Living Tradition
Editor: Msgr. John F. McCarthy, J.C.D., S.T.D.Distributed several times a year to interested members.
Associate Editor: Rev. Brian W. Harrison, O.S., M.A., S.T.D.  Not to be republished without permission.
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No 58 Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study Program May 1995


by Brian W. Harrison

(This article is adapted from an address given at Fort Lee, New Jersey, on 20 May 1995
to a one-day seminar on liturgical issues sponsored by the "Christifideles" group.)

        I am afraid that my observations today on the liturgy by no means constitute glad tidings of great joy. On the contrary, they suggest that no light yet appears at the end of the liturgical tunnel; and indeed that we are now just beginning a second and still more radical phase of what has been called - by both friends and foes of the new rites - the post-conciliar liturgical revolution.

        In speaking of two "phases," I do not mean two sharply contrasting periods, because the most prominent features in each of these successive phases have also been present to a considerable extent in both. Rather, it is a question of a gradual shift of emphasis in the agenda of those who want to see the revolution become institutionalized, so that the sacred liturgy may come to be accepted by ordinary Catholics as something continually changing and evolving from year to year and from decade to decade, just like dress fashions and automobile designs. I believe we can conveniently call these two successive stages of the reform the theological phase and the ideological phase respectively.

        The first period, the theological phase, can appropriately be seen as covering the first quarter-century (1969-1994) after Pope Paul VI's promulgation of the new order of Mass on April 3, 1969, in the Apostolic Constitution Missale Romanum. That phase was marked principally by the introduction, imposition, and gradual assimilation into the Church's lifeblood of liturgical changes whose origins and rationale were to be found more or less within the confines of Christian - although not always authentically Catholic - theology. That is, we heard and saw a constant emphasis on such themes as an ecumenical rapprochement with Protestants by means of this drastically simplified, less formal and more flexible vernacular Mass; a much more extensive use of Sacred Scripture in the liturgy; a stress on the fraternal and communal meal aspects of the Eucharist rather than its character as the Sacrifice of the eternal High Priest; and an ecclesiology which has highlighted the Church as "the People of God" rather than the Mystical Body of Christ, thereby accentuating the role and activity of the laity in the liturgy.

        Now, while we Catholics continue to argue vociferously about the positive or negative value of such changes, our disputes in this area tend to be seen by the dominant secular culture in modern Western societies as rather dull and hair-splitting - "internal quarrels" as it were, over minor details of strictly "churchy" behaviour which have little relevance for the wider culture. For instance, the archetypal innovation during what I am calling the theological phase of the liturgical reform was probably the introduction of Communion in the Hand in the 1970s. For many of us here today, this has really been a 'landmark' issue, because it touches directly on each worshipper's beliefs and sensibilities regarding the central mystery of the Mass at the sacred moment of his most intimate participation in that mystery. But in the wider secular culture and the mass media this issue has scarcely elicited a single yawn: it has in fact been practically a non-issue. How often have you seen debates on Communion in the Hand hitting the TV talk-shows or filling the Op-Ed pages in the New York Times?

        In contrast to this relative apathy on the part of the secular culture in regard to the kinds of liturgical issues which it sees as strictly theological, or "religious" in the narrow sense, other changes now affecting the way Catholics worship are attracting a good deal of media attention. I believe that the importance they are now assuming in the public consciousness, both inside and outside the Church, is indicative of a new and more radical phase in the liturgical reform which, as I have suggested, we could call ideological rather than theological, because its roots are found not in specifically Christian thought, - whether Catholic, Protestant or Eastern Orthodox - but rather in secular social and political programs whose philosophical ancestry traces back to the rationalism and egalitarianism of the Enlightenment, or to outright paganism, rather than to ideas purporting to come from the Judæo-Christian Scriptures.

        In lands dominated by ancient non-European cultures, the most noticeable ideological influence in this context is a certain anti-Western nationalism. In Catholic ecclesiastical circles this exaggerated national pride is now manifesting itself in the form of impatient and increasingly sweeping demands for "inculturation" in the liturgy. In the traditionally Christian societies of the West, on the other hand, the new secular, socio-political ideology which is having the heaviest impact on the Catholic liturgy is, of course, feminism. Both feminism and ethnic or national pride have already been significant forces among Catholic liturgical innovators for quite some time; but it is really only during the 'nineties that these incursions of secular ideology into the sanctuary have become so widespread and so imperious as to succeed in gaining definitive recognition and concessions from the very highest levels of Church authority. For instance, article 42 of the newly-promulgated Vatican Instruction, The Roman Liturgy and Inculturation, now gives the Church's formal approval to "hand-clapping, rhythmic swaying and dance-movements" in the Mass. 1 It is for this reason that I am suggesting we are now entering into a whole new phase of the liturgical revolution. If the concession which most clearly represented the earlier "theological" phase was Communion in the Hand, that which can be seen as symbolically ushering in the new period of "ideological" reform in the liturgy is the even more unprecedented change announced by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in its letter of 15 March 1994: the admission of women to service at the altar.

