Why The Church Should Reconsider Allowing Altar Girls

The allowance of altar girls has worked to distort the nature of the Liturgy,  has led to a shortage of priestly vocations and has also misled to well meaning Catholics to falsely believe that the Church could ordain women in the future.

For over two decades the Catholic Church has permitted women and girls to become altar servers. This is a topic that easily stirs discussion as well as controversy for a large variety of individuals. Altar girls is something that the majority of the Catholic faithful see whenever they attend Mass in the Ordinary Form “The Novus Ordo.” While the Church does indeed permit girls to serve at the altar, this article will show why this is something that the Church should reconsider. I will first show the origins of why the Church permitted altar girls to become altar servers to begin with. I will furthermore show why this is something that has proven to be problematic for a variety of reasons. This includes the distortion and diminishing of vocations to the priesthood as well as having the effect of allowing well-meaning Catholics to believe that women could someday become priests or “priestesses.” Similarly I will show why allowing women altar servers is something that has distorted and has obscured the reality and significance of the Mass. This is especially true in having the effect of “feminizing the Church and the Mass.” Based on this I will show why a good number of Catholic priests and Bishops are returning to an exclusive use of using boy and male altar servers during the Mass.

            For close to 2000 years the Catholic Church has traditionally only employed the use of male altar servers in the Church. It is only very recently starting around 1994 that the Church has permitted women and girls to become altar servers in general. How indeed did the use of girl altar servers come about and what was the reason for it? It should first be noted that Pope Saint John Paul II had written about the fact that males were the only ones to be used as altar servers for the Church. This can be seen in her letter Inaestimabile Donum. It was only during the development of the 1983 Code of Canon Law that the question of permitting women to serve in the altar came out. It arose over the interpretation of canon 230 Section 2.

§2. Lay persons can fulfill the function of lector in liturgical actions by temporary designation. All lay persons can also perform the functions of commentator or cantor, or other functions, according to the norm of law. (Code of Canon Law 1983)

Obviously this text does not specifically grant a permission to use girls as altar servers. It did however create a dubium (a doubt) as to whether women were allowed to serve at the altar. Based on this “doubt” the Church including the Pope granted a permission to use women as altar servers under certain conditions and prescriptions. Cardinal Antonio Maria Javierre Ortas the prefect emeritus of the Congregation of Divine Worship wrote a letter in 1994 stating these precepts:

  1. Canon 230 #2 has a permissive and not a perceptive character: “Laici . . . possunt.” Hence the permission given in this regard by some Bishops can in no way be considered as binding on other Bishops. In fact, it is the competence of each Bishop, in his diocese, after hearing the opinion of the Episcopal Conference, to make a prudential judgment on what to do, with a view to the ordered development of liturgical life in his own diocese.
  2. The Holy See respects the decision adopted by certain Bishops for specific local reasons on the basis of the provisions of Canon 230 2. At the same time, however, the Holy See wishes to recall that 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.
  3. If in some diocese, on the basis of Canon 230 #2, the Bishop permits that, for particular reasons, women may also serve at the altar, this decision must be clearly explained to the faithful, in the light of the above-mentioned norm. It shall also be made clear that the norm is already being widely applied, by the fact that women frequently serve as lectors in the Liturgy and can also be called upon to distribute Holy Communion as Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist and to carry out other functions, according to the provisions of the same Canon 230 #3.
  4. It must also be clearly understood that the liturgical services mentioned above are carried out by lay people ex temporanea deputatione, (temporary permission; or dispensation) according to the judgment of the Bishop, without lay people, be they men or women, having any right to exercise them.”1

This means that the Church merely permitted and has since that moment permitted girls to be altar servers. It was never something that the Church necessarily promoted but simply gave a temporary dispensation. Similarly the Congregation of Divine Worship shows that the Holy See wishes to recall that it will always be very appropriate to follow the noble tradition of having boys serve at the altar.

