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Online Edition - Vol. VIII, No. 1: March 2002

The Question of Altar Girls Revisited

Recent letter from Holy See clarifies earlier ruling  

by Kenneth D. Whitehead

Late last year it was revealed that an instructional letter responding to a question of an unidentified English-speaking bishop had appeared in Notitiae , the official publication of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in Rome . The letter, dated July 27, 2001 , (published in AB February 2002)1 re-affirmed that a diocesan bishop has the authority under canon law to permit within his territory service at the altar by women and girls -- an official interpretation of Canon 230.2 of the Code of Canon Law first made public in a Circular Letter to the Presidents of Episcopal Conferences in March 1994.

However, the Congregation's recent letter was more than a simple re-affirmation of what everybody already knew, namely, that in 1994 the Church broke with a long-standing tradition of allowing only men and boys to serve at Mass along with the alter Christus , the priest. What the letter went on to say marked it as one more effort among a number of efforts made by this and other Vatican Congregations in recent years to correct or make up for some of the unfortunate consequences, now only too manifest, of some earlier decisions implementing the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

Of course, the Holy See customarily does not acknowledge that there have been any unwise decisions in implementing liturgical reforms which might need to be corrected or made up for. Nevertheless, a number of Vatican actions in recent years, especially since Cardinal Jorge Medina Estevéz became the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, really amount to significant course corrections (even if they are not presented as such) that may well indicate a permanent direction towards authentic reform of the liturgy in which the Holy See is decisively moving at long last.

The document, Liturgiam authenticam , issued last May, for example, was seemingly just a technical document on translation.2
In reality, however, it surely marks the beginning of a wholly new era -- an era in which the Holy See has finally evidenced its firm intention of no longer allowing the kind of so-called "dynamic equivalent" renderings that have characterized liturgical translations in English ever since the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) first set up shop following the Church's approval of the use of vernacular languages in the liturgy.

Some of us would characterize typical ICEL translations as, among other things, anything but dynamic but rather, if anything, static (and lifeless!). But now the new document on translations seems to have rediscovered the idea that a translation ought to be a rendering in another language of what the original actually says. It also seems to have helped persuade not a few American bishops that rubber stamping ICEL output will no longer do.

Similarly, the most recent letter on female altar servers from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments indicates somewhat more than a tacit recognition by the Holy See that the allowing of female altar servers by Rome has not proved to be the unalloyed boon for the Church's official liturgy and worship which its proponents once hoped and pushed for. Indeed, the letter perhaps constitutes a belated realization of the truth of what many voices warned about at the time, namely, that if altar girls were brought in, there would be a tendency for altar boys to disappear.

Certainly this phenomenon has been evident: many of the boys who might otherwise have been interested in altar service as a special prerogative and duty of theirs are now almost bound to show less interest. It became yet one more activity in which boys are supposed to "compete" with girls -- or, in fact, as primarily a role for girls.

Some parishes seem to have abandoned the training of any altar servers at all, boys or girls, and are simply doing without servers nowadays. Whether or not this stems from the reluctance of some priests to deal with altar girl trainees, or with co-ed groups of servers, is not clear. No study of the attitudes of priests towards altar girls has apparently been conducted. Perhaps most priests view female altar service as just one more instance of women now being admitted to the sanctuary, as they already are when acting as extraordinary ministers, lectors and cantors. While there have been few, if any, cases of priests openly refusing to have altar girls, some who have strong feminist views (or influences) have no doubt actively promoted the practice.

The Congregation's letter said that the bishop who originally sought the guidance of the Congregation asked "whether a Diocesan Bishop would be able to oblige his priests to admit women and girls to service at the altar". The Congregation's answer is a very firm "no". Priests may not be required to utilize altar girls, contrary to what some American bishops may have believed. (Press reports indicated this was the prevailing view of the letter.)

The Congregation's letter re-emphasized the similar l994 letter announcing the ruling of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts (PCILT)3, that "it will always be very appropriate to follow the noble tradition of having boys serve at the altar". The new letter also repeats that "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". Thus the Congregation places renewed emphasis on what almost everybody always knew: boys who have served at the altar become priests in larger numbers than boys who have not. The new letter to bishops adds a further stress on the limited nature of this "temporary" service, and notes with especial clarity: "the non-ordained faithful do not have a right to service at the altar".

Does the Congregation now believe that "groups of altar boys" are no longer being supported in many parishes to the extent that they once were? Does it now believe that possible priestly vocations are perhaps even being stifled by the present "co-ed" system? Apparently so.