        The title of my talk today, "The New Feminist Face of the Roman Liturgy," was suggested to me by an illustration I saw in January of this year. It caught my attention and struck me as a telling symbol of this profound transformation in the spirit and form of the Roman-rite liturgy which is now taking place before our eyes. It was published as part of one local American pastoral initiative which wants to make the point that there are "new ways of being church, new ways of being parish." And these "new ways" are very plainly meant to be understood as feminist ways.

        The illustration I am referring to has four panels in the form of a stained-glass window - a kind of icon for venerating the ideal "womanchurch" which is now coming into being. It depicts two babies and seventeen adults in various pastoral and liturgical situations; and of these seventeen only three are clearly identifiable as men. Eleven are plainly women, and the remaining three are of somewhat indeterminate gender, including a long-haired prisoner in handcuffs and a priest whose short haircut looks masculine, but whose tender facial features and wilting posture look decidedly feminine. Even the three unambiguously male figures whom the artist graciously allowed into his/her new vision of "church" are decidedly unprepossessing. One is an emaciated, bed-ridden AIDS victim - an object of pity; another is an old-man, double-chinned and balding, who is being more or less crowded out by four women as they all gather round a large Bible; and the last is a seedy, T-shirted hippie type who is shown violating liturgical law by holding up the chalice during Mass.

        Thus, it is certainly women who hold pride of place in this feminist icon: men are depicted as wimpish also-rans. In one panel an attractive young lady vested clerically in an alb and cincture with a cross around her neck is officiating at what looks like a sacramental rite involving two more women, one of whom is holding a baby. Exactly what is supposed to be happening is not clear, but I confess that for me this scenario stirred immediate memories of that recent book which, as you will remember, was the winner of New York City's Millstone of the Year Award for children's literature: Heather Has Two Mommies. 2 And even if the limp and languid priest in the panel already described is supposed to be biologically male, he is portrayed as having heavy competition for his sacerdotal functions from the phalanx of females who have descended upon him at the altar. Women are depicted as hemming him in on all sides, quite literally breathing down his neck and pressing him shoulder-to-shoulder as he holds the sacred Host. The tragedy is, of course, that the illustration is not complete fantasy, but rather, is coming to reflect liturgical reality in an increasing number of Catholic communities in North America.

        Further bad news for traditional Catholics looms on the horizon in regard to that other major battle-front with feminist ideology, the use of so-called "inclusive" or "non-sexist" language in the liturgy. I am afraid there is no reason at all to feel reassured by the Vatican's letter last year telling the U.S. bishops that the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, which embodies inclusive language, may not be used in the liturgy. The experience of recent decades in liturgical matters must lead us to suspect that when Rome says "no," that may well really mean "not just yet." After all, as recently as 1980, when the Holy Father reaffirmed the Church's bimillennial prohibition of female altar servers in Inæstimabile donum, the Vatican's own official liturgical publication, Notitiæ, ran an article declaring that this prohibition was "set in stone" as early as the fifth century A.D. 3 That "stone," however, has now crumbled to dust before our eyes.


        So far my observations have been almost uniformly pessimistic, and some of you may be feeling that I need to be reminded of the old saying that it is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness. I do indeed intend to conclude these observations with a suggestion as to how those who are concerned about the impact of militant feminism on the liturgy can light a candle in regard to the recent authorization for female altar service.

        Before we get to that point, however, it will be helpful to review the reasons why I do not think we should just accept this innovation with a passive, silent shrug of the shoulders. It may be objected that, whether we like it or not, the question of altar girls is now a closed issue, and indeed, a minor issue, so that we should therefore stop crying over spilt milk, as it were, and just get used to the presence of females at the altar during Mass.

        To that objection I would reply bluntly that this question is not a minor issue. The Eucharistic liturgy is at the very center of the Church's life, and the altar is located at the very center of the Eucharistic liturgy. It is the Holy of Holies under the New Covenant of Our Lord Jesus Christ. This means that any radical and unprecedented innovation regarding what happens at the altar is bound to bring about important changes - whether short-term or long-term, or both - in the hearts and minds of the faithful at worship.

        But someone will be sure to ask, What is so terribly wrong with having altar girls anyway? Most members of this audience will already be well aware of the serious problems, questions and uncertainties raised by this novelty, but it will be worthwhile recalling some of the main points.

        In the first place the total and extreme novelty of this practice is in itself very troubling. Why do I say that? After all, in a technological age and culture wherein what is new enjoys an almost automatic presumption of improvement, progress, and superiority, such an attitude may sound to many like mere obscurantism: resistance to something new and different merely because it is new and different. But in Catholic liturgy, as in Catholic doctrine, the a priori presumption should be exactly the opposite of that which rightly prevails in the natural sciences and technology. The very logic of a religion which claims to have been divinely and definitively revealed two thousand years ago requires that its faithful followers be deeply conservative in outlook. An a priori suspicion of novelty, within such a hermeneutical context, is not merely a case of stubborn or blind prejudice; it is profoundly reasonable, and indeed, necessary. After all, God is eternal; therefore, as Joseph Sobran has wisely remarked, liturgy ought to look and sound old-fashioned, and indeed ancient, because that is the nearest we mortals can get to representing the idea of eternity.

