USCC Watch: Altered Altar Roles

“I guess it shows the Vatican is obeying us,” quipped San Antonio Archbishop Patrick Flores on hearing of the Vatican’s official permission for girls and women to serve at Mass. “I’m very happy about it. The American bishops had asked for this about ten years ago,” he told the San Antonio Express.

A letter dated March 15 from the Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship (CDW) to the heads of bishops’ conferences around the world was leaked to the Catholic News Service April 12. The letter said that a meeting of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts (PCILT) decided nearly two years ago that Canon 230.2 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law should be interpreted to permit both men and women as altar servers. According to the letter, Pope John Paul II confirmed the PCILT decision two weeks later (July II, 1992), and ordered that it be promulgated with further instructions. “This will be done in the near future,” the letter said.

The letter does not say why the PCILT has the authority to overrule longstanding liturgical traditions and the decisions of higher-level Vatican Congregations by means of its interpretations, nor how the PCILT reached—in a single afternoon’s session—its drastic reinterpretation, which is diametrically opposed to explicit official letters and statements of the Holy See on the subject of altar girls, issued repeatedly by Church authorities until about two years ago, when rumors that female altar servers would be permitted began to intensify.

For example, in a letter dated April 17, 1991, the Vatican Secretariat of State wrote this response to a query concerning the possibility of girls acting as altar servers: “The Church’s traditional discipline in this regard was reaffirmed in the liturgical instruction Inaestimabile donum, issued by the Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship on April 3, 1980, and remains in force.” The letter then cited the instruction, which says:

There are 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.

Canon 230.2 does not appear to alter this “traditional discipline.” Its uninterpreted text states: “all lay persons can fulfill the functions of commentator or cantor or other [liturgical] functions, in accord with the norm of law” (emphasis added).

(It may be no coincidence that the U.S. bishops’ first discussion of the controversial “women’s pastoral” took place in June 1992, just a week before the PCILT’s new ruling on Canon 230.2. Early drafts of the pastoral had sought “opening all ministries not requiring ordination to women” and “study” of the diaconate for women, but the final draft dropped these passages.)

Despite repeated confirmations in recent years of the traditional discipline regarding altar servers, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls unaccountably told the CNS reporter that the new policy was the result of interpreting existing Church law and should not be seen as a major liturgical innovation.

Navarro-Valls also stressed that the question of female altar servers has no connection with the ordination of women. Yet his very protestation implicitly acknowledges the fact that the matter is universally perceived to be a major symbolic step in that direction—by both proponents and opponents of women’s ordination. Significantly, chief figures in the liturgical establishment are advocates of “opening all ministries”—including ordination—to women.

For example, Godfrey Diekmann, OSB, one of the most venerable and enormously influential figures in the history of modern liturgical reform—a monk of Saint John’s Abbey, longtime editor of Worship magazine, and a founding member of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL)—supports the ordination of women as a “justice issue,” and regrets not having held this view while he was peritus at Vatican II, according to his biographer, Sister Kathleen Hughes, RSCJ, dean of Chicago’s Catholic Theological Union and herself a member of ICEL.

Mr. Navarro-Valls also emphasized that granting permission for female servers resolves a pastoral not a doctrinal question. This is an important distinction, but since the priest represents Christ, the Bridegroom, how can it be thought that the sex of the person who serves the priest in his actual confection of the Eucharist has no bearing on the doctrine of the priesthood, or on the nuptial symbolism of the Eucharist? Does the PCILT have the power to determine whether a matter is “pastoral” or “doctrinal”? If so, why? Priestly celibacy is also said to be a disciplinary rather than a dogmatic issue. Can the PCILT rule on celibacy? Does its competence of interpretive revision extend to all liturgical matters implicitly covered by Canon Law?

PCILT’s decision reverses the immemorial custom of the Church (cf. Canon 26), as well as the explicit instructions of two documents of the CDW approved by two Popes (Liturgiae instaurationes 1970, and Inaestimabile donum 1980). Both documents addressed various liturgical abuses and reaffirmed the customary norms for altar servers (Inaestimabile donum § 10 permitted lay “extraordinary ministers” of the Eucharist). Both also state norms for who may give homilies and what kind of bread may be consecrated. Could the PCILT “interpret” these liturgical norms to mean that women can preach at Mass and “cake bread” can be consecrated? What constitutes a dubium (doubt) of law (which “does not bind”—cf. Canon 14) and thus, according to the CDW letter, requires the PCILT’s interpretation? Does widespread disobedience of a norm automatically constitute a dubium? Is every aspect of the Church’s liturgical discipline now vulnerable to reinterpretation by a small group of canon lawyers whose legislative decisions seem to bind even the Pope (cf. Canon 16)?

