Given that Catholic churches throughout the world swarm with lay liturgical ministers of both sexes, it may seem a bit late in the game to offer theological arguments against the practice of female lectors. But there are several good and urgent reasons to do so at this time.
First, the ever-increasing number of parishes and chapels in which the Extraordinary Form is celebrated have reintroduced all over the world, to the relief of traditionally-minded men and women, the custom of male-only service in the sanctuary. But the very experience of this once-universal practice necessarily prompts Catholics to raise the question of why it “had” to change at all, and the related question: Is the Church better off for the change, or, as with communion in the hand while standing or communion under both kinds, worse off?
Second, we are living in an age when many believers are revisiting and critically examining the blithe assumptions and hasty moves of the past half-century—and are finding, perhaps to their surprise, that the rationales behind many of the changes are shallow at best, ideological at worst.
Third, now that the evil fruits of a disordered feminism are far more apparent in society and in the Church than ever before, Catholics who have their heads screwed on straight are more open than ever to a fundamental critique of the modern tendency to treat men and women as interchangeable entities.
To ignore differences of sex or to pretend that such differences make (or should make) no difference in the fulfilling of liturgical roles is surely to ignore, and probably to contradict, the “theology of the body” given to the Church by Saint John Paul II. Especially in our times, when confusion about sexuality is rampant, how we conceptualize and implement male and female roles in the Church cannot fail to have huge ramifications in our theological anthropology, moral theology, and even fundamental theology, extending all the way to the inerrancy of Scripture and the trustworthiness of apostolic Tradition.
The question I shall pose is not whether female lectors are permitted at this time (since it is obvious that they are permitted by ecclesiastical law), but whether the practice makes theological sense, and to what extent it has introduced confusion into the minds of the faithful. After all, if it turned out to make no sense and to be harmful, it would not be the first time the Church has blundered in regard to a disciplinary matter with doctrinal implications.
Moreover, why was there an unbroken practice for nearly 2,000 years (or more than 3,000 years, if we include the worship of the Israelites as preparatory to the New Covenant)? Were our predecessors all chauvinists who didn’t understand the “genius of women” and the contributions they could make to the life of the Church? That seems really unbelievable when one looks at the facts.
In the form of a Thomistic question, I will present arguments on both sides, resolve the question in favor of the Church’s Tradition, and respond to the initial objections.
Whether Women Should Read the Readings at Mass
Objection 1. It would seem that it is most appropriate for women to read the readings at Mass. For a woman is capable of representing more perfectly the Church as our Mother, to whom the Word of God has been entrusted. It belongs to a mother to instruct her children in the ways of God. Therefore a woman appropriately delivers the Word of God to the faithful.
Objection 2. To read Scripture is proper to every member of the Church, for the Roman Pontiffs have constantly recommended that all Catholics read Scripture and have even enriched this activity with indulgences. Reading Scripture at Mass is nothing more than doing what is proper and recommended for all. Therefore it is indifferent whether men or women serve as readers.
Objection 3. In the traditional liturgy, the lector is not an ordained minister, even if he is in minor orders. Therefore one does not have to be ordained to be a lector. Now, it is only ordination that is reserved to males. Therefore lectorship is not reserved to males. Much less, then, is the function of reading reserved only to males.
Objection 4. The Apostle says: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). Hence it is irrelevant whether a reader is male or female, so long as he or she is a Christian.
Objection 5. The Church has allowed women to read the readings at Mass. Therefore, it must be good to do so.
On the contrary: The Apostle declares to the Corinthians: “As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church” (1 Cor 14:33–35). Moreover, the same Apostle says to Saint Timothy: “Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent” (1 Tim 2:11–12).
In accordance with this apostolic judgment, the Church, for nearly 2,000 years, did not permit any woman to exercise a liturgical ministry in the sanctuary. Thus, the Council of Laodicea (365 AD) stated in Canon 44: “Women may not approach near the altar.” But the Church, being guided by the Holy Spirit, cannot err in the pleasing worship of Almighty God. Therefore her constant customs indicate a divine disposition, and all discordant novelties are to be rejected.
I respond: It ought to be said that in Sacred Scripture the Word of God is always compared to seed, and the preacher to the one who plants the seed in the soil. The one who hears the Word is the mother whose faith receives the seed—the womb in which the seed is implanted, begins to grow, and with patience bears fruit. For this reason, the congregation of the faithful is the image of the Virgin Mary, while the lector is the image of God the Father, implanting in their hearts the seed of the Word, Jesus Christ, even as He did through the instrumentality of the Archangel Gabriel at the Annunciation.
Hence, for a woman to be proclaiming the Word is self-contradictory: it makes the female who receives the seed the male who issues the seed. If one denies this symbolic dissonance, one must go one step further and maintain that being male or being female is metaphysically incidental and irrelevant, and that there is no religious symbolism to being male or being female. Such views suggest that the archetypes handed down in Scripture are conventional, changeable, and even false, rather than based on nature, permanent, and true. Such views also suggest the heresy of the Manichaeans, who denied that bodily realities were made by the good God as manifestations of His wisdom.
Hence, the now nearly universal custom of women reading at Mass deserves to be abolished as the historical aberration and theological danger that it is. Such a restoration of ancient discipline would be one more way to celebrate and consolidate the authentic teaching of the Second Vatican Council, which did not breathe a word about opening up liturgical ministries to women, and which expressly stipulated: “there must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 23).
