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

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.

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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.

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