Shifting the burden of proof on altar girls

One of the less attractive ideas that circulates in traditionalist circles is the notion that the vocations crisis has a lot to do with altar girls. The logic goes like this: Statistics show that thumping majorities of ordinands served at the altar, so if you increase the number of boys serving at the altar you will get more vocations, ergo we must end the altar girl experiment. 1

The problem in this reasoning is the assumption that female servers disinclines males from serving. I think that unproven and counterintuitive, and so my objection to this line of reasoning has always been “show me proof that altar girls drive out altar boys, because if my intuition is right and yours is wrong, that is, if girls serving on the altar makes boys more likely to serve, the last thing we want to do is return to male-only servers.” 

Ultimately, though, debates on this point amount to a trading of guesses, and that isn’t helpful. What is helpful is data. And happily, a number of parishes have effectively volunteered to run an experiment: They eliminated altar girls and kept records of what happened next. You will recall that Father John Lankeit did so in Phoenix, to significant success. 2 And now, thanks to Father John Hollowell, we have some limited but helpful empirical data to work with. 3 The upshot? “The average parish surveyed, when switching from co-ed servers to male-only saw their server numbers grow 450%.”

Now, evidence isn’t proof, and Fr. Hollowell’s numbers don’t overcome my objection by themselves. But they do, I think, shift the burden of persuasion. If real evidence suggests that suppressing female service at the altar produces a significant increase in the number of altar servers who are eligible to be ordained, thus increasing over the long haul the number of vocations coming out of that parish—here’s the 450% question—why doesn’t that shift the onus onto those who would prefer to retain altar girls to justify their position? Why doesn’t it create a presumption in favor of moving to boys-only? At very least, the numbers suggest the need to run this experiment at a more controlled and statistically-viable scale.

At this point, I would have to favor suppression of female altar service, if asked, albeit with great reluctance. Regular readers will know that I have no ideological dog in the fight; I have no objection to altar girls and quite frankly I am troubled by the often-gynophobic tone of their critics. But I also believe that when a policy is rationally-related to an important goal—and there are few goals more important, I should imagine,than redressing the vocations crisis—it ought to be considered seriously, and what Fr. Hollowell’s numbers demonstrate, far too seriously to ignore, is the hitherto-missing link in framing a rational relationship between a return to male-only altar service and redressing the vocations crisis.

Notes:

  1. See generally Simon Dodd, Altar Girls, redux, 4 MPA__ (2014), https://simondodd.org/blog/?p=1368.
  2. See Simon Dodd, Another update on Fr. Lankeit’s vocations program, 4 MPA __, simondodd.org/blog/?p=1376.
  3. Hollowell, UPDATED: Statistics Concerning Male Altar Servers, On This Rock, Sept. 3, 2013, on-this-rock.blogspot.com/2013/09/statistics-concerning-male-altar-servers.html. I am appreciative to Brian Williams for bringing this to my attention.