I've written before (in the magazine, and here at dotCommonweal) about the Vatican's official policy regarding female altar servers, which strikes me as an embarrassment because of its inconsistency. I have seen many people misstate or misrepresent this policy, so to recap: it was announced in 1994 that canon law permits any lay person, male or female, to serve the priest at Mass. There is no gender-based restriction, such as "Girls may serve only if there aren't enough boys," as is sometimes asserted. The job is officially open to both sexes, like every other lay liturgical ministry. However, any bishop may declare that females may not perform this service in his diocese, for whatever reason he likes, and furthermore any pastor may restrict the ministry to men and boys alone even in a diocese where the bishop has not done so. (And making the ministry women-only in a diocese or parish is not allowed.)
Lately the topic of female altar servers has come up in a new arena, with a ruling from Rome that, it seems to me, heaps inconsistency on inconsistency. The ruling came in the form of a private letter from the secretary of Ecclesia Dei, the pontifical commission established to deal with the Lefebvrist schism and more recently charged with overseeing the implementation of Benedict XVI's Summorum pontificum, which extended permission to celebrate the "Extraordinary Form" of the Roman Liturgy (the so-called Tridentine Rite or Traditional Latin Mass). The subject was not addressed in the recent "instruction" from Ecclesia Dei on applying Summorum pontificum, but in a letter, Msgr. Guido Pozzo "said that 'permitting female altar servers does not apply to the Extraordinary Form.'"
How does this square with what Benedict said in 2007? At the time of his motu propio extending permission for the EF, he wrote:
It is not appropriate to speak of these two versions of the Roman Missal as if they were two Rites. Rather, it is a matter of a twofold use of one and the same rite.
Benedict took pains to frame the move as a restoration of something that was never truly abrogated, not a time-warp exception for those who couldn't accept the reforms that followed Vatican II. So if it's two uses of the same rite, shouldn't they both be subject to current canon law and Vatican policy? Why would the present altar-server policy not apply in both cases? I'm not certain I buy the justifications for extending the EF. In fact, I find the state of the question uncomfortable in a way that is similar to my discomfort with the "Yes, but" ruling on female altar servers. But for the sake of argument, let's accept all that as given. Better yet, let's look to John Casey, a fellow at Cambridge who wrote about Gallo's ruling in the June 18 edition of the Tablet, and who is an unqualified fan of the reintroduction of the EF. (His article, "Much Ado," is online for subscribers only.) Casey writes about the popularity of the EF at Cambridge as celebrated by the university chaplain, Fr. Alban McCoy, OFM, and his testimony suggests that the pope was right to argue that the EF isn't just for old-timers: "It has clearly been demonstrated," wrote Benedict, "that young persons too have discovered this liturgical form, felt its attraction and found in it a form of encounter with the Mystery of the Most Holy Eucharist, particularly suited to them." So they have, Casey says, and that includes young women. So Fr. McCoy "decided not to refuse the request of two devout young women to join the male servers for the old rite." Why should this be a problem? It wasn't, at first (as Francis Phillips recently clarified in the Catholic Herald after McCoy became an Internet punching bag). Casey recalls that, in 2009, the vice president of Ecclesia Dei, Msgr. Camille Perl,
had ruled that female servers were "theoretically" possible, but that he could not recommend that practice because it would be "psychologically unacceptable to the great majority who attend those Masses."
Now we're running into some of the logic problems that I think the altar-server debate and the EF debate share (even when they don't collide). As Casey notes, Perl's argument
reveals the defeatist assumption that the old rite belongs exclusively to 'traditionalist' communities. This is precisely the grounds on which the tiny minority at Cambridge base their objection -- an objection rooted in psychology rather than argument.
The appeal to psychology reminded me of the anxious language in the 2001 letter to bishops from the Congregation for Divine Worship "Concerning the Use of Female Altar Servers" (in the ordinary form): "In the event that Your Excellency found it opportune to authorize service of women at the altar, it would remain important to explain clearly to the faithful the nature of this innovation, lest confusion might be introduced, thereby hampering the development of priestly vocations." I wrote in Commonweal that this anxiety seemed misplaced: "What needed explaining to most Catholics in Scranton, Pennsylvania, when I was growing up was the no-girls-allowed policy, not the long-awaited change." Casey has a remarkably similar response to the judgment from Msgr. Perl.
What the vast majority of students and dons who attend the old Mass would find "psychologically unacceptable," or at least weird, would be if sensible, pious females were suddenly forbidden to serve in the old form when they are allowed in the new.
I don't think the "psychologically unacceptable" explanation holds much water in either case. But I can't understand why Ecclesia Dei couldn't have left it at that -- present Vatican policy would allow priests like Fr. McCoy to make their own judgment, based on their knowledge of their own community, and permit those presiding at an EF Mass to refuse women the role of altar server whenever they felt it appropriate. There would be no question of forcing any priest to suffer the psychological trauma of permitting a woman to enter the sanctuary. But now that Msgr. Pozzo's letter has ruled out female altar servers entirely, "Ecclesia Dei must think of some arguments," Casey writes. If what the pope said about two forms of a single rite is true, "what, pray, are the theological or any other grounds for saying that females can serve in one form but not in the other? I suspect that 'psychology' will not do the trick."
The closest I can come to finding an argument is this, via Pray Tell: "According to [the April 2011 instruction from Ecclesia Dei], liturgical decrees issued since 1962 which are not compatible with the liturgical books then in use are not binding on Tridentine celebrations." It's perpetually 1962 for the EF, in other words. Is that convincing? And does Pozzo's ruling automatically follow? I'm in over my head when it comes to the finer points of liturgical law. Here are the relevant bits, if someone out there cares to examine and explain them:
27. With regard to the disciplinary norms connected to celebration, the ecclesiastical discipline contained in the Code of Canon Law of 1983 applies.28. Furthermore, by virtue of its character of special law, within its own area, the Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum derogates from those provisions of law, connected with the sacred Rites, promulgated from 1962 onwards and incompatible with the rubrics of the liturgical books in effect in 1962.
I do know that it strikes me as problematic to encourage bishops and priests to make the EF more widely available and simultaneously to tell them they cannot permit women to serve on the altar at those Masses. Counterproductive, too, if the intention is truly to expose more people to the beauty (and validity) of both forms and not just to pacify those who would prefer to sequester themselves from post-1962 forms of worship and community in the Church. When Benedict issued Summorum pontificum, he explained that the decision was "a matter of coming to an interior reconciliation in the heart of the Church."
Let us generously open our hearts and make room for everything that the faith itself allows.There is no contradiction between the two editions of the Roman Missal. In the history of the liturgy there is growth and progress, but no rupture. What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful.
The question I think Ecclesia Dei ought to answer is, Does that work both ways? If the faith itself allows women to enter the sanctuary and serve the priest at Mass, can that be considered always harmful in certain contexts? Why shouldn't local communities celebrating the EF be able to decide for themselves how much of what the faith allows they can make room for in their hearts -- or on their altars?
About the Author
Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.