Straight talk on altar girls

America magazine has a singular talent for maximizing the irritation that one might pack into a single column, and this one is no exception. The immediate focus of the editors’ ire is Father John Lankeit, rector of Ss. Simon & Jude Cathedral, who has decided to use only males as altar servers. His statement is here, and the bottom line is simple enough: Altar service has historically been a garden of the priesthood, and Fr. Lankeit is concerned to foster vocations.

First a point of context. America neglects to mention, but it’s important to realize, that altar girls are an extremely recent development. They were allowed for the first time in 1992, and then only by consent of both the celebrating priest and his bishop. 1 In fact, as recently as Inæstimabile Donum, no. 18, 72 AAS 331, 338 (CDW, 1980), we read that while women may be lectors and cantors, they “are not, however, permitted to act as altar servers.”

America says that “[t]he key issue is the status of the baptized: that the laity may be called by the Spirit to offer their talents in various roles.” Actually, the key issue is the so-called “vocations crisis”: If we may reasonably conclude that service as an altar boy is helpful in fostering vocations to the priesthood, it makes sense to prioritize unmarried men and especially boys for altar service. Isn’t that common sense? And we might carry it a step further: If we may reasonably conclude 2 that the presence of altar girls discourages boys from altar service, it makes sense to exclude girls from that ministry. Frankly, it puzzles me why altar girls would discourage altar boys, but anecdotal evidence suggests that it’s true (a point that William Oddie notes in his remarks on the subject: “[A]s soon as girls appear, the supply of altar boys tends simply to dry up”). Moreover, some deference is owed, not only to Lankeit’s judgment that there is a sound basis in evidence or reason for the move, but also to the expedient of experimentation; since the proof of the pudding is in the eating, it would be a shame to interrupt the cook while it’s still in the oven. Given the urgency of the concerns animating Lankeit’s decision and the paucity of empirical evidence available, allowing the experiment and seeing what happens over a reasonably brief period of, say, ten to twenty years, is valuable. (Indeed, early returns would appear within a matter of a few years if not a few months: If altar girls discourage boys, ceteris paribus, we would expect to see an increase in males volunteering for altar service in short order.) I must also say that subsidiarity rather than universal legislation is a better way to handle the issue, because I don’t think we shouldn’t restrict access to the ministry based on gender without good reasons, but fostering vocations is a good reason, and the best teachers on this point are experience and empirical research, not abstract theory, and least of all quasi-sociological guff about making people feel included.

To be sure, there are some people who reject altar girls ab initio on principle, but that isn’t Lankeit’s concern and it isn’t mine (more on that anon), so they aren’t the concern here. When we face the practical basis for Lankeit’s move, America‘s objection that “[t]he rejection of altar girls disregards the counsel of the Second Vatican Council that the charisms of the baptized ‘are to be received with thanksgiving and consolation’” wilts. And it was hardly vigorous before, truth be told! For five decades, liberals’ stock move has been to ground everything they want in Vatican II; unable to break the habit, this is a particularly tenuous effort as they go. But even if it worked, the claim grounded on it doesn’t: “That this call should be fully welcomed does not appear to be a priority in Phoenix.” Just because something is a priority doesn’t preclude something else from taking higher priority, which is precisely what is happening here: Because the priesthood is a constitutive element of the Church, 3 tending the garden of the priesthood is a higher priority. It is simply more important. And if America is really concerned with a distant, shrinking priesthood, as they claim in the following paragraph, one might imagine that they would support measures reasonably calculated to increase vocations.

There is one more thing to say about altar girls, but first a clutch of remaining points on the America editorial. The editors lard their prose with other complaints and grievances:

  • They complain that altar rails are a “barrier between the priests and the people,” which is neither true nor relevant to the article.
  • They complain that restricting altar girls “limit[s] laywomen’s access to the altar” and “threaten[s] to drag the church back into the pre-Vatican II world”; on this, see my SF post yesterday, The Irrevocability of Everything.
  • They complain that a priest “did not consult the parish council, he says, because its members are not theologically trained”; the priest is under no obligation to consult the parish council at all about anything. 4
  • And because “[i]nevitably the issue of women’s roles in the church raises the question of women’s ordination to the priesthood,” they fire off a cheap and inaccurate shot in this characterization: “[S]ince Pope Benedict XVI, despite continued agitation, has reaffirmed the policy of John Paul II to allow no discussion of the topic, the matter of altar servers must be considered a separate and independent issue.” Well, for one thing, it is a separate and independent issue. And more to the point, it is a gross distortion to refer to the Church’s position on ordination of women as a “policy” against “discussion”; in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, blessed John Paul II of happy memory “declare[d] that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.” 5 This is not a policy against debate; it is an authentic act of the Papal Magisterium, held to be infallible, 6 which has eliminated a prerequisite of the debate: Capacity. As a purely intellectual exercise, we could debate what it might be like if the Church could ordain women and whether we or this pope or that might like to do so, but if she has no authority to do so in the first place, as Ordinatio Sacerdotalis confirms, the debate is sterile.