Now that the new letter has been made public -- six months after it was sent to the inquiring bishop -- will more pastors and priests now perhaps decline to make use of female altar servers? Will more of them reconstitute those "groups of altar boys" which the Congregation's letter speaks about to be properly trained for service at the altar? Will more boys perhaps respond to a greater effort by parishes to "follow the noble tradition of having boys serve at the altar"? Will any bishops who may have required their priests to employ altar girls cease to do so now? Will more dioceses move to reinstate an exclusively male altar service, as the Congregation's letter makes clear the diocesan bishop has the full authority to do? We may hope so. (Only two US dioceses have not permitted altar girls -- Arlington, Virginia, and Lincoln, Nebraska.)

The decision of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts not only contradicted constant tradition, but overturned what had been 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). To wit:

Inaestimabile donum 18: "There are, of course, various roles that women can perform in the liturgical assembly: these include reading the Word of God and proclaiming the intentions of the Prayer of the Faithful. Women are not, however, permitted to act as altar servers".

Liturgicae Instaurationes 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".

The interpretation by the PCILT was apparently based on its reading of a sub-canon in the 1983 Code of Canon Law concerned with "other functions" in the liturgy at which lay people are allowed to assist. The first and principal part of the canon in question (c.230.1) specifies that only lay men (viri laici) can be "installed" permanently in the Church ministries of lector and acolyte; but then the next sub-canon (c.230.2) says that lay persons (laici) can fulfill these functions "by temporary deputation". Thus, it was decided, females are not explicitly excluded from these functions by canon law, even if they may not be installed as such.

Once the question was framed in this way, even Pope John Paul II no doubt felt pressure to concede that canon law did not explicitly exclude females from performing any liturgical functions that do not require ordination.

With the perspective of eight years of experience, it seems clear that what the Congregation's letter rightly calls the Church's "noble tradition" should have been preserved intact. There is profound symbolism inherent in the male priest representing the male Christ giving himself to His bride, the Church. Most fittingly, those who serve the priest directly during the Eucharistic Sacrifice should themselves be male.

As it happened, nearly all of the U.S. bishops hastily authorized the innovation with little or no thought given to its consequences -- although it is surely no coincidence that one of the consultants to the PCILT at the time the ruling was made was Bishop John Keating of Arlington, who did not permit the practice in his own diocese.

The fact that, according to the Canon, the permission for girls to serve at the altar is only a temporary "function" anyway -- it is not really a "ministry" -- should have given the bishops more pause. Serving the priest at the altar during Mass has certainly never been presented as merely a "temporary function". But now it has been left to the Congregation with its present letter to try to mitigate some of the damage that has been done by the break with the Church's "noble tradition" since 1994.

It is worthwhile to recall that the matter of altar servers involves the discipline but not the unchangeable doctrine of the Church -- as it is to remember the historical context in which this permissive decision was made. The PCILT interpretation of Canon 230.2, a decision it reached in 1992, was not made known to bishops until the letter from the CDW dated March 15, 1994.

Context -- related documents

Two very important documents were about to appear: 1) Varietates legitimae , the Fourth Instruction on the Correct Implementation of the Second Vatican Council's Constitution on the Liturgy (CDW - March 29, 1994); and 2) Ordinatio Sacerdotalis , Pope John Paul II's definitive teaching that the Catholic Church does not have the power to ordain women to the sacred priesthood (May 22, 1994) 4 . The long-standing debate on female ordination was to cease.

Nothing of the kind ensued, of course. The debate over ordaining women goes on as before, more recently focusing on the question of whether women might at least be ordained as deacons. This hope too is vain, of course, although it continues to be advanced, even if only as a wedge issue -- to help keep alive the debate on female ordination which the Holy Father solemnly asked be ended.

With regard to the question of possible ordination of women to the diaconate, yet another Roman action tending toward a sane "reform of the reform" occurred on September 17, 2001, when three congregations -- the Congregations for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Clergy, and Divine Worship -- issued a joint statement declaring that "it is not licit to undertake initiatives which in some way aim at preparing female candidates for diaconal ordination". 5

"The authentic promotion of women in the Church", the statement said, "opens other ample prospects for service and collaboration"; but to create possible expectations that women somehow might be ordained lacked what the joint statement called "solid doctrinal soundness" and could lead to "pastoral disorientation". (On this topic, see also the definitive study in the book Deaconesses by Aimé-Georges Martimort, translated by the present writer and published by Ignatius Press in 1986.)

Like the recurring pressure to consider female ordination to the diaconate, continued support for and advocacy of female altar servers, at least in part and certainly in the case of some of its advocates, is frankly seen as another wedge issue. Just as women are said by some to have a "right" to ordination if it can be conferred on men, so girls are said to have a "right" to serve at the altar if boys are so allowed. This is considered to be a matter of simple justice by many. From the point of view of the proponents of female ordination, having girls serve at the altar helps keep the whole female ordination issue alive and active.

Whatever the intention, the 1994 letter allowing female altar servers, even if only on a "temporary" and limited basis, thus undermined the Holy Father's definitive judgment in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, issued only a few weeks later.