        Now, in the case of a religious tradition which has not only existed, but has been consciously, continuously, and emphatically reaffirmed and insisted upon for two millennia, there must be an enormous and overwhelming presumption that such a tradition reflects the will of Christ. And this is in fact the case with the tradition against female altar service. In the Vatican journal Notitiæ, the liturgical scholar we have already mentioned, Aimé-Georges Martimort, affirms that:

[the] general discipline of the Church [against female altar service] has been set in stone by canon 44 of the Collection of Laodicea which dates generally from the end of the 4th century and which has figured in almost all canonical collections of East and West. 4

        Martimort also recalls that Popes ever since St. Gelasius in 494 had denounced this practice as an abuse. It appears there were already feminist influences making themselves felt in Sicily and southern Italy at that time, and Pope St. Gelasius felt obliged to write to the bishops of those regions saying:

We have heard with sorrow of the great contempt [mépris] with which the sacred mysteries have been treated. It has reached the point where women have been encouraged to serve at the altar, and to carry out roles that are not suited to their sex, having been assigned exclusively to those of masculine gender. 5

        Every edition of the Roman Missal from 1570 till 1962 carried the prohibition of female altar servers, as did the 1917 Code of Canon Law (c. 813, 2), not to mention the documents of the post-conciliar liturgical reform in their earlier and less radical phase.

        In short, it appears that last year's Vatican permission for altar girls was the most radical single liturgical change ever officially permitted by the Church's supreme authority. As is well known, Communion in the Hand was for a time permitted in some areas during antiquity, and even having women functioning as extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist was not at all unprecedented. In an excellent study on the question of female altar service which was published in France only weeks before the Vatican's fateful announcement in April 1994, Fr. Michel Sinoir, a priest of the Archdiocese of Paris, records evidence that right from ancient times, in convents of cloistered nuns situated far off in the desert where priests and deacons seldom visited, the Church allowed the Mother Superior to take the Eucharistic Body of Christ from the tabernacle in order to give Holy Communion to the other sisters; however she was not allowed to make use of the altar in doing so. 6

        This condition is very significant, and was also reflected in the wording of the 1917 Code of Canon Law. Canon 813, 2, of the old Code, already referred to, stated: "A woman may not be a minister of the Mass, except when no male is available and for a just cause, and under the condition that she make the responses from a distance, not under any circumstances approaching the altar" (emphasis added). Such legislation, I believe, gives us the key to understanding more deeply the heart of the Church's tradition on this point. The primary emphasis was not so much on what a woman could or could not do at Mass, but rather, where she should or should not be. And where a woman was never under any circumstances supposed to be was at, or even near, the altar of sacrifice: that is, in the sanctuary. And as Fr. Sinoir points out, this prohibition of women in the sanctuary, even as lectors, remained an official norm of the Church's liturgical law right up until last year. 7 The latest edition of the General Instruction on the Roman Missal (1975) says in 70:

Those ministries which are performed outside the sanctuary may be entrusted to women if this be judged prudent by the priest in charge of the church. The provisions of n. 66 about the place whence the scriptures are to be read should be taken into account (emphasis added).

        And what exactly does 66 of the Instruction say?

The Bishops' Conference may permit a woman to read those scripture passages which precede the Gospel, and to give out the intentions in the Prayer of the Faithful. It is for them also to specify the place whence she may most suitably announce God's word to the people (emphasis added).

        If we take 66 and 70 together, the Instruction's meaning is perfectly clear: if there are to be women readers, the Bishops are to decide which of various possible places outside the sanctuary is most appropriate for them to read from. The very fact that the Vatican saw any need at all for new and separate episcopal decisions regarding the location of the lectern or ambo, in the event that women are use it, is indicative. It shows that 66 of the Instruction, even taken in isolation from the explicit restriction found in 70, was not including the sanctuary itself among those places where Bishops might legitimately decide to admit women. For if the legislator had envisaged the admission of women readers to the sanctuary as a legitimate option, then no. 272 of the Instruction, which deals expressly with where the readings can be done and clearly (although only implicitly) includes the sanctuary as a suitable place, would have been sufficient to cover this question. There would then have been no need for further episcopal decisions as to where in the church building women in particular should read the Scriptures. 8

        If the emphatic and uninterrupted tradition of the Church reserved the sanctuary, and especially the altar itself, for ministers of the male sex, what was the main reason for this? Here we come to the central question. There are many secondary or accidental reasons why last year's Vatican decision aroused dismay among many Catholics: some raised very pertinent questions about the apparently strange legal procedure or mechanism whereby the change was introduced; many have noted that the predominance of altar girls is likely to discourage boys and so have an adverse effect on priestly vocations; others have noted that by in effect rewarding the disobedience of those priests and bishops who allowed altar girls when they were still forbidden, the decision is likely to encourage still more contempt for Roman disciplinary norms, and was also a blow to those who had been obedient to the traditional norm, sometimes at considerable personal cost. Again, some have pointed out that the new ruling will pose a further obstacle to reunion with the Eastern Orthodox, and may reinforce the rupture with the Society of St. Pius X and other extreme traditionalist groups.