Even more urgent than these canonical questions is the effect this decision will have on the faithful’s understanding of doctrine. The New York Times, for example, had no trouble finding an altar girl who reasoned, “you can’t have women priests without women altar servers. It probably won’t happen in our lifetime, but for a future generation. It’s a good thing we started it off for them.” If there is a supporter of women’s ordination who does not believe that female altar servers are an important symbolic step in that direction, she (or he) has not been heard from. Advocates of women’s ordination seem cynically willing to jeopardize the faith of young girls in order to achieve their own goals.

The CDW’s letter to bishops’ conferences included amplification of the PCILT’s interpretation of canon law, noting four points:

1. The decision whether or not to use female servers is to be “optional” for each bishop, after hearing the opinion of the national Episcopal Conference, and “with a view to the ordered development of liturgical life in his own diocese.”

(Comment: For the past 30 years of liturgical renewal, practices called “optional” have unfailingly become mandatory. It is not hard to imagine what the opinion of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy (BCL) will be when the issue comes up for discussion, reportedly at the November 1994 bishops’ conference. At the 1987 Synod on the Laity, three of the U.S. delegates—Archbishop Rembert Weakland, former head of the BCL; Cardinal Bernardin, a member of the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and an advisor to the BCL; and the late Archbishop John May, then-president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops—strenuously but unsuccessfully attempted to receive the Holy See’s permission for female altar servers.)

2. “The Holy See respects the decision [already] adopted by certain Bishops for specific local reasons,” but notes the appropriateness of the “noble tradition of having boys serve at the altar,” since this has led to priestly vocations.

(Comment: This seems to mean that the admission of women or girls to this liturgical role should not prohibit boys from serving. It does not seem to allow for having only boys serve.)

3. The bishop must explain his decision to have women servers, making it clear that “the norm is already being widely applied,” as “women frequently serve as lectors and… extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist.”

(Comment: Surely no Catholic in the country is unaware that women serve as lectors and extraordinary ministers. These roles for women were “won” by almost the same process of disobedience and “creative interpretation” of rules, until inaestimabile donum and the 1983 Code explicitly codified the practice [cf. Canon 230.2; 910.21. Advocates of female altar servers contend that service at the altar is a less important liturgical role than lector and extraordinary minister; confusion over the meaning of these roles partly stems from the post-conciliar abolition of lector and acolyte as Minor Orders.)

4. The “liturgical services” of altar servers are temporary, exercised according to the bishop’s judgment, “without lay people, be they men or women, having any right to exercise them.”

(Comment: This rather cryptic instruction may be intended to deflect expected agitation for expanded “ministries” for women—the diaconate, for example.)

The Holy See’s decision to permit female altar servers is a pastoral error with implications which will make authentic renewal of the Church more difficult. Even if the matter is not a basic issue of doctrine, it has many troubling aspects, and it is possible that the Holy See does not fully comprehend those. The decision is certain to cause further confusion and disunity in the Church, and there is cause for concern that the worship of the Catholic Church will now be saddled unnecessarily with many of the problems that have afflicted mainline Protestant churches.

Once again, people are being taught that official regulations can be safely flouted, because eventually the Holy See will accept practices officially not allowed. This happened with respect to Communion in both kinds, Communion in the hand, the use of extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, and many other liturgical innovations.

It is difficult for most people to distinguish between doctrinal matters essential to the Catholic faith and mere “pastoral practices,” and many will think that if the Church can change her traditional practice on a matter of such long-standing as “altar boys,” she can and eventually will allow ordination of women, artificial contraception, divorce, and abortion. This perception will present serious pastoral problems for bishops and priests who remain faithful to the Church.

Among the many questions which will undoubtedly surface is whether a priest will be allowed to exercise his own pastoral judgment about permitting girls and women to serve in his parish. Will the same bishops who have defied the rules (and allowed their priests to do the same) now forbid priests to exercise their own judgment for their own parishes? Can parents convince boys of the “noble tradition” of altar boys when it becomes a “girl thing”? Can parents who conscientiously object to their daughters vesting as clergy and serving in a liturgical role always reserved for males resist the often aggressive recruitment of their daughters in “altar server” programs? Will they receive support? Can the Church’s worship be protected from pressure groups demanding quotas and “affirmative action”?

In our culture, obedience has become a bad word; acceptance of any authority is weak; vocations are declining; a true understanding of the sexes is rare; new and old forms of clericalism resist the genuine inspiration of Vatican II; orthodox doctrine regarding the priesthood is under attack; and nearly every essential teaching of the Church is fair game for ridicule. This is not a culture in which it is prudent to alter liturgical tradition lightly.

Especially with so many important liturgical translations still before us, it is now more than ever important for Catholics to remain steadfastly faithful to the teachings of the Church and to support those bishops who are in union with the Holy See in the discharge of their responsibilities.


  • Helen Hull Hitchcock

    Helen Hull Hitchcock is founding director of Women for Faith & Family and editor of its quarterly journal, Voices. She is also editor of the Adoremus Bulletin, a monthly publication of Adoremus - Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy, of which she is a co-founder. She is married to James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University. The Hitchcocks have four daughters and six grandchildren, and live in St. Louis.

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