Why Opposing the Practice of Altar Girls is Not Disobedient

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The modern liturgical practice of girl altar servers has received a great deal of attention in recent weeks. First it was Cardinal Raymond Burke’s interview with Matthew Christoff at “The New Emangelization” in which His Eminence addressed the current Catholic “Man-crisis” facing the Church. Cardinal Burke noted:

“The introduction of girl servers also led many boys to abandon altar service. Young boys don’t want to do things with girls. It’s just natural. The girls were also very good at altar service. So many boys drifted away over time. I want to emphasize that the practice of having exclusively boys as altar servers has nothing to do with inequality of women in the Church.

“I think that this has contributed to a loss of priestly vocations. It requires a certain manly discipline to serve as an altar boy in service at the side of priest, and most priests have their first deep experiences of the liturgy as altar boys. If we are not training young men as altar boys, giving them an experience of serving God in the liturgy, we should not be surprised that vocations have fallen dramatically.”

This was then followed by news out of the liberal bastion of San Francisco that Father Joseph Illo of Star of the Sea parish was ending the two decades old practice of girls serving at Mass. As Fr. Illo explained at his blog:

“Two months ago I implemented an altar boy policy that reflected the norms of the Catholic Church, particularly the 2001 directive of the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship regarding female altar servers. This document says that a bishop may not “require that priests of the diocese make use of female altar servers, since it will always be very appropriate to follow the noble tradition of having boys serve at the altar.” If girls are invited to serve the Mass, “it would remain important to explain clearly to the faithful the nature of this innovation, lest confusion might be introduced, hampering the development of priestly vocations.” I explained to our school parents the reasons why we are declining the “innovation” of altar girls, pointing to the essential connection between the Church’s male priesthood and the acolytes who participate intimately in their high priestly office…”

At my own blog I have covered this subject on several occasions (here, here and here). OnePeterFive recently posted an excellent article on serving written by one-time altar girl Rebecca Devendra, who now supports the traditional practice of altar boys only.

As the Church continues to discuss this highly charged topic, there is one perspective that appears to be as pervasive as it is false. Many devout, otherwise orthodox, Catholics who advocate in favor of altar girls do so based on an incorrect appeal to obedience. Their argument goes something like this: since Rome permits girls to serve there is nothing more to discuss. In fact, some faithful view it as down-right disobedient to even question the modern practice of girls serving. However, nothing could be further from the truth.

Whether or not girls should altar serve is an ongoing discernment process. To stifle discussion by stating girls are permitted and this is a “done deal”, is to misunderstand the issue altogether. Every time a new priest is ordained he must discern this question of altar serving. Every time a priest is pastorally reassigned to a new parish he must discern this question of altar serving. Every time a new bishop is consecrated he must discern this for his diocese. In fact, every Catholic father with daughters has to discern this for his own family. That canon law permits girls to serve does not mean that this ongoing process of discernment ceases. To the contrary, now more than ever discussion is needed.

For those who mistake permission as endorsement, in July 2001 the Congregation for Divine Worship (and then prefect Cardinal Jorge A. Medina Estévez) issued a response to a bishop’s question concerning the admission of girls as altar servers. The Congregations response stated the following:

-Bishops are free to admit female altar servers

-Only a diocesan bishop can decide whether to permit female servers in his diocese

No priest is obligated to have female servers, even where the diocese itself permits it

-No one has a “right” to serve at the altar

-The obligation to support groups of altar boys will always remain due to the well known assistance that such programs have provided in encouraging future priestly vocations

That this is an ongoing matter of discernment, and not an issue that was decided once and for all, is evident from the explanatory letter issued by the CDW. It is the failure on the part of the faithful to grasp this which often leads to confusion and controversy such as we are seeing at Star of the Sea parish in San Francisco.

With each new pastoral assignment and episcopal consecration comes the responsibility to honestly revisit this innovation of the last twenty years. As clergy and faithful alike continue to research both the history and the purpose of altar serving, let us hope that constructive discussions are not shut down under false accusations of disobedience. Indeed, discernment is not disobedience.

(Photo Credit: Tony Gentile / Reuters)

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