        I believe all these objections to the 1994 ruling permitting female altar service are very sound and pertinent, but they are to some extent transient and accidental, rather than substantial. They do not get to the very heart of the matter, because they do not fully explain why the Church of both East and West has so emphatically insisted for two millennia on excluding women and girls from the sanctuary.

        Martimort's study helps us to understand the patristic perspective on this point. After citing a good number of ancient texts and canons against female altar service, he observes:

It seems that the true motivation for this constant practice of excluding women from the altar ... is the link which was understood to unite the lesser ministries to the priesthood itself, to the point where they had become the normal stages leading to the priesthood. This link is already present in the perspective of St. Cyprian [he died as a martyr in 258]. 9

        This idea of altar service as basically a stage along the road to the priesthood is still reflected not only visually by the fact that altar servers dress like priests, in cassock and surplice, but also linguistically in the terminology used in some languages. In Spanish, for example, an altar boy is called a monaguillo, which etymologically means "a little monk." And in Italian the word for altar boy is chierichetto - a "little cleric," which means that the term used naturally for"altar girls" in Italian is in itself an affront to Catholic doctrine: they are called donne chierichetto, "little female clerics." But it is Catholic doctrine that females cannot become clerics (that is, in the post-conciliar Church, priests or deacons).

        In the final analysis, therefore, the reason the Church has always rejected female service in the sanctuary is that such service is very closely related, both symbolically and often causally, to the ministerial priesthood itself. And this can never possibly be conferred upon women, as John Paul II declared on the Feast of Pentecost last year in what is clearly an infallible, ex cathedra definition. 10

        This consideration in turn raises the whole mystical theme of gender symbolism which runs through both Old and New Testaments. Yahweh is the Spouse of Israel, his chosen Beloved. Christ is the Bridegroom of the Church: He is the one who initiates the fruitful relationship in which the supernatural seed of grace - source of the "new creation" - flows from Mount Calvary to be received by the Church, his Bride, who thereby brings it to fruition as a Mother, bringing forth and nurturing her new children in Baptism and the subsequent sacraments.

        Fr. Michel Sinoir's study brings this point out strongly, drawing also on the Eastern liturgical tradition to illuminate further this symbolism of the sanctuary. In Oriental churches, the division between sanctuary and nave is marked even more sharply than in the Western tradition by means of the iconostasis, a screen adorned with images of Our Lord and the saints which actually conceals the rest of the sanctuary from the view of the laity, and has to be entered by the holy doors. Fr. Sinoir explains the Oriental tradition:

The iconostasis symbolically is Heaven, and its liturgy, which anticipates Heaven, is celebrated only by members of the clergy. The nave is symbolically the earth, the abode of men and women who are preparing themselves to enter into Glory. This is by analogy the same mystery as that of Christ-the-Bridegroom, renewing in the sanctuary his sacrifice, which is gratefully received by the Church-his-Bride who is still in pilgrimage here below. 11

        It follows that to defend female altar service by arguing that the servers, after all, are only doing things of minor importance (serving wine and water, etc.), rather than performing actions that require the sacrament of orders, is to miss the point. That kind of merely pragmatic or functionalist perspective betrays a very limited understanding of the sacred liturgy, which is profoundly symbolical, suggestive, and permeated at every point by imagery. What is crucial in this question of altar service is the whole scenario of the sanctuary, the overall visual impression of what and who is present there, and the subliminal message which as a result is sent out by this scenario.

        Indeed, in the age of television, Madison Avenue and depth psychology, we should be more aware than ever of the subtle but profound impact that visual images and symbolical actions produce on our consciousness, beliefs and attitudes - especially when they are constantly repeated. And quite apart from the considerations based on the biblical "Bride/Bridegroom" symbolism which we have already discussed, the psychological influence of having the two sexes mingling together at the altar can only be one which further secularizes or desacralizes the liturgy. It creates a situation which expresses and recalls to the consciousness of all present the inevitable human attraction between male and female - the merely natural sense of agreeableness which one experiences in the company of the opposite sex.

        Now, this goes clean contrary to the ascetical spirit which should characterize the Church's most solemn act of worship. I found the down-to-earth insight of some teenage altar boys in Puerto Rico very pertinent in this regard. When some of our lads in the Ponce Cathedral and pro-Cathedral teams were told of the Vatican's decision last year, and asked how they would feel about serving alongside of girls, the spontaneous reaction was decidedly cool: "No, Father. It wouldn't work well. You'd soon get situations where boyfriends and girlfriends would be on the altar together, making eyes at each other, smooching at the sign of peace, and so on."

