This is a topic that typically makes some people very angry. And the ones who get angry over this are almost always the ones who are in favor of a particular widespread practice that the Church condemns.
On multiple occasions the Holy See has condemned the practice of washing the feet of women during the Mandatum on Holy Thursday. But each and every year all across the U.S. and Canada it seems that this is done anyway.
The rubrics in the Roman Missal explicitly state that only the feet of men are to be washed during the Mandatum:
Depending on pastoral circumstance, the washing of feet follows the homily. The men who have been chosen (viri selecti) are led by the ministers to chairs prepared at a suitable place. Then the priest (removing his chasuble if necessary) goes to each man. With the help of the ministers he pours water over each one’s feet and dries them.
The Latin word used in the rubric is even included in the English translation of the Missal. The word viri means males. This is not the same as the Latin word used in the Creed at “for us men and our salvation he came down from heaven”. The word homines is used in the Creed and it means means “men” in the generic sense of “humans”. The Church chose to emphasize that men means males in the rubric by including the Latin word so as to leave no doubt as to what is required.
Despite the clear desire of the Holy See on the matter in 1987 the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (then called the National Coference of Catholic Bishops, I believe) Bishops Committee on the Liturgy released a document which acknowledges that the Missal says only the feet of males are to be washed:
While this variation may differ from the rubric of the Sacramentary which mentions only men (“viri selecti”)…
Bishops Committee on the Liturgy, Holy Thursday Mandatum, Response 5
However, at the same time the document urges disobedience to this rubric:
In this regard, it has become customary in many places to invite both men and women to be participants in this rite in recognition of the service that should be given by all the faithful to the Church and to the world. Thus, in the United States, a variation in the rite developed in which not only charity is signified but also humble service.
Bishops Committee on the Liturgy, Holy Thursday Mandatum, Response 4
In 1988 the CDW, possibly in response to the dissent of the U.S. Bishops on this matter a year earlier, restates the Church’s position:
The washing of the feet of chosen men which, according to tradition, is performed on this day, represents the service and charity of Christ, who came “not to be served, but to serve.” This tradition should be maintained, and its proper significance explained.
Paschale Solemnitatis 51
And the Congregation for Divine Worship continually clarifies this matter. Anyone who writes to them receives the same response:
the washing of feet is reserved to “chosen men” (viri selecti)
An example of a letter from the CDW on this matter, received in 2008, is below.
This particular letter was featured by Fr. Z of WDTPRS in his most recent post on the Holy Thursday Mandatum.
This seems pretty clear to me. Until and unless the Church reverses its position anyone who argues that the washing of the feet of women on Holy Thursday is permitted is only giving their own opinion – an opinion that seems to run contrary to what the Church says on the matter.
Now, there are 2 objections that are typically raised. The first is that the Archbishop of Boston was permitted to wash the feet of women. And the second objections is that it is not always possible to find 12 men to have their feet washed so women must be used as well.
In regards to the first objection the Newspaper of the Archdiocese of Boston claims that
In August 2004, “at the time of the ad limina visit to Rome, the archbishop sought clarification on the liturgical requirements of the rite of foot washing from the Congregation for Divine Worship, which has the responsibility for administering the liturgical law of the Church,” said an archdiocesan statement released in March. “The Congregation affirmed the liturgical requirement that only the feet of men be washed at the Holy Thursday ritual, which recalls Christ’s service to the apostles who would become the first priests of the Church.”
“The Congregation did, however, provide for the archbishop to make a pastoral decision concerning his practice of the rite if such a decision would be helpful to the faithful of the archdiocese,”
The Pilot; April 1, 2005
This is far from giving Archbishop O’Malley permission to change the rubric. The CDW restates the requirement. And then, according to the Archdiocese of Boston, provided for the Archbishop to “make a pastoral decision” on the matter. That decision would have come down to obedience to the Church or disobedience. It is worth noting that the Archdiocese of Boston has never published its supposed “permission” from the CDW. But, nothing here changes the fact that what the Archbishop of Boston decided to do is still in violation of the rubrics.
In response to the second objection it should be pointed out that nowhere does the Church actually require that the number of men having their feet washed to be 12. Neither the rubrics of the Roman Missal itself or Paschale Solemnitatis, the letter released by the CDW, give a particular number. 12 is simply customary.
Now, why only men? The Mandatum follows the reading of the Gospel account of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples before making them his priests of the New Covenant. The men whose feet are washed by the priest are symbolically representative of the priesthood which, according to the Church, was reserved to men alone by our Lord. It is not a matter of being sexist or not being inclusive. Anyone who thinks such things really needs to take it up with the Lord himself.
The last thing that I will mention is that the Mandatum is completely optional. If a priest does not like the fact that the Church only permits the washing of the feet of men then the appropriate action to take is not to wash the feet of women anyway in a spirit of disobedience.
Nevertheless, the priest must remember that he is the servant of the Sacred Liturgy and that he himself is not permitted, on his own initiative, to add, to remove, or to change anything in the celebration of Mass.
General Instruction of the Roman Missal 24
The correct thing to do is to either obey the rubrics or not include the OPTIONAL ceremony at all.