What Rome’s CDW says about altar boys, girl altar boys, and lay service at the altar in general

I have been getting some… interesting, I think could be the word … email since I posted my praise and defense of Fr. Lankeit, Rector of the Cathedral in Phoenix where the excellent Bp. Olmsted presides.

For those of you out there who seem to think that girls have the right to serve or that priests should be compelled to have service at the altar by girls, I will share the following from Notitiae (421-422) 37 (2001/8-9) pp. 397-399.

A bishop wrote to the CDW in Rome asking for a clarification about a dubium concerning altar girls.

I will add some emphases.

Litterae Congregationis

Letter of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments

On possible admission of girls, adult women and women religious to serve alongside boys as servers in the Liturgy

Prot. No. 2451/00/L

July 27, 2001

Your Excellency,

Further to recent correspondence, this Congregation resolved to undertake a renewed study of the questions concerning the possible admission of girls, adult women and women religious to serve alongside boys as servers in the Liturgy.

As part of this examination, the Dicastery consulted the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts which replied with a letter of July 23, 2001. The reply of the Pontifical Council was helpful in reaffirming that the questions raised by this Congregation, including the question of whether particular legislation could oblige individual priests in their celebration of the Holy Mass to make use of women to serve at the altar, do not concern the interpretation of the law, but rather are questions of the correct application of the law. The reply of the aforementioned Pontifical Council, therefore, confirms the understanding of this Dicastery that the matter falls within the competence of this Congregation as delineated by the Apostolic Constitution Pastor Bonus, § 62. Bearing in mind this authoritative response, this Dicastery, having resolved outstanding questions, was able to conclude its own study. At the present time, therefore, the Congregation would wish to make the following observations.

As is clear from the Responsio ad propositum dubium concerning can. 230, § 2, and its authentic interpretation (cf. Circular Letter to the Presidents of Episcopal Conferences, Prot. n. 2482/93 March 15, 1994, see Notitiae 30 [1994] 333-335), the Diocesan Bishop, in his role as moderator of the liturgical life in the diocese entrusted to his care, has the authority to permit service at the altar by women within the boundaries of the territory entrusted to his care. Moreover his liberty in this question cannot be conditioned by claims in favor of a uniformity between his diocese and other dioceses which would logically lead to the removal of the necessary freedom of action from the individual Diocesan Bishop. Rather, after having heard the opinion of the Episcopal Conference, he is to base his prudential judgment upon what he considers to accord more closely with the local pastoral need for an ordered development of the liturgical life in the diocese entrusted to his care, bearing in mind, among other things, the sensibilities of the faithful, the reasons which would motivate such a permission, and the different liturgical settings and congregations which gather for the Holy Mass (cf. Circular Letter to the Presidents of Episcopal Conferences, March 15, 1994, no. 1).

In accord with the above cited instructions of the Holy See such an authorization 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, since “it will always be very appropriate to follow the noble tradition of having boys serve at the altar” (Circular Letter to the Presidents of Episcopal Conference, March 15, 1994, no. 2). Indeed, the obligation to support groups of altar boys will always remain, not least of all due to the well known assistance that such programs have provided since time immemorial in encouraging future priestly vocations (cf. ibid.)

With respect to whether the practice of women serving at the altar would truly be of pastoral advantage in the local pastoral situation, it is perhaps helpful to recall that the non-ordained faithful do not have a right to service at the altar, rather they are capable of being admitted to such service by the Sacred Pastors (cf. Circular Letter to the Presidents of Episcopal Conferences, March 15, 1994, no. 4, cf. also can 228, §1, Interdicasterial Instruction Ecclesiae de mysterio, August 15, 1997, no. 4, see Notitiae 34 [1998] 9-42). Therefore, in the event that Your Excellency found it opportune to authorize service of women at the altar, it would remain important to explain clearly to the faithful the nature of this innovation, lest confusion might be introduced, thereby hampering the development of priestly vocations.

Having thus confirmed and further clarified the contents of its previous response to Your Excellency, this Dicastery wishes to assure you of its gratitude for the opportunity to elaborate further upon this question and that it considers this present letter to be normative.

With every good wish and kind regard, I am, Sincerely yours in Christ,

Jorge A. Card. Medina Estévez

Mons. Mario Marini
Under Secretary

Leaving aside the issue of this having been a bad decision in the first place, these are the salient points.

  • Diocesan Bishops can choose to authorize, or not, service at the altar by females.
  • Just because another diocese has service by women, that doesn’t mean any other diocese has to have it.
  • Priests cannot be forced to have females serve their Masses.
  • Pastors cannot be forced by bishops to have female servers.
  • There is an obligation to support the service at the altar by boys.
  • There is a connection between service at the altar by boys and vocations to the priesthood.
  • No lay person has the right to serve at the altar for Mass or any other liturgical worship.

