National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  May 14, 2004

-- CNS/Reuters

Boston Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley
Boston archbishop defends record on women


Boston Archbishop Sean P. O’Malley defended his record on women April 30 and clarified a negative comment on feminism he made during Holy Week, saying he was sorry if Catholic women were upset by the controversy that resulted.

He also defended his decision to wash only the feet of men on Holy Thursday. He said that is the rubric of the church and he has followed it since he was ordained a priest 34 years ago.

When he goes to Rome this August for his ad limina, or official five-year visit, he said, “I will raise the question of the foot-washing ceremony for a clarification.”

O’Malley commented on the Holy Week controversies in his column in the April 30 issue of The Pilot, the archdiocesan newspaper.

His remark on feminism came in a homily to archdiocesan priests April 6 at the annual chrism Mass. Speaking of the “hostile, alien environment” in which priests must try to preach the Gospel, he said Americans of the baby boom generation are the most educated and affluent group in U.S. history, but they are also “heirs to Woodstock, the drug culture, the sexual revolution, feminism, the breakdown of authority and divorce.”

In his column, he said, “Feminism is a very elastic term, and I did not define it or try to categorize it. Other influences I mentioned were obviously negative, and so my comment was construed as an attack on feminism.”

He went on to say, “There is a feminism which is a Christian imperative and invokes promoting the rights and prerogatives of women, such as equal pay for equal work. ... Thank God we have many noble examples of Christian feminists in our church. Two such women who have had a profound influence on my life are Dorothy Day and Blessed Mother Teresa.

“As a priest a major part of my ministry has been promoting the rights and welfare of women,” he added. “Despite our obvious differences, I even co-chaired a government committee with Gloria Steinem, with the task of studying wages of domestic workers and recommending minimum wage increases. The [ABC News] television program ‘20/20’ dedicated a show to the underground railroad I ran for many years for battered and exploited women.”

He said when he became bishop of St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, 20 years ago, he was one of the first bishops to appoint a woman as chancellor and he also had a woman chancellor later in Palm Beach, Fla.

“I have always defended the liturgical roles of women and routinely there are women lectors, extraordinary ministers of holy Communion and altar girls at my liturgies,” he wrote.

“But those who know me know that I take the church’s liturgical directives most seriously,” he added. “Consequently, for the last 34 years I have washed the feet of 12 men on Holy Thursday who represent the Twelve Apostles. ... The liturgy is a teacher of our doctrine and should not be tampered with.”

When the washing of feet was restored as an optional Holy Thursday rite in 1955, the official church rubric said the priest should select men for the rite. After a bishop raised a question in the 1980s about the growing practice of including women in the rite in the United States, the bishops’ Committee on Liturgy studied the issue.

It authorized a statement in 1987 that said the “variation” of including women “is an understandable way of accentuating the evangelical command of the Lord, ‘who came to serve and not to be served,’ that all members of the church must serve one another in love.”

Since then a few U.S. priests and bishops have continued to wash only the feet of men, but most have included women in the rite. Among those who included women was O’Malley’s predecessor in Boston, Cardinal Bernard F. Law.

Atlanta Archbishop John F. Donoghue went a step further than O’Malley this spring. In addition to excluding women from the foot-washing ceremony at the cathedral, he ordered his priests to exclude women from the rite in all parishes.

O’Malley said he was concerned “that some people seem determined to make our liturgical services a political battleground. The Eucharist and Holy Week services are the most sacred things we have. ... One way we safeguard unity is by obediently following the rubrics.”

National Catholic Reporter, May 14, 2004

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