In the view of its proponents, however, the issue must be kept alive. Their hope is that some day another pope will relent and allow "justice" finally to be done to women, and their "rights" vindicated. The present pope's exclusion of female ordination as something beyond the power which Christ conferred on his Church is ascribed not to the Church's two-thousand-year unbroken tradition in the matter but merely to the Polish pope's relative "conservatism".

Meanwhile, if utilizing female altar servers and agitating for female ordination to the diaconate help serve to keep the whole female ordination issue unsettled and still a subject for debate in the Church, then these things are worthwhile for that reason alone, according to their proponents -- for they really do sincerely believe that ordination is a matter of justice to women and girls.

Happily, the Congregation's letter addresses the rights issue directly. It makes a strong point of re-stating that "the non-ordained faithful do not have a right to service at the altar". Rather, "they are capable of being admitted" to this service by "the Sacred Pastors".

Experience since 1994 has proven true the warning that since women are neither eligible for ordination nor even for anything but temporary, "delegated" service at the altar, it is actually a disservice to girls to encourage or even to allow them to serve in this fashion. Just as service at the altar encourages priestly vocations in boys, so it can encourage the (false) hope of possible ordination in the minds of some girls as well. Anyone who has talked to one of these altar girls (or, especially, to her parents!) knows that many of them do think that they should be able to be priests some day.

Those who understand the level of magisterial authority at which the pope has excluded this possibility, however, know that this is something the Church cannot go back on so long as she remains the Church. The teaching is irrevocable. This should be evident not only to anyone who in faith accepts the Church's definitive judgments as coming from Christ; but also to anyone who has studied the actual history of the Church's magisterial pronouncements. Those who might still imagine that John Paul II's judgment definitively excluding female ordination might somehow be revoked or changed by a future pope know nothing of the history of the Church.

We already have an entire generation of feminist-influenced women, significant numbers of whom are currently disillusioned with the Church in precisely this manner; too many of them still work for the Church in various capacities, including in bishops' chanceries, even while they scorn the Church's judgments. Could anyone possibly want to perpetuate such an unhappy situation?

Much better and healthier for girls is to learn at an early age that their role in the Church -- as in life -- is different from that of boys and men, though equal in dignity. Just as men who are ordained bear a natural resemblance to Christ the priest, so all girls and women bear a natural resemblance to the one whom the poet William Wordsworth rightly and aptly called "our tainted nature's solitary boast", namely, the Blessed Virgin Mary -- who was free from all sin and who has now been assumed, body and soul, into heaven, where she makes intercession for us "now and at the hour of our death." Women do not need ordination or even to be "altar girls" in order to know, love, and serve God in this world and to be happy with him forever in the next!

On this point, however, the Congregation's letter is, perhaps necessarily, silent. Significantly, however, it says that this "function" for girls, is an "innovation". The letter explains that it is "important to explain clearly to the faithful the nature of this innovation [allowing female altar servers], lest confusion might be introduced, thereby hampering the development of priestly vocations".

But by now the Congregation should have no doubt that the confusion in question has long since been introduced, and, no doubt, either, that priestly vocations have already been greatly hampered thereby. Still, given the initial decision Pope John Paul II made to accept an interpretation of Canon law that recognized no distinction between vested girls serving the priest at Mass and women readers or cantors -- in spite of the tradition and explicit post-Conciliar liturgical Instructions to the contrary, the Congregation for Divine Worship probably has with this letter at least tried to help limit and to make up for some of the damage that has been done. Though if the interpretation of Canon 230.2 remains as it is, problems and confusion will continue.

We may still hope that this letter from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments represents yet another step on the road towards sound liturgy and worship in the Church of Christ.

***

Kenneth D. Whitehead of Falls Church, Virginia, a professional translator, is the author of One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic: The Early Church Was the Catholic Church (Ignatius, 2000).

***

Notes:

1 The letter was published in the August-September, 2001 issue of Notitiae .

2 Liturgiam authenticam , dated April 25, 2001, and issued by the Congregation for Divine Worship May 7, 2001, is the Fifth Instruction on the Correct Implementation in the Constitution on the Liturgy.

3 The March 15, 1994, Circular Letter to bishops stated that the PCILT had made its determination on the matter June 30, 1992.

4 Ordinatio Sacerdotalis 4: 4.

Although the teaching that priestly ordination is to be reserved to men alone has been preserved by the constant and universal Tradition of the Church and firmly taught by the Magisterium in its more recent documents, at the present time in some places it is nonetheless considered still open to debate, or the Church's judgment that women are not to be admitted to ordination is considered to have a merely disciplinary force.

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.

5 This brief "Notification" was approved by Pope John Paul II on September 14, 2001. ( It appears in AB October 2001, p 5 .)

***

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