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.
Please address all correspondence    e-mail:
Living Tradition, Oblates of Wisdom, P.O. Box 13230, St. Louis, MO 63157, USA

No. 88 Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study Program July 2000


by Brian W. Harrison

(This is a revised version of 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. The address was published in abbreviated form as "The New Feminist Face of the Roman Liturgy," Living Tradition, No. 58, May 1995, and again as "Fluctuationes Rhythmicæ: The New Feminist Face of the Roman Liturgy" in The Latin Mass, Fall 1995, pp. 42-49. The original talk is distributed on audio-cassette by "Keep The Faith" [PO Box 277, Ramsey, New Jersey 07446, USA]. This revised version was originally delivered as a lecture at the annual Colloquium of the Centre International d'Etudes Liturgiques [C.I.E.L.] at Versailles, France, on 10 November 2000.)

I. Post-Conciliar Liturgical Novelty: First, Theological; Then Ideological

My observations today will be frankly critical of certain aspects of the modern liturgical reform which have become increasingly prominent in the last decade of the century now drawing to its close, that is, twenty years or more after the promulgation by Pope Paul VI of the initially reformed Roman missal. They are aspects which seem to me to be based on more than just a further change or development in theological emphasis. Rather, they seem to constitute a new phase in the process of liturgical innovation, wherein alien ideological tendencies are being introduced into the most sacred acts of the Latin-rite Church: the ideology of nationalism (in the name of inculturation) and the ideology of feminism (in the name of women's dignity). It is to the latter tendency that I will devote most of my attention today.

In speaking of two "phases" in the post-conciliar liturgical change - theological followed by ideological - I do not mean two sharply contrasting and clearly separable periods, because the most prominent features in each of these successive phases have also been present to a considerable extent in both of them. Rather, it is a question of a gradual shift of emphasis in the agenda of those who have pressed for ever-increasing changes.

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 distinctively 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 "active participation" 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. For many of us here today, this has been a particularly important 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 we seen debates on Communion in the Hand hitting the TV talk-shows or filling the open editorial pages in the New York Times or equivalent European newspapers?

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 last decade 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 1995 Vatican Instruction, The Roman Liturgy and Inculturation, has now given the Church's formal approval to "hand-clapping, rhythmic swaying and dance-movements" in the celebration of Mass. 1

Now, this document contemplates such innovations in the context of non-western cultures where they might have a claim to form an authentic part of local religious traditions. But, in fact, the very highest level of liturgical authority, represented by the Vatican's Office of Pontifical Liturgical Celebrations, has not been content to restrict these practices to African, Asian, or Oceanic contexts. This Office, which in the late 'eighties was entrusted to the highly 'progressivist' direction of Monsignor (now Bishop) Piero Marini, has prevailed upon the Holy Father to permit liturgical dance even in Masses for mainly Western congregations, in spite of its complete absence from the tradition of Western Christian worship. Thus it is that we saw recently the spectacle of young, white-skinned ballerinas undulating before the gaze of the Supreme Pontiff during the recent Mass for World Youth Day in Rome.

II. The Challenge of Female Altar Service

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.

This, I suggest, has been a truly revolutionary change. It is worthwhile recalling that 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. 2 That "stone", however, has now crumbled to dust before our eyes. Should we now simply accept this innovation with a passive, silent shrug of the shoulders? Some who before 1994 were adamantly opposed to female altar service have subsequently argued 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 "altar girls" during Mass.

To this I would reply bluntly that the question of female altar service 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 the American Catholic journalist 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 a very strong 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. 3

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. 4

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 the 1994 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, Abbé 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. 5

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). 6 Such legislation, I believe, gives us the key to understanding more deeply the heart of the Church's tradition on this point. And as Abbé Sinoir points out, this prohibition of the presence of women in the sanctuary, even as lectors, remained an official norm of the Church's liturgical law right up until 1994. 7 The 1975 edition of the General Instruction on the Roman Missal 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. 8 In the light of the 1994 decision, however, the General Instruction promulgated by the Vatican in July 2000 substantially revises these norms, removing any reference to gender. In this new document, those paragraphs we have just cited from the 1975 Instruction are replaced by a shorter norm dealing with temporary or extraordinary lay ministers (that is, those who have not been instituted definitively as lectors or acolytes). It reads as follows:

