This past March marked fifteen years since the Vatican officially approved women and girls to serve the priest at Mass. I have an article on the subject in the current issue of Commonweal: “Passing on the Alb: My Career as an Altar Girl.”
The topic may seem trivial to you if you were never a girl yourself, haven’t been the parent of a girl, or generally aren’t convinced that it’s in the interests of the Church to treat women and girls with generous respect whenever possible. But if that sounds like a reasonable goal, you’ll understand why I find the situation troubling as it stands today.
I’ll paraphrase broadly in case you haven’t read the article: in 1994, the Vatican (via a letter from the Congregation for Divine Worship) finally confirmed, after several decades of refusals, that there was no reason, according to Canon Law, that girls and women could not fulfill the lay ministry of serving at the altar. Then, practically in the same breath, it authorized individual bishops (and, as a later statement clarified, even individual priests) to continue to bar girls from the job if they thought they had a good enough reason. In fact, the letter was mainly concerned that those bishops who did approve altar girls take care to explain their reasoning to the faithful. It didn’t offer any pointers to the bishops who preferred the no-girls-allowed approach, other than observing in passing that altar boys have traditionally been seen as potential future priests.
Many priests and bishops did come up with their own reasoning for keeping girls out of this job. I found several of these statements online, and reading through them only convinced me that this state of affairs is a bad one for the Church to be in. The apologetics vary – some claim that the Vatican didn’t say what it plainly said; others acknowledge that they *could* allow altar girls, but insist that doing so would be to the detriment of the souls in their care. Gender difference is usually invoked, but natural-law reasoning gets tangled up in armchair sociology and talk of being “countercultural.” Take, for example, this sermon I found in the EWTN online “library,” delivered by Rev. Peter R. Pilsner just a few weeks after the Congregation for Divine Worship announced its ruling in 1994. It gets off to a good start, going into the history of altar servers to explain how the ministry came about and why there’s no doctrinal reason for limiting its fulfillment to males. But then the slippery social theorizing sets in, and the whole thing begins to sound like it’s trying to sell you something. It’s increasingly unctuous, occasionally misleading, and thoroughly unconvincing. (I started cringing with the part about “sweet sixteen” parties and “Daddy’s Little Girl,” and I never recovered.)
The reasoning in this and similar statements goes something like this: it’s a simple fact of life that boys like doing things with other boys (and not with girls). So as long as a priest doesn’t allow altar girls, serving on the altar is a fun boys-only activity that young men will want to try. And from those young men, we get our future priests. Sometimes the priest will acknowledge that girls might benefit from being altar servers in their own way — but since girls can’t be priests, and since we really need priests, the best thing to do is to stick to the boys-only policies that have worked so well up to now.
I’m afraid the arguments persist today, and they have not grown any more convincing to my ears. Read the rest of this entry »