To the first objection, therefore, it should be said that all of the sacraments have been entrusted to Holy Mother Church, and the Mass is her chief glory. If the above argument were true without qualification, it would be fitting, or more fitting, for all the sacraments to be performed by women. Indeed, there would be no metaphysical argument against female priests, but only a positivistic argument: Jesus chose men, therefore the Church chooses men. At this point we will have abandoned the enterprise of theology, faith seeking understanding (fides quaerens intellectum). While on earth, the Lord Jesus did not do things arbitrarily. If males ought to be priests, then males ought to be lectors, servers, ministers of communion, and so forth, because all of these are roles of giving, of acting upon, while the response made by the faithful is always one of receiving and of being acted upon. This, of course, is the very point of the metaphor of planting or sowing the seed versus taking it into the womb of the ground where it germinates and bears fruit.
To the second objection, it should be said that Holy Mass is not a moment of private prayer or a Scripture study, but a public liturgical act offered to God by Jesus Christ the Eternal High Priest, at the hands of ministers who are conformed, more or less perfectly, to the image of this High Priest. Hence, it is not proper to every member of the Church to be a public reader of Scripture, any more than it belongs to any member to preach the word of God to a congregation, as the Apostle teaches in the aforementioned passages.
To the third objection, it should be said that denying that ministers in the sanctuary need to be conformed to the Eternal High Priest as regards their human constitution amounts to a denial of the mystery of the Incarnation, in which the Son of God became not just human (homo), but a man (vir). Hence, although a lector need not be ordained, it is fitting that the lector be ordainable, that is, one who is of such a nature as to reflect the concrete personal identity of the Incarnate Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth.
It may be said, in addition, that rationalism has played far too great a role in the liturgical reform and the evils that have followed from it, as Joseph Ratzinger frequently observes. We are considering here a poignant example. Could anything be more rationalistic than ignoring the raw, earthy, elemental differences between man and woman? Could anything be more Cartesian than pretending they are the same, or indistinguishable, or interchangeable, or substitutable? Our age will surely go down in history, if there is much of history left, as the age in which common sense met its demise. Anyone with the slightest knowledge of human nature knows that when a child wants or needs its mother, no one else will do; when a situation demands the father, no one else will do. When the Church, for her part, needs a ruler, teacher, or sanctifier, she chooses and appoints a man, for no one else can represent the face, the voice, and the hands of Jesus Christ. It is not a matter of loving and suffering as Christ, for it seems that many more women are Christlike in that sense; it is strictly a matter of who may formally act in His person (in persona Christi), when making present His redemptive action upon us who receive its fruits.
To the fourth objection, the Apostle cannot be saying that sexuality no longer exists after baptism or no longer has any role to play in the Christian life, otherwise his comparison of the relationship of husband and wife to the relationship of Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5) would carry no force.
Moreover, grace does not destroy nature but elevates it. Therefore, while grace heals and elevates equally the souls of men and women, other things being equal, it never cancels out their sexual difference. Since only a woman can be a mother, it was the Blessed Virgin Mary who enjoyed the greatest privilege known to creation—namely, to give the Son of God His body and nurture Him in her womb and on her breast. Since only a man can be the image of Christ in His total incarnational reality, Christ chose only males to exercise His priesthood at the altar of sacrifice, as foreshadowed by the priests of the Old Covenant.
To the fifth objection, the history of the Church furnishes numerous examples of permissions that were unwisely granted, and later, wisely taken away. For example, the Church has the authority to attach indulgences to donations, but this arrangement in practice was so susceptible to abuse (“the sale of indulgences”) that the Church withdrew the permission.
Moreover, there is a crucial distinction between allowing and encouraging. The Church allows her children to go to confession and communion only once a year, but that does not mean she encourages them to receive the sacraments so seldomly. The Church allows married couples to have relations out of motives of lust so long as they remain open to life, but that is hardly the ideal of conjugal intimacy. Thus, merely because something is allowed does not mean it is, or should be, encouraged. For, as the Apostle says in a similar context, “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful” (1 Cor 6:12).
Moreover, one must reject the minimalist mentality that asks: “What can I get away with, without disobeying the Church?” for the same reason that one should reject the minimalist mentality behind the question “What is the least I must do to get into Heaven?” The very fact that one is thinking that way indicates a serious deficiency in one’s mentality. We should be striving to do what is most excellent, fitting, and appropriate.
Postscript. In the end, to sustain the appropriateness of female lectors, we would have to conclude that the People of God (Israel and the Church) were committing a serious error for more than 3,000 years in their restrictive public worship, and that all of our forefathers—including the Church Fathers and Doctors and hundreds of Popes—were wrong to limit these ministries to men, until the enlightened 1960s showed us a new and better way. Given all the good things we got from the sixties and seventies, forgive me for thinking that the absurdity of these conclusions requires no further comment.
Editor’s note: subsequent to the response to this article, Benedict Constable wrote a followup offering greater insight into the male-female symbolism present in liturgical roles and action.
 Note that I do not say “gender,” which is a grammatical concept, but “sex,” which is an anthropological reality. The almost universal shift away from speaking of the male and female sex, something present in the very body of a person, to male and female gender, something merely attributed as a convention, is a significant cultural indicator of the triumph of subjectivism over realism.
 A word about the use of the term “lector.” Broadly speaking, this word has come to be synonymous with “reader.” In a stricter sense, “lector” refers to a male officially instituted and set aside for the ministry of reading, as occurs in many seminaries at a certain point in the formation process. While it may be true that the sudden creation of squads of (male-only) instituted lectors would offer a pragmatic solution to our query, it is much more valuable theologically to ask about the thing in itself: is it more appropriate for a man, as such, to give the readings at Mass, than for a woman, as such? I will follow the common custom of referring to both male and female lectors as well as readers, but one should nevertheless bear in mind the distinction made above.
 In her marvelous book Women in the Days of the Cathedrals, Regine Pernoud demonstrates that women were, if anything, more appreciated, more influential, and more capable in the Middle Ages than in the more “enlightened” centuries that followed.
Benedict Constable is the nom de plume of a noteworthy traditional Catholic scholar and author.