The liturgical functions mentioned above in nos. 100-106, which are not the prerogative of priests or deacons, can also be entrusted to suitable lay people by means of a liturgical blessing or temporary deputation. Such lay people are to be chosen by the parish priest 9 (parochus) or by the priest in charge of the church. As regards the function of serving the priest at the altar, the dispositions given by the Bishop for his diocese are to be observed. 10

Thus it is that the post-conciliar Roman-rite liturgy has now eliminated, for the first time in history, all trace of distinction between males and females as regards their presence in the sanctuary. But 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 the 1994 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 admission of altar girls often has the effect of discouraging young boys from a service no longer seen as masculine in character, so that a fruitful source of future priestly vocations is thereby placed at risk. Others have noted that by rewarding, in effect, the disobedience of those priests and bishops who allowed altar girls when they were still forbidden, the decision has encouraged still further disobedience to 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. Indeed, legislation for the Oriental Catholic Churches, like that of the Orthodox, continues to forbid female altar service - an apparent inconsistency which reinforces the impression that this innovation in the West has been, sadly, a concession by the Vatican to feminist ideological pressure rather than a decision based on some truly liturgical or ethical principle. The simple fact is that, in the West, feminist ideology, with its false, liberal and anti-evangelical 11 principle that 'discrimination' and 'inequality' are intrinsically unjust, exerts far more pressure in the mass media, in church institutions, and in popular culture than it does in Eastern European and non-European societies.

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, for almost two millennia, insisted so emphatically 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]. 12

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 coined by the Italians for female altar servers is in itself an affront to Catholic doctrine: they are called donne chierichetto, "little female clerics". But, of course, it is Catholic doctrine that females cannot become clerics (that is, in the post-conciliar sacramental disposition, bishops, priests or deacons).

Thus, the Church's bimillennial rejection of female service in the sanctuary has clearly been linked to the fact that such service is very closely related, symbolically and often causally, to the ministerial priesthood itself. And this can never possibly be conferred upon women, as John Paul II reaffirmed on the Feast of Pentecost, 1994, in the Apostolic Epistle Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. 13 This bond between the altar of Christ's sacrifice and masculinity 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.

Abbé 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. Abbé 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. 14

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. Too many Catholics have accepted uncritically the fallacious argument that once women are allowed to be extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, it is illogical to exclude them from altar service. This argument is based on the principle that within a given hierarchy of responsibilities, the right to carry out a greater task implies, a fortiori, the right to carry out the lesser ones as well. Having priestly faculties, for instance, obviously includes or implies the faculty of doing those things which even deacons can do. Therefore, it is said, since distributing the Eucharistic Body of Christ is clearly a higher or more dignified office than that of merely giving the water and wine to the priest, a person with the right to distribute Holy Communion should with still greater reason enjoy the right to serve at the altar. Both liberal and traditionalist Catholics have often thus been persuaded that admittng female Eucharistic ministers while prohibiting female altar servers is inconsistent and illogical. (Liberals, of course, conclude that, in order to remove the inconsistency, women should be admitted to both ministries, while traditionalists urge that they be excluded from both.)

However, the premise on which this argument is based is false; namely, the premise that the relative dignity or nobility of these different functions is the principal criterion for deciding who should exercise them. Rather, as we have seen in reviewing the Church's canonical tradition, the primary insistence in Catholic tradition has been not so much on what a woman could or could not do during 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. But in contrast to altar service, the administering of Holy Communion is nearly always done outside the sanctuary, so that in the light of this criterion there is no inconsistency in allowing the latter, but not the former, to women.

This raises the question as to why liturgical location as such, rather than liturgical function as such, should traditionally have been considered so important in this context? The answer, I suggest, is that too much emphasis on function as such would betray a very limited and 'pragmatic' understanding of the sacred liturgy, which is profoundly symbolical, evocative, 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 advertising, computer-generated images 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 tends to secularize or desacralize the liturgy. 15

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. 16 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. Abbé Sinoir sums it up very well:

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. 17

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. The altar server, traditionally envisaged as a potential priest, is presented visually and symbolically in that role by his location, and by his actions, which provide proximate assistance and preparation for the quintessentially sacerdotal act: the offering of the Sacrifice.

