Altar Serving Seen Through Secular Eyes


There is no quicker way to get labeled a misogynist today than to suggest an end to girls serving at the altar. If you doubt the validity of that claim, try writing a blog post or two on the topic and see what happens. Sadly, those who most often speak out in support of the current practice do so with little more than feelings and personal anecdotes.

When revisiting this topic it still surprises me just how entrenched many have become in their support of female servers. While it was the revision to canon law in 1983 that opened the door for girls to serve, official permission did not come from Rome until 1994.

Consider that for a moment.

For a Church that is 2,000 years old, the practice of girls serving at the altar isn’t even as old as Justin Bieber. And yet it is defended as if there is no questioning the practice, no turning back, no need to revisit something that was immediately adopted by almost every diocese in the United States without any deliberation.

It is important to remember what the Congregation for Divine Worship clearly said in 1994 regarding the connection between serving and vocations:

“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.”

Writing on this very topic over at his blog, Fr. John Zuhlsdorf methodically explained the change this way:

1. Diocesan Bishops can choose to authorize, or not, service at the altar by females.
2. Just because another diocese has service by women, that doesn’t mean any other diocese has to have it.
3. Priests cannot be forced to have females serve their Masses.
4. Pastors cannot be forced by bishops to have female servers.
5. There is an obligation to support the service at the altar by boys.
6. There is a connection between service at the altar by boys and vocations to the priesthood.
7. No lay person has the right to serve at the altar for Mass or any other liturgical worship.

Unfortunately, pervasive secular understandings of equality and participation are repeatedly interjected into any discussion of altar girls. The contemporary belief that participation at Mass absolutely mandates the “doing” of something has often resulted in the push for girls to serve.

Some cannot comprehend the notion that young women would actually be excluded from an activity that their brothers are allowed to do. They contend that girls can do anything the boys can do…and often better. (A straw-man argument since no one is disputing this).

The question is asked: Why would we want to tell these young women that their service isn’t appreciated or wanted? After all, what about their feelings? Aren’t we just bullying these young girls who want simply to serve Our Lord by serving at Mass?

As a father of five children, four of whom are girls, I soundly reject the idea that it is unfair to only permit boys to serve. To make this a false issue of “rights”, or to suggest that a girls value can only be found by fulfilling the traditional role of a boy is wrong. However, as catechesis has suffered for decades, many Catholics can only see the faith through secular eyes.

Lost on many of the faithful is the understanding that society’s idea of equality, one that no longer even acknowledges the difference between a man and a woman, has no place in the realm of the sacred. After all, if the majority of self identified Catholics in the U.S. support female ordination and same-sex marriage (and they do), then how can we expect them to understand that the dignity of an individual does not depend upon the “sameness” of everyone’s roles?

Newsflash: boys and girls are different. That is a good thing. This understanding of our unique differences, our different purposes, actually helps to reinforce the Church’s correct (but counter-cultural) understanding of the complementarity of the sexes.

While those who most vocally endorse altar girls say they oppose the call for female ordination, it is interesting to note the growing support for it over recent years. Common sense suggests that as more of the faithful argue that girls are “just as capable as the boys” to serve at mass, many will then go on to argue that women are “just as capable as men” of celebrating the Mass. The theological, historical and scriptural arguments against it are undoubtedly lost on those who have been far more formed by the secular culture than by the Church.

A little over a decade ago the Gallup organization noted:

“In 1977, only 36% of Catholic respondents agreed that it was a good thing for women to be ordained as priests. By the year 2000, 68% said they favored allowing women to become members of the clergy.”

A Quinnipiac University survey in October 2013 reported similar results with 66% of occasional mass attendees supporting female ordination.

It was no coincidence that Saint John Paul II released his Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis in May 1994, only two months after the Congregation for Divine Worship released their letter permitting altar girls. St. John Paul II wrote:

“Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.”

Another argument often made is that “Rome has already spoken” on this subject and that the popes have consistently demonstrated their support for the use of altar girls. In other words, if it is allowed, what more is there to discuss? Ofcourse, this confuses what is allowed with what is best.

