Questions Answered – July 2019

Good Friday, the Cross, and Foot Washing

Question:  Does Good Friday veneration of the Cross involve only a crucifix, or can a simple wooden cross be used? Is it appropriate, when reading the Gospel on Holy Thursday, for the laity, including women, to read the part of Christ? Lastly, is it proper for the washing of feet on Holy Thursday to include the laity (men and women) washing the feet of other laity?

Answer:  The answers to these questions are rather simple. As to the first, there are no clear norms. Almost all the documents say “a cross,” but one must remember that the Latin word for cross and crucifix are the same. Some authors maintain that following the norms for the cross used in the sanctuary, the norms do maintain that it should have a representation of the dying body of Christ and thus is a crucifix, not a plain cross or the risen Jesus. Since the norms are not clear, it seems one could use a plain cross but this does not seem fitting in view of the fact that the Good Friday liturgical action is celebrating the Passion.

As to the Passion readings the answer is clearer. In a document issued by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in 1988, Paschalis Sollemnitatis, the Congregation states: “The Passion narrative occupies a special place. It should be sung or read in the traditional way, that is, by three persons who take the part of Christ, the narrator, and the people. The Passion is proclaimed by deacons or priests, or by lay readers. In the latter case, the part of the Christ should be reserved to the priest.”

Regarding the washing of the feet, the norms in the Missal were clear but the practice has become complicated with the example of Pope Francis. This rite was commonly practiced in monasteries and religious communities of both men and women for centuries, but was not done in the context of the liturgy of Holy Thursday until Pius XII. The rubrics clearly stated that those who participated in it were to be men (viri in Latin) and to wash the feet of women was clearly an abuse. This was presumably because it was to imitate the practice of Christ at the Last Supper, when he washed the feet of the Apostles, and the Mass of Lord’s Supper is a celebration of the institution of the Eucharist and the ministerial priesthood, which is reserved by Christ himself to men. In any case, the rite of foot washing (also called the mandatum) is optional and may certainly be omitted for pastoral reasons.

The USCCB, however, reflected a change desired by Pope Francis in this rubric and which was addressed by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments. It states; “Until 2016, the relevant rubric in the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper in the Roman Missal indicated that ‘The men who have been chosen [viri selecti] are led by the ministers to seats prepared in a suitable place.’ Henceforth that text will read ‘Those who are chosen from among the people of God are led by the ministers to seats prepared in a suitable place.’ In the Ceremonial of Bishops, this same text is also modified, as well as a rubric describing the items necessary for the Holy Thursday Mass: ‘seats for the men chosen’ is changed to ‘seats for those chosen’” (USCCB, Holy Thursday Mandatum, 2016). Of course, if one wishes to affirm the connection with the Apostles and the priesthood in a more evident way, there is nothing wrong with washing the feet of only men. It would not be liturgically illegal to emphasize the universal love of Christ as servant in observing the present rubric by also washing the feet of women.


Limits to Papal Infallibility?

Question: In light of the recent problems in the Church about the hierarchy in relation to the pope, what exactly does papal infallibility mean and are there any limits to this?

Answer: The First Vatican Council addressed the authority of the papacy at great length. The Second Vatican Council reaffirmed that teaching without questioning the nature of the infallibility of the pope, but to understand how collegiality in teaching was addressed in Vatican II, one must examine precisely what Vatican I defined.

The historical climate of Europe surrounding the definition of the infallibility was conditioned by the heresy of Gallicanism. According to this heresy, the teachings of the pope were not sufficient to clarify Catholic practice in faith and morals without the posterior approval of the bishops of a given country, and perhaps even the king. The source of the term “Gallicanism” was the Declaration of the French Clergy, made in March 1682 at the behest of Louis XIV. One Church historian summarizes this teaching: “This declaration . . . held that the pope has the chief role when it comes to matters of faith, but that, nonetheless, his decisions needed confirmation by the judgment of the entire Church.” The Church was also attacked by the Rationalists of the nineteenth century, who thought there was no higher truth than human reason, and so no society based on grace and revelation above the state. Religion, thus, was reduced to sentiment.

Against this background, the bishops at Vatican I wanted to declare the necessity of revelation for the fullness of human truth, and the unique character of the society based on this revelation. They wanted to clarify the fact that the Church was the society founded by this revelation and in which this revelation is known definitively. This was the point of the declaration of the infallibility of the pope: the bishops wanted to teach clearly that the Church was not the state, but was a society founded on a higher reason, God’s reason brought to us in revelation, specifically the revelation taught by Christ. As this was the case, models used for authority in the state, a society founded on human reason, were insufficient to explain the nature of authority in the Church. The teaching on the infallibility of the pope was based on this intention, and the bishops meant to deny that any posterior approval was necessary for a teaching of the pope to define truly a doctrine taught by Christ.