And that, folks, is how you do that.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Dr. K says:

    Priests cannot be forced to have females serve their Masses.

    When you say priests are you including Parochial Vicars serving under a Pastor who wants female altar servers? What about, like we have in Rochester, priests who are Sacramental Ministers under a lay Pastoral Administrator?

    Basically, is this up to the priest celebrant or the pastor/administrator?

  2. RobertK says:

    And this is one of the reasons why we have seen a decline in altar boys (aka male altar servers, for the politically correct), and will continue to do so in the Ordinary Form. Hence why the Third edition of the Roman Missal will not have a dramatic impact, with rules like this still in place, in my opinion.

  3. RobertK says:

    By rules I mean any gender serving at the altar, as well as laity, apart from Deacons and Altar boys . Call me Greek, but in the byzantine rite, the altar, or being behind the iconostasis, is reserved ONLY, for males.

  4. frjim4321 says:

    I don’t think anyone would dispute that documents can be found the seem to support the exclusion of females from service at the altar. These documents don’t necessary prove that said exclusion – particularly newly imposed at a place where females were welcomed in this role for many years – is for the overall benefit of the church. Having reviewed postings and comments on this subject on many blogs, traditional, centrist and progressive, I suspect that the pastoral damage that has been done by the Reverend Lankeit is not really worth the possible benefit of seminary recruitment. One very cogent comment – admittedly from the other extreme of the continuum – cited a study that males and females who serve at the altar are much more likely to remain practicing Catholics through young adulthood and into the childbearing years. Thus by dismissing girls and young women from altar service a powerful tool in keeping mothers in the church has been lost; and one thing we might all agree on is that all priests have a mother, and often it is the mother who has promoted their priestly vocation.

  5. wmeyer says:

    “I don’t think anyone would dispute that documents can be found the seem to support the exclusion of females from service at the altar.”

    It pains me to point out that the document Fr. Z cites does nothing of the sort. But then, it also pains me when priests and bishops ignore CCC 2241 and preach instead, in the name of “social justice” that the “right” to employment trumps sovereign borders.

    The CDW document does grant to the bishop the power to permit girls to serve. It also grants to the pastor that he is not bound to accept girls as altar servers. This entire discussion will be much more reasoned if we all address what was written, and not introduce skewed misinterpretations.

  6. Pachomius says:

    Would not a way around this be to ordain altar-servers into one of the minor orders? It isn’t without precedent. Indeed, the practice (according to the 1912 Catholic Encyclopedia, anyway) of the Early Church was to ordain boys to some of the minor orders, continuing to ordain them to higher orders as they grew older, until they reached the minimum age for the priesthood, when they were ordained as priests. Accoring ot the C.E., Benedict XIV was of the opinion that the minor orders could be conferred on boys as young as seven.

    The minor order of acolyte would seem the most appropriate to this function, even if it is the highest of the four orders to survive until (relatively) recently.

    This would, of course, sadly necessitate (sob!) a male-only service at the altar, BUT only because we recognise the sacredness of the Altar as the Gate of Heaven, to which only sacred ministers may enter, and sadly, immemorial custom and the Tradition of the Church bars women from these offices.

    In all seriousness, though, there are limits to how far the argument against women in liturgical roles can be pushed; although deaconesses in the Early Church did not have a role in the Sacrifice of the Mass (so far as it seems, anyway), they did anoint other women for baptism (which, by being full-body immersion, necessitated through propriety that another woman should do this, rather than a man), and thus had some sacramental role, however small.

    Please note, I am in no way calling for priestesses, deaconesses, subdeaconesses, acolytesses, exorcistesses, porteresses, lectoresses, cantoresses, hermeneutesses, bishopesses, stresses, dresses, tresses or presses.

    I also accept that the Tradition of the Church is very much agin female service on or near the Altar in general. My point is that the argument should not be pushed too far, because the argument for woman in some kind of liturgical role is not totally without foundation (just with fairly weak foundations).

  7. Maltese says:

    I was rather impressed by last Sunday’s OF mass; there was a middle-aged woman Atlar boy, er, I mean server; she was about two feet taller than the priest! Quite impressive!

    I somewhere read that altar service was meant to a) assist the priest, but also, and as importantly, b) train future priests? If that is still so, why the call for altar girls, or altar middle-aged women?

