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Editor: Msgr. John F. McCarthy, J.C.D., S.T.D.Distributed several times a year to interested members.
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No. 22 Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study Program March 1989

To H. Lyman Stebbins, Confessor of the Faith
On Female 'Ministries'

by John F. McCarthy

        Long cherished Friend, we have heard that you are dead, but we know that you have just been advanced to a higher place in the outskirts of heaven on the entryway into eternal happiness. Thus are the tears of our sorrow made sweet by the triumph of your passage into glory.

        Departed Champion of the Faith, you were already a university graduate and beyond, when by chance as it were, but actually by the salvific providence of God, you hit upon the Catholic Church and the Catholic Faith. With the avid joy of a man who had discovered a hidden treasure, you forthwith undertook to read the works of Chesterton, Newman, and other great defenders of the truth, and once you had absorbed that truth you held it with an ardor that no threat could weaken nor enticement take away.

        Devoted Son of the Church, you had already withdrawn from worldly occupation when in July of 1968 the voice of rebellion was raised against the moral teaching of the Pope, and the orthodoxy of the Faith was being betrayed by many of those whose duty it was to defend it. Meek and soft-spoken though you were, you heeded Our Lady's call to arms and ran valiantly into the breach, brandishing only the Cross of Christ and the sword of the Spirit, spurring on with eloquent exhortations those brave children of Mary who had the courage and the insight to join you in the fray.

        Prayerful Militant of Our Lady, within two months you had founded the association of Catholics United for the Faith, which immediately became a national and international instrument of grace and of light for thousands of dedicated Catholics in need of leadership amidst the dogmatic and moral confusion of the time. And, assisted by your able and talented wife Madeleine, you used your considerable organizing skill and personal resources to launch a successful effort to sustain the faith and moral integrity of Catholic family life in many places.

        Knight of St. Gregory, Crusader of Truth, your clarion call of 1968 to Catholics everywhere to rally in defense of the Faith was restated two years later in the first issue of the Catholics United for the Faith Newsletter, where you declared: "We have announced our purposes and repeated them again and again; to give corporate expression of loyalty to the Pope and bishops in union with him, and thus to the Church, and thus to Christ; to defend the entire treasury of Catholic teaching; and to work for the genuine renewal called for by the Council, the renewal always needed in the Church, that is, the inner, moral, personal renewal of each one of us."

        And, as regards polemics, you went on to make clear that, "although we are primarily united for the Faith, and not against the faithless, that does not imply that anyone can defend any truth without opposing its contradictory. If we have an obligation to say yes to one proposition, we are equally obliged to say no to its opposite. And in saying this no we are being just as positive, just as affirmative as in our yes. In the face of false teaching, nothing is more stupid than the warning that we must, above all, avoid being 'negative,' must avoid 'polarization,' must enter into 'dialogue' as the truly 'Christian' way of 'clearing up misunderstandings.' No! If we are asked to vote on the proposition that Jesus Christ was nothing but an ordinary human being, our vote must be a positive, resounding No! If we hear such a doctrine being taught by a Catholic, we have the duty before God to deny and denounce it: that is (if we must use these brand new, useless words) to polarize; and if he who is spreading the falsehoods invites us to dialogue, we must explain that we are willing only to debate: that he and we are not separated by any misunderstanding, but by the gulf that lies between what is false and what is true: that this is a matter in which we are not allowed to seek an accommodation through mutual concessions arrived at by bargaining in good will. When they ask us how we can be so sure that our opinion is the right one, we have to reply that it is neither an opinion nor ours: that it is the unchanging truth of God which we are obliged to defend always, everywhere, and at any cost. This is a holy war which absolutely has to be fought."

        Stalwart Protector of the Innocent, your struggle against error in the realm of catechetics and against evil in the moral formation of the young will not be forgotten by the divine and human Founder of our Faith, Who tells us in his Gospels: "Suffer the little children to come unto Me." Little Child of God, Jesus your Savior has now invited you to come unto Him, and He will be gracious.

        Noble Athlete of Christ, your mortal frame is dead, but you live on consciously in the vision of God, and the memory of your valor will not lose its force on this earthly battlefield of angels and of men. The torch of truth that you carried manfully forward for almost two decades has been taken up now by others, and they will go forward to join you some day in the celestial kingdom. Your body, too, will rise again. In grateful memory, according to your need, we offer these fervent prayers for you:

        Almighty and Merciful God, receive thy lowly servant into the eternal rest that Thou has prepared for him.

        Mary, Mother of God and our Mother, ask thy divine Son to bring this gentle defender of the Faith speedily into thy company and into the blessed vision of the Most Holy Trinity.

        Heavenly Jerusalem, vision of peace, open wide thy gates to this eminent and humble lay witness of the Lord.


by Brian W. Harrison

        There were many in the feminist camp who hoped that when Pope John Paul II issued his post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation on the role of the laity in the Church, he would open the door further to an increased presence of women and girls in the sanctuary during the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy.

        As matters have turned out, the Holy Father has not opened any such doors. Nevertheless, the insistent demands from some quarters that female altar servers and acolytes be from henceforth officially accepted in the Latin Rite have not yet been laid to rest. On the one hand, some have interpreted the new Apostolic Exhortation, Christifideles Laici, as foreshadowing a tightening-up in regard to lay ministries, since the Pope stresses the "extraordinary" and "emergency" character of functions carried out by lay people which normally pertain to the clergy. Indeed, he urges pastors to "guard against a facile yet abusive recourse to a presumed 'situation of emergency' or to 'supply by necessity,' where objectively this does not exist or where alternative possibilities could exist through better pastoral planning" (article 23). On the other hand, the distinct possibility of some sort of change in the Church's norms - which might or might not involve the role of women - is raised in this same article of the document, where the Pope makes it known that a Commission has been set up to respond to the Synod Fathers' desire that the norms laid down in 1972 by Pope Paul VI regarding lay ministries should now be "reconsidered, bearing in mind the present practice of local churches and above all indicating criteria which ought to be used in choosing those destined for each ministry."