In his relatio given at the end of the session of the Council that approved the infallibility of the pope, Bishop Vincent Ferrer Gasser (1809-1879) sought to clarify just what was taught by the Council and what was not. He was one of the outstanding theologians at Vatican I. As one author states:  “He was responsible for having inserted into the schema [on papal infallibility] the explanation that the papal primacy does not limit the ordinary and immediate governing authority of the bishops, but protects and strengthens it. Finally (July 11, 1870), he presented to the Council fathers the decree, composed by himself, on papal infallibility in a four-hour Latin speech with such conviction that the decree was approved by a majority of the bishops with only minor changes, and was solemnly defined a week later.”

This relatio was accepted by the Council Fathers as the authentic interpretation of their teaching on infallibility.

First, Bishop Gasser maintains that “absolute infallibility belongs to God alone, he is the first and essential truth, and every other infallibility is communicated to a certain end and has therefore certain limits and conditions.”1 Infallibility is identified as a charismatic grace given to St. Peter and his successors so that they may not err in defining what the Church has always taught. “The causa efficiens and formalis (efficient and formal cause) is [sic] therefore the assistance of the Holy Spirit.” This assistance is not the same as biblical inspiration or private revelation, given to individuals under very special circumstances. Infallibility is connected to the office of the papacy, and is not given for an individual purpose or to only a few individuals in history.

Gasser makes an important distinction between a permanent quality in the person of the pope and an aid that is personally given to the pope only in the act of defining ex cathedra, i.e., an assurance that his teachings are preserved from error only in the act of defining a doctrine. The title of the document proclaiming the infallibility was changed from simply The Infallibility of the Roman Pontiff to The Infallible Magisterium of the Roman Pontiff (De romani pontificis infallibili magisterio) to avoid the misunderstanding that infallibility was a permanent quality of the pope himself.

There was an opinion in the Middle Ages that the infallibility resided in the pope as a unique source (fontaliter) and was communicated to the Church through him. Gasser specifically denies this. Though the pope must approve decrees of councils for them to be acts of the college of bishops, this does not mean that the pope is the source of the infallibility of the Church. Christ rather promised infallibility to the whole Church, which includes the apostolic college, always with Peter and not apart from him, and the theologians after Trent always affirmed that the whole Church was infallible in believing (in credendo) when the faithful all unanimously professed a truth.

In his relatio, Gasser emphasizes that there is only one infallibility. “This special infallibility of the Roman pontiff is due above all to the Church.” (Haec specialis Romani pontificis infallibilitas ecclesiae opprime convenit.) In teaching, this one infallibility has two subjects or material causes: either the pope teaching a doctrine alone or the college of bishops teaching together with him. “The true reason why the bishops, even gathered in general council, are not infallible in matters of faith and morals without the pope is to be found in the fact that Christ promised this infallibility to the whole Magisterium (in universo magisterio) of the Church  . . . ”.  The “subject of infallibility, namely the Roman Pontiff as Pontiff, i.e., as a public person in relation to the Universal Church.” 2

The pope exercises full and supreme power in a personal act when he defines a doctrine. This same full and supreme power is also exercised in the collective act of the whole college as a collective subject, which includes the pope as the head. The whole Church is the subject of the infallibility in believing by an aid of the Holy Spirit, but acts in two specific organs to define what all believe: one, bishops with pope; two, the pope alone. Vatican I defined the nature of the latter; Vatican II formally took up the former, though it stopped short of a de fide definition, as there are no new doctrines defined by Vatican II.

Gasser explains that the word define must be taken in a strictly theological sense, as “to give a definitive judgment.” The pope must manifest his intention to make a judgment about doctrine. This does not mean simply to bring a controversy to an end, nor does it mean that the judgments of the pope are without appeal. Gasser means to say that these judgments are true.

In Pastor Aeternus, the decree on the infallibility of the papal magisterium, Vatican I says that such definitive teachings are by nature irreformable (ex sese irreformabiles). The Gallicans held that such teachings could be considered true only after the rest of the Church consented, which places the weight of the power to define on the approval of the Church as a whole, and suggests liberal democracy or conciliarism.