  8. Mrs. O says:

    I like the further examples/proofs if vocations and those that adopted the boys only serving.
    I’m glad they responded.
    I didn’t realize women could serve but we have one at the Cathedral and we do NOT have a bunch of vocations. It unfortunately can send the wrong message.
    I used to not think that til our teenage son was old enough to serve. He just didn’t want to do it. The problem then becomes what is wrong with US instead of considering them and their concerns and what it is like being a young boy. Add watered down catechsis and it becomes, well what we have.

  9. flyfree432 says:

    “One very cogent comment – admittedly from the other extreme of the continuum – cited a study that males and females who serve at the altar are much more likely to remain practicing Catholics through young adulthood and into the childbearing years.”

    I wonder though, how many young ladies remain faithful Catholics who are raised in a family who hands down the Deposit of faith and models Christian holiness? Allowing girls to serve at the altar to keep them faithful Catholics does not seem to be an ideal or even pastorally prudent. It actually seem to be misusing service at the altar if that is our purpose.

  10. momoften says:

    I remember back in the early nineties when my older sons were serving and the Diocese set down this command…”GIRL ALTAR SERVERS ARE TO BE ENCOURAGED AND ALLOWED…YOU MUST HAVE THEM” How do I know this? The pastor(of the parish we attended) at the time was opposed, yet obedient to the Bishop and told us he HAD to allow them. The nun who scheduled altar boys at the largest parish(a different one that we weren’t members yet I knew her) in our diocese was furious because they already had PLENTY of altar boys and she did NOT want to rotate girls in.
    Again, she was obedient.
    RESULT for our diocese today. There are more girls than boys who serve in MOST parishes. My sons have always REFUSED to serve with girls. They were lucky though because they could serve with their brothers and not have to serve with girls (that’s what happens when you have 11 boys)
    …….EXCEPT the parish we now attend. Our Pastor told the girls it was over, he has more altar boys than ever. The current Bishop (other one retired) supports him. I suspect that vocations under our Pastors leadership will climb……I have 2 daughters with NO desire to serve, they serve the church in other ways with deep gratitude from the other parishioners. I DO NOT SUPPORT GIRL SERVERS AT ALL!!!!!

  11. The key here, again, is the idea of being called to service. Service at the altar is not a social justice issue, just as women’s ordination is not a social justice issue. For that matter, I have sometimes wondered if, since canon law (#1058) clearly states that the faithful have a right to marry, perhaps I should go to my parish rectory and demand my rights. I mean, why can’t I turn that into a social justice issue too? So what if no one wants to marry me– I have my rights. The idea that anyone has a right to serve seems to spring from a form of clericalism, the idea that the laity have to become like clerics in order to matter, and everyone’s goal should be to get into the sanctuary with the priest, as it is such an honor and mark of distinction, and not to be there is an insult.

    If I recall correctly, the whisky priest in Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory originally was attracted to the priesthood because of its prestige and honor. On the road to martyrdom, he learned that it wasn’t about that. All these people who think that being in the sanctuary is an award or something should think twice about that.

  12. Elizabeth D says:

    People who pray daily and attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation, go to Confession regularly, observe the law of the Church in regards to marriage, practice chastity in their state of life, and practice fast and abstinence according to the law of the Church, etc, stay Catholic. It would be a terrific idea to find ways to encourage and support all Catholics, starting from a young age, to follow the precepts of the Church as is necessary, rather than make them all altar servers, which is not necessary.

  13. Papabile says:

    I always wondered whether Bishop Loverde’s head exploded when he received that response from the CDW….

    In any case, Rome would find that the individual Priest has a right to refuse to have female servers. That was the point of Loverde’s dubium….. But he wanted the answer to be no.

  14. jilly4ski says:

    I find this strange. I grew up in a charismatic parish that was started in the 80’s. Despite the waving of hands, rock and folk music, and people “praying in tongues” we only had male alter servers. I think for a while I was curious about what servers did, and envied the relationships I imagined they had with the priests, but never really wanted to be an alter server. (Of course at the time none of my brothers were serving either). The parish now has a new priest and he still only allows boys to be servers. This is despite having a very “liberal” lay woman as liturgical director for many years, who instituted “liturgical dancing” for the girls. And despite what frjim says about girls serving the alter is a way to keep women in the church, the mothers with their children as well as single women are abound in that parish, as well as several vocations (all who served the alter).

  15. Supertradmum says:

    The Church should just reinstate the minor orders as part of the seminarians’ steps to the priesthood. That would end all of this nonsense of altar girls. I think of the beautiful steps in the chapel at Mundelein, which have these minor orders in mosaic. Scroll down until you come to the steps on this page.