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 since 1994 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 the goal of 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.

Indeed, this natural symbolism of altar service as signifying potentiality for priesthood is so clear and deep that I suspect that there are very few Catholics, liberal or traditionalist, who do not recognize or accept it. To those who feel deeply convinced that female altar service is good and proper, I would put this simple question: "Is it not also true that you are unconvinced by the Catholic Church's stand against women's ordination, and that you would indeed like to see women as priests as well as altar servers?" I would hazard a guess that almost the only persons who would honestly answer 'No' to this question - that is, persons firmly opposed to women's ordination while firmly endorsing female altar service - would be certain cardinals, bishops and priests. And I suspect that, even in such cases, enthusiasm for 'altar girls' on the part of some generally conservative members of the clergy and hierarchy 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 the Church's pastors, after all, who are the decision-makers. They are the ones who have to bear the brunt of the feminist rage, rhetoric and tears of frustration directed at 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 prelates 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 keeping intact the traditional Catholic doctrine (as distinct from discipline). It is surely no accident that the Vatican itself made public these two related decisions - the admission of female altar service and the Pope's definitive doctrinal declaration against women's ordination - at almost the same time (in March and May 1994 respectively). But such hopes of appeasing the feminist ideologues by making concessions to them are, predictably, proving to be illusory. I see no evidence that the feminist campaign against "patriarchy," with its demand for female ordination, has in any way diminished over the last six years. If anything, it has increased in extension and intensity.

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 supernatural ambience of the liturgy by confusing the place of the Bridegroom with that of the Bride. 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, there is presented a highly public scenario which is imposed willy-nilly on everyone who happens to be assisting.

III. What Can Be Done?

It is my understanding that most participants in this congress would tend to see the solution to the current liturgical decadence, of which female altar service is only one aspect, in an increasing return to the use of the pre-Vatican II Roman Missal. My personal opinion, however, is that while the rite in its pre-conciliar form should always be retained as a legitimate option as long as there are Catholics who prefer it, a broader and more long-term solution will be to take up the call of the late German liturgical scholar, Msgr. Klaus Gamber, for a new liturgical movement, or "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 1995 at the Colorado Springs Eucharistic Conference.

The advantage I see in 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 an approach to the Holy See 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 a venture can perhaps be understood better in the light of some relevant points of canon law; and here I would refer to an article published in the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Newsletter by an American canonist, Msgr. John F. McCarthy, who 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, 18 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 - 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) permit females as well [as males] to serve at the altar . . . ". 19

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, 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. 20

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 strongly object to celebrating, or 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 an official Vatican clarification or recognition of this right, or at least, of the validity, as one choice among others, of a liturgical spirituality which, even in the context of the post-conciliar rite of Mass, restricts altar service to men and boys. 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 a clarification would be an improvement.

I have the impression that those Catholics who customarily attend the Tridentine Mass under the terms of the 1984 Indult and the 1988 Motu Propio Ecclesia Dei, are often tempted to respond with a certain indifference to the subject of my talk today, thinking that female altar service - which is specifically prohibited by the 1962 Missal - is, after all, a problem only for 'Novus Ordo' Catholics. Some traditionalists, indeed, go so far as to greet with satisfaction - or even glee! - every additional novelty or deformation introduced into the post-conciliar rite, in the hope that such changes will produce an ever-wider disillusionment with the whole liturgical movement initiated by Vatican II and, therefore, a growing reaction in favor of the unchanged traditional Roman rite. Such attitudes seem to me unfortunately complacent and "isolationist." We are all members of the one Church, and the present liturgical instability, in spite of the new General Instruction's laudable intention to call a halt to further innovation, remains a problem that affects all of us, particularly since there seems no guarantee that the Ecclesia Dei concessions will continue indefinitely, in subsequent pontificates. 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. Please pray, therefore, for the success of 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 ideological harassment represented by 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. Aimé-Georges Martimort, "La Question du Service des Femmes a L'Autel", Notitiae, Vol. 16, 1980, pp. 8-16.

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

4. 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).

