On Maundy Thursday, he went to an Italian jail and washed the feet of twelve young people, including two women and two Muslims. Most of the press coverage treated this as yet another touching instance of the new pope's personal humility, and of his desire to turn the Roman church in a humbler direction.
But the blog Rorate Coeli declared this to be "The Official End of the Reform of the Reform -- By Example." The canonist Ed Peters remarks grimly that "we live in antinomian times." Which is their way of saying nonononononono!
Mind you, the Papist bloggers have a point. Their church's liturgical law does indeed specify that foot-washing be restricted to twelve "select men," and although there is some argument over just why that is so, or whether it should continue to be so, there is no real question that it is so. Popes can abrogate the law if they so choose, but they can't simply disobey it. Except, of course, that sometimes they do.
Still, these guys may be missing the bigger picture. For years, we have complained that the Roman Catholic church -- and especially the Roman Curia -- displays a nearly suicidal contempt for public relations. For all that John Paul II was a master of the grand symbolic gesture, he wasn't much of an administrator; Benedict's choice of grand gestures, although endearing to scholars and antiquarians, was less than masterly.
There are two results. The first is that, since the death of Paul VI, people seeking the "progressive" face of Roman Catholicism that emerged in his era have been consistently disappointed, at least in the papacy. This, by itself, would not be particularly serious -- within the church, the progressives were a minority, and their gradual marginalization hasn't been such a great problem. Some of their opponents are quietly happy about it.
But to the eclipse of "progressive" Catholicism we must add the second, and far more destructive, result of official tone-deafness. In recent years, it has become possible, permissible and even popular to publicly identify Roman Catholicism with its very worst failures. Specifically, that has translated into the assumption that every priest or bishop is somehow involved in the child molestation scandals. Such an assumption is false, of course -- but no less common for that. The Roman Catholic church has responded ineptly to crisis after crisis, and has allowed itself to be perceived as a corrupt, formalistic institution governed exclusively by arrogant, out of-touch old men who put their personal interests before either the law or the good of their people. (For example.)
This perception is (largely) mistaken, and should be corrected whenever possible by appeal the facts. But frankly, all the facts in the world will not sway the masses as effectively as a few well-timed gestures. Francis is trying to make those gestures.
Is he wrong on church law? Probably; but so what? He's the freaking pope, he should get a little slack from the papists. His instincts, so far, are on target in a way we have not seen in a long time, and which both Catholicism and the rest of Christianity need urgently at the moment.