Fifteen years of confusion

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.

This parish's FAQ page contains a lengthy response to the question, "Why does St. Mary's reserve altar serving to boys alone?" A sample:

While equal opportunity is a noble sentiment, the bond between priest and the boys has now been lessened. A strong fraternity of altar boys in close association with the priest is indispensable in inviting young men to meaningful consideration of a priestly vocation. There is also a certain awkwardness in teaching girls to take pride in a job that will never come to fruition, since they will never be able to become priests.

There's a lot that makes me cringe in that statement, but the last part is particularly problematic. What the Vatican said in 1994 was essentially that altar servers are like any other lay ministers. So, for a girl, serving the priest is not "a job that will never come to fruition," any more than a woman who reads the Responsorial Psalm should be regarded as training to proclaim the Gospel. In fact, not two months after the CDW issued its March 1994 letter, Pope John Paul II issued the apostolic letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis, "on reserving priestly ordination to men alone." The Church's position, as you know, is "We don't have the authority to ordain women, even if we wanted to." It seems awkward, to me, to simultaneously say "We do have the authority to permit women to be altar servers, but only if we want to," and to always justify holding that permission back with the hope that altar boys might someday be priests. It creates an uncomfortable tension that doesn't do any favors (in my opinion) for the case against women's ordination, and only encourages the impression that it's OK to treat women as second-class citizens in the church if it can be justified as a means to the end of a stronger priesthood.

The compromise position we're in now has left a lot of people confused. My question is: How does it serve the church to keep creating room for people to oppose altar girls for whatever reasons they choose? Are we really better off than we would be if Catholics had to get used to seeing girls serving the priest, the way we had to get used to women reading from Scripture or distributing the Eucharist? What are the benefits, and is the tradeoff worth it?

For those truly opposed, there's always the selective-orthodoxy approach: pretend the Vatican didn't really mean to allow altar girls. (You could call this the George Weigel approach to interpreting pronouncements from the Holy See.) Fr. Joseph Fessio, SJ, wrote on his blog last year:

I have it on authority of a Roman canonist who has been involved that even to this day, technically, female altar servers are not permitted by the Code of Canon Law.

Insider gossip is fun and everything, but: Isn't a letter from the Congregation for Divine Worship more or less the definition of having something on authority?

Another good example comes from Fr. Edward McNamara, LC, who writes a liturgy Q&A column for Zenit. (He actually answered a question about female altar servers this week, although it was focused on the extraordinary form.) His correspondents tend to be on the overscrupulous side. I also frequently get the impression the questioner has a bone to pick with some poor pastor. This example from 2004 delivers on both counts:

What is the Church's position on the use of female altar servers? May all of the servers be female, or must at least one be male? Do you feel that the use of female altar servers detracts from the building of vocations among young males?

Fr. McNamara is usually fair and careful in his answers. But in this case I have to give him a low mark for close reading. From his response (emphasis mine):

The 1994 letter states: "It will always be very appropriate to follow the noble tradition of having boys serve at the altar. As is well known, this has led to a reassuring development of priestly vocations. Thus the obligation to support such groups of altar boys will always continue."

The letter also recommends to bishops to consider "among other things the sensibilities of the faithful, the reasons which would motivate such permission and the different liturgical settings and congregations which gather for the Holy Mass."

Therefore the Holy See's recommendation is to retain as far as possible the custom of having only boys as servers. But it leaves to the bishop the choice of permitting women and girls for a good reason and to the pastor of each parish the decision as to whether to act on the bishop's permission.

Look again: the word "only" doesn't appear in the letter McNamara quotes. He added it, thus changing what the Vatican letter actually said while pretending to simply explain it. If the CDW had wanted to say "the custom of having only boys as servers" should be retained when possible, wouldn't they have used those words?

Finally: I think it should go without saying that the Church has no rules about the distribution of boy and girl servers at a given Mass. But Fr. McNamara never answers that question directly. Instead, he says this:

When girls do serve, it is probably best to aim for a mixture of boys and girls if only to avoid giving the impression to the congregation that Catholicism is above all a female activity.

Maybe it's just me, but -- all things considered -- I think the risk of giving that impression is pretty darn low.

UPDATE: Also see this follow-up post.

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Religion
Books
Collections