Q: What is the Church’s position on the use of female altar servers? May all of the servers be female, or must at least one be male? Do you feel that the use of female altar servers detracts from the building of vocations among young males? —M.C.S.N., Catonsville, Maryland
A: Female altar servers are permitted in all but two U.S. dioceses. They are also common in most English-speaking countries, and in Western Europe. The situation is patchier in the rest of the world, going from total absence to the occasional diocese that allows them.
From the point of view of liturgical law, an official interpretation of Canon 230, Paragraph 2, of the Code of Canon law on the possibility of delegating certain liturgical offices led to a 1994 letter from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments clarifying that girls may serve at the altar. But bishops are not bound to permit them to do so, nor could the episcopal conference limit the bishop’s faculty to decide for himself.
A further clarifying letter published in 2001 said priests are not compelled to have girls serve at the altar, even when their bishops grant permission.
The 1994 letter states: “It will always be very appropriate to follow the noble tradition of having boys serve at the altar. As is well known, this has led to a reassuring development of priestly vocations. Thus the obligation to support such groups of altar boys will always continue.”
The letter also recommends to bishops to consider “among other things the sensibilities of the faithful, the reasons which would motivate such permission and the different liturgical settings and congregations which gather for the Holy Mass.”
Therefore the Holy See’s recommendation is to retain as far as possible the custom of having only boys as servers. But it leaves to the bishop the choice of permitting women and girls for a good reason and to the pastor of each parish the decision as to whether to act on the bishop’s permission.
It is important not to focus this debate using political categories such as rights, equality, discrimination, etc., which only serves to fog the issue. We are dealing with the privilege of serving in an act of worship to which nobody has any inherent rights.
The question should be framed as to what is best for the good of souls in each diocese and parish. It is thus an eminently pastoral and not an administrative decision, and this is why it should be determined at the local level.
Among the pastoral factors to be weighed is the obvious yet often forgotten fact that boys and girls are different and require different motivational and formative methods.
This difference means that both boys and girls usually go through a stage when they tend to avoid common activities.
Preteen boys in particular are very attracted to activities that cater especially for them, and they tend to reject sharing activities with girls.
They also tend to have a greater need for such structured activities than girls who are usually more mature and responsible at this stage of life.
As a result, some parishes have found that the introduction of girl servers has led to a sharp drop-off of boys offering to serve. Once the boys have left and enter the years of puberty, it is difficult to bring them back.
Some pastors say this phenomenon is less marked where serving at Mass forms part of a wider Catholic structure, such as a school, or when siblings serve together.
It is also true that groups of boy servers have fostered vocations to the priesthood. But to be fair, this usually happens within a broader culture of openness to a vocation in which other elements come into play, such as the example and spiritual guidance given by good priests, and family support.
If, for example, a long-established program of boy servers has proved successful in promoting vocations or has been useful in helping boys avoid bad company and maintain the state of grace, then the good of souls obliges pastors to weigh heavily the spiritual risks involved in abandoning it.
When girls do serve, it is probably best to aim for a mixture of boys and girls — if only to avoid giving the impression to the congregation that Catholicism is above all a female activity. On some occasions, however, it might be best to separate boys and girls into different groups.
It is very difficult to lay down precise rules in a matter like this since the situation may vary widely between parishes. And it is not unknown to have sharp differences among the faithful who assist at different Masses at the same parish. ZE04020323
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Follow-up: Female Altar Servers [from 02-17-04]
Regarding the column on female altar servers (Feb. 3), a priest from Illinois asked if it were possible to place the issue in a theological context.
He suggests several arguments against their use and asks: “based on the same theology of the body that Pope John Paul II has so profoundly explained, how can girls serving at the altar not be perceived as a move towards women’s ordination? The role of the altar server is not just functional. Also, actions speak louder than words; by the Pope allowing altar girls in the context of the cultural politicization of the liturgy and the role of women, he does send the message that women’s ordination will come about despite statements to the contrary.”
Personally I do not think it is wise to try to establish doctrinal grounds for every aspect of liturgical discipline. The very fact that the Holy Father approved of this change clearly shows that he does not consider this issue to have serious doctrinal implications.
While our correspondent is correct in saying that the role of altar servers is not merely functional, I think it is necessary to distinguish between minister, either ordained (bishop, priest and deacon) or instituted (acolyte and lector) and those who may be delegated in some cases to substitute for them.
Thus the formal ministries of the Church are open only to males, while altar servers, readers and extraordinary ministers of Communion, whose function is to substitute for the lack of proper ministers, may be delegated to Catholics of either sex.
Even when these functions are carried out frequently, or even daily, they will always be essentially delegated and substitutive. In this context the canonical decision to open service at the altar to girls was logical since every other delegated ministry had already been opened up.
This is certainly a break with a very long-standing custom of having only males serve at the altar even in substitutive roles. But it does not appear to be an issue of doctrine.
Nor does the Holy Father’s decision open the way toward women’s ordination. The papal declaration in “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis” that the Church has no power to ordain women is no mere statement of opinion but, as confirmed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, an exercise of the gift of infallibility and therefore binding.
Another reader, also from Illinois, asked if there were any norms regarding adults serving at Mass.
All instituted ministers (acolytes and lectors) are adult men, most of whom receive these ministries in their early 20s. Adult servers are very common all over the world especially in daily Masses or very early Sunday celebrations.
One or two female readers took exception to my comments that this debate should not use political categories such as rights, equality and discrimination.
One correspondent from Boston writes: “Since when have human rights and human equality become a ‘political category.’ Any brief survey of Church documents would reveal that such rights and equality are part of morality. Too frequently, it sounds as if the Church doesn’t have to worry about breaking the moral law because it follows a higher liturgical law. Also, the last time I checked, by virtue of baptism, the Code of Canon Law says that every Catholic has a right to the sacraments. Does liturgical law also override canon law?”
Perhaps my choice of examples might have been better, but I think our correspondent read too much into my words.
She is totally correct, of course, in suggesting that rights, above all human rights, are essentially rooted in morality and thus should be beyond politics. I would also observe that there are other classes of rights less closely tied up to morality, such as the right to vote at 18 instead of 21.
At the same time, many of these rights have a political dimension and in this way are also political categories.
The social equality of women, for example, was not caused by a sudden surge of male morality sweeping away all discriminatory laws. Rather, it was eked and pried out by dogged, determined and sometimes heroic political action by women themselves.
Likewise, who can deny that the supposedly unalienable right to life has not tragically become the stuff of political activity?
Getting back to our subject, while the rights enjoyed by every Catholic are spelled out clearly by canon law, and include among other entitlements a right to the sacraments (see Canon 214), which is certainly not political, this fact has little to do with the question of a “right” to serve at the altar.
Serving at Mass, unlike the Catholic’s right to assist at Mass and receive Communion, is a privilege and in some cases a vocation. But it can never be called a right. Therefore, I repeat that no one has a right to do so and to frame the question in these terms is to use political categories to seek to demand what can only be humbly accepted.
Finally, a reader from Kenya suggested that St. Margaret Clitherow could complement St. John Berchmans as patron of altar servers. This English wife and mother was martyred in 1586 because she kept the forbidden vestments, chalices, books and bread in her home and arranged that priests could secretly celebrate Mass there. It is an interesting suggestion and may prosper.
Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum. ROME, 3 FEB. 2004