To raise the possibility of an all-male liturgical ministry is to invite tribulation. Those who prefer the traditional arrangement of male altar servers, lectors, and so on are nervous about vocalizing their convictions, let alone acting upon them. This in itself is significant: Regardless of where one stands on the issue, it should give us pause that many Catholics, from the pious in the pews to prelates in the Vatican, stand in fear of being stigmatized as supporters of a 4,000-year-old tradition, faithfully kept by God’s chosen people from the days of Abraham until the Catholic Church began changing its practices in the 1970s.
But let us have courage and look again with fresh eyes. Such an investigation is necessary, especially if we wish to continue admitting women into the service of the sanctuary. G. K. Chesterton once complained of would-be reformers that they “do not know what they are doing because they do not know what they are undoing.” His grievance was that reformers either do not sufficiently study the original rationale for the thing they are dismantling, or they assume “all their fathers were fools.” Yet advocates for female liturgical ministers might go further and say that our fathers were not fools but worse: oppressors, sexists, misogynists. This forces us to ask: Are sins of bias the real reason behind an all-male liturgical ministry? What precisely are we undoing?
To address these questions, we turn to eight distinctions.
1. Allowed vs. Encouraged
The Holy See allows female lectors, extraordinary ministers of Communion, and altar servers, but it does not necessarily encourage them. Despite the fact that papal Masses have female readers, permission for this has an officially optional, provisional, and exceptional nature (see Canon 230.2). Strictures surrounding altar girls are particularly tight. According to the Congregation for Divine Worship’s 2001 letter “Concerning the Use of Female Altar Servers,” the general law prohibiting them remains in effect except in those places where the bishop uses the indult allowing them. A bishop cannot compel his priests to use female altar servers; and every bishop, even when using this indult, is obligated not to undermine the “noble tradition” of altar boys.
2. Liturgical vs. Non-liturgical
Saying that women shouldn’t serve in the sanctuary says nothing about women’s leadership elsewhere in the Church or other ministries open to them. Liturgy is a unique animal: It has its own rules, logic, and, as we shall see, symbolic demands.
3. Holy vs. Sacred
“Holy” and “sacred” are not synonymous. To be holy is to be filled with and transformed by the Holy Spirit, whereas to be sacred is to be consecrated for special use. The opposite of “holy” is “wicked,” but the opposite of “sacred” is “profane,” a word that literally means “outside the temple” and has no necessarily negative connotations.
Both sexes are equally called to holiness, while they are called to different roles regarding the sacred. These roles do not prejudice the ability of one sex to become holy: As all the bad popes writhing in Dante’s Inferno amply attest, having a particular access to the sacred and becoming holy are two different matters.
Per Alice von Hildebrand’s The Privilege of Being a Woman, one way of describing the difference is that men are called to be protectors or keepers of the sacred, whereas women are called to be a particular embodiment of the sacred. Von Hildebrand, for instance, writes eloquently on how the female body is sacred in a way that a man’s isn’t.
The distinction between holiness and sacredness also explains how the same St. Paul who declares that there is “neither male nor female” in Christ (Gal 3:28) can also prescribe very different kinds of comportment for men and women in liturgical worship regarding headdress, lectoring, etc. (1 Cor 11:3-12, 14:34-35). Contrary to popular historicist readings, Paul’s writings are not contradictory “products of their age” but a practical instantiation of the perennial distinction between holy and sacred.
4. Function vs. Symbol
The sexes’ differing relations to the sacred is connected to the innate typology of the Mass. For if men are the custodians of the sacred and women the embodiment, we should find this in the Church’s supreme act of worship.
And we do. Since every Mass is a mini-Incarnation, a re-actualization of the great event that took place when the “yes” of the Blessed Virgin Mary ratified the divine initiative and made God really present in her womb, the sanctuary in which the Mass takes place is effectively a womb. This is why the traditional configuration of a church sanctuary is uterine. With its demarcating border of altar rail or iconostasis, it is an “enclosed garden” (Sg 4:15), a traditional image of maidenhood. And whereas the sanctuary is feminine, her ministers, as representatives of the sanctuary’s divine Husband, are masculine. (For more on this crucial point, see Jacob Michael’s outstanding “Women at the Altar.”)
