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THE CANONICAL MEANING OF THE RECENT AUTHENTIC INTERPRETATION
OF CANON 230.2 REGARDING FEMALE ALTAR SERVERS
by Msgr. John F. McCarthy
In an official letter, dated 15 March 1994 and addressed to the presidents of episcopal conferences, Cardinal Antonio M. Javierre Ortas, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, announced an authentic interpretation of Canon 230.2 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law and provided instructions for the implementation of this interpretation. The Holy See did not publish this letter immediately, but its text was received by the Catholic News Service of the United States Catholic Conference and published on 12 April 1994. The full text of the authentic interpretation of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts and the text of the four directives sent out by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments were subsequently published in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis under the date of 6 June 1994.
Canon 230.2 reads as follows: "Lay persons (laici) by temporary deputation may fulfil the function of lector during liturgical services; likewise all lay persons (laici) may carry out the functions of commentator and cantor or other functions in accordance with the norm of law."
On 30 June 1992, the members of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts pronounced on the following question that had been raised: "Whether, among the liturgical functions that lay persons, men or women, may exercise according to Canon 230.2 of the Code of Canon Law, may also be included service at the altar (servitium ad altare)." The answer given was:
"Yes, and in accordance with instructions to be given by the Apostolic See."
The answer of the Pontifical Council was confirmed on 11 July 1992 by Pope John Paul II, who also ordered its publication.
Cardinal Javierre Ortas, in conveying this information, presents also the following instructions:
In the question that was addressed on 30 June 1992 by the members of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, it was already understood that the expression omnes laici in paragraph 2 of Canon 230.2 means all lay persons, both men and women, as is clear from the wording of the question. The question answered was whether, in addition to the functions of lector, commentator, and singer at liturgical services, women may exercise, under the category of "other liturgical functions," the role of altar server. The answer of the Council is affirmative but qualified: "Yes, and in accordance with instructions to be given by the Holy See."
In communicating the above, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments has sought to carry out the mandate received from the Supreme Pontiff to provide directives to illustrate what is laid down in Canon 230.2 of the Code of Canon Law and its authentic interpretation, which will shortly be published.
- Canon 230.2 has a permissive and not a preceptive character: "laici ... `possunt´." ("lay persons ... `may´.") Hence the permission given in this regard by some bishops can in no way be considered as binding on other bishops. In fact, it is the competence of each bishop, in his diocese, after hearing the opinion of the episcopal conference, to make a prudential judgment on what to do, with a view to the ordered development of liturgical life in his own diocese.
- The Holy See respects the decision adopted by certain bishops for specific local reasons on the basis of the provisions of Canon 230.2. At the same time, however, the Holy See wishes to recall that it will always be very appropriate to follow the noble tradition of having boys serve at the altar. As is well known, this has also led to a reassuring development of priestly vocations. Thus the obligation to support such groups of altar boys will always continue.
- If in some diocese, on the basis of Canon 230.2, the bishop permits that, for particular reasons, women may also serve at the altar, this decision must be clearly explained to the faithful in the light of the above-mentioned norm. It shall also be made clear that the norm is already being widely applied, by the fact that women frequently serve as lectors in the liturgy and may also be called upon to distribute Holy Communion as extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist and to carry out other functions, according to the provisions of the same Canon 230.2.
- It must also be clearly understood that the liturgical services mentioned above are carried out by lay people "ex temporanea deputatione" ("by temporary deputation"), according to the judgment of the bishop, without lay people, be they men or women, having any right to exercise them.
In this way the bishops will be better able to carry out their mission to be moderators and promoters of liturgical life in their own diocese, within the framework of the norms in force in the universal Church.
On a canonical level, what does this response mean? What bearing does the phrase "in accordance with the norm of law" (ad normam iuris) in Canon 230.2 have upon the response of the Pontifical Council, what further bearing has the qualification "in accordance with instructions to be given by the Apostolic See"?