        I am not suggesting that the male-female proximity will necessarily be an occasion for actual sins of impurity in thought or deed, although the attractiveness, perfume, etc., of young women by the side of the priest and other male ministers will often at least be somewhat distracting for them during those sacred moments when all hearts and minds must be more than ever fixed on "the things that are above." The main point is that this "mixed company" at the altar is a further humanistic element in the liturgy. It militates against that holy austerity that should characterize the sanctuary, and does nothing to help raise our minds from the worldly level to the supernatural level.

        Let us look at another example of how a novel mixing of the sexes would distort a noble ritual. Many or most cultures, Christian and non-Christian, have a ceremonial custom which has been practised at weddings and marriage rites from time immemorial: the bride is surrounded or accompanied by other young women, bridesmaids. 12 Now, would it not introduce a jarring and discordant note into the wedding ceremony if this ancient tradition were suddenly replaced by the practice of surrounding the bride by young men instead of young women? "Bridesmen," rather than bridesmaids, would in fact be a grotesque innovation, sending out uncertain, strange, and disquieting signals to all those present. So would the idea of replacing the "best man" who accompanies the groom by a "best woman," that is, another attractive young lady who is not the one he is marrying!

        In the same way, female service in the sanctuary is in reality a bizarre innovation - one which jars with the gender symbolism which is latent in the created order and brought out clearly in revelation. Fr. Sinoir sums it up splendidly:

The presence of women in the sanctuary, which is the place of Christ the New Adam, Bridegroom and Saviour, and hence the place of the bishop, bridegroom of his [local] church, the place of the priest and the deacon - this unjustifiable feminine presence, even if it does not destroy the objectivity of the perpetually renewed redemptive Act, nevertheless greatly harms the personal faith of each member of the congregation by confronting it with a sign which falsifies the mystery; it impoverishes our faith. 13

        This falsification of the sacred symbolism of the liturgy at its very heart - the Holy of Holies which is the altar of sacrifice - is the deepest reason why female altar service is a serious deformation of the Church's worship.

        There are other analogies which should help us see this. Pope John Paul II's well-known argument against contraception is a case in point. He says that such practices are like telling a lie, not with words, but with the language of the body. The conjugal act, by its very nature, is a way in which the spouses say with their bodies, "I give myself totally and completely to you." But when contraceptives are used, the act is deformed and becomes a kind of falsehood or dishonesty, because the couple are not then giving themselves unreservedly to each other, but rather, are withholding their life-giving potential, their fertility. In the same way we can say that the Latin-rite Church, by inviting females to serve at the place of priestly sacrifice, dressed in the priestly garb of alb or cassock, gives the impression of speaking with a forked tongue. At the level of her purely verbal communication the Church promulgates documents asserting clearly that women can never be priests; but in her "body language," as it were, namely, in her most sacred liturgical action, she now seems to be insinuating the exact opposite.

        Another analogy from the area of sexual ethics concerns marriage itself as the only legitimate place for male-female intimacy. As a corollary of the sixth commandment, Catholic tradition, and indeed the natural law as recognized by practically all cultures, has always insisted that it is incompatible with true fidelity for a married person even to flirt or become involved romantically with someone other than his or her own spouse (by regularly spending time alone with such a person, exchanging loving glances, words, caresses, letters, and so on), even if no sexual act takes place. Such behaviour is rightly understood by everyone as naturally conducive toward physical sexual union even if it does not always reach that point.

        In exactly the same way, the constant and emphatic tradition of the Church has been that service at the altar is objectively ordered toward priesthood, even though not every altar boy or acolyte actually ends up becoming a priest. From this perspective we could say that a woman or girl serving at the altar, no matter how devout her personal intentions, no matter how reverent, recollected and modest her deportment and dress, is by her very presence in the sanctuary engaging in what is objectively a kind of spiritual immodesty. She is flirting, as it were, with priestly ordination - mimicking it, drawing as near as she can to it with an indecorous familiarity and an intrusive intimacy. Her liturgical role insinuates and suggests ordination as its proper goal or fulfilment, even though this is absolutely excluded by the Law of Christ.

        There may be a few people here today who feel angered by my "patriarchal" opposition to female altar service. But I would invite such members of the audience - whether male or female - to ask themselves honestly and calmly one simple question. If you are someone who feels deeply convinced that female altar service is good and proper, is it not also true that you are unconvinced by the Catholic Church's stand against women's ordination, and that in your heart of hearts you would like to see women as priests as well as altar servers? I suspect that the honest answer to that question would practically always be "Yes."