Years later in 2001 a Bishop wanted to learn whether he could force his priests to employ woman as altar servers in their Mass. Cardinal Jorge Medina Estevez the succeeding prefect of the Congregation of Divine Worship wrote:

In accord with the above cited instructions of the Holy See such an authorization may not, in any way, exclude men or, in particular, boys from service at the altar, nor require that priests of the diocese would make use of female altar servers, since “it will always be very appropriate to follow the noble tradition of having boys serve at the altar” (Circular Letter to the Presidents of Episcopal Conference, March 15, 1994, no. 2). Indeed, the obligation to support groups of altar boys will always remain, not least of all due to the well-known assistance that such programs have provided since time immemorial in encouraging future priestly vocations

With respect to whether the practice of women serving at the altar would truly be of pastoral advantage in the local pastoral situation, it is perhaps helpful to recall that the non-ordained faithful do not have a right to service at the altar, rather they are capable of being admitted to such service by the Sacred Pastors (cf. Circular Letter to the Presidents of Episcopal Conferences, March 15, 1994, Therefore, 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.” (2001 letter) (More Prescriptions)2 (2001 letter)2

This letter shows once again that while the Church does indeed permit the use of girl altar servers it is not something that the Church give support of even though the majority of parishes employ the use of girl altar servers. Rather as both letters show the Church as a whole continues to promote the use of boy altar servers.

I highly recommend people to listen to what Cardinal Arinze the previous prefect for the Congregation of Divine Worship had to say about the use of altar girls:

 

All of this shows that the allowance of the Church to use girls as altar servers is merely “permissive” in nature. Having girl altar servers is not and has never been the tradition of the Church. It is like everything else such as lay Extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion an exception rather than the norm” and is only a temporary exception. Dare I say it is even a mere loophole in Canon Law?

Similarly it should be noted that just because the Church “allows” something such as altar girls to serve in the altar does not mean it is ideal or should be encouraged. The Church’s permission of allowing girl altar servers itself states that it is meant only when there is a real “pastoral need.” Similarly having “Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion” are also “exceptions for rare circumstances.” Lastly the Church “allows” things like Communion in the hand that should not be promoted for any circumstance. The point in all of this, before going any further, is that the Church “allowing” something does not make it ideal! Nor does it mean that it should necessarily be promoted.

Altar servers and the nature of the Mass

It should also be stated that the problematic aspect of having girl altar servers has nothing to do with whether women or girls can or can’t be good altar servers. Nor does it have anything to do with “equality.” Obviously there have been girls who have been excellent altar servers. Rather it has everything to do with the nature of the Mass, and as we will later see its connection to priestly vocations as well.

I would argue that just as secular feminism has helped in distorting the understanding regarding the authentic roles and function of authentic masculinity and femininity; likewise the allowance of altar girls has distorted the understanding regarding the differences in authentic liturgical roles and function. This obviously does not mean that women/girls could not possibly do as good of a job, or even better in regards to a specific liturgical function such as altar serving, but rather that they should not. Not because the Church did not or has now the authority to employ them, as has been the norm for the last decades. Nor because it is theologically impossible (which is not), but because it is not prudent. It is, I would say better  and more fitting to the nature of the liturgy to only employ altar boys or males to serve at the altar, due to the significance of the liturgical role regarding what  altar serving entails. It is a matter of metaphysical realities that are present in the Mass. The reality is that the priest celebrating the Mass is acting in Personal Christi (The person of Christ). Similarly it makes sense to have male altar servers as they best resemble the the priest acting in the person of Christ who is the head of the Church. I would say that allowing altar girls or women in general distorts this liturgical reality.

Altar serving and priestly vocations

Similarly it should be noted that altar serving has always had a great connection with priestly vocations. The reality is that altar serving has always existed not only to help the priest but to furthermore help in developing possible future priests. Obviously the reality is that only men can be priests for a variety of reasons. First and foremost Pope Saint John Paul II wrote about the fact that the priesthood is reserved to men alone and that this is something that the Church cannot change.

As Elisabeth Cervantes put it nicely:

The priesthood is inherently a masculine vocation because Christ is the exemplar for priesthood. The relationship between Christ and His Church is essentially the relationship between a bridegroom and his bride, male and female. It is right for men to seek to imitate Christ, the most perfect paradigm of the masculine role. If masculinity is no longer valuable, why embrace the priestly vocation, which is an imitation of Christ as the High Priest? If no one around you values the masculine virtues, why choose something so intrinsically male?3

The role of altar serving has always been connected with nourishing and fostering vocations to the priesthood. This is true in regards to both pre-Vatican II as well as post-Vatican II liturgical life. It has been stated for example that before the allowance of girls to serve in the altar, that close to 90-100% of ordinands to the priesthood (those being ordained to the priesthood) had been former altar servers. Similarly in recent years between 70-80% of those ordained to the priesthood had also been altar servers in their youth.

