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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)

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