5. Cf. ibid., p. 26.

6. The wording of this canon should be kept in mind in evaluating the argument of a correspondent to the London Tablet, Dr. Peter Marshall, who has cited a work published in the early 16th-century in English translation as The Interpretacyon and Sygnyfycacyon of the Masse. According to Marshall, its (unnamed) Flemish Franciscan author claims "that while women were forbidden by canon law to preach, cense the altar, or touch chalice, paten or corporal, there was 'no such great commandment that they may not help the Mass,' and that 'maidens may help and serve at the mass in necessity,' when no man was available" (The Tablet, 8 February 1997, pp. 173-174). Marshall presents this as evidence that female altar service has some legitimate precedent in Catholic tradition. But, in the first place, the simple absence of any "great commandment" in current canon law explicitly forbidding a certain practice is not in itself proof that Church authority regards that practice as licit. This is particularly true in liturgical matters, where many specific prescriptions have been contained in documents of less weight than the sacred canons, or simply in oral tradition. So this anonymous Franciscan's conclusion does not follow from his own premise. Secondly, even if it does reflect the approved ecclesiastical practice of his own time and place, we still cannot reasonably conclude from this that the kind of "service" or "help" which could then legitimately be provided by "maidens" included their presence at the altar. In the light of the fact that such direct proximity to the place of sacrifice was explicitly forbidden to females "in almost all canonical collections of East and West" from the fourth century onward (cf. over n. 3 above), it seems more reasonable to conclude that the assistance referred to in this 16th-century source was nothing more than the kind of female "ministry" contemplated in the 1917 Code: for instance, making the server's verbal responses and ringing the bell, while remaining at a distance from the altar.

7. The prohibition 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.

8. 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 to 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 §272 of the 1975 Instruction, which dealt expressly with where the readings could be done and clearly (although only implicitly) included 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. In §272 the Instruction dealt with where the Scripture readings should be carried out, and specified 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. In American English the "parish priest" is usually referred to as the "pastor" of the parish.

10. Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani (2000), §107 (present writer's translation). The original reads as follows: "Liturgica munera, quae non sunt propria sacerdotis vel diaconi, et de quibus superius (nn. 100-106) dicitur, etiam laicis idoneis a parocho vel rectore ecclesiae selectis, committi possunt liturgica benedictione vel temporanea deputatione. Quoad munus inserviendi sacerdoti ad altare, serventur dispositiones ab Episcopo datae pro sua dioecesi." (The text is taken from the Internet site of the U.S. Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy.)

11. The parable of the workers in the vineyard, who without any injustice, received equal pay for unequal work (cf. Mt 20: 1-16), is relevant here. Liberal and socialist western ideology, confusing privileges with rights, denounces inequality per se as unjust.

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

13. Cf. AAS 86 (1994), p. 548. While it stops short of being a dogmatic (de fide) definition of revealed truth, like those of the Assumption and Immaculate Conception, the key sentence of this document is clearly an ex cathedra definition, infallible per se, of a truth "to be held definitively" (tamquam definitive tenenda); a truth, that is, belonging to the second of the three categories of doctrine enumerated in the Church's 1989 Profession of Faith and the 1998 Motu Proprio Ad Tuendam Fidem. Unfortunately, no less a figure than the Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith appears not to have seen that Ordinatio Sacerdotalis manifestly fulfils the conditions laid down for an ex cathedra definition by the dogma of papal infallibility promulgated in 1870 by Vatican Council I. Cf. the present writer's article, "Cardinal Ratzinger on Ordinatio Sacerdotalis", in The Priest (journal of the Australian Confraternity of Catholic Clergy), Spring 1994 / Summer 1995, pp. 5-6.

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

15. This is likely to be accentuated especially when adolescents of both sexes are simultaneously serving at the altar. 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 first told of the Vatican's decision in 1994, and were 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."

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

17. Sinoir, op. cit., p. 40.

18. Cf. AAS 86 (1994), pp. 541-542.

19. Ibid., p. 542.

20. 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 article was republished in Living Tradition 56, January 1995.) The author also observes (p. 17) that in any case the 1994 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.

Go to: Roman Theological Forum | Living Tradition Index | Previous Issue | Next Issue