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The 1994 statement permitting girl servers was a mistaken tactical retreat which led to a fall in priestly vocations. It’s time to withdraw it

Undoing the damage will take time: the sooner the Church starts to clear up the mess, the better

By on Thursday, 25 August 2011

The Holy Father looks on as a female server presents his zuchetto

The Holy Father looks on as a female server presents his zuchetto

The rector of the Catholic Cathedral of Phoenix, Arizona, has decided that girls will no longer be allowed as altar servers (though they will continue elsewhere in the diocese). His reason is simple: he thinks that an all-male sanctuary promotes vocations to the priesthood. “The connection between serving at the altar and priesthood is historic,” he says: “it is part of the differentiation between boys and girls, as Christ established the priesthood by choosing men. Serving at the altar is a specifically priestly act.” I’m not sure, to be pedantic, that that’s entirely orthodox (in the context of the Mass, only the priest himself performs specifically priestly acts), but one knows exactly what he means: what the server does is intimately related to the Eucharistic action and can be seen as an intrinsic part of it: the server is a kind of extension of the priest himself; if there were no servers, the priest would do what they do. According to Fr Lankeit, 80 to 95 percent of priests served as altar boys.

The question is, why shouldn’t that happen when there are also girl servers? There are two reasons: firstly because the causal link between servers and priestly vocations is weakened if some or most of the servers in the sanctuary are excluded from it. But secondly because as soon as girls appear, the supply of altar boys tends simply to dry up.

The first time this occurred to me was in the house of friends with whom I was staying in France. One of the guests at dinner one evening was Archbishop André Vingt-Trois of Tours (now Cardinal Archbishop of Paris). The subject of conversation at one point was the way in which, in the local Parish Church, presumably in an attempt to involve women in the celebration of the Mass, not only were all the readers women but so also were all the servers girls; my wife (not I) compared it to a farmyard, with the priest as the cock strutting about in the middle of a flock of hens. Archbishop Vingt-Trois said that the priest may have had no choice over the all-girls serving team: “Once the girls arrive, he said, the boys disappear: you can’t see them for dust” (his explanation was much more graphic in French). And he was adamant that though there were, of course other factors contributing to the decline in priestly vocations, the decline in the number of all-male sanctuaries was certainly one of them.

I suspect, though there’s no way to prove this, that many if not most Catholics, once they think about it, will have the feeling that this is either obviously true, or at the very least a plausible hypothesis. For what it’s worth, the US website Catholic Answers carried out a poll in which they asked the question “does having girl altar boys help with vocations to the priesthood?”

The answers were as follows:

YES, Girl Altar Boys help Vocations To The Priesthood: 2.98%
NO, Girl Altar Boys don’t Help Vocations To The Priesthood: 64.29%
Girl Altar Boys, Have No Effect At All On Vocations To The Priesthood: 32.74%
Voters: 168

It’s a pretty small sample, of course: but I would be surprised if it’s not true that almost nobody thinks that girl servers help vocations to the priesthood, that of the remainder, about two thirds think it doesn’t help, and another third thinks it makes no difference. If the question had been asked differently: if the question had been “does an all-male sanctuary foster vocations to the priesthood?”, I suspect that more than that two thirds would have replied “yes”, since historically it has observably done so. In the US, only one diocese now restricts serving at the altar to boys and men, Lincoln, Nebraska, and it is apparently the case that vocations there are higher than elsewhere.

The late Pope was opposed to the practice, and didn’t allow it in his own diocese of Rome: so why on his watch, in 1994, was the rule that only men and boys could serve at the altar (which had been firmly reimposed by Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul himself) relaxed? It’s a puzzler. Some say it was inevitable since, especially in the US, it was already being widely defied: but all kinds of things the Church is against are indulged in defiantly by disobedient Catholics, and the Church quite rightly doesn’t give an inch. One theory is that it was a tactical retreat to avoid legal action. As the writer David L Sonnier explains it,

Take a moment to recall the circumstances under which this practice was allowed. We lived in a hostile political climate in 1994; the politicians in Washington were condemning the Catholic Church for not ordaining women, and ridiculing the Church for Her stand against abortion. It seemed that according to these critics at the highest level of the Clinton administration, the Catholic Church would not be qualified to address the issue of abortion until women were ordained.

In 1994 a document from the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts gave some room for the novel practice of “female altar servers” under political pressure from the U.S., but nevertheless insisted that “the obligation to support groups of altar boys will always remain…” due, of course, to the relationship between service at the altar and future vocations. Has there been any such support for “groups of altar boys?”