The expression ad normam iuris contained in Canon 230.2 means "according to the norm of law," namely, the law which is in effect at any given time. Thus, lay men and women are prohibited from carrying out liturgical roles that are excluded by some law. But, if the norm of law changes, it can open up liturgical roles that were heretofore excluded. The fact is that, in 1983 and until the publication of the present authentic interpretation and instruction, women were prohibited entirely by the norm of law from exercising the role of altar server.
Thus, Canon 813.2 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law declared: "The minister serving at Mass may not be a woman, unless, there being no male available, for a just reason and with the proviso that the woman answer from a distance and in no case come up to the altar (ad altare accedat)." This paragraph was not included in the 1983 revised Code of Canon Law. However, the need of an altar server was also dropped in the revised Code. Canon 813.1 of the 1917 Code stated: "A priest is not to celebrate Mass without a minister to serve and answer him." The new formulation is given in Canon 906 of the revised Code: "Except for a just and reasonable cause, a priest is not to celebrate the Eucharistic Sacrifice without the participation of at least one member of the faithful." With reference to Canon 813.2 of the 1917 Code, it was requested by a member at the 1981 planning session of the Commission for the Revision of the Code of Canon Law that in the new Code explicit mention be made of the exclusion of women from the altar. The Secretariat of the Commission replied that "it is not necessary to make reference to liturgical law, since it always retains its value. In the schema mention is no longer made of `a minister to serve the Mass,´ but only of the participation of at least someone of the faithful." 1
In fact, Canon 2 of the 1983 revised Code states that "the liturgical laws in effect up to now retain their force, unless any of them should be contrary to the canons of the Code." Again, as far as liturgical law is concerned, Article 70 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (1975 edition) states: "... Ministries which are performed outside of the presbyterium (sanctuary) may be entrusted also to women according to the prudent judgment of the rector of the church. The conference of bishops may permit that a qualified woman proclaim the readings before the Gospel and announce the intentions of the general intercessions. The conference may also more precisely designate a suitable place from which a woman may proclaim the word of God in the liturgical assembly." Finally, the Instruction Inaestimabile Donum of the Sacred Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship of 1980 confirmed the existing prohibition: "Nevertheless, it is not permitted to women to fulfil the function of acolyte, that is, of serving at the altar." 2
Thus, at least prior to the recent authentic interpretation of Canon 230.2, the general law remained in effect that females were prohibited from serving at the altar during liturgical functions. To understand the canonical implications of the recent authentic interpretation, certain distinctions need to be considered.
An authentic interpretation is an interpretation "which is imposed in an obligatory manner, or authoritatively, by a public person possessing this power." 3 Canon 16.1 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law declares who may give an authoritative interpretation: "The lawgiver and someone to whom the power of authentically interpreting has been conferred by the lawgiver authentically interprets the laws." Canon 16.2 declares the force of such an interpretation: "An authentic interpretation put forth by way of law has the same force as the law itself and must be promulgated; if it only clarifies the words of a law that are certain in themselves, it has retroactive force; if it restricts or extends the law or explains a dubious law, it is not retroactive." Gommar Michiels points out that an authentic interpretation is an act of the will commanding that the determined meaning of the law be accepted as obligatory, and not just an act of the intellect defining the meaning that was originally intended by the lawmaker. 4 The Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts has been given the power to interpret authentically the universal laws of the Church 5 and thus has the power to establish new laws to the extent that its authentic interpretations restrict or extend existing laws or explain laws that are dubious in themselves. 6 If an authentic interpretation restricts or extends a law or clarifies an objective doubt, it must be promulgated (Canon 7). Universal ecclesiastical laws are promulgated by their being published in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis, and they take effect three months after the date of the edition of the AAS in which they appear (Canon 8).
From the data collected in the preceding paragraph it is clear that the interpretation of Canon 230.2 given on 30 June 1992 is an authentic interpretation as defined by Canon 16.2 of the revised Code of Canon Law. The interpretation was not only made authentically; it was confirmed by the Pope himself, and he is the same Pope (incidentally) who proclaimed the revised Code in 1983. Furthermore, it will be made clear that this interpretation does not simply clarify words in Canon 230.2 that were already certain in themselves; rather it has extended the law to women servers by an act of will of the Commission and of the Pope. Thus, the law has been modified by an act that went into effect three months after its publication in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis, that is, on 6 September 1994, and this modification is not retroactive. Commentaries prior to the year 1994 arguing that female altar servers were canonically permitted were incorrect then and cannot be justified in retrospect.
Evidence that new legislation is contained in this authentic interpretation of Canon 230.2 is contained in the wording of the response: "Yes, and in accordance with instructions to be given by the Apostolic See." It is understood, of course, for all actions in the Church, and it is stated explicitly for the actions included in Canon 230.2, that they be carried out "ad normam iuris," that is, "in accordance with the norm of law." And the norm of law includes that of the liturgical laws, which, according to Canon 2, "retain their force, unless any of them should be contrary to the canons of the Code." There were in 1983 and thereafter liturgical laws prohibiting the service of women at the altar during liturgical functions (see above). These liturgical laws are modified by the present authentic interpretation, not categorically, but in accordance with the instructions given by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments on 15 March 1994. It is to be noted that the divulging and the subsequent publication of the authentic interpretation of Canon 230.2 was delayed for almost two years pending the emission of instructions by this congregation of the Holy See. Thus, the Instructions of the Congregation must be considered as an integral part of the new legislation.
Paragraph 1 of the Instructions given by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments points out that permission given by some bishops for the use of female altar servers "can in no way be considered as binding on other bishops." The Congregation bases this point upon the original wording of Canon 230.2, namely, that "all lay persons may carry out the functions of commentator, singer, or other functions." However, there is here special meaning regarding female altar servers. The implication is that the general liturgical norm prohibiting female altar servers remains in existence, so that in general women may not serve at the altar unless a local ordinary intervenes by a positive act and grants permission for his territorial jurisdiction. Thus, the Congregation has clarified the authentic interpretation to mean that an indult is given to diocesan bishops to permit the use of female altar servers.
Paragraph 2 of the Instructions clarifies the nature of the Indult, by stating that "the Holy See respects the decision adopted by certain bishops for specific local reasons," while at the same time maintaining that "it will always be very appropriate to follow the noble tradition of having boys serve at the altar." The NC News Service translated the Latin word servat in the Instructions as "respects." The basic denotation of the verb servare is either "to save," "to preserve" on the one hand, or "to pay attention to," "to observe" on the other (cf. Lewis and Short). In the context of these Instructions, perhaps the best translation is "The Holy See notes...," rather than "The Holy See respects... ." What the expression "having boys serve at the altar" undoubtedly means is having boys only (exclusive of girls) serve at the altar. If, then, in the same paragraph of the Instructions it is stated that "the obligation to support such groups of altar boys will always continue," the reason seems to be, not merely because this noble tradition "has also led to a reassuring development of priestly vocations," but also and especially because the traditional liturgical norm prohibiting altar girls remains in general force. As such, it could be compared to the law prohibiting the eating of meat on Fridays (Canon 1251), which remains in general effect but can be modified by local episcopal conferences for their own territories. The present indult, however, from its wording, is intended to be used by individual bishops, not by episcopal conferences.
In fact, according to paragraph 3 of the Instructions, "If in some diocese, on the basis of Canon 230.2, the bishop permits that, for particular reasons, women may also serve at the altar, this decision must be clearly explained to the faithful in the light of the above-mentioned norm." The indult is not, therefore, intended as a general extension of the law of Canon 230.2 or as a permission that went into effect everywhere in the Latin Church, but only "in some diocese" or other "for particular reasons." Understood in this sense, as is stated in paragraph 2 of the Instructions, "The Holy See respects the decision adopted by certain bishops for specific local reasons on the basis of the provisions of Canon 230.2."
But such a decision by certain bishops "must be clearly explained to the faithful in the light of the above-mentioned norm." Several norms are mentioned above in the text of the Instructions: a) Either men or women may serve at the altar in accord with instructions to be given by the Apostolic See. b) The permission given in this regard by some bishops can in no way be considered as binding on other bishops. c) It is the competence of each bishop in his diocese to make a prudential judgment on what to do. d) It will always be very appropriate to follow the noble tradition of having boys serve at the altar, and thus the obligation to support such groups of altar boys will always continue. Hence, it is not very clear what is meant exactly by "the above-mentioned norm," but it seems to the present writer that what is meant is the following: It is the competence of each bishop in his diocese to make a prudential judgment, taking care in every case not to undermine or overthrow the noble tradition of having boys (only) serve at the altar. And this implies that the bishop who permits women altar servers is making use of an indult contrary to the universal law for prudential reasons that are specific to his own diocese. It is also evident that, where the bishop does not intervene to use the indult, the general law prohibiting women altar servers remains in effect.
"It shall also be made clear," states paragraph 3, "that the norm is being widely applied, by the fact that women frequently serve as lectors in the liturgy and may also be called upon to distribute Holy Communion as extraordinary ministers." This instruction seems to mean that many bishops have already intervened to permit women to carry out the functions of lector at Mass and to act as extraordinary ministers of the Holy Eucharist, implying that this too is a derogation from the universal law granted for reasons that the bishops concerned have considered prudential. Thus, the permission to use women altar servers is not to be presented as a total innovation, although there is an aspect to this permission which is totally new as far as the sanctuary surrounding the strictly sacrificial part of the Mass is concerned.
The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments was competent to impose these Instructions. In general the dicasteries of the Holy See have the authority to issue instructions for the carrying into practice of the general laws of the Church. 7 In particular, the present Instructions have been issued by special mandate of the Pope, as is evident both from the letter of the Congregation in which the Instructions are contained and from the wording of the response of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts.
This authentic interpretation does not affect liturgical discipline of the Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church, with its prohibition of women altar servers. Canon 408.2 of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches is parallel to Canon 230 of the Latin Code of Canon Law inasmuch as it states that lay persons "may be admitted for other functions also except for those which require a Holy Order or which by the particular legislation of an individual self-standing Church are expressly forbidden to lay persons." In fact, in all of the Eastern rites, service of females at the altar is excluded by liturgical law. The authentic interpretation of Canon 230.2 of the Latin-rite Code, since it is not a mere clarification of words but is actually a modification of the canon imposed by authority for particular pastoral reasons in the Latin Church, cannot be invoked by way of analogy as an interpretation of Eastern canon law. Furthermore, the authentic interpretation requires instructions to be given by the Apostolic See. If instructions in this regard were ever to be emitted by the Holy See for a change in the liturgical practice of the Eastern Churches as a whole, these instructions would normally be put out by the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, which has competence in this area, and not by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, which is not competent over the Eastern Rites of the Church.
From the juridical data gathered above, it seems clear that the general law prohibiting female altar servers remains in effect as a general law, notwithstanding the entry into effect of the authentic interpretation of Canon 230.2, except where it is suspended by the positive intervention of a diocesan bishop for his own territory. The permission by some bishops to use female altar servers during the sacrificial part of the Mass constitutes for their territory a suspension of the male presbyterium, or sanctuary, surrounding the altar of sacrifice. (Compare this with the cloister of the male and female contemplative orders.) The General Instruction of the Roman Missal of 1970 allowed women to perform ministries outside of the sanctuary according to the prudent judgment of the rector of the respective church. And it allowed episcopal conferences to designate a suitable place even inside of the sanctuary for women readers at Mass. These permissions, however, regard the Liturgy of the Word, and they presuppose that a "suitable place" is at least not from the altar itself. Similarly, according to Canon 230.3 of the 1983 Code, women were permitted to distribute Holy Communion "where the need of the Church recommends," but this involved approaching the altar after the Eucharistic Sacrifice had been completed for the sake of administering the Sacrament to the faithful in attendance. With the new permission, the male presbyterium disappears entirely by derogation from a law which, nevertheless, remains in effect for the universal Church.
Certain conclusions would seem to follow from this analysis. The first is that the use of altar girls does not necessarily imply a step forward in the liturgical practice of the Western Church. The Holy See "respects the decision" of certain bishops in the sense that it no longer regards such a decision to be an abuse of the law, but this does not mean that the Holy See recommends and advocates the use of women altar servers as an improvement in the liturgical practice of the Church. It is more a yielding to pressure, together with, perhaps, a certain diffidence in its own ability to judge, than it is a positive teaching. Nor do these Instructions take up the theological, mystical, psychological, and social realities underlying the noble tradition of male servers only, which the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments certainly would have had to do before proceeding to overturn the constant discipline and practice of the past two thousand years.
A second conclusion regards the people affected by the indult. For those priests, deacons, religious, and lay persons who for sound reasons are dedicated to the bimillennial tradition of exclusion of women from the presbyterium around the altar during the sacrificial part of the Mass (which reasons cannot be taken up in the present article), the introduction of female altar servers at Masses which they are obliged to attend would be outrageous. The Instructions do not advert explicitly to this problem, but it is implied in the obligation of the bishop concerned to explain clearly his action "in the light of the above-mentioned norm." There is no reason to impose altar girls upon people who do not want them and who have good spiritual reasons for not wanting them. To impose altar girls would be equivalent to turning an indult into an instrument of oppression.
A third conclusion follows from this. What kind of situation in a diocese could induce a bishop to make a prudential judgment to permit the use of female altar servers at the altar during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass? Only the existence among some members of the clergy and of the laity of an emotional attachment to the idea of the introduction of females into the presbyterium during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. We know that such an emotional attachment does exist and is widespread in some countries. This attachment can be limited to the simple desire to give girls and boys equal access to service at the altar, but it tends also to be understood by many of its followers as a step towards the ever greater introduction of women, not only into the presbyterium surrounding the altar, but even into the priestly office itself. From the Instructions it is clear that, as a recognition of the emotional situation with which some bishops are dealing, "the Holy See respects the decision adopted by certain bishops" to allow the use of altar girls, but this recognition does not imply a recommendation of female altar servers on the level of fundamental liturgical discipline and practice, nor does it suggest in any way that women are moving gradually towards the ordained diaconate and priesthood.
Any bishop who feels a need to permit female altar servers should employ great caution and understanding. In order not to impose the practice upon persons of sound emotion who adhere to the noble tradition of the Church, he should never allow the use of altar girls at regularly scheduled parish or public Masses which people are obliged to attend or where they could be accosted with female altar servers by surprise. Nor should any priest be forced by circumstances to accept altar girls at Masses that he is called upon to celebrate. Rather, it would be prudent to allow such Masses only for groups who have petitioned them and only in special places outside of regular Mass schedules. Also it would be in order to require persons making such a request to affirm their belief in the exclusively male priesthood and in the essential sacredness of the area surrounding the altar during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
This article has been reprinted (with corrections of some typographical omissions)
from the December 1994 issue of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Newsletter.
1. Communicationes 15 (1983), p. 193.
2. Acta Apostolicae Sedis 72 (1980), p. 338.
3. G. Michiels, Normae Generales Juris Canonici (Tournai: Desclée, 1949), vol. I, p. 482.
4. Michiels, op. cit., vol. I, p. 483.
5. Cf. John Paul II, Motu Proprio Recognito Iuris Canonici Codice of 2 January 1984, establishing this commission, and the Apostolic Constitution Pastor Bonus of 28 June 1988, extending its competence. Cf. also the Letter of the Secretary of State no. 278,287/G.N., dated 27 February 1991, by which the competence of this commission was extended also over the universal laws of the Oriental Churches.
6. Cf. Michiels, op. cit., vol. I, p. 496, note 2.
7. Cf. Michiels, op. cit., vol. I, pp. 500-503.
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