For well over 1,700 years, the Roman Church knew the existence of four “minor orders” (porter, exorcist, acolyte, and lector) and three “major orders” (subdeacon, deacon, and priest). These roles concern the execution of the liturgy and were, on that account, reserved to men.
Pope Paul VI attempted to abolish the minor orders and to replace them with what are commonly called the “instituted ministries” of acolyte and lector. But to maintain some semblance of continuity, he, too, limited them to men. Indeed, initially only men—whether formally instituted or not—could enter the sanctuary to fulfill these tasks. At the ground level, the same kind of disobedience that led to Communion in the hand led also to the routine use of women and girls as servers and readers (i.e., not instituted acolytes and lectors). Pope John Paul II, in one of the most criticized and regretted moves of his pontificate, recognized the practice as allowable, albeit not mandatory.
Prior to 2021, in the sphere of the Novus Ordo, women and girls were permitted to substitute for lectors and acolytes, but canon law still said that only men (viri) were to be “installed,” that is, to hold them in a permanent and stable way as ministries. Pope Francis’ decision, by means of his motu proprio Spiritus Domini (2021), to modify canon law so that “ministries” of lector and acolyte are to be conferred upon women therefore raises more numerous and far deeper issues than may be apparent to many at first sight.
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The situation inherited from Paul VI and John Paul II was already theologically and liturgically incoherent and has been made only more so by Francis’ motu proprio, which continues the course of rupture from Catholic tradition. Our age is not known for deep or careful thought about the implications of the steps we take in pursuit of what is believed to be “a better world”—we tend to shoot before we look. And it is no secret that knowledge of history, theology, and liturgy, even among high-ranking prelates, is deplorable and has been for some time now.
Thus, while Pope Francis’ motu proprio may look like a technicality, it represents, in fact, a tectonic shift both in theology and in praxis. Francis is saying that the Catholic Church, for the first time ever, should institute women as liturgical ministers—not as substitutes for ministers, but as ministers simply speaking. While such a decision does not logically demand an opening to women deacons or women priests, it is intelligible only against the backdrop of the pervasive feminism that has equated the worth of women with their taking-on of roles traditionally reserved to men. In that sense, it continues to stoke the flames of a false egalitarianism that will never stop agitating for women deacons and priests. Moreover, it reflects a failure to understand why ministries were reserved to men for nearly all of the Church’s history and why the inclusion of women in these roles is contrary to the very nature and structure of the Catholic liturgy.
Yet that is not all. The Church suffers today from great confusion about the roles proper to the clergy and the roles proper to the laity. An oft-bemoaned but seldom corrected trend to “clericalize the laity,” whether women or men, introduces a false dynamic into the life of the Church and distorts our relationship to the liturgy and to each other in the Mystical Body. A necessary and long-overdue course correction requires understanding anew the indispensable, positive, transformative, and fulfilling role of the Christian laity in the world, working in tandem with the clergy in a way that is analogous to the complementarity of the sexes and the complementarity of active and contemplative religious life.
Considering the importance of this cluster of topics, it is a cause for concern that literature arguing for the traditional point of view is slim to non-existent. My new book, Ministers of Christ: Recovering the Roles of Clergy and Laity in an Age of Confusion (Crisis Publications, 2021), is an attempt to fill that lacuna.
I wrote the book for three categories of Catholics.
First, for liberal or progressive Catholics, who are convinced that the tradition of limiting ministries to men (ideally ordained men) is simply a knot of misogynistic assumptions based on outmoded, ancient philosophy and a pagan ritualism reliant on categories of sacred and profane that Christian revelation has exploded. These readers need to see that the tradition has a coherent and comprehensive account behind it—one that rests in no way on the denigration of women or of the laity but on reasons that benefit and augment the dignity of all: ministers and non-ministers, men and women alike.
Second, for traditional Catholics, who know by a kind of instinct or intuition what is right and what is wrong in regard to sanctuary ministry but, apart from uttering a few generalities, would be hard-pressed to give a reasoned explanation of why it is right. If we are going to carry the torch of tradition forward in the teeth of increasing resistance, we very much need to see that we are defending not merely a preference but an apostolic and patristic inheritance resting on the deepest theological foundations.