  16. Peter in Canberra says:

    “… remain important to explain clearly to the faithful the nature of this innovation, lest confusion might be introduced, thereby hampering the development of priestly vocations.”

    Would that John Paul II might have had the same thought, or even more realised that the INNOVATION would have the predictable effects we have so clearly seen of hampering vocations and sowing confusion among men and women alike regarding the nature of the priesthood.

  17. JonPatrick says:

    Some of the posts above have referenced the concept of men only in the sanctuary. I wonder if the concept of the sanctuary still exists in churches today (except for those that exclusively offer the Extraordinary Form)? The removal of altar rails and moving of the Tabernacle to the side or to a nearby chapel or broom closet has blurred the distinction. I also see a disturbing tendency to refer to the entire church “worship space” as “sanctuary” Protestant style. Unfortunately the gaggle of lectors, “extraordinary” ministers of holy communion, etc. has made what used to be the sanctuary just another par t of the church now.

  18. Pachomius says:

    Supertradmum, perhaps I’m being dense, but I can’t quite see how restoring the minor orders as steps in ordination would help. I can see how restoring them more generally might help – i.e., instituting ordained acolytes, lectors, cantors, porters and exorcists (though the last, I must confess, seem rather anomalous to me), since this would de facto remove women from the altar. But I’m afraid I don’t see how changing things just for seminarians would help. Again, perhaps I’m being dense here.

    Jon Patrick: In my current (OF) parish we most definitely have a Sanctuary, marked by the requisite Lamp, a step up, and a rood screen. The Oratorian churches in the UK also seem to have a clearly-defined concept of the sanctuary, and are not EF exclusive.

    Even in the relatively liturgically liberal (though doctrinally pretty sound) chaplaincy at my university, where Mass was served at a wooden Low Altar “in the round” and the lectern was at the back of the nave, facing the altar, the altar rails had the gates closed most of the time, the tabernacle was on a shelf where the former High Altar had been (removed before the then-current chaplain had arrived), and was treated as very much separate and holy. Didn’t make Mass any less of a trial, it must be said.

    Now that I think about it, my childhood parish also kept the Sacrament in a side altar which, shortly before we left, was separated from the main of the church by some glass doors the incoming PP put in. So yes and no.

    As an aside, the removal of the Blessed Sacrament to a side chapel is not entirely without foundation, and I seem to recall reading it was one of the traditional practices in pre-Reformation England (the other one of note being to reserve the Sacrament in a hanging pyx).

  19. Maltese says:

    “That women are not to come near the altar.” Council of Laodicea, Canon 44, cir. 363 AD; from “The Faith of the Early Fathers”, Jurgens, Volume 1, pg. 317.

    Such statements are repugnant to modernist and feminist ears. Actually, I am a Susan B. Anthony-type “feminist” myself. I have four daughters and a wife who is smarter than I; I worship the ground they walk on. But the male-only priesthood was set-up by God, not man. Women have a radiant beauty a man will never have; women have an almost supernatural tenderness that a man will never have (ever heard of a female serial killer?); women have so many virtues that a man, simply, does not. But leave women out of the Sanctuary, and leave men out of the Convents! Keep natural order!

  20. Maltese says:

    “Guilty? Yes. No matter what the motive, love of ease, or a desire to save from suffering the unborn innocent, the woman is awfully guilty who commits the deed [abortion]. It will burden her conscience in life, it will burden her soul in death; But oh, thrice guilty is he who drove her to the desperation which impelled her to the crime!” –Susan B. Anthony

    Though a feminist, Susan was a fierce defender of life; would that there could be more feminists like her. Strange world we live in that Sister Donna Quinn–Susan’s opposite–can escort women to abortion and give part of her Host to Rainbow Sash-Wearers (what? Is she acting in persona Christa?) and not be excommunicated, yet Traditionalists are belittled and excommunicated for defending the faith.

    “I Handed Down What I Also Received” Epitaph of Archbishop Lefebvre.

  21. frival says:

    Perhaps if we hadn’t done away with all the extra-liturgical modes of service the question of making sure girls “remain practicing Catholics through young adulthood” would be of far lesser importance. At my (OF) parish if you want to be “active” in the parish you can be a lector, EMHC, “greeter” or altar server. All but the last are generally reserved for adults leaving young girls the choice of being an altar server or having no open venues for serving the Church and being involved in parish life. The issue fundamentally is we have restricted our view of how to be an “active” Catholic to those things that happen at Mass, which is entirely contrary to the expected and intended apostolic life of the lay Catholic. Fix that problem, get the girls involved in properly complementary activities and much of the hue and cry over this issue will disappear aside from those who are perpetually dissatisfied.

