The recent flap over Pope Francis’ including women in his feet-washing ceremony on Holy Thursday was yet another attempt by the media to depict in-house squabbling between “liberal” and “conservative” Catholics. Actually, it was mostly an attempt to paint “conservative Catholics” as an ongoing problem.
Conservative Catholics, we read, were upset because the Church’s rules state that only 12 men, symbolizing the Apostles at the Last Supper, are to be part of the feet-washing ceremony.
I don’t think the pope was ignoring the rules but simply making an important statement: Christ came to serve all, men and women.
The real problem is the unfortunate divisions between those Catholics labeled liberal and conservative, perpetrated as much by Catholics themselves as anyone on the outside. Actually, few Catholics call themselves liberal; those who hang the term conservative or “traditionalist” on other Catholics usually do so with derision.
Liberal Catholics are portrayed as “social justice people,” conservatives as “personal spirituality people.” Each portrays the other as the problem: the liberals have no respect for tradition and care only about the second commandment Christ gave us (love thy neighbor) using the beatitudes as a blueprint for wanting to create a heaven on earth; conservatives care only about the first commandment (love God) and glorify tradition and devotions such as the Latin Mass to the exclusion of serving the needy.
Neither stereotype is the way Christ wants us to be.
Imagine one of the Apostles asking Jesus, “Lord, are you a liberal or a conservative?” “Both” or “Neither,” Christ might have answered.
Jesus might be seen as liberal, even radical, in some things. He ate with sinners. He didn’t observe the ritualistic washing of hands before a meal (not to be misinterpreted as His disdaining personal hygiene). He cured on the Sabbath and allowed His disciples to pluck grain and eat it on that day, both a no-no according to Judaic law. The beatitudes He spoke are a radical concept – reaching out to the poor and needy with compassion and hope.
But the beatitudes are not a call for a violent overthrow of governments and rogue regimes. The revolution that Jesus preached was for all His followers to throw off the shackles not of government but of sin.
Jesus was conservative, we might say, because He prayed, privately, a lot, and told His followers they should do so. He was an observant Jew – though His death and resurrection were a fulfillment of the law – and He showed respect for not just the rituals of the Jewish faith but also the buildings in which He and others worshipped, to the extent of throwing money changers out of the temple after accusing them of degrading it. He told the disciples to respect the Pharisees for their legal authority while reminding them not to follow their hypocritical actions.
And Jesus defined marriage in a time-honored way as a God-ordained union between one man and one woman (Matthew 19:4-6).
In one biblical passage (John 8:3-11) Jesus showed both liberal and conservative tendencies. He rebuked those who, in accordance with Mosaic law, wanted to stone a woman who’d committed adultery but then, in forgiving her, admonished her to “not sin any more.”
The media may try to divide us, but we, in turn, should not divide each other and call ourselves only “Christians” while avoiding the “l” or “c” political adjectives before that word.
The harpsichordist Wanda Landowska once told fellow performers who criticized her playing of Bach’s music, “You play Bach your way, and I’ll play him his way.” Likewise, let’s interpret Jesus’ words and actions not our way but His way, and strive to follow them.