Well, no: of course there hasn’t, because as soon as the girls appeared, the “groups of altar boys”, as Archbishop Vingt-Trois put it, couldn’t be seen for dust. But could the document be withdrawn? It won’t be easy: there are already so many girl servers. But they tend to disappear when they grow up. And though no bishop may impose them on his priests, he does have the right to forbid them. This is the paradox; he may not impose girls—but he still may impose boys, as may any of his priests.

And this could be the time to start: radical feminism is much less of a threat than it was, and may be confronted more readily than it could, say, in the US in the eighties. I remember vividly arranging my notes before delivering a lecture on feminist theology in the General (Episcopalian) Seminary in New York, in 1983. I was approached by a male seminarian, who said simply, “Oh Dr Oddie, I just wanted to tell you, since I know your views, how much we admire your courage in coming here to explain them”. “I need courage”, I replied, slightly alarmed: “Oh yes”, he said, and disappeared. And so it proved: I was heckled repeatedly, but I think I gave as good as I got, and the evening was an exhilarating one in the end.

The church has not entirely given in on this, and little by little, girl servers could be phased out: a final date could perhaps be announced for this to be achieved, diocese by diocese, parish by parish. The tradition is still solidly there, beneath the surface. As David L Sonnier puts it,

Let’s take it one point at a time. First of all, the Holy Father does not allow Girl Altar Boys within his own Diocese of Rome. That should be enough to give pause to a number of people who currently see nothing wrong with the practice.…

Second, this practice of placing girls at the altar has absolutely nothing to do with Vatican II and was condemned in the strongest of terms twice following the council. In 1970 Pope Paul VI said in Liturgicae Instaurationes, “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.”

And in 1980 Pope John Paul II stated in Inaestimabile Donum, “There are, of course, various roles that women can perform in the liturgical assembly: these include reading of the Word of God and proclaiming the intentions of the Prayer of the Faithful. Women are not, however, permitted to act as altar servers.”

That is the tradition of the Church to which we should now return. To begin with, that 1994 statement by the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts (I bet you’d never heard of them) should be simply withdrawn. Why not? Its issue was a huge mistake, whose consequences have been disastrous: It’s time now to begin to repair the damage. It may take some time: so the sooner we start the better. Any priest who reads this can start on Sunday: a bishop could get on the phone today.

  • Robert DD

    I am reminded of the sermon-givers’ favoured story of the drowning man who refused help from a rowing boat, life boat, air sea rescue  etc, because he was waiting for God to do something.

    Wait to the end of the next para  before stopping reading.  

    The Anglican Church was in a similarly perilous state with vocations in the 1980s.  Then they allowed for the ordination of women first to the diaconate and then the priesthood, and the vocations problem was massively reduced.  It is tempting to see this as a tale of cynical expediency, desparation, or generally losing the plot.  But the argument isn’t that women should have been ordained to solve the vocation’s problem (though the irony of the situation was noted at the time).  Rather, if we find that your vocations are drying up, perhaps the Holy Spirit is trying to tell us something.  I emphasise _perhaps_, I don’t know myself.  

    We also have a vocations crisis, of course, because the dioceses have been more rigorous in their selection processes since the 1990s, and we hopefully now have fewer, but better quality, priests coming through.    

  • Nat_ons

    I rarely disagree with you, the GKC spirit tends to overwhelm any such petty meanness. Here, while I do agree the practice makes a total disgrace of the rule, the purpose of female servers at Mass is exceptional replacement .. as with a nurse baptising a new born babe in danger of death. There is nothing in that principle that should dismay the orthodox Catholic – least of all the girls who are ready to sacrifice their time and energy to such service; it is the priestly laxity that allowed, permitted and encourage its abuse that is at fault, not the royal priesthood of baptismally anointed Christian women.

    First, altar servers are – or have become – mere decoration and as such are unnecessary adjuncts the the New Order of the Mass .. priest regularly serve themselves even with a congregation; sad, yet true.

    Second, the attitude of the female server – if this proves necessary – is of greater concern than the fact that she may be called upon to serve at the altar; a mature, dignified, knowledgeable woman (a lector, say) can add to the decorum of the Paul VI liturgies .. when males are not available or (all too frequently) simply refuse to step forward to serve.

    Third and last, a nun serving the Mass with dignity and spiritual fervour in a remote convent is far from the wayward rebelliousness of the priest-led deformation of the divine liturgy, its purpose and functions in the ordinary form of the Roman Mass; none of this should be contemplated as appropriate for the Pius V or other (currently extra-ordinary) Ancient Rites, however popular might become with priests or people; what is lacking in the altar service is not boys – or girls – but adult commitment .. not least in regard to male MCs and with them an actual serving role necessary to the liturgical action.