To do away with any justification to return to Gallicanism, the Fathers at Vatican I added that papal definitions were in themselves (ex sese) irreformable and not from consent of the Church. They wanted to emphasize the unique character of theological knowledge. “The exact meaning of the ex sese however is: the decision needs no further approval or sanction by the bishops as an act of a parliamentary ratification. The formal reason of infallibility is the divine assistance and no other instance of the Church.” 3

Though the consent of the Church is not needed, the assent of the Church (assensus ecclesiae) is never absent because there is a complete connection between the head of the college, the body of the college, and the Church as a whole. The pope does not have to initiate all doctrinal and moral matters, but unless he agrees to consider them, they have no collegial nature because the body cannot act apart from the head, though the head can act personally, and this includes the action of the body.

Many of the Fathers at Vatican I tried to introduce conditions into the definition of papal infallibility. The most famous condition normally required for a papal teaching to be true in the history of theology was expressed: Thus the pope is infallible when he does what he can (papa faciens quod est in se est infallibilitas). This means that the pope must study the problem and consult with the bishops and with experts. The Fathers at Vatican I thought that this smacked too much of latent Gallicanism. Gasser nuances the argument explaining that the pope cannot be bound to do what he can or to consult with others because these two conditions pertain to his conscience in the moral order, and is between him and God. Interior moral conditions, therefore, cannot be made a part of a dogmatic definition. A charismatic grace like the infallibility cannot depend on the pope’s conscience, which is a private affair, but on the pope’s public office within the universal Church. 4

Other difficulties turned around the use of terms like absolute, personal, and separate to describe papal infallibility. Gasser answers that infallibility is not said to be “separate” in the sense that the pope is infallible apart from the consent of the Church or that de facto he should not seek means to discern the truth. His infallibility is that of the whole Church. The consent of the Church is a part of his infallibility, but not a condition de iure for the action of the Holy Spirit. Gasser says that the infallibility is not absolute because this is found in God alone. It is conditioned by subject (the pope); by object (a solemn definition of faith and morals); and by cause (the action of the Holy Spirit). Some wanted to limit the pope to a form, but Gasser boldly declares, “Already thousands and thousands of dogmatic judgments have gone forth from the Apostolic See; where is the law that prescribed the form to be observed in such judgments?” 5 Finally, the infallibility is personal, to exclude the distinction made by the Gallicans between the office of Ppope and the one who holds the office. In fact, the two are the same. This does not mean that the pope receives the charism of infallibility as a private person, but as a public person in his role as head of the Church.

Obviously, not every papal act falls under the infallibility. Further, if the pope makes a judgment on some practical matter, such as the morality of an individual war or use of capital punishment, such teaching must be treated with respect for the Petrine Office, but they cannot bind Catholics to obey in conscience, as these latter are not matters of theory but judgments about circumstantial practice.

  1. Gasser, Mansi, 52, 1214 AB. All subsequent quotes are from Gasser.
  2. Gasser, 1225.
  3. Ulrich Hörst, class notes (Angelicum, 1984), 23.
  4. Gasser, 1223.
  5. Gasser, 1215.
Fr. Brian Mullady, OP About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, “Questions Answered.”

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Fr. Brian T. Mullady, O.P.
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  1. Avatar Jack Benedict says:

    I happened to have the misfortune of attending a Holy Thursday Mass this year in which not only were women invited as the “chosen,” but before the twelve had had their feet washed the priest invited anyone else who wanted to get their feet washed to come up. Seemed like he was kind of undermining his own vocation. My family is done with the Novus Ordo.

  2. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    These arguments make sense to someone familiar with historic Church development. For many people, truth depends to a large extent on evidence, data, even big data. Is there not a need to reframe the explanation of infallibility in terms that make sense in a new philosophical and cultural context?

  3. Avatar Elaine Biggerstaff says:

    Since Vatican II was not a dogmatic council, why does everything in the Church reflect it, including its documents that contradict the perennial teachings of the Church on who are members of the Church, ecumenism rightly understood, religious liberty, separation of church and state, and collegiality? Why was an entirely new liturgy invented? Why were all of the Sacraments changed? Why was a new Code of Canon Law implemented that incorporated the heresies of Vatican II? Why was a new Divine Office created? Aren’t all of these teachings of both faith and morals and aren’t they “dogmatic” teachings?

    Clearly, there has been a revolutionary destruction within the Church since Vatican II and yet, most still claim that “nothing has changed” when everything has changed!