For example, if one finds that priestly vocations are impacted by girls serving, is it not worth revisiting? Some argue that the available data on the topic of serving and vocations does not prove causation, but rather, correlation at best. So be it.

What we do know is that between 70-80% of the men ordained to the priesthood over the past five years share the common experience of altar serving in their youth. We also know from data collected on female religious professing their perpetual vows the last three years that only 10-15% were ever altar servers.

No doubt more conclusive data is needed as many other factors come into play. That being said, it seems that those who support the modern practice of altar girls the most have little interest in research; most of all the USCCB. It boggles the mind that our bishops will not study this issue despite its implications for priestly vocations. It is the third rail of Catholicism.

In the end, this is the real reason why this conversation is so difficult to have. For many in the Church today it is easier to embrace the politically correct and politically expedient position. This, coupled with an infusion of modern, secular, sensibilities regarding ideas such as participation and equality means that altar serving will be a contentious topic for many years to come.

(Photo Credit: John Cosmas)

Posted on January 11, 2015, in liturgy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 26 Comments.

  1. Katherine Lauer

    Thank you for shining a light on this topic! Couldn’t agree more with you.

  2. Don’t forbid what isn’t forbidden. Alter girls are authorized and allowed.

    • Actually, the church has been quite clear, altar girls hold a lesser status legally. If a bishop, pastor, or celebrant decides no on altar girls (which is a choice the church explicitly gives them), then everyone below them (the diocese, the parish, or the specific Mass) has to obey. Additionally, even if allowed from the bishop, any pastor or celebrant is free to only use altar boys at any time.

      So to say “Don’t forbid what isn’t forbidden” is a broad oversimplification.

      Redemptonis Sacramentum (by JPII) said clearly that the practice of having only males serving at the altar is a “laudable” (his words) practice to follow. He follows it by saying that females may also serve, but only with the permission of the diocesan bishop.

      So in other words, don’t forbid what isn’t forbidden: having only males serving at the altar is authorized, allowed, *and* encouraged.

  3. As a mother of both a girl and boy altar servers, now adults. Please remember that mothers beget priests. Mothers influence their children and most often are the ones who take their children to church. the girls who served with my daughter, now are having their children and what do you think they are telling their boys they can be – why priests. also, altho anecdotal, it seems that servers are more faithful grownup Catholics.

    • KissAGingerDayMascot

      Mine anecdotal as well, but I’ve known many a female altar server who, because of their role as altar server, then questioned why they couldn’t become priests. Poor/no catechesis resulted in bitterness.

  4. Any idea why Bushop Jugis allows female servers in our Diocese? Two hours from Charlotte and every Catholic Church around here has them. And it really bothers me 😦

  5. Interestingly, I was unaware of the fact that the prohibition against female altar servers was ONLY lifted in 1994 until just the past few weeks. I was an altar boy in the late 70’s/early 80’s at three parishes in two different Dioceses. At least two of them (maybe all three – I can’t quite remember) used female altar servers before 1994.

    • KissAGingerDayMascot

      I wouldn’t necessarily call it a prohibition. If it’s not part of the culture and tradition of the last 2,000 years, then nothing was actually prohibited, it wasn’t actually an issue. A prohibition would be an active effort at barring something. If nobody was asking for it to change, then there wasn’t a prohibition, just a non-issue or SOP.

    • A.N.,

      Well, that was what spurred the 1994 permission – many parishes around the West were flouting the rule permitting only men to substitute for installed acolytes to serve at the altar (and contra to KissAGinger, it was a rule, most recently confirmed in a clear prohibition of female altar servers in two principle Instructions of the Holy See on implementation of the Council’s liturgical reform: Inaestimabile donum (April 17, 1980) and Liturgicae Instaurationes (September 5, 1970)). Rome knew it was being flouted, in parishes such as yours throughout the 70’s and 80’s; and the pressure was on to remove the prohibition. And in 1994, John Paul II finally gave in.