As the website liturgy guy documents “The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released the findings from the 2014 Survey of Ordinands to the Priesthood. Prepared by Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) for the USCCB, the survey was completed by 365 ordinands, which constitutes a 77 percent response rate. At nearly 30 pages, there is a great deal of data to digest. Similarly as of two years ago the USSB revealed that 82% of men studying for the priesthood were also former altar servers at one point in their youth.”4

This summarizes once again that having boy vs girl altar servers has nothing to do with equality or whether someone can or can’t altar serve. Nor does it have anything to do with fairness. It has everything to do with the nature of the Mass as well as it being highly connected with fostering priestly vocations.

As Rebecca DeVendra humorously puts it:

Sometimes people who identified as “feminist” would try to convince me that the Church was unfair to women. I just had another perspective: I don’t think that anyone would argue that their young son “has a right” to spend time with a religious order of nuns, or that he should take part in a retreat held by a convent that is geared towards fostering the vocations of young women to the religious life. I mean, such a retreat is obviously not a formal profession of vows, and boys ought to be allowed to do vocation exercises designed for women religious, because he can do works of mercy just as well as any girl, right?5

Before going to the last portions of this article it should also be stated that there is a connection between the allowance of girl altar servers and the decline in male altar servers. As many individuals have pointed out there is in actuality a reason for this. What has happened is that like in most places in the Church there has indeed been a “Feminization of the Church” which has driven many men away because of the lack of male spirituality that was once pertinent to the Church.

As Church Militant documents:

What has happened in the last few decades is that serving at the altar has come to be understood as a “female” activity, and this is not attractive to males. It’s not that the activity itself is feminine, but that males (and young males, in particular) tend to shy away from activities that appear to be dominated by females, as so many “ministries” in the Church have become (except the priesthood). Men have become “minority participants” in most liturgical settings: as lectors, as Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, as directors of religious education — the “staff” positions in most parishes and chancery offices are overwhelmingly women. And, of course, there is the perennial observation that women always outnumber men in the pews. Just going to church itself is viewed by many men as “something women do.6

This is in light with what His Excellency Bishop Burke had said regarding altar girls:

The introduction of girl servers also led many boys to abandon altar service. Young boys don’t want to do things with girls. It’s just natural. The girls were also very good at altar service. So many boys drifted away over time. I want to emphasize that the practice of having exclusively boys as altar servers has nothing to do with inequality of women in the Church.

I think that this has contributed to a loss of priestly vocations. It requires a certain manly discipline to serve as an altar boy in service at the side of the priest, and most priests have their first deep experiences of the liturgy as altar boys. If we are not training young men as altar boys, giving them an experience of serving God in the liturgy, we should not be surprised that vocations have fallen dramatically.

The Church becomes very feminized. Women are wonderful, of course. They respond very naturally to the invitation to be active in the Church. Apart from the priest, the sanctuary has become full of women. The activities in the parish and even the liturgy have been influenced by women and have become so feminine in many places that men do not want to get involved.

Men are often reluctant to become active in the Church. The feminized environment and the lack of the Church’s effort to engage men has led many men to simply opt out.7

There are studies that show that priests who return to an exclusive use of boy altar servers end up having a spike in available altar servers in general. One such study was done by a particular priest Father John Hallowell at his blog:

Picture taken by Fr. John Howell showing the spike in number of altar servers when he only permitted boys and males in general to serve around the altar at Mass and other liturgical functions. This chart is available at his blog which is posted in the article.

 Is there a link between allowing woman altar servers and support for women priests?

As I have just stated the priesthood is a vocation that is reserved to men alone as Saint John Paul II has stated for a variety of reasons. Nevertheless a recent statistic conducted by the Gallup poll shows that over the last few decades there has een a surge of Catholic support for women ordination to the priesthood. In 1977 it is recorded that only 36% of Catholics showed any support for women priests. This trend went up to 68% by the year 2000. I would say that as of now the support is even higher at around 70-75%. Obviously this is a result of very bad catechesis but I would say that allowing girls to become altar servers has played a very big factor since it has distorted the nature of the Mass as well as the fact that altar serving is highly connected to the priesthood.

Picture Graph taken by Linda Lyons, Education and Youth Editor in a Gallup survey showing the spike in number of those favorable of women ordination to the priesthood. For the purposes of this article it is specifically those Catholics who are in favor of this that is of chief importance. There is a large amount of evidence that suggests that this approval rating has only gone up. The original source for this Gallup survey is linked to in this article.

