

According to the Study on Recent Vocations, the average median age of women in LCWR institutes is 74. I guess that answers my question, as to why I am reminded of "the Sixties", whenever I read a piece about them.

Victoria | 16 April 2013  

The Holy Thursday liturgy is a re-enactment of the Last Supper. No women were present - read the Synoptic Gospels for confirmation. I laughed when my parish priest washed the feet of women. It was so funny, like Hamlet being played by Julia Gillard. The Pope's washing of female feet sure shows he has a sense of humour.

FRANK MOBBS | 26 April 2013  

The rubrics do indeed say "men" but, as we all know all-too-well in these days where the liturgy has eschewed the use of 'inclusive language" it could be taken to mean that men included men and women. I don't believe that the rubrics make a bog point of the people being all male and it mentions nothing at all about the religion of the people. If one thinks about it, a person who later in that week will be baptised or received into the church might be suitable for foot washing. i really don't think this was a break of the rules and if it was it was a relatively minor one. People who are not catholic or even not baptised are welcome to attend a Eucharist and participate as far as possible in it. The foot washing, as with the receiving of ashes on Ash Wenesday are not sacraments and might very profitably include people who are not baptised.

Paul | 26 April 2013  

non serviam and typical of Eureka Street to tie this to other unrelated exercises of 'protest'. This was an unfortunate action, imo, by the Holy Father, mixing worship with social action.

Peter in Canberra | 26 April 2013  

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