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Why Opposing the Practice of Altar Girls is Not Disobedient


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)

23 thoughts on “Why Opposing the Practice of Altar Girls is Not Disobedient”

  1. If women’s vocations actually matter to us, we’ll bring the nuns back to the Catholic schools. If that’s impossible, invite orders to come to your parish and host all-girls retreats.

  2. I respectfully disagree with the premise of the article and I am no “liberal.” Vocations to the priesthood are up in the U.S. and have been since the widespread introduction of altar girls. I would suggest that decisions to go to the seminary are made by young men generally in high school or later. Altar servers are almost always (with a few exceptions) kids in grade school or middle school. It is much more important that a young man has been raised in a good Catholic home with parents who model Christian virtues for their children.
    10 year olds (boys and girls) are probably more tempted away from the active participation in Catholic activities by such things as sports. Keep in mind that something like only 23% of Catholics attend mass every week. That is the real scandal and much more of a factor in vocations.

    There are many countries where altar girls are not allowed, and I do not think they have overwhelming numbers of men breaking down the doors to get into seminaries.

      • Actually, I think we should replace the Prayers of the Faithful with the Great Litany from the Eastern Churches. That covers all the bases and is less susceptible to abuse.

          • Absolutely. What we need to do is get rid of any consistency whatsoever. That way everyone will be confused at any parish not his own. That is your point, right? Because in this realm in which you want to stay, only a tiny fraction of priests are traditionalists. There’s an option for them, and an option for the Ordinary Form (in which there innumerable options), and an option for Anglican Use. So many options in this realm, so little good judgement and so little consistency!

          • No, that is not my point. My point is that any priest at a Mass celebrated in the Ordinary Form can say during the Prayer of the Faithful, “Heavenly Father, please give us more priests and nuns,” without changing the Roman Missal. What Fr. Illo is doing also does not require action by the USCCB or the Vatican.

        • Personally, I would like to see the Anglican Rite as an option for ALL English language masses. The English translations of the Mass (new and old) are abysmal.

    • I’d like to see what stats you’re referring to, and then see you make an argument for causation (vs. correlation).

      CARA’s data shows a steady decline in US priests since 1965. Ordinations are up slightly since 2000, but it’s a nominal amount. There were 52 more priests ordained in 2014 than in 200. Compare the lost of 7,424 total priests during that time, and it’s barely a drop in the bucket.

      There are a number of arguments to be made about the loss of vocations. Altar girls wouldn’t rise to the top of my suspects list. The introduction of the Novus Ordo alone was followed by the loss of tens of thousands of religious in just the US. I think Fr. McLucas did a very thorough job on possible reasons here:

      • My thoughts on the decline of priestly vocation:

        The priest became just one among us – habit ditched, Mass constructed to be “egalitarian”, loss of the sense of the sacred at Mass, failure to evangelize, failure to promote priestly and religious vocations.

        In a secular society gone mad, the idea of chastity, poverty, obedience, will come as too hard considering that we get drummed 24/7 with the desirability and necessity of the exact opposite.

        • I disagree.

          What happened was a change from the “old clericalism” with the priest in cassocks and habits set apart from the laity to a “new clericalism”.

          In the “new clericalism”, the priest is dressed down, but the mass becomes a “priest show” with a long list of psuedoclerical “lay ministers”, who feel a little bit “more equal” than the rest of the laity. Because the old clericalism associated holiness with clerical status, the new clericalism “democratized” this by trying to turn the laity into clergy. But this misses the point.

      • My thoughts on the decline of priestly vocations:

        Vocations in the 1950s and early 1960s were in a bubble, like the real estate market of the mid-2000s. There were a lot of people in religious life who had no business being there and they left. With this in mind, the decline in vocations is not so great compared to the pre-WWII era.

  3. Our parish has the practice of “male only” alter server teams. We currently have 5 young men in the seminary from our parish. In addition most of the diocese has adopted the practice. The average number of seminarians in our diocese is 36. More than the four other diocese in our state combined. Each of the other diocese has mixed server teams in practice throughout the diocese. Also, servers here serve through high school not just grammar school.

    • Can you please tell me what your diocese is? This is very interesting, it needs to be shared widely. How could this be done? I know it is hard for letters we (regular parishioners) write to make it into the hands of the pope… But maybe if a bishop writes it? (Just an idea).

      • This was our pastor. Who has since retired. We are in the diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana. Our diocese has 100 plus parishes and 42 seminarians.

  4. Clear and explicit, Brian. Female servants may be allowed at the Altar of the Lord, as part of a discernment process which includes the Bishop, Priest and Family. It is a privilege of the Church to grant, not a right of membership in a parish, to grasp.

  5. Thank you for this. Here is something significant to add to the proof that it is not disobedient to question or to avoid use of female altar servers. It is not a discipline which the ENTIRE Church uses. The Ukrainian Rite, the second largest Rite in the Catholic Church explicitly forbids it:

    “It is the continuous tradition of all Eastern Churches that
    only clerics are permitted to enter the Sanctuary. Altar
    servers have traditionally held the rank of sub-deacon. In
    places where this custom has fallen into disuse, boys may
    act in the stead of the sub-deacon provided the
    prescriptions of Article278 are fulfilled. Since the subdiaconate
    is a clerical rank, those designated to act in
    place of an absent sub-deacon should be of the male
    gender. Under no circumstances, whatsoever are members
    of the female gender permitted to act as sub-deacons or
    altar servers.”
    of the
    in the

    Unfortunately, some Ukrainian parishes disobey this directive anyway, just as many in the Latin Rite did in the 1970’s and 1980’s. So the problem of disobedience is on the other side actually.

  6. When I was growing up in the 50s many girls were better at a lot of classes in high school. Boys tend to stand back and do what they do, maybe make trouble. Boys may say , she does real good at altar serving let her have it. We are the bride of Christ the priest is Christ(alter Christus), the groom, that’s how a marriage works. Why confuse the boys and the girls, we got enough of that in the world. Look at St. Peters in Rome. The Vatican altar, The Ballistra (sp) are bed posts. It’s a marriage, that’s why it serious sin to let something come between the bride and the groom, like the mortal sin of contraception.

  7. The other piece of this is that it is also up to the priest to impress upon boys in the service of the altar that what they do is important. It *matters*.

    And this begins with the priest behaving as though the liturgy matters. There is much work to do, friends.

  8. Altar girls are permitted and, in smaller parishes, they are necessary.

    For the larger parishes that have enough boys to cover all the masses, the real problem isn’t altar girls, it is the complete lack of creativity in how parishes get young people involved in the life of the Church. Altar service is frequently seen as the only way for a young person to serve or as a superior form of service to other forms (i.e. junior clericalism). If girls are excluded from this, then they really do feel excluded from the parish and for good reason.

    The solution is to provide more avenues of service. My parish permits altar girls and is small enough to need them. One mother, however, does not allow her daughters to serve. Do they care? No, they are too busy in the choir to notice and regularly cantor. Provide other opportunities for service and honor such service and altar girls will be a non-issue, at least for the girls (though perhaps not for the parents, but that’s a different problem).


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