On ‘Altar Girls’ and the ‘Feminization’ of the Church

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Given that we provide a direct link to Pope St. John Paul II's encyclical "Mulieris Dignitatem" ("On the Dignity and Vocation of Women") and believe our commentary to be both submissive to and affirming of its teaching, it is a serious misunderstanding to interpret the "Vortex" episode "Feminization of the Church" as dismissive of the vocations of women.

We are attempting to clarify something that has been lost both in the culture at large and in the Church: the natural order of things. There are qualities and attributes proper to each gender (not exclusively, but generally) and are not good when assumed as primary attributes in the opposite gender.

This isn't to say there aren't shared qualities; of course there are.  Male and female are not distinct species of human being. Both are created in the image and likeness of God and share in those qualities that enable us to know, love and serve God. Male and female are fully equal in dignity and worth in the sight of God.

To speak of each gender, in general terms, of qualities and attributes particular to each is not demeaning to either. Even in the simple case of biology, from which many distinctions flow, it isn't demeaning to speak of women as having the role of child-bearer and specific qualities and attributes uniquely suited for that role.

There are significant differences between paternal and maternal qualities and attributes. Since paternity and maternity flow from the masculine and feminine respectively, qualities and attributes are rightly either masculine and feminine. When a man adopts, as predominant attributes, qualities more naturally appropriate for a woman, that makes him weak as a man. He is not weak as a man because the feminine is weak but because he is not being masculine. The same observation is true for women. For a woman to assume, as her primary attributes, qualities more naturally appropriate for a man, makes her weak in her femininity, not because masculine traits are weak in themselves.

God made us male and female to be complementary to each other. We are equal in dignity and worth but not the same, and our qualities and attributes as male and female are not just "behaviors" to be switched back and forth. We are not genderless spirits wearing male and female "suits." We are, in the very essence of our being, male and female. At the end of time, we will not rise as unisex beings: We will rise as males and females.

Many gender roles in society and the Church may, indeed, be products of social conditioning and engineering more than nature. However, that some "conditioned roles" may need to be challenged does not mean the very definitions of masculine and feminine can be challenged. We are male and female by nature. How we grow in love and service of God is as males and females. To the degree we ignore essential differences placed in us by God, we corrupt our understanding of human nature as male and female.

Jesus did not incarnate as a man because of social and historical circumstances. God is not limited by such things. Jesus is male because the Church was to be, and is, His Bride. Jesus, as the Heavenly Bridegroom, brings life and salvation to the world through His Bride, the Church. Jesus and His Church are one, just as husbands and wives are called to be one, just as fathers and mothers, together, co-create with God new citizens of the Kingdom of God. Male and female, mother and father, maternity and paternity, are not "social roles" imposed on us by society and culture. Our gender is part of who we are.

The issue of "altar girls" may appear to be little more than disagreements over "liturgical functionaries." To think this is to lose sight of the role of priesthood in the offering of sacrifice to God, a role reserved to men (definitively taught by Pope St. John Paul II as something the Church has no power or authority to change). There have never been "priestesses" in Judeo-Christian history. Pagan cultures had "priestesses" for centuries prior to the birth of Jesus. Jesus clearly honored the dignity and worth of women in a way that was quite countercultural for His time, but He chose not to introduce "priestesses" into His Church. Priesthood, reserved to men, offers sacrifice to God at the altar.

Prior to reforms introduced after the Second Vatican Council, the path to Catholic priesthood contained "minor orders" and "major orders." "Minor orders" were offices such as acolyte, exorcist or lector. "Major orders" were the offices of subdeacon, deacon and priest. "Altar boys," or acolytes, were always understood as "servants" at the altar. Priests offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and altar boys serve the priest, assisting him as he offers sacrifice. Probably close to 100 percent of priests had, at one time, served Mass as altar boys. Because of that, it was rather natural to see altar boys as potentially future priests.

It should be rather obvious that what altar boys do can be done by "altar girls." It's also obvious that what priests do can be done by "priestesses." Both observations miss the point that service at the altar should be reserved to men because only men can be priests. This is consistent not only with a theological understanding of priesthood but with human nature: Male roles attract males. 

What has happened in the last few decades is that serving at the altar has come to be understood as a "female" activity, and this is not attractive to males. It's not that the activity itself is feminine, but that males (and young males, in particular) tend to shy away from activities that appear to be dominated by females, as so many "ministries" in the Church have become (except the priesthood). Men have become "minority participants" in most liturgical settings: as lectors, as Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, as directors of religious education — the "staff" positions in most parishes and chancery offices are overwhelmingly women. And, of course, there is the perennial observation that women always outnumber men in the pews. Just going to church itself is viewed by many men as "something women do."

The seed ground for vocations to the priesthood is service at the altar, preferably starting at a very young age. It is an undeniable fact that once "altar girls" are introduced in a parish, service at the altar quickly becomes dominated by women. Given that only men can be ordained to the priesthood, it is misleading to women to invite them to service at the altar in a manner that can never be developed further. If women could be ordained to the Catholic priesthood, then it would be entirely appropriate for them to begin service at the altar at the earliest possible age. But women cannot be ordained to the Catholic priesthood, not now, not ever, so we shouldn't be encouraging women to act as if they can and could. The evidence is all around us.

Some have expressed the concerns that, absent an ability to serve at the altar, women have no obvious path to a religious vocation, a life consecrated to the service of God in His Church. Part of that perception could be the result of the almost-total collapse of consecrated religious life for women. Where consecrated religious sisters were once visible everywhere, now they are not. Often when they are visible, it isn't obvious they are consecrated religious, having abandoned all visible signs of their consecrated state.

We have a catastrophic crisis of vocations in the Catholic Church, for both men and women. Men are not attracted to a priesthood that appears to be anything but heroic, a state in life that is maligned everywhere (and, in many cases, with justification) and which looks more like a "job" than a vocation. More men would be attracted to the Catholic priesthood if more priests acted like men in love with Christ and aware of their awesome responsibility and status as alter Christus acting in persona Christi. A "feminized priesthood" is not attractive to men. Neither, by extension, is "feminized fatherhood" in the married state. Where vocations to the priesthood are exploding is in the traditional religious orders that retained the understanding of both priesthood and the Mass as it was understood prior to the catastrophic "reforms" that followed the Second Vatican Council. The seminary of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter in Nebraska has a waiting list. Men are created to be, and are at their essence, paternal.

Women, also, suffer from a lack of inspiring role models for both motherhood and consecrated religious life. Women are created to be, and are at their essence, maternal. Traditional feminine roles arose, not from oppression, but from nature. As our culture lurches towards denying nature in so many areas, both women and men have suffered from confusion and lack of direction. No one can any longer give a coherent answer to what it means to be a man or a woman. Motherhood is more often perceived as a burden, an unfortunate biological affliction, than a vocation and gift from God. "Gender equality" has become "gender sameness" to the detriment of both genders. Where consecrated religious life for women is flourishing is in new religious orders that are, just like their male counterparts, responding to traditional understandings of religious life. It will probably take decades for the "biological solution" to take full effect and yield ground to these new, energized religious orders that are attracting young women in love with Christ and hungry to consecrate their lives to Him. If people are not aware of these orders, then they prove the point about the catastrophic collapse of visible consecrated orders of religious women in the world today. The heart cannot long for what it cannot see or what does not inspire it.

"Altar girls" came on the scene as an indult in settings where men were not readily available, such as women's prisons. The inch granted by the Vatican became an abused mile in many dioceses and parishes. "Altar girls," just as "Ministers of Communion," were intended to be extraordinary, not the norm. Disobedience and human nature have yielded the conditions we see today. It is evident, however, that things are changing. For those of us old enough to have perspective, it can't happen soon enough.

Two blog postings expand/explain the points made in the "Vortex" episode "Feminization of the Church"

Voris and the Feminization of the Church

Voris on the Feminization of the Church