        In fact, I would hazard a guess that almost the only people who are firmly and definitively opposed to women's ordination while at the same time being enthusiastic supporters of female altar servers would be a certain group within the episcopate. But I suspect that the enthusiasm for altar girls on the part of some generally conservative bishops probably springs not so much from any deep liturgical, historical or spiritual reflection on the intrinsic merits or demerits of that innovation, but rather from the feeling that as pastors they should to some extent be responsive to popular demand. There has been a huge drive for altar girls among liberal Catholics, and it is bishops, after all, who are the decision-makers. They, not the rest of us, are the ones who have to bear the brunt of the feminist rage and rhetoric against the "patriarchal" Church, and have to formulate some sort of response to these women's ceaseless and strident demands. Under such relentless pressure, it is not hard to see how some bishops who are quite orthodox on the question of women's ordination might nevertheless gladly introduce female altar service as a way of demonstrating that they are not "intransigent." That is, they see it as a compromise (now commonly called a "pastoral solution") which they hope will to some extent pacify or mollify feminists while not actually contradicting Catholic doctrine.

        Quite apart from the fact that such hopes will almost certainly prove to be in vain, this episcopal exception only proves the rule. My point is this: most Catholics can sense that the two ministries - altar service and priesthood - are closely linked by their very nature. And if we prescind from those whose attitudes are especially influenced by extraneous or accidental considerations - i.e., by the current state of church politics - I suspect that nearly everyone else holds either that both of these ministries should be open to women (at least in the long run), or that both of them should always be reserved for males.

        In short, female altar service introduces a deep tension, an inner contradiction, into the sacred liturgy. It makes an ideological statement which both politicizes and secularizes our Eucharistic worship. Instead of reflecting the sublime harmony of the communion of saints, a foretaste of Heaven itself, the sanctuary comes to symbolize an earthly battlefield in the new cold war against "patriarchy." Women, by their very presence in the sanctuary, are seen as "on the move," and as struggling to conquer more territory (more "worship space," as the new liturgists call it). They are manifested, in fact, as striving to attain something which faithful Catholics must believe can never be granted to them - priestly ordination. At the same time, their presence together with males at the altar, the Holy of Holies, jars against the asceticism and supernatural ambience of the liturgy by evoking the merely natural human attraction between the sexes. Moreover, in contrast to Communion in the Hand, which is at least limited in scope by being a private and voluntary gesture, female altar service is an innovation which by its very nature leaves no choice to those in the pews. In any Mass where women or girls are serving in the sanctuary, that is a highly public scenario which is imposed willy-nilly on everyone who happens to be assisting.

        III - WHAT CAN BE DONE?    

        In the long run, I feel convinced that the best solution will be to take up the call of the late German liturgical scholar, Msgr. Gamber, for a new liturgical movement, a "reform of the reform." The idea would be to work towards an alternate implementation of the Vatican II Constitution on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, which, in the light of today's deformations of the Roman liturgy, is actually a very conservative document. It received a positive vote even from the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, and does not say one word, for instance, about opening up to lay men - and much less to lay women - liturgical "ministries" which were traditionally reserved to priests, deacons or sub-deacons. I believe that the Vatican II Constitution could be implemented without introducing any of those novelties which have alienated so many Catholics since the new Mass was introduced, and I have outlined in detail what such a liturgy might be like in a talk I gave in March this year at the Colorado Springs Eucharistic Conference.

        The advantage of such a long-term movement would be twofold. First, it would incorporate into the traditional liturgy those reasonable modifications which the Council really did call for. And secondly, there would be some chance that a revised form of the traditional Latin Mass along these lines would one day be granted equal status with the Novus Ordo by the Holy See, so that traditional Catholics would no longer feel themselves as "second-class citizens" in their own Church. As we all know, the use of the 1962 Missal is hedged about by many restrictions, and frankly, it seems unlikely that a future Pope will lift those restrictions completely, so as to give complete equality of status to the Mass exactly as it was on the eve of Vatican II.

        In the short term, however, I believe that a more specific initiative might be fruitful. It would consist of approaches to the hierarchy with a view to gaining recognition of the right of priests and people who are attached to the bimillennial tradition to be able to offer and assist at the Holy Sacrifice without female altar servers in attendance.

        Such an undertaking can perhaps be understood better in the light of some relevant points of canon law; and here I would refer to an article recently published in the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Newsletter by Msgr. John F. McCarthy, who has a doctorate in Canon Law from Rome's Lateran University, and is the founder and director of the priestly society to which I have the honour to belong, the Oblates of Wisdom.

        Msgr. McCarthy notes that since the new authentic interpretation came into effect, c. 230, 2, now refers to a variety of liturgical functions which can be carried out by both lay men and lay women; but that among these various functions, female altar service alone receives special treatment. And it is the kind of special treatment which tacitly acknowledges that this particular liturgical role is an especially delicate and controversial one when carried out by women. The episcopal conference must consider the matter, and even if it decides in favor of female altar servers, this cannot be made binding on particular bishops who decide against this practice. The Holy See stresses the need to maintain the "noble tradition" of boy altar servers as a source of priestly vocations, and indeed, the wording of the Vatican Instruction clearly implies that female altar service is to be considered an exception, not the rule. In stressing the importance of careful explanation of this innovation to the people, article 3 of the Instruction begins in very hypothetical terms: "If in this or that diocese (Si autem in aliqua dioecesi) the Bishop for particular reasons (peculiares ob rationes) permits females as well [as males] to serve at the altar ...." 14

