Girl Altar “Boys”: Is It Good for the Church?
In the traditional Latin Mass, males only serve at the altar. When Pope Paul VI promulgated his new Mass in 1969, the issue soon arose if the discipline of male servers was to apply to the new rite as well.
Rome was relatively quick to answer. In Liturgicae Instaurationes, the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship (“CDW”) stated on September 5, 1970 at paragraph 7:
In conformity with norms traditional in the Church, women (single, married, religious), whether in churches, homes, convents, schools, or institutions for women, are barred from serving the priest at the altar.
This prohibition was repeated on April 17, 1980, when the CDW, with approval of Pope John Paul II, stated at paragraph 18 of Inaestimabile Donum that ….”(w)omen are not, however, permitted to act as altar servers.”
The practice of having either an altar boy or an acolyte—one of the minor ranks of Holy Orders-- assist the priest at Mass can be traced as far back as the 9th century, in a decree from the Synod of Mainz (www.diocesealex.org/articles/2014/09/look-inside-changing-role-altar-servers).
Sadly, the prohibition of female altar servers was frequently disobeyed and ignored. Finally, the Prefect of the CDW, Cardinal Antonio Maria Javierre Ortas, wrote a circular letter addressed to the presidents of episcopal conferences on March 15, 1994, permitting the use of altar girls.
Further clarification of the issue was provided by Litterae Congregationis, a letter of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, dated July 27, 2001, and signed by the Prefect, Cardinal Jorge A. Medina Estevez. A summary of this document is as follows:
(1) A diocesan bishop has the authority to permit service at the altar by women within the boundaries of his territory.
(2) No bishop must base his decision in this matter simply by what neighboring dioceses are doing.
(3) Rather, the bishop is to “base his prudential judgment upon what he considers to accord more closely with the local pastoral need for an ordered development of the liturgical life in the diocese entrusted to his care, bearing in mind, among other things, the sensibilities of the faithful, the reasons which would motivate such a permission, and the different liturgical settings and congregations which gather for the Holy Mass”.
(4) Men and boys are not to be excluded from altar service.
(5) NO PRIEST OF THE DIOCESE CAN BE REQUIRED TO USE FEMALE ALTAR SERVERS [emphasis mine].
(6) 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”.
(7) The non-ordained faithful do not have the right to service at the altar. If service by women is to be authorized, “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.”
The only diocese in the United States that still completely prohibits altar girls is that of Lincoln, Nebraska. According to an article in Catholic World Report, “Priestly Vocations in America: An Updated Look,” by Jeff Ziegler (June 2006, p. 30), the diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska is the most “vocation-rich” diocese in the nation, having the highest ratio of seminarians to Catholics as compared to other dioceses Coincidence?
Recently, some individual parishes have barred female altar servers, in hopes of encouraging vocations to the priesthood. www.religionnews.com/2015/01/07/cardinal-raymond-burke-feminized-church-altar. For example, Father Joseph Illo of Star of the Sea Catholic Church in the diocese of San Francisco, with the permission of his bishop, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, has decided to train only boys in the future. In a statement dated January 26, 2015, Father Illo explained his two reasons for this move: (1) because “in a mixed altar-server program, boys usually end up losing interest, because girls generally do a better job”; and (2) because “altar service is intrinsically tied to the priesthood and serve as feeder programs for the seminary.”
Cardinal Raymond Burke has also pointed to the introduction of altar girls as one of the factors for fewer vocations to the priesthood. Ibid. “Young boys don’t want to do things with girls. It’s just natural,” said Cardinal Burke in an interview published January 5, 2015. Ibid.
One might wonder about the change of practice in the first place: if girls used to be banned from altar service, why is it that they may do so now? This sort of question frequently arises in the context of other changes the Church has seen: e.g., abstaining from meat on Fridays; the number of hours one must fast before receiving Holy Communion; receiving Holy Communion in the hand; receiving Holy Communion under both species; lay persons being used as extraordinary ministers; priests turned toward the congregation rather than facing “East”; women wearing head coverings; or, going back to much earlier practice, if priests must be celibate (See also, “Church Roles and Church Dissent,” by Archbishop Elden J. Curtis, at www.ewtn.com/library/BISHOPS/ROLDIS.HTM, where he states that “…celibacy remains a church discipline rather than a doctrinal requirement for valid ordination to priesthood.”)
The reason for this underlying confusion, often which causes real scandal and even loss of Faith, is the failure to distinguish the difference between a “doctrine” and a “discipline.” Doctrine is the teaching of the Church on matters of faith and morals. www.catholic.com/magazine/articles/is-it-a-doctrine-or-a-discipline. The New Revised Baltimore Catechism No. 3 similarly states at Question 163, paragraphs (c) and (d) that a “doctrine of faith or morals is a truth revealed by God dealing with what we must believe or what we must do in order to be saved,” and that the Church “cannot change its defined teachings on faith and morals, though it may restate them more clearly and more completely.”
On the other hand, Our Sunday Visitor’s Catholic Encyclopedia defines “discipline” as an “instruction, system of teaching or of law, given under the authority of the Church [which] can be changed with the approval of proper authority, as opposed to doctrine, which is unchangeable.” www.catholic.com.
Often, and probably rightfully so, lay persons are reluctant to criticize what the Church has decided is now “permissible.” Who are we, the reasoning goes, to question what the Pope, bishop, or priest thinks best? Trained to love, respect, trust, and obey our religious leaders, we go along with what we are told to do. In Chapter III of the First Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ (July 18, 1870), part of the documents that came from Vatican Council I, it states that “…both pastors and faithful, both individually and collectively, are bound, by their duty of hierarchical subordination and true obedience, to submit, not only in matters which belong to faith and morals, but also in those that appertain to the discipline and government of the Church…[emphasis mine].” On the other hand, according to the Code of Canon Law, the Christian faithful “have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful, without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals, with reverence toward their pastors, and attentive to common advantage and the dignity of persons.” Can. 212, Section 3.
Can this be reconciled? I think so. Notice that the use of altar girls is a permission, not a requirement. Notice the language speaking of “the obligation” to support groups of altar boys. Notice that having female servers is called an “innovation.” Hardly a full-out endorsement of the practice! And, most importantly, the practice can even be rejected at the parish level! All these factors would seem to indicate that the Church is hardly promoting and encouraging altar girls.
In light of the priest shortage, perhaps it is time for the bishops and priests to rethink this practice. Girls and women may still serve as lectors, cantors, catechists, etc. If returning to the “male only” custom of altar boys means more priestly vocations, I think it should be given a chance.
St. Tarcisius1, pray for us! (Patron saint of altar boys.)
Mary and her husband Mike moved from Maryland to West Virginia 21 years ago and live on six acres in Lost Creek, West Virginia which is in North Central West Virginia. They have six children, whom Mary homeschooled, with one still left to finish up her high school work. Mary is currently the Vice President of WV for Life. She used to be an attorney in Maryland and has been doing pro-life work for the past 25 years. She directs a Traditional Latin Mass choir once a month at St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Weston, WV and enjoys community theater as a hobby.
Some readers after reading this may still like to see Altar Girls in their church as they do not believe it is having this much of an effect, however when you add all of the other changes made by our bishops it is no longer a minor decision. These gradual changes, as mentioned in her article, are not just coincidental to the following: lack of priest, exit of parishioners, closing of churches, acceptance of sodomite marriages and the list goes on and on.
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