        Since the existing discipline is now officially under review, we feel it opportune to make known, in a spirit of love for the Church, the reasons why we hold very firmly that women and girls should not be admitted as altar servers and/or acolytes.

        It is argued today that, since women are already permitted to administer the Sacred Species as extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, this 'greater' service should automatically entail the right to carry out the 'lesser' one - that of serving the priest at the altar. The present situation, which allows the former, but not the latter, is therefore said to be anomalous and inconsistent.

        This argument seems quite fallacious. It rests on the premise that different forms of service in the Church can be adequately represented by a simple vertical 'ladder,' with rungs ranging from 'least important' to 'most important,' and that women should be allowed to serve up to a certain level or rung of the ladder, but no higher. (We are prescinding at present from the views of those who claim that women should be admitted to every office in the Church, and who thereby are in formal dissent from the Church's doctrine, which, as the Holy Father reaffirms in article 51 of the new Apostolic Exhortation, teaches that women cannot receive the Sacrament of Orders.)

        This 'ladder' image of service in the Church actually seems rather insulting to the dignity of women, which His Holiness has been at such pains to emphasize recently, both in the latest document and in the Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem, issued last year. If we are to follow the values of the Gospel, those who would be "greatest" in the Kingdom should be the "least" (Mt 23:11, Lk 22:36); and from this viewpoint the greatest or most important service which any Christian can give in the Church is simply to grow in holiness - in love for God and neighbour - so as to become a more radiant witness to Jesus Christ in any office or state of life. Obviously, women are in complete equality with men on this scale of values.

        Keeping this perspective in mind, we can see that there is no inconsistency in admitting women - under extraordinary circumstances of real necessity - to carry out a liturgically 'greater' function while not admitting them to a 'lesser' one, because in the first place, liturgical 'greatness' or 'smallness' is a very secondary consideration in God's sight. The greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven are the saints, not the ministers. (Our Lady, the greatest of the saints, had no special liturgical office at all.) Also, the question of who should or should not perform these different ceremonial functions (Eucharistic minister, server, acolyte, and so on) has nothing to do with one's personal importance on some vertical scale, and still less to do with the dignity of women or of the female sex.

        Holy Church introduced women as extraordinary Eucharistic ministers for one reason only: to avoid the unhappy situation of women (in religious mission communities, etc.) being deprived of Holy Communion for a considerable time in remote places where male ministers are absent.

        But the Church's bimillennial tradition of having an exclusively male presence in the sanctuary throughout the celebration of Mass has never deprived anyone of the sacraments. Nor could it ever do so. This makes it easier to see why the admission of women as extraordinary Eucharistic ministers is not a valid argument for admitting them as altar servers and acolytes: since the reason for granting the 'greater' ministry to women had nothing to do with their presumed level of dignity on some imaginary vertical scale, there is no necessary inconsistency in excluding them from the 'lesser' ministry - that of attendance to the priest in the sanctuary.

        The bimillennial tradition just mentioned is symbolically and visually linked to the function of the altar - the centre of the sanctuary and the location of Christ's sacramental sacrifice. Since only the ordained male priest can offer this sacrifice in persona Christi, it is supremely fitting that those surrounding him in the sanctuary during the Eucharistic celebration should also be of the male sex. The whole question of the sacramental 'atmosphere' to be fostered within the sanctuary is of crucial importance here.

        If the Church were to abandon this holy and ancient tradition, under pressure from a noisy feminist movement whose ideological roots are alien to the Church's own mind and spirituality, this would be a disastrous move. It would be a rebuff to loyal and obedient Catholics who have upheld and cherished the existing tradition, and a reward for the disobedience of those who have promoted the unauthorized presence of women and girls in the sanctuary; it would create further obstacles to reunion with the Eastern Orthodox, who are extremely sensitive to liturgical traditions of this sort; it would drive many more traditionally-minded Catholics into complete disillusionment, probably deepening and reinforcing the rupture with Archbishop Lefebvre and his followers; and it would pour fuel on the flames of the radical feminist revolt, since the mass media and the general public (not to mention vast numbers of dissident Catholics) will interpret this as simply a 'victory' or 'breakthrough' against the 'patriarchal structures' of the Church, and a 'milestone' on the march towards the future goal of women priests and bishops, God as 'Mother,' and other bizarre feminist fantasies.

        This last consideration is perhaps the most painful of all. Surrender to feminist demands on this point will 'politicize' the Church's most holy act - her Eucharistic worship - by turning the sanctuary into a kind of battlefield, wherein women (or rather, some women) will be seen as struggling to conquer ever more 'territory.' Surely the Sacred Liturgy deserves better treatment than this. How will a true spirit of tranquil adoration at Mass be even possible, under those conditions, for the countless faithful of both sexes who abhor the feminist ideology and its practical manifestations?

        There seems to be a widespread feeling - even in high places - that the admission of 'altar girls' is really a rather trivial issue in the total perspective of today's Church and its problems. For the reasons given here, many of us are convinced that it is not at all trivial, and that such an innovation would set off a most harmful 'chain reaction,' dashing the hopes of devout, tradition-conscious Catholics, raising false and illusory hopes among dissidents, and in general leading to much greater division and turmoil in Holy Church.

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