  • peishan

    A Mass is a reenactment of the sacrifice of Christ at Calvary, from His agony in the garden of Getshemani to His death on the cross. He will not allow His mother, Mary, literally, to carry a heavy cross, i.e. to be a woman priest. He is a loving and perfect gentleman. However, Mary is not spared from a different sorrow, watching her innocent Son being condemned like a criminal. You would understand the Mass better if you meditate on the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary. In the Old Testament King Solomon placed his mother Bethsheba at his right hand, a place of respect, and not the place of a servant, fetching and carrying stuff for her master.

  • sclerotic

    Neither the Council of Florence nor the Council of Trent were willing to ascribe the origins of the sacraments to Christ himself. The only official pronouncement on this is the decree Lamentabili and I assume you do not wish to press its authority too closely as virtually everything written by our present pope in his two volume study of Christ is wholly at odds with that Bull’s canonical instructions.

    11th century – its down to Cardinal Humbert excommunicating the eastern churches – no very obvious reason for it (the excomminication was rescinded in 1968 without any confession of wrong doing by the Eastern Church) but one way of emphasising difference was to develop a distinct sacramental list – the orthodox were inclined to rather more sacraments – hence the insistence of such as Peter Lombard that there were seven. I’m not sure how you arrive at a conclusion that I believe the sacraments to have been intiated in the 11th century. It is not illogical to suppose that sacraments have been initiated but that only subsequently was a particular number determined. After all it took the Church a long time before it decided on the divinity of Christ.

    As to brain dead – have you any evidence beyond emotional splutterings of a condescending nature about women in Glasgow – that makes you suppose that Paul is talking about access to grace. The whole tenour of his words is the universality of God’s intiative not of our response.

  • Marypettifor

    My son served on the altar at our English speaking parish in Zurich with dedication until one Sunday, when he came out of the Sanctuary and said “you’ll never believe what they’ve got in there mum – girls!!!”
    He then added “That’s it for me. I’m never serving again” and he didn’t.

  • EditorCT

    Wrong – the Church has  always and everywhere believed that Christ immediately instituted His Sacraments. You are correct only in that the  minutiae of the sacramental rites and the number defined as 7, did not happen until later. It was actually the Council of Trent that taught that the seven sacraments were instituted by Christ and it seems obvious – our reason tells us -  that all sacraments must come originally from Christ, that is, from God.

    Perhaps I’ve misunderstood you, and if so, I apologise, but you appear to be suggesting that  the Church in her Hierarchy  invented the seven Sacraments  whereas even if they were not identified as seven until the 20th  century, the fact would remain that Christ, on earth, revealed the essentials of the Sacraments and the rest developed, however gradually. 

    As for your final paragraph – yes, I have evidence about brain dead women in Glasgow.  I’m a woman who lives in Glasgow. Say no more…  Seriously, it is very elementary, sclerotic, that St Paul was speaking about access to God’s grace in his words about male and female being equal – Christ and His  Apostles were not concerned about “making this world a better place” or “human rights” – that is our 21st century blinkered cultural view of the world that makes (some of) us interpret Sacred Scripture in purely human terms whereas the entire Tradition and Scripture of the Church is concerned with spiritual things, with the salvation of souls, not the progress of social groups up the secular and social ladder of success.

  • Rebecca

    sclerotic did not say that the seven sacraments were not instituted/invented until the 11th century.  He (?) merely said that the number itself was not settled until the 11th century.  Those are two VERY different things.  We all would do well to read one another’s comments as they are written and not what we believe/wish them to say. 

  • EditorCT

    What sclerotic DID say is this:

    “Neither the Council of Florence nor the Council of Trent were willing to ascribe the origins of the sacraments to Christ himself”

    I have pointed out that the Church has ALWAYS and EVERYWHERE believed that Christ instituted the sacraments.

    I agree we should all read comments carefully and I admit to sometimes reading in haste. However, the matter is easily settled and I would apologise, without reservation, if I have misunderstood sclerotic.  All he has to do is to clarify his position by answering YES or NO to the following question.   If his answer is “YES” then I must apologise without reservation for misunderstanding his post.


    Do you, sclerotic, believe that Christ instituted the seven Sacraments and that the Church has always and everywhere believed this truth, notwithstanding that pronouncements / details of ritual minutiae, came later?

  • rightactions

    Wow, my childhood catechesis turns out to be worse than I ever imagined!  I was never taught breadmaking and table setting were “things… women shouldn’t do”.

    Or could it be that what “guest” claims “some Catholics seem to think” isn’t at all what Catholics think but a product of “guest’s” fevered anti-Catholic hysteria?