Finally, I would be remiss to conclude without clearly stating my own position on this issue. 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. Perhaps even to the point of ecclesiastical office: I am not specifically opposed to female deacons, and I publicly flirted with the notion of elevating women to the cardinalate before tentatively concluding that the proposal was unworkable. 7 That would certainly include altar service. I have no truck with the borderline misogyny of those who gleefully rubbed their hands together at the realization that Universæ Eccleisiæ essentially barred women from serving in the extraordinary form (although it does), or who support Lankeit’s moves based on their hostility to female servers rather than his concern for fostering vocations.

General rules, however, admit of exceptions, especially when they clash with other general rules and create a competition of needs. I share Lankeit’s concern for fostering vocations. We live in alarming times; we need more men to answer their vocation to the priesthood. The reasons for the decline in seminarians since Vatican II are many and variegated, of course, and not all of them pertain to developments in the Church. Those who point to falling Mass attendance since the introduction of the novus ordo forget that the Church exists in the world, and because the postconciliar era coincides with seismic changes in society, a control group is missing. Nor is it immediately apparent, quite frankly, that there has been a significant drop in seminarians since altar girls were allowed: CARA reports that there were 4,063 American seminarians in 1985 and 3,608 in 2011, although those numbers may not be revealing. But we should be encouraging any measures that are reasonably calculated to encourage men to take up their vocation. I am inclined to believe that there is sufficient reason to believe that restricting altar service to boys may encourage vocations, and that it is therefore worth experimenting in a few parishes. I am not suggesting, as did Oddie in his piece linked above, that we rescind the permission for altar girls; to the contrary, as I said above, subsidiarity is the right approach, at least for now. Nevertheless, I do support Fr. Lankeit, and I suggest that reasonable pastors should consider participating in this worthwhile experiment.


  1. See Redemptionis Sacramentum, no. 47, 96 AAS 549, 565-66 (CDW, 2004), and generally this, this, and this.
  2. I.e., if there is sufficient evidence for a reasonable trier of fact to reach the same conclusion, cf., e.g., Wright v. Southland Corp., 187 F.3d 1287 (11th Cir. 1999); Young v. Warner-Jenkinson Co., 152 F.3d 1018 (8th Cir. 1998).
  3. See Pastores Dabo Vobis, no. 16, 84 AAS 657, 681 (JPII, 1992); cf. The Quest for Unity: Orthodox and Catholics in Dialogue 72 et seq. (Borelli & Erickson, eds. 1996).
  4. The role of the parish council is to advise, not to direct. See 1983 CIC canons 515 § 1, 519, and 536; Instruction, The Priest, Pastor and Leader of the Parish Community, no. 26 (Cong. Clergy 2002); cf. Ecclesiæ sanctæ, nos. 15-16, 58 AAS 757, 766-67 (Paul VI, 1966); Omnes Christifideles, no. 8 (Cong. Clergy 1973). The left is apt to complain about clericalism, but as I alluded to last year in Clericalism in the Era of the Vocations Crisis, it’s actually laicism—a distension of the laity’s role—that poses the greater ecclesiological problem today, in salient part because of an inflated idea of the role of lay structures in the parish.
  5. 86 AAS 545, 548 (JPII, 1994) (“declaramus Ecclesiam facultatem nullatenus habere ordinationem sacerdotalem mulieribus conferendi, hancque sententiam ab omnibus Ecclesiae fidelibus esse definitive tenendam”).
  6. The original is reported at 87 AAS 1114 (CDF, 1995); additional remarks by then-prefect Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger can be read here. A long-delayed essay, Obsequium: A Great and Stately Jurisdiction will eventually appear in these pages, arguing that the question is settled beyond argument even if the CDF’s statement that the teaching was infallible—a statement approved by John Paul, albeit in forma ordinaria—is incorrect.
  7. Comments on the former are not available in a  public forum, but the gist is that Ordinatio Sacerdotalis does not address the question because the Catechism is explicit in placing deacons outside of the priesthood; on the latter, see, e.g., this.

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