THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: The Church is often accused of gender bias. Its teachings are interpreted and propagated through the medium of a patriarchal society such that male symbolism is inescapable. Pope Francis sought to stem this bias, by washing the feet of women on Holy Thursday. It’s been hugely symbolic. Call it historic course correction. The Pope decreed it to be part of rituals for the universal Church.
But part of the universe, the Oriental churches, sought more time for consultations before implementing the papal order. The synod of the Syro-Malabar Church is due in August, when it is expected to debate the question of including women for the foot-washing. The Malankara rite, led by Baselios Cardinal Cleemis Thottunkal, has also sought more time before taking the radical step.
But, Fr Jose Vailikodathu, the vicar of Blessed Sacrament Church under the Syro-Malabar rite at Cardinal Nagar, Thrikkakara, had initiated it last year, taking a cue from Francis. Fr Vailikodathu said the Church should not have delayed the implementation of the Papal decree because it “makes history” through a leg-up for equality.
He cautions the church against being regressive and says women will revolt if the church leaders decide to maintain the status quo. ‘To delay this empowerment order is to go against the spirit of the Gospel, which is for all people”, he said. But the Syro-Malabar church has a different take. Says Fr Paul Thelakat: “Now the Pope has made a change in the ritual of Latin Church. But as far as the oriental Catholics are concerned ritual changes are made not by the Pope but by the synod of bishops of the particular church. This is true of two catholic oriental churches in India.
“I hope these two churches are not saying that Papal teaching is not applicable to them but they want to enact the teaching and make their ritual according to what Pope Francis and the current spirit of the times is saying to all the Catholics”.
Fr Vailikodathu counters this saying it’s been there for all to see during the past three years. On the first Maundy Thursday after his election, Francis washed the feet of 12 young people, two of them women, and two of them Muslim, during the Holy Mass at Rome’s juvenile detention centre, Casal del Marmo.
He revised rules for the traditional foot-washing ritual on Holy Thursday, decreeing that the rite should no longer be limited to men and boys, but also include women and young girls.
So, the vicar says, it is not a bolt from the blue. He also debunks the argument in some quarters that Christ did not wash the feet of women at the last supper.
He says such an argument overlooks the social context in which Christ practised his public ministry in a male-dominated Jewish society. Traditional Jewish men at the beginning of the daily morning prayers recite: “Blessed are you, Lord, our God, ruler of the universe who has not created me a woman.”
The Jewish social structure during Jesus’s public ministry had a worse gender bias. Says Fr Gladin Alex, the judicial vicar of the archdiocese of Thiruvananthapuram: “The discretion given to the oriental churches shows the magnanimity of the Pope. The supreme pontiff is the head of the Catholic Church and not exclusively of the Latin rite”.
Prof Sarah Joseph says the prelates, who should instil great values in the laity, had turned their backs on a Godsend to make the Church equal. At a time when the world is debating the right of women to worship at Sabarimala, a few churches refuse to be guided, preferring to wallow in conservatism. Ironically, the Pope proposes, Church disposes.
She says the prelates cite archaic logic to perpetuate a slant against women. Isn’t it naive to say that man-woman touch in the West/Europe society is OK while it is taboo in oriental tradition? Why do they not see that the practice of excluding women from the foot-washing is a vestige of the male-dominated Semitic religion, which reckons women are of a lower social order?
Male-dominated society considers it infra-dig to touch the feet of a woman. The priest is the ordained ideal personality. So he should not stoop to touch a woman’s feet. So goes the argument. Next is the question of morality. Priests are ordained to be bramhacharis, for whom the touch of woman is a strict No, No.
She says that according a section of opinion even if the celibate priest has no evil intent, his touching a woman can be scandalous to onlookers. Arguments for and against including women are also germane to the post-second Vatican council’s revolutionary shift in approach to the perception of Church, from being clergy-oriented to a “people of God Church”. At the root lies the fact of gender equality.