Third, for so-called “conservative Catholics,” who may well have their “preferences” for what is (more or less) traditional but whose ultramontanism puts them in a bind: in order to keep their preferences, they must agree to let others in the Church have contrary preferences, and their criterion of right and wrong must be dictated solely by positive legislation. I wish to demonstrate, at least on the present topic, that the way they hold their position in fact does amount to a form of prejudice, discrimination, or (at best) aestheticism. Only the traditional account can rise above subjectivism to an objective order emanating from the original creation and reestablished in Christ, the New Adam.
The chapters of Ministers of Christ are grouped into three parts.
Part I, “Foundations,” looks at the most fundamental questions: how sexuality and the body have personal significance and therefore moral, theological, and liturgical significance as well; the connection between the Incarnation of Our Lord and the male priesthood and male sanctuary service; the blessing on womanhood conferred in and through Our Lady, the Virgin Mother of God; the Old Testament background and New Testament roots of the diaconate, subdiaconate, and minor orders, seen as radiating outward from the priesthood of Jesus Christ, and the solemn tradition behind this ecclesiastical hierarchy; and the proper role of the laity in the great world outside the churches, where they exercise their primary responsibilities.
Part II, “Deviations,” takes a critical look at practices that entered the Church after the Second Vatican Council—above all, the habitual use of female lectors and altar servers, whether filling in as “substitutes” or, as Pope Francis would now have it, installed as ministers. It explains how these novelties misconstrue and muddle the callings of laity and clergy as well as their diverse but complementary modes of participation in the liturgy. Here it is especially important to free the notion of “active participation” from its harsh captivity as a slogan trafficked by modern liturgists and to indicate its original meaning and the conditions for its realization.
- the universal reestablishment of the subdiaconate and minor orders—which, contrary to popular belief, have never been abrogated and remain in use to this day;
- a return to the traditional lex orandi of the classical Roman rite, which embodies true doctrine about states of life, ministries, and sexes;
- the wearing of veils by women in church as a sign of their distinctive role in the Mystical Body;
- the full acceptance of the supernatural and sacrificial vision of priesthood and consecrated life that attracts vocations today as it always did in the past, together with a firm repudiation of the “heresy of activism” that extinguishes the primacy of prayer and the ultimacy of contemplation;
- a reversal of the mad race of aggiornamento (updating), to be replaced by the serene embrace of the essential changelessness of the Christian religion, which worships the immutable God in His eternal truth, reflected in the liturgical rites of Catholic tradition and the stable forms of life they call forth and bless.
Ministers of Christ concludes with three litanies for private devotional use. The first is for the clergy in general. The second and third, based on the Roman Martyrology, remind us that the history of the Church provides many examples of saintly subdeacons, lectors, acolytes, and exorcists whom we ought to invoke. These litanies would be most appropriately prayed by those who are preparing to receive said orders, those who have received them and exercise their functions, and those who wish to pray on behalf of such candidates, either by name or in general. What could be better than to call upon the intercession of the glorious martyrs and confessors of the Faith who, in their own lifetimes, received the dignity of these offices in the Church and are forever remembered by her in that manner?
Lastly, there is a select bibliography for those who wish to read more.
A true ecclesiology sustains and prompts the correct forms of belief, worship, and life. These, in turn, reinforce that framework and repel what is contrary to it. A matter such as disbanding an immemorial tradition of minor orders or directing that women should assume certain ministries hitherto reserved to men is not just an isolated bureaucratic decision, an arbitrary determination floating in a vacuum. It is bound up with a vision of the Church. It represents the Church under a certain aspect. It affects how the Church will or will not serve Christ and achieve the good of His members. Beyond utility or aesthetics, it is a matter that concerns truth—adherence to the truth that sets us free, or a drifting away from the truth by enslavement to modernity’s ideologies.
Ministers of Christ mounts a serious defense of the Church’s traditional understanding and practice of liturgical ministries. When error and malpractice are on the loose, we need all the more to articulate the rationale for Catholic tradition and work to make it known, respected, and followed. We must refuse to collaborate or support the abettors of dissolution and must lend our aid, in whatever form it may take, to those who patiently and bravely carry forward an inheritance that remains “sacred and great” for all of us.
This article was adapted from the preface to the book Ministers of Christ: Recovering the Roles of Clergy and Laity in an Age of Confusion by Peter Kwasniewski, with two chapters by Bishop Athanasius Schneider and foreword by Leila Marie Lawler (Manchester, NH: Crisis Publications, 2021).
[Photo Credit: Martha Calderon/CNA]