        This sort of cautious and conditional language is not found in the Vatican documents permitting other female ministries covered by c. 230, 2 (readers, cantors, Eucharistic ministers, etc.); only altar girls are singled out for this special treatment. For this reason, Msgr. McCarthy draws the following conclusion:

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 servers. 15

        This brings me to the main point. If in fact the authentic interpretation of c. 230.2, and accompanying Instruction constitute an indult - in other words, an exception to the rule, a concession to depart from the norm of exclusively male altar service - it should follow logically that nobody has the right to impose this exception on those who want to worship according to the norm. In other words, it should be acknowledged that priests and faithful who find no inner peace while assisting at Masses served by women or girls have a right to be able to assist at Mass celebrated according to the norm. It would therefore seem to be very opportune to seek official recognition of this right. No doubt it will take much more than this to effectively counteract the feminist tide which threatens to sweep over the post-conciliar Roman-rite liturgy in many countries. But at least such recognition would have the effect of lighting a candle.

        There may be some of you here today who customarily attend the Tridentine Mass under the Holy Father's indult, and who may therefore be tempted to respond with a certain indifference, thinking that female altar service - which is specifically prohibited by the 1962 Missal - is not your problem. I hope nobody will in fact take this rather complacent and "isolationist" outlook. We are all members of the one Church, and the present liturgical instability is really everyone's problem. Moreover, there are innumerable Catholics who in any case have no access to an "indult Mass," and are now having female altar service imposed at their parish Masses Sunday after Sunday. I hope, therefore, that everyone here today will pray for the initiative I have suggested, so that a number of breathing-spaces, so to speak, can be preserved in those dioceses where the ecclesial atmosphere is thick with the cloying scent of feminism. Regular Masses must always be available where priests and people who love the clear and ascetical air of our liturgical tradition know that they will be able to worship in tranquillity of soul, without being subjected to the unwanted presence of women at the altar.


1. ". . . manuum percussio seu plausus, fluctuationes rhythmicae seu motus modulati, aut choreæ motus". AAS 87 (1995), p. 304.

2. This was the scandalous reader, destined for small children in New York City's public schools, which presented in glowingly positive terms, and as something completely "normal," a household in which a little girl is being brought up by two lesbians. It was in due course removed from the classroom by popular demand, especially on the part of Hispanic parents in the New York area.

3. Aimé-Georges Martimort, "La Question du Service des Femmes a L'Autel," Notitiae, Vol. 16, 1980, pp. 8-16.

4. Martimort, op. cit. (trans. by Michael Baker, The St. Joseph Foundation, Sydney, Australia, 1994).

5. Ibid., cited in Michel Sinoir, La Question de L'Admission des Femmes au Service de L'Autel, Paris, Pierre Téqui, 1994, p. 28 (present writer's translation).

6. Cf. ibid., p. 26.

7. It was, however, widely disregarded, even in papal liturgies. The present writer, while studying in Rome during the 1980s, had the privilege of serving as deacon, lector, and cantor for the Responsorial Psalm in many Masses celebrated by Pope John Paul II. I remember that it was quite common for women - nuns or lay women in secular dress - to proclaim the first or second Scripture reading, or intercessions of the Prayer of the Faithful, from the raised sanctuary under the famous bronze baldacchino in St. Peter's Basilica. After the present Master of Pontifical Ceremonies, Msgr. Piero Marini, was appointed in 1988, the lectern (used by all readers, male and female) was soon removed to a more correct position outside of and in front of the sanctuary.

8. In no. 272 the Instruction deals with where the Scripture readings should be carried out, and specifies only that this should be "a place on which the people would naturally concentrate their attention." Again: "As dictated by the shape of the church, the ambo should be put where those who read from it can be easily heard and seen by all." It is obvious that in many or most cases a place on the raised sanctuary itself would fulfil those conditions, and this was the long-established and continuing practice in many or most churches at the time the Instruction was promulgated. (In older churches - especially larger ones - dating from before the invention of microphones, it was, of course, common to have a raised pulpit at one side of the nave, well in front of the sanctuary, so as to facilitate the proclamation and preaching of the Word.)

9. Cited in Sinoir, op. cit., p. 28 (present writer's translation).

10. It stops short, however, of being a solemn dogmatic definition on a par with those of the Immaculate Conception and Assumption, which are defined as truths of faith, binding on pain of heresy. Cf. the present writer's article, "Cardinal Ratzinger on Ordinatio Sacerdotalis," The Priest (journal of the Australian Confraternity of Catholic Clergy), Spring 1994 / Summer 1995, pp. 5-6.

11. Sinoir, op. cit., p. 32 (present writer's translation).

12. Cf. Psalm 44(45): 15, the "royal wedding" psalm: the bride "is brought to the king with her maiden companions."

13. Sinoir, op. cit., p. 40.

14. Acta Apostolicæ Sedis 86 (1994), p. 542.

15. John F. McCarthy, "The Canonical Meaning of the Recent Authentic Interpretation of Canon 230.2 Regarding Female Altar Servers," Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Newsletter, December 1994, p. 15. The author also observes (p. 17) that in any case last year's authentic interpretation applies only to the Latin-rite Church, and that the canon law of all the Oriental-rite Catholic Churches continues to forbid female altar service. (The article was republished in Living Tradition, January 1995.)


by John F. McCarthy

        While it was the text itself of the Second Vatican Council's constitution on the sacred liturgy that was approved by the Council Fathers, the implementation of the decree was placed in the hands of a particular group of liturgical scholars having their own contrasting agenda, as is clear from such historical works as Ralph Wiltgen's The Rhine Flows into the Tiber and Annibale Bugnini's The Liturgical Reform (1948-1975). Thus, in the pursuit of this agenda, even such specific limitations in the decree as that Latin was to remain substantially the language of the Mass (nos. 36 and 54), or that "there must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them" (no. 23) were quickly brushed aside. In retrospect it is interesting to reread the Council's prescription that "the general laws governing the structure and meaning of the liturgy must be studied in conjunction with the experience derived from recent liturgical reforms and from the indults granted to various places" (ibid.).

        Brian Harrison, in the May 1995 issue of Living Tradition, describes the papal indult of 1994, allowing bishops to introduce female altar servers, as evidence that a new feminist phase of the liturgical reform has begun, and, following the scholarly indications of Klaus Gamber, he repeats the call for a "reform of the reform," using a better and more complete apparatus of technical principles. Over the past quarter-century, various clear positions of the Church have been wiped out or buried under strong emotional currents. One such clear position has been the theological and mystical notion of service at the altar as gravitating towards the ministerial priesthood. Just as the papal indult of 1984, permitting the use of the 1962 Roman Missal, implicitly acknowledged that the liturgical reform had gone beyond what can justly be imposed upon all of the faithful, so the indult of 1994, permitting female altar servers, acknowledges that the liturgical climate in some sectors of the Church has wiped out the symbol of the male presbyterium around the altar of sacrifice. Between the polarity of these two papal indults lies a middle ground that will tend to be absorbed by one pole or the other, unless the "reform of the reform" advocated by Gamber and Harrison can gain acceptance in the Latin Church.

        In my technical analysis of the papal indult of 1994, reprinted in the January 1995 issue of Living Tradition, I cautioned against the imposition of female altar servers upon Mass attenders who have good spiritual reasons for not wanting to see them. There are, in fact, several good reasons for desiring in conscience that the bimillennial practice of the male presbyterium around the altar of sacrifice be preserved in the act of worship, and the Code of Canon Law does provide for the rights of conscience. Canon 214 of the 1983 revised Code of Canon Law speaks in relation to vocation and conscience where it says that the faithful "have the right to follow their own form of spiritual life, provided that it is in accord with the teaching of the Church." Now, to desire to celebrate Mass or to assist at Mass offered at an altar surrounded by a male - even a priestly - sanctuary is in accord with two thousand years of Church teaching and practice, and it is also in accord with the wording itself of the 1994 indult, which says that "it will always be very appropriate to follow the noble tradition of having boys serve at the altar" (Instruction no. 2 of the indult). Michel Sinoir has documented the fact that historically the practice of boys serving at the altar arose in the context of their potential vocation to the ministerial priesthood. The observance of the male presbyterium around the altar of sacrifice is a feature of traditional Catholic spirituality to which priests and lay persons have a right to adhere in conscience. In fact, a proper reading of the 1994 indult should indicate that Mass without female altar servers remains the norm even in dioceses in which the indult is implemented, and Mass with female altar servers is an exception allowed to particular groups who have requested this.

        Christ "entrusted only to men the task of being an 'icon' of His countenance as 'Shepherd' and 'Bridegroom' of the Church through the exercise of the ministerial priesthood" (Letter of Pope John Paul II to Women, no. 11). Altar boys are part of that icon. The tradition of boys only serving at the altar is the surface petal of the male presbyterium. Peel off this petal and the male only diaconate becomes the surface petal of the rose. This petal will soon be under attack, making the male only ministerial priesthood the emerging surface of some deeper "essential core." As the hoped-for "reform of the reform" discards the surface-and-core idea of modern existentialism, it will necessarily seek to restore the petal of all-male altar service to the rose of the presbyterium - not an easy task in the emotionally charged climate of feminism.

        Pope John XXIII's edifying desire to include the name of St. Joseph in the Canon of his 1962 Roman Missal was used by the liturgical reformers as a wedge for introducing vast additional changes. Those who benefit from the indult of 1984, in the present climate of updating and constant change, do well to insist upon no changes whatsoever in the text and rubrics of the 1962 Missal, not even the addition of new feasts. If the "reform of the reform" should not gain acceptance in the Church, and if the reformers continue to build the liturgy upon the shifting sands of existentialist updating, the New Order of Mass could eventually collapse, leaving only the 1962 Roman Missal as a viable form of Mass in the Western Church.

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