There are multiple cases of woman and young girls who had been former altar servers stop based on their newly found knowledge regarding the nature of altar serving to the Mass as well as to the priesthood. They have furthermore taken hold of the fact that regardless of whatever vocation they end up in including the consecrated and religious life, that even such individuals are not called to service around the altar. Some of these many cases has been recorded in Why a Former Altar Girl Changed her Mind About Boy-Only Servers and Should Girls Serve at the Altar? A Former Altar Girl Weighs In

Retuning to Tradition

There are many priests as well as Dioceses that have started to return to this traditional means of exclusively allowing male altar servers for a variety of the reasons that I have pointed above. The Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, is one of a few dioceses that had always only permits boys to be altar servers. This particular diocese has experienced a great surge in altar servers as well as in vocations to the priesthood.

There has also been a variety of parishes that have returned to the exclusive use of altar boys that have seen a spike in priestly vocations as well as an increase in the number of altar servers. As the article altar boys and the priesthood records:

The parish of St. Ann in Charlotte, North Carolina originally had 25 altar servers including boys and girls when Father Timothy Reid came along. After his decision to only permit boy altar servers to serve in his parish to 35 altar servers. Similarly this same pastor started celebrating the Traditional Latin Mass in which only boys are allowed to be used as altar servers. The number of altar servers went from 35 to about 50.8

Fr Timothy Reid himself states:

I think what’s interesting for our parish is that since we’ve separated the boys and girls, both are happier in their duties.
Moreover, we’ve had two girls who’ve participated in the Maria Goretti Altar Guild go into religious/consecrated life, and three young men head off to the seminary.
We’ve got another young man slated for the seminary next year. And I’m quite sure that many of my (current) altar boys are considering the seminary.
9

Similarly Father Joseph Illo, a priest from Star of the Sea parish in the Diocese of San Francisco has made a decision to only permit boy altar servers during his Masses.

For over two decades the Catholic Church has permitted women and girls to become altar servers. This is a topic that easily stirs discussion as well as controversy for a large variety of individuals. Altar girls is something that the majority of the Catholic faithful see whenever they attend Mass in the Ordinary Form “The Novus Ordo.” While the Church does indeed permit girls to serve at the altar, this article will show why this is something that the Church should reconsider. I will first show the origins of why the Church permitted altar girls to become altar servers to begin with. I will furthermore show why this is something that has proven to be problematic for a variety of reasons. This includes the distortion and diminishing of vocations to the priesthood as well as having the effect of allowing well-meaning Catholics to believe that women could someday become priests or “priestesses.” Similarly I will show why allowing women altar servers is something that has distorted and has obscured the reality and significance of the Mass. This is especially true in having the effect of “feminizing the Church and the Mass.” Based on this I will show why a good number of Catholic priests and Bishops are returning to an exclusive use of using boy and male altar servers during the Mass.

All of this points that even though the Church has allowed girls and females to serve as altar servers this is something that has had a mere “permissive” rather than a “perceptive” nature. Furthermore we have seen that although this is something that the Church “allows” it is not the ideal by any means. We have seen how allowing altar girls has distorted the nature of the Mass and that because altar serving is greatly tied with promoting future priests, this is something that has only worked in declining priestly vocations. Lastly we saw that allowing altar girls even has had an indirect effect in promoting women priests to some  individuals, even though this is obviously a theological impossibility regardless of how many people are “in favor of this.”

It is my desire in writing this paper that many individuals and the Church itself may reflect on these realities present here and reconsider switching towards an exclusive use of boy and male altar servers in the Mass and subsequent liturgical functions. As I have pointed out this has absolutely nothing to do with equality or “whether someone can or can’t do something” but rather it has everything to do with the nature of the Mass, the priesthood, and subsequently the nature of boys and males in regards to these realities.

I highly encourage those who have taken their time in reading this article to consult the notes section (In which I have attached most of the notes as hyperlinks) in order to have a fuller understanding as to why the allowance of altar girls in the Mass or any liturgical function is problematic on both a practical as well as a theological level.

Notes:

  1. https://www.ewtn.com/library/curia/cdwcomm.htm
  2. http://www.adoremus.org/CDW-AltarServers.html
  3. https://ethikapolitika.org/2015/02/02/competition-complementarity/
  4. http://liturgyguy.com/2014/05/17/what-altar-boys-can-do-that-altar-girls-cant/
  5. http://www.onepeterfive.com/should-girls-serve-at-the-altar-a-former-altar-girl-weighs-in/
  6. http://www.churchmilitant.com/main/generic/faq-on-altar-girls-and-the-feminization-of-the-church
  7. http://www.newemangelization.com/uncategorized/cardinal-raymond-leo-burke-on-the-catholic-man-crisis-and-what-to-do-about-it/
  8. http://liturgyguy.com/2013/10/06/altar-boys-and-the-priesthood/
  9. Ibid

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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