Those of you who follow Fr. John Zuhlsdorf’s blog What Does The Prayer Really Say are probably fully informed of the altar server flap taking place down at the Cathedral of SS. Simon and Jude in Phoenix, where reigns the notable Defensor Fidei Bp. Thomas Olmstead. Apparently the issue has grown enough that Telegraph.co.uk’s Dr. William Oddie has noticed it.
If you’re not aware of what’s going on, then let me fill you in:
Altar servers, for the non-Catholic, assist the celebrant at the altar during the Liturgy of the Eucharist, providing the priest with liturgical vessels such as the cruets, the lavabo and finger towels, holding candles or the cross during the processional and recessional, and other minor duties. Prior to the formation of seminaries and the professional training of priests, the role of altar server acted as a kind of apprenticeship; even today, the vast majority of seminarians have been altar boys.
On August 21, The Arizona Republic released the story that Fr. John Lankeit, rector of SS. Simon and Jude, had decided that girls would no longer be permitted to be altar servers. The next day, Erin Saiz Hanna, executive director of the Women’s Ordination Conference, blasted the decision, saying:
If young women in the Phoenix diocese want to grow up to work for the Church — or even aspire to the priesthood — I, and the vast majority of U.S. Catholics, don’t see the harm in that. … Around the country, young women have been lawfully serving at the altar for well over a decade.
Of course, Fr. Lankeit’s decision to revert the role to boys only was merely WOC’s pretext to bring women’s ordination into the discussion:
The Vatican’s stance on the ordination of women is based on arguments that have been refuted time and again. In 1976, the Vatican’s own Pontifical Biblical Commission determined that there is no scriptural reason to prohibit women’s ordination. Jesus included women as full and equal partners in his ministry, and the hierarchy would do well to follow suit.
In fact, both Clancy and Hanna are sloppy with the relevant facts. It’s debatable to what extent women served at the altar in the early years of the Church. However, the practice had been condemned in the Latin rite at least as early as the end of the fifth century (Pope St. Gelasius I); in 1755, Benedict XIV strictly forbade women altar servers in his encyclical Allatae Sunt.
In the waves of experimentation following Vatican II, some dioceses began introducing female altar servers (Germany as early as 1965). However, the Vatican continued to frown on it, making the restriction explicit in the Congregation for Divine Worship instructions Liturgicae Instaurationes (1970) and Inaestimabile Donum (1980). Increasingly, though, various parishes ignored these instructions; in a disturbing example of mass cowardice, the bishops shrugged and did nothing to stop the rebellion.
Then, in 1994, the CDW reversed course in light of the recent (1983) revision of canon law. Under Canon 230.2, “All lay persons can also perform the functions of commentator or cantor, or other functions, according to the norm of law.” After review by the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts and approval by Bl. John Paul II, the CDW issued a circular letter which made it clear that females could be allowed by the local bishop to act as altar servers.
Some liberals took the letter to have a prescriptive rather than permissive character; i.e., that bishops could oblige pastors to allow altar girls. In 2001, the CDW issued a follow-up letter stating that bishops were not only unable to obligate parishes to have altar girls but that the bishops themselves weren’t obligated. The CDW pointed out, in reference to the interdicasterial instruction Ecclesiae de mysterio §4, that “the non-ordained faithful do not enjoy a right to [certain] tasks and functions. Rather, they are ‘capable of being admitted by the sacred Pastors ... to those functions which, in accordance with the provisions of law, they can discharge’ (CIC 228.1) or where ‘ministers are not available ... they can supply certain of their functions ... in accordance with the provisions of law’ (CIC 230.3; cf. 517.2, 776, 861.2, 910.2, 943, 1112). Since then, at least two American sees (Lincoln, Nebr., and Ann Arbor, Mich.) and a few parishes have reverted back to male-only altar servers, some of them offering other routes to participation, such as sacristan training.
[Addendum: The diocese of Arlington, Va. has also reverted to boys-only; however, Bp. Paul Loverde has granted indults to a couple of parishes to have girls as altar servers.—TL]
In my open letter to Fr. Roy Bourgeois, MM, I addressed various arguments for ordaining women and showed their flaws, especially the chestnut about the Pontifical Biblical commission which the WOC and their allies toss about the same way Seventh-Day Adventists gleefully refer back to an old issue of Our Daily Visitor erroneously calling Vicarius Filii Dei one of the Pope’s official titles. It remains only to be said, as Fr. Zuhlsdorf scathingly remarked, that “NOBODY was Jesus ‘full and equal partner in His ministry’.” And, in any case, there’s no “refuting” an apostolic letter whose teaching has been affirmed as belonging to the deposit of faith.
Having grown up in the post-Vatican II Church, I can say I’ve attended many a Mass with female altar servers. As such, I have no strong personal objection to them, nor will I go out of my way to avoid parishes or churches where girls surround Father at the altar.
However, just as no one has a “right” to be a priest, no one has a “right” to be an altar server; the celebrating priest has the option to use them or not as occasion demands. As Fr. Lankeit himself observes, “ … [W]hen the God-given differentiation between male and female is honored, both men’s and women’s vocations flourish.” Father Lankeit’s decision oppresses women only if you accept the premiss that “boys’ stuff” is necessarily superior to “girls’ stuff” … an assumption implicit in many second-wave feminist arguments.
So let me ask the question boys from eight to eighty have asked before: Why don’t girls form their own clubs? Why do they have to spoil ours?