  22. carol says:

    I am a member of MHT parish in Phoenix, AZ located a few miles from the Cathedral. God bless our Bishop! The man is holy and humble. He at least monthly joins the lay faithful and prays the rosary on the sidewalk in front of one of the abortion clinics. After a 5 PM Saturday vigil Mass in the July heat of Phoenix AZ he stood outside my parish to shake hands and pose for pictures for every single person who approached him – at least an hour in his full vestments, mitre and staff. We are told that he gets up very early every morning to pray and be alone with the Lord before he starts his day, I heard about 4:30 am. I love my bishop and support his stands and pray for him every day.

    My parish now has 4 seminarians, two new ones this year- 3 at the Josephenum and 1 going to John Vianney. Also our parish has girl altar servers and women EM’s and Lectors. Our priests are rather conservative – they are SOLT. I serve as an EM and during the weekday Masses as an altar server because there is no one else. I try to be as reverent as possible knowing the awesome privilege one is given to serve. However if the Bishop or priests decide to remove us women, I’ll be disappointed but will obey spiritual authority and not grumble and be very thankful for the time I could serve. I’ll accept the wisdom of Mother Church.

    But how do you explain all these vocations from my parish if you are saying that women serving on the altars decreases vocations? I’m not trying to be controversial just trying to understand the logic. Could there be other explanations that are more viable?

  23. BethanieRyan says:

    Thank you so much for posting this. I’ve seen so much bickering about this particular subject, it’s been driving me nuts. It’s good to see that I’ve been correct in my arguments (I didn’t know if I was giving the liturgically correct answer or not). The CDW does take a rational stance on this issue.

  24. Brian says:

    When people are unsure or afraid in a situation, they usually fall back onto what is familiar or, at least, recent. Frequently the familiar and recent are seen through rose-colored distortions, however. So there’s a crisis of vocations to the priesthood? Let’s go back to a time when there was a plethora of priests in the 1950s and early 1960s. Since there were only male servers then, let’s reinstate that practice, so we can get more priests. Let’s ignore the fact that the number of priests had more to do with a Catholic culture that didn’t offer many options other than priesthood, brotherhood, or (shudder) secular life to young men interested in serving. Let’s not pay attention to the baby boom following World War II and to the fact that (in many instances) third-generation children of that boom were interested in service in the Church, encouraged by a Catholic culture in which Dorothy Day was already an icon, John Tracy Ellis was popularizing Catholic American history, and the whole country was in a service-oriented frame of mind. Remember, this was the age of the Peace Corps and various other service projects. But it must have been the all-male altar boy thing that really encouraged vocations . . .

    The same thing is happening generally with liturgy, theology, and other Church activities. Some people have convinced themselves that the postconciliar liturgical renewal was a failure because it seems to have encouraged a lot of bland music, sloppy presiding, bad homilies, a casual atmosphere in church, and a decline in attendance. Those who have lived long enough remember the bland (not to say terrible) music that was performed and sung in many Catholic churches until we learned to borrow from Protestant hymnals, the sloppy presiding as priests rushed through the Latin Mass so fast that the altar boys (in all their maleness) couldn’t keep up, the Christmas homilies that included a recitation of “Lovely Lady, dressed in blue, teach us how to pray . . .,” and the get-in-before-the-collection and out-after-the-priest’s-communion so-you-fulfill-your-Sunday-obligation rush through the church doors. Now, certainly, these didn’t mark every parish, and there was very much that was good in many places. But much of that good is what spurred the postconciliar renewal.

    So what happens if you find yourself among the fearful? You go back to what you think was better. And so incorporation of older vestment styles (including the maniple), chalice veils, restriction of lay participation in cleansing the vessels, more bowing, a broader use of chant, and other activities will restore the beautiful Masses of the 1950s that were full of people participating in dialogue Masses, singing the chant, focusing on the texts through the use of hand missals, lining up at the communion rail, and enriched by a Sunday celebration that emboldened them through the week to be the presence of Christ in the secular world. Certainly there were many places where this happened, and many people moved by their participation in the liturgy—but these were the people who reformed the liturgy and participated even more fully in the Mass of Paul VI after the Council.

    Now it’s happening in theology. The executive director of the USCCB Secretariat on Doctrine has declared that some theologians may be a “curse and affliction upon the Church.” By all means, defend scholastic theology (especially in its most insular forms), which has been so much help to the Church as it kept us out of philosophical and theological discussions for 500 years! And now that we’re engaged in such discussions again, it’s time to go back behind the barricades, because we’re afraid of what the future may bring. But that’s another story.

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