In 1994, the Congregation for Divine Worship issued a letter officially specifying that it is licit for females to serve the altar in the role that has traditionally been known as “altar boy.” Bishops were not bound to permit the practice, and a 2001 follow-up specified that pastors may also choose to reserve altar service to males within their own parishes. Nevertheless, the Church has specified that altar girls can exist within the Church.
The practice is permitted. That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.
I’m not intimidated by empowered women. In my family women have always been encouraged to embrace home and family, but also to develop our other talents as circumstances permit. Domestic accomplishments are certainly valued, but girls are not made to feel that their accomplishments should be limited to the domestic sphere. My mother raised five children and I currently have four, but we both also have PhDs and writing careers. My sister works for the State Department, and travels around the world on diplomatic assignments. I’m proud of how much she’s accomplished.
Meanwhile, my female friends include lawyers and scholars and physicians, as well as scores of amazing, community-building women who seem to keep everything running, from the parish choir to the school festival, the local soup kitchen and the parish meal calendar. Of course the world needs women, along with their many talents. This is beyond obvious.
It seems to me, though, that an empowered person should be content to leave certain tasks to others. Women can be respected and valued without claiming every important job or honor. In my view, it’s better for everyone when liturgy is left in the hands of men.
When female friends seem unsure about this, I advise them to let go of the idea that full inclusion in the Church requires us to “participate” in sacred liturgy some externally visible way. I think it’s perfectly appropriate for women to be involved in parish music (though I always prefer that the music be offered from the back, because Holy Mass should not be confused with a concert). Otherwise, though, we can contribute from the pews, by uniting our prayers with the celebrant’s, and the congregation’s. If we are ever inclined to feel deprived by this role, we should remember that we are unspeakably honored by the opportunity to stand in Christ’s presence, and in the presence of all the saints, and even to receive the Bread of Angels into our bodies. If that counts as a degradation, most of our other weekly activities must be nothing short of shameful.
I know the usual response. You can claim that assisting at Mass is an honor, but men still get to do more. Why should they get to do more?
This of course is only referring to a minority of the men. At most Masses there are plenty of men in the pews, singing the hymns and uniting their prayers with the celebrant’s, just as women do. It’s not as though women have been specially segregated into an inferior caste. I can appreciate how some women find it hurtful to be prima facie excluded, regardless of their wishes or intentions. (For instance, some girls see their brothers being trained to serve the altar and feel excluded.) When it comes to worship, though, we should be assiduous about discerning what we’ve been called to do, rather than seizing on the role that we most want. And there are reasons for leaving liturgy to the men.
First of all, altar-boy service is one of the best recruiting grounds for the priesthood. However upsetting some may find it, women are not eligible for this particular role. The Church is desperately in need of more vocations, which in itself seems a good reason for encouraging boys specifically to take up altar service. Realistically, that effort will be most successful when we limit the role to boys. Time and again, we see that the introduction of altar girls leads to a decline in the boys’ willingness to serve. This shouldn’t offend us. It’s developmentally normal for children (adults too, for that matter) to crave opportunities for same-sex companionship and service. Girls should get those opportunities too, but other roles and activities can be found for them.
Beyond the vocations issue, we come to a more thorny problem. When men are in charge of liturgy, they generally favor austerity, solemnity and reverence. They are far more likely to have “high” liturgical sensibilities. When women claim a more central role, we frequently see a slide into lower and more culturally idiosyncratic practices. It generally starts with campy banners and popular-style hymnody, but may end with synthesizers and scantily-clad liturgical dancers. These liturgies are not beautiful or uplifting. They’re more like a never-ending hug from a grasping, obsequious aunt.
I have sometimes heard this sort of liturgy referred to as “feminine” or “effeminate.” I don’t especially like that, because I don’t believe that bad liturgy is really representative of what women have to offer. I’m a woman, and I hate schlocky liturgy. I don’t believe I would become more womanly by embracing tambourine bands, or receiving Communion in the hand. Still, there’s no doubt that women are more apt to produce bad liturgy. Perhaps we could say that it is “feminine” in the same way that pornography is “masculine”: it shows us some characteristic defects of one sex in particular.
My husband suggests that men’s liturgical sensibilities may reflect differences in how they tend to perceive God. It’s natural to men to regard the Almighty as a supremely great captain or general. He is the ultimate one in charge. Worship, for men, is somewhat akin to a military salute: it should be austere and magnificent because the goal is to honor our Creator.
Women’s natural orientation is more interpersonal. They are more likely to perceive God as loving and solicitous. Think of a grown woman affectionately referring to her father as Daddy (and then imagine how ridiculous that would sound coming from a man). It is perhaps not strange, then, that female-engineered liturgies tend to feel more like a hug (and to incorporate more actual hugs).
Neither orientation is wrong per se. God is infinitely great, powerful and loving. It isn’t bad for different people to be more sensitive to different aspects of the divine. But it might be that the natural male perspective is simply healthier when it comes to planning a liturgy. It elevates us somewhat above ordinary human affairs, inspiring us to lift our eyes to God. Low liturgy is more comfortable and immediately engaging, but it doesn’t have that same capacity to inspire. We end up looking at one another more than God, and it turns into a communal experience more than an act of worship.
Not everyone will find this theory convincing. I offer it merely as food for reflection. Even those who are not convinced, however, might consider that there is a smallness to taking personal offense at the lack of a call to liturgical service. Worship is something we offer to God. No one doubts that women are capable of performing the physical tasks that are needed for altar service, but we should also remember that we don’t have a right to any particular role in sacred liturgy. We are blessed just to be present.
I for one am deeply grateful to have access to beautiful liturgy, offered to God by dedicated men who have given their lives in service of the Church. I’m grateful that my children can experience worship in this way, and I would be proud to contribute … by offering any of my four sons for that honorable work. In the meantime, there’s nothing degrading about sitting in a pew. I like to imagine that saints and angels are there among us, reverencing the Body of Christ.