  • rightactions

    No.  There’s no command to be stupid.  Of course we’re to judge actions – what, you want to receive a scorpion when you ask for an egg?  It’s the state of the souls of others that we’re not to judge.

    Try again.

  • rightactions

    Confusing “equal” with “identical” is a common error.

  • rightactions

    You say “I” this and “I” that – it’s not all about you, it’s about His Church. 

  • rightactions

    “…but what would anyone learn?”

    Let’s not get started on homiletics here and go zooming off topic again!  ;)

  • CathMan

    I believe this issuenstems from the overall demonization of society. The feminist movement is patly responsible, but Inthink the lions share of responsibility for the demonization of society falls on the men of our society who would rather be boys when we need them to be men. Many men, when women accept responsibilities like lectorsmor or Eucharistic ministers, are happy to surrender the post to them. These men believe they have to give up too much ofnthe world to serve God or society in these ways, lest they be accusednofnbeing hypocrites.

  • Annita

    Dr Oddie was formerly a very ‘High Church’ Anglican. He wrote a  book with the ridiculous title ‘Whatever will happen to God” or similar wording, when the Anglicans ordained women. I find his argument rather strange – if boys run away when girls are allowed to be altar servers, that would indicate to me that even little boys are encouraged to become misogynists…it is simply an extension of what you hear in the playground: “Yuk! I don’t want to play with GIRLS…” Decent parents do not encourage this view. Find another reason to oppose the practice please, not one which reinforces silly misogynism. With all the pressing issues in the world today, wars, famines, nuclear threats, poverty, rampant secularism, etc, all this in-house quibbling, with its overtones of preciosity and clericalism doesn’t help the image of the Catholic Church.

  • daya

    yes girls should be involved, this is very impotent, Christ was born of a woman, a humble woman, the mother of the church,more planing has to be done how this is to be done   

  • croixmom

    I never cease to be amazed by the accusation of the Church being misogynistic.  What I have learned, is that people who make that claim cannot possibly know the Church.  I was raised High Anglican (High church Episcopalian).  After I came into full communion with the Church, one day my mom (still Anglican) was shocked when I told her how the Church holds women in highest esteem, over any other faith.If Mr. Oddie comes from an Anglican background, his analysis comes from watching a once-respectable communion literally implode in less than 50 years.  That church lost sight of it’s purpose and fell to popular society demands.  Rather than to lead, they chose to sacrifice their integrity.  They abandoned God to become an activist organization for secular and pagan causes.  Allowing females to enter the sanctuary made it a quick and easy victory for the enemies of God.  The Anglican church as it existed when I was baptized as an infant no longer exists.Perhaps those who are so anxious to take the Catholic church down that road to destruction, would find fulfillment in the Anglican church, rather than to frustrate themselves, trying to destroy the true Church. (which, by the way, ain’t gonna happen.)I have never heard anything written by an Anglican woman priestess, that was not dripping in egoism.Perhaps girls and women in the Church who feel so oppressed, should focus on sacrifice, humility, and seeking to do God’s will.  Then they might be truly serving the Church, through serving God.

  • croixmom

    There is no reason girls cannot be involved in the Church.  However, they need to understand that serving at the altar is not the proper place for them to be involved. 

    This is similar to my daughter:  She asks me if she can help me with such & such project.  I tell her what she can do that is appropriate and will be of great assistance.  However, it may not be what she wants to do, ergo her interest in helping quickly goes away.

    Yes, to follow in the Blessed Mother’s footsteps would be to strive to attain pure humility.  I’ve never noticed girl altar boys to be growing in that particular virtue through their activity.

  • Annita

    ‘Dripping in egoism’ what a spiteful and nasty comment! How full of anger and judgment you sound, sir! I have met many fine women ministers in Protestant denominations and equally often met male clerics, both Anglican and Roman, who are egocentric and narcissistic. So what? Why can you not disagree calmly and politely with your fellow Christians, including some Catholics, who support the existence of girls as altar servers? What is making you so angry and threatened?

  • Anonymous


    Where exactly did this defection to the Episcopalians take place? Could you provide some details?

    Or are you just making it up?

  • W Oddie

    My book What Will Happen To God (1984) is about feminist theology (I spent two years reading this stuff: I know what i’m talking about: even feminist reviewers admitted that:Margaret Hebblethwaite told me she used it to teach her students), and the title is a quotation from a feminist theologian who asked what would happen to God when women took their rightful place on society; in other words would he still be God the Father?  The thought may be “ridiculous”: but the title was spot  on. If you’re going to attack people’s books, at least have the common decency to know something about them. Incidentally, it was written well before the suposed ordination of women.