  6. This kind of denial of the differences between men and women is what is opening up the gay problems in the church. Every time an erroneous opinion is accepted it leads to more problems needing to be accepted. Holding on to truths will help keep the Faith in tact in all the other aspects of our lives. If we tolerate or accept a compromise in one aspect it resounds with more challenges to the truths of the Faith. Compromises do no one good when it comes to the Truth which should Never be compromised. All these difficulties can be diminished if leaders will uphold the Traditional

  7. To toss this out there, in Eastern-rite Catholic Churches, only boys may be altar servers.

  8. There is a specific definitive vocational aspect to the priesthood in serving on the altar. Since the door to “women becoming priests has been closed”, then that specific priestly vocational aspect would apply to only boys. For many, having girls as altar servers keeps the door of women becoming priests open, and not only I think lessens possible vocations for boys becoming priests, but causes confusion not only on the priesthood but on gender.

  9. Another thing that the “Rome has spoken” crowd never mention is that what Rome actually said was that boys (but not girls) should be actively encouraged to serve, and that girls and women may be permitted to serve only in situations in which it it has proved impossible to recruit sufficient boys or men to serve.

    In practice, most parishes I have een in totally ignore this, and treat potential altar servers exactly the same regardl;ess of sex, e.g. one sees ads in the parish bulletin “if any boy or girl of age 9 or older who has received the Sacraments of Initiation wants to serve at the altar please contact X (usually a woman) to be trained”.

  10. To add some fuel to fire, only boys are allowed to serve at the Extraordinary Form of the Mass. Additionally, I travel quite a bit and have visited parishes all across the country, and where there are alter girls, they are the bulk of the servers or the only servers with no boys in sight, thus I submit that girls drive out the boys over time.

  11. To suggest those who accept female altar servers also endorse female ordination is a bit of a straw man. Suggesting the rationale that precludes female ordination is comparable to the rationale suggesting male altar serving should be encouraged is flawed. These girls are not acting “in the person of Christ”. If you really want to kick women off the alter, go after the ladies distributing the Eucharist. You have a better case there. If they did not allow girls to serve at my parish, we would have barely enough servers to cover a single Mass. Don’t see why this is an either or proposition. Never heard of a boy denied an opportunity to serve because there are too many girls. If this situation does exist, I could see the rationale for having a preference for boys. Otherwise it would be better to advocate for greater Church attendance and participation by all. Not sure if you noticed, but their are fewer young people attending these days. I rather put as many girls on a mass schedule as possible.

    • “To suggest those who accept female altar servers also endorse female ordination is a bit of a straw man.”

      With respect, it’s not a straw man, given the evidence before us. 1) It’s well known that many of the advocates of altar girls are also advocates of women’s ordination; 2) that the incidence of altar girls (beginning in the 1970’s) has also coincided with the rise in approval of ordaining women among Catholics; 3) that if up to two thirds of all American Catholics now agree with ordaining women, it’s hard to think that most altar girl advocates are not also women’s ordination advocates. But it makes sense, alas, that every effort to increase the visibility of women not only in the sanctuary, but even at the altar would inevitably break down the natural resistance to the idea of women’s ordination.

      And that, I would argue, was by design on the part of many of the most fervent advocates of allowing females to serve at the altar.

    • The lack of male servers at your parish is causal. Boys don’t want to do what girls are doing. If they see altar serving as a girl thing then they will avoid it. This is even more probable if most of your Extraordinary Ministers of Communion are women. The person who instructs altar servers is a woman. Cantors are women, lectors are women. Your typical 10 year old boy looks up and sees all those females and his first thought is “that’s not something I wnat to be involved in.”

  12. As a Catholic looking to be faithful to the Church, I appreciate the article

  13. My boy-servers-only parish will be ordaining its 4th and 5th new priests this year since 2005.

  14. When I was a kid us girls would serve the food for lunch at the Catholic School but the boys could altar servers. Cooks would make the food but the girls would serve it. I didn’t think girl altar servers was a good idea. Our church has a few but most are boys – one interesting thing is that our church will now be getting different garments for the girl altar servers – they will be more like a nun’s. So perhaps they are trying to encourage that for the girls.

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