Altar girls, redux

Traditionally, altar service was a male-only business, 1 but females have been permitted to serve the ordinary form since the early 1990s, subject to the general approval of the bishop and ad hoc approval of the celebrant of the particular Mass at which they are to be employed. 2 “Altar girls” have remained controversial ever since, especially in conservative/traditionalist/Trad circles. 3

Against that backdrop, Father Zuhlsdorf notes a new survey that finds some 82% of ordinands of the class of 2014 once served as altar boys. 4 That is good, and it certainly supports the suggestion that if you want to foster vocations to the priesthood in your parishes, encourage boys to serve. But Fr. Zuhlsdorf’s suggestion is, instead, “[i]f you want to foster vocations to the priesthood in your parishes, have all-male service in the sanctuary,” which is a leap of logic: It makes sense only if we assume that permitting girls to serve diminishes the number of boys who serve. That is an unexamined assumption, as I have said before, and a counterintuitive one.

Received wisdom has it that a moderate is someone who, being in the middle of the road, is apt to get mowed down by traffic heading in both directions. By that measure, I suppose, I am a moderate on the question of altar girls, although I prefer to think, for reasons that will become clear, that I am less moderate than undecided. Two years ago, I offered support for Fr. John Lakeit, Rector of Phoenix’s Ss. Simon & Jude Cathedral, who incurred the wrath of liberal catholics by returning the Cathedral to the traditional male-only altar service. 5 Fr. Lankeit did so because we need more priests and vocations flourish in dioceses, parishes, and religious orders “where they have the clear honoring of the distinction and the complementarity of men and women….” 6 And in turn, I did so because it is clear that altar service is apt to encourage boys to recognize a vocation to the priesthood, it is arguable that female servers might discourage boys from serving at the altar, and because we need more men to accept their call to the priesthood, we should support (or at very least defer to) any means that seem reasonably-calculated to serve that goal. One would expect, I wrote at the time, that “early returns would appear within a matter of a few years if not a few months,” which is precisely what happened. 7. The program continues to bear fruit, which suggests that it works. 8

Nevertheless, I do not reject altar girls on principle, as some do. 9 Nor am I convinced (yet) that substantial evidence bridges the gap jumped by Zuhlsdorf et al. I support Lankeit’s program and defer to his judgment that suppressing female altar service will help, and I stand ready to offer deferential support to any priest who makes the same decision. But I am unwilling to fault a priest who allows altar girls, so long as the decision is reasoned rather than reflexive.

Truth to tell, I retain some doubt on the point as an original matter, which is to say that were it my decision (that is, were I a priest or bishop: God help you all!), I would not necessarily suppress female altar service within my bailiwick. On the one hand, if the progressives’ arguments from things such as Galatians 3:28 and Gaudium et spes have any force at all, it is at least this: Lay ministries should, generally and all else being equal, be open to all who wish to serve. On the other hand, principled opposition to the use of altar girls is possible, grounded on the facts that they fly in the face of the Church’s constant tradition and that those who advocated their introduction were motivated, at least in part, by a desire to overturn the Church’s teaching on the ordination of women.

I have not previously resolved these competing considerations, and decline to do so today. For now, what matters is this: If one seeks to ground opposition to altar girls not on the facts just mentioned but rather on their effect on vocations, one makes the question conditional on the empirical question of whether that effect is negative. And on that question, good empirical data is scarce—which would be fine, except that, all too often, and not wanting to acknowledge that that question is empirical, we argue by competing anecdote. (I say that when I was that age, I wanted to be where girls were; you say that when you were that age, you wanted nothing to do with girls; we both shrug and assume that the other person is aberrational, absolutely nothing of use to the debate emerges, and the debate remains precisely where it was when we began.) Accordingly, a drop of Lankeit’s experiment is worth an ocean of the unjustifiable and condescending certainty that we see in other quarters, precisely because such experiments produce real data, useful data. Other priests can (and probably should) look at Lankeit’s success and rationally conclude that they should try it too.

(Digression: One might think that all this would be of interest to USCCB or Pew, which might helpfully do some systematic empirical work on the point.)

I would close by reiterating what I said in my original post: “In my view, the Church should, as a general rule, welcome the talents and contributions of women in every way that is appropriate and possible,” but that this general rule must give way if it “clash[es] with other general rules and create[s] a competition of needs.” If altar girls drive out altar boys, the need to foster vocations supplies an overriding imperative that they be removed, and if they attract altar boys, there is an overriding imperative that they be allowed. And because the data do not yet persuasively answer the question, we should support and commend experimentation and empirical work, notwithstanding personal misgivings.

 

Notes:

  1. See Inæstimabile donum, no. 18, 72 AAS 331, 338 (CDW, 1980).
  2. See Redemptionis sacramentum, no. 47, 96 AAS 549, 565-66 (CDW, 2004); Letter regarding admission of girls, adult women and women religious to serve alongside boys as servers in the Liturgy, 37 Notitiae 421 (CDW 2001) (prot. n. 2451/00/L), available at http://www.adoremus.org/CDW-AltarServers.html (last visited May 21, 2014) (episcopal approval “may not, in any way, exclude men or, in particular, boys from service at the altar, nor require that priests of the diocese would make use of female altar servers”).
  3. The distinctions between those groups, as I understand them, is explained in Simon Dodd, Conservatives, traditionalists, and Traditional Catholics, Motu Proprio, May 19, 2014, http://simondodd.org/blog/?p=1356.
  4. Rev. John Zuhlsdorf, Key stats for vocations to the priesthood – POLLS, Fr. Z’s Blog (formerly WDTPRS), May 18, 2014, http://wdtprs.com/blog/2014/05/key-stats-for-vocations-to-the-priesthood-polls. In 2012, it was 75%. See The Class of 2012:Survey of Ordinands to the Priesthood, p.24, available at http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/vocations/ordination-class/upload/Ordination-Class-of-2012-Report-FINAL.pdf (last visited May 21, 2014).
  5. Straight talk on altar girls, 1 MPA 60 (2012).
  6. Phoenix cathedral’s policy change on altar servers ignites discussion, The Catholic Review, Aug. 25, 2011, http://catholicreview.org/article/faith/vocations/phoenix-cathedrals-policy-change-on-altar-servers-ignites-discussion.
  7. See An update on Father Lankeit’s vocations program, 2 MPA 24 (2012).
  8. See Simon Dodd, Another update on Fr. Lankeit’s vocations program, Motu Proprio, May 23, 2014, http://simondodd.org/blog/?p=1376.
  9. Critics often perceive a nasty strain of gynophobia in some Trad and conservative circles; to the extent it exists, I do not subscribe to it.