As the international debate continues over whether Pope Francis should have washed the feet of two women during a Holy Week ritual, the issue played out one of two ways last week in the Madison Catholic Diocese.

Priests on Thursday either washed the feet of only men or skipped the ritual entirely.

Those are the two options Madison Bishop Robert Morlino gives priests, said Brent King, diocesan spokesman. The policy has been in place the last two years and was not in response to the new pope's actions on Thursday.

Morlino leaves the decision on whether to perform the ritual or skip it to “pastoral consideration,” King said.

The policy pre-dates the new pope's actions on Thursday

At least two priests in the diocese chose not to perform the ritual last week due to the male-only rule.

Christians believe Jesus washed the feet of his 12 disciples during the Last Supper as a sign of his love and service to them. Priests often re-enact the foot washing at Holy Thursday Masses, though the Vatican does not require the ritual.

The Catholic Church’s rules speak only of men’s feet being washed, and Morlino believes the correct interpretation of those rules does not allow for female participants, King said.

Morlino’s view aligns with that of a top canon lawyer, Edward Peters, who told The Associated Press that church law is clear on the ritual being men-only. However, Peters said, a pope is free to disregard “his own law.”

There appears to be some wiggle room in the debate. The website for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops notes that while the church’s rules mention only men, “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.”

Including women is “an understandable way of accentuating the evangelical command of the Lord,” the statement from the conference says.

Francis touched off the debate Thursday in Rome when he washed and kissed the feet of two women at a juvenile detention center. No pope had ever washed the feet of a woman, leading some to believe Francis was making a pointed statement about church inclusiveness.

“I was moved almost to tears,” said Johanna Hatch of Verona, a Catholic who is co-president of the board of directors for the Women’s Ordination Conference, a national group that advocates for female priests.

Women make up a majority of church workers, from pastoral associates to Sunday school teachers, and are a majority of the Catholics in the pews, she said. “It’s unfair to exclude them from this ritual,” she said.

Morlino’s guidelines were issued two years ago, at a time when the worldwide church was revisiting its rules for ceremonies, King said. Morlino wanted to make sure the priests in his diocese were in accordance with the rules, King said.

Before that, some churches in the diocese included female participants, King said. Morlino takes the “more traditional” view that the ritual is a re-enactment of Jesus washing the feet of the 12 men he was calling to the priesthood, thus the male-only rule, King said.

At least two churches in the Madison diocese opted out of the ritual Thursday because of concerns over excluding women.

At Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish on Madison’s Near West Side, the largest church in the 11-county diocese, Monsignor Ken Fiedler told parishioners he would forgo the ritual because of the men-only rule, according to people in attendance.

“The whole congregation started clapping,” said Austin Lacey, a church member who said he agreed with Fiedler’s position. Fiedler could not be reached for comment.

King said Morlino was aware that Fiedler had decided not to offer the ritual — a position Fiedler also took last year — and that this was fine with the bishop.

The Rev. Stephen Umhoefer, pastor of Nativity of Mary Catholic Church in Janesville, also did not do the foot-washing ritual Thursday or last year. In an interview, he said he felt “conflicted about excluding women.” It was a difficult decision, he said.

“I’ve had some very thoughtful feedback from parishioners who love the liturgy and are sad about not doing the foot washing, almost irrespective of whether we wash men or women,” Umhoefer said.

He described himself as being in “a rethinking mode,” a position he suspects many Catholics find themselves in. “Now that our Pope Francis has given us a new example that will be debated even at the highest levels, I just think there will be a lot of room to discuss this,” he said.

Morlino celebrated Mass on Thursday at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Downtown Madison, where he washed the feet of 12 men who are attending the seminary.

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