This is obvious in the case of the priest, the indispensable stand-in for the Groom who fructifies the sanctuary-womb by consecrating the Eucharistic elements (whereas a female priest is as impossible as the conjugal union of two women). But is it true for the other liturgical ministers? No and yes: No, it is no more essential for a priest to be attended by males in the sanctuary than it is for a groom to be accompanied by groomsmen in order to validly marry. On the other hand, yes, it is highly appropriate for a priest to be assisted by males in the sanctuary, just as it is highly appropriate for groomsmen to accompany a groom.
And thus our fourth distinction, between function and symbol. From the very first Mass in the Upper Room, which deliberately took place during the ceremonially rich Passover, the liturgy has never been a matter of pure utility. Everything in liturgical tradition has deep significance: In this case, the maleness of its ministers is an icon of the nuptial embrace between Christ and His Church, a dramatization of the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.
5. Mars vs. Venus
Male custodianship of the sacred is also linked to sacrifice. Although offering oneself as a sacrifice is equally incumbent on both sexes (Rom 12:1), men are the only ones in the Bible who offer physical immolations. Scripture doesn’t say why, but we may hazard a guess. Men after the Fall are the violent sex, more likely to have recourse to bloodshed as a means of obtaining what it wants. While this does not deny that women can also be violent, it does explain the causes of war, the population of our prisons, and the consumer demographic of video-game players.
God’s strategy appears to have been to channel the postlapsarian male’s propensity for violence away from murder toward animal sacrifice as a way of helping him recognize his devious impulses and repent. “God in his seeming bloodthirstiness,” Patrick Downey writes in his superb Desperately Wicked, “is actually more concerned with curing us of our own.” This strategy culminates in the New Covenant, when its High Priest, rather than committing violence, allows Himself to be victimized by it. God’s final solution to the problem of man’s deicidal heart is to give him exactly what he wants.
But the cross is a true sacrifice, as is the sacrifice of the altar which re-presents it. Thus, it remains linked not only to the darkness of the human heart but to the specific problem of male violence. Serving on the altar is actually a healthy form of humiliation for men and boys, for it constitutes a confession of their wicked hearts; God’s restriction of sacrifice to males in the Tabernacle, Temple, and beyond is a back-handed compliment.
6. Good for the Gander, Not the Goose
Altar service is also good for males because it encourages religious vocations and teaches all men to serve chivalrously and to respect the feminine, which is sacred, with reverence and awe. It is not so for girls. Let us be honest: When we allow a girl to serve at the altar, we are lying to her. We place her in the courtly role of page and tell her she can never be a lord. And we are not encouraging vocations to the convent: For a nun, as Rev. Vincent Miceli persuasively argues in “Sisters as Symbols of the Sacred,” is called to be sacred, not a knightly protector of the sacred.
7. Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up
But wouldn’t the Vatican’s prohibition of female liturgical ministers invite howls of protests from those keen on tarring the Church with the dread label of sexism and the terrifying metaphor of “turning back the clock”? Undoubtedly, but change needn’t happen by centralized proscription. There could be a grassroots movement in which parishes or dioceses restore the nuptial signs of the Eucharistic sacrifice for themselves. Such a movement could grow organically until it transformed the way the faithful approached liturgical worship.
8. Thermometer vs. Thermostat
Some think we should downplay our hoary traditions in order to fit into our democratic, egalitarian society, as this would render us better citizens. But the opposite is true. The more we differ from society, the more we have something to contribute to it. The last thing our culture needs is more Yes Men bowing before the gender idols of the age; it needs Dutch uncles informed by a loftier view of things. Borrowing a distinction from Martin Luther King Jr., Catholics need to be a thermostat setting the temperature rather than a thermometer reflecting it. An all-male liturgical ministry would be an effective way of preaching the Good News about the higher meaning, so tragically overlooked now, of the noninterchangeable dignity of our sexual natures.
A more detailed version of this article, “Male Subjection and the Case for an All-Male Liturgical Ministry,” will appear in the upcoming issue of Antiphon: A Journal for Liturgical Renewal.