Fresco of St. Paul and St. Thecla

Fresco of St. Paul and St. Thecla

“The introduction of girl servers also led many boys to abandon altar service. Young boys don’t want to do things with girls. It’s just natural. The girls were also very good at altar service. So many boys drifted away over time. “ – Raymond Cardinal Burke

The quote above was from an interview conducted by Matthew Christoff of the New Emangelization project (read that word closely, I’m not making this up). His observation is part of a trend that encourages fewer girls to participate as altar servers in order to encourage more boys to participate, theoretically leading to growth in the number of boys who choose to become priests.

The feeling was recently echoed by Rev. Joseph Illo at the Star of the Sea church in San Francisco which recently stopped allowing girls to serve at the altar.

“The specifics of serving at the altar is a priestly function,” Illo said. “And the Catholic church does not ordain women.”

So while Pope Francis calls for a “more profound theology of women”, some senior church clerics and pastors have come to the conclusion that this deepened theology is best developed by having young girls watch what boys do.

It must be pointed out that wherever such statements are made, the speaker always adds the caveat that the position or decision has nothing to do with equality. Rather, according to Cardinal Burke, the policy is a much needed step to counter ‘the radical feminism which has assaulted the Church and society since the 1960s’, leaving men feel ‘marginalized’.

(Radical feminism is a term within the feminist movement during the 1960’s and 70’s that argued that many social structures based on patriarchy unfairly oppress women.)

Somehow, when I see the young ladies serving at the altar, I rarely look at them as leading a radical charge to marginalize my sense of self-worth. But apparently, I must be missing their diabolical intent. I must also be missing the signs of this movement’s success, as to me, at first glance, most popes, cardinals, bishops, priests, and deacons appear to be men.

The policy of female altar servers is a voluntary decision made at the parish level by pastors, providing the diocesan bishop has granted permission for such a choice. If the bishop says its OK, it is then up to the pastor to determine if young ladies are to be permitted as altar servers.

In the cases of Cardinal Burke’s opinion, and the policy in San Francisco, along with a number of cathedrals and parishes (Phoenix, Ann Arbor), as well as the entire diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, the idea is that female altar servers result in fewer boys who want to become priests.

Even though there is little hard data to support such a supposition, these church leaders feel that this belief is a hypothesis worth testing.

So long as we don’t need much (if any) data for a hypothesis, here’s mine:

Increasing the visibility and roles of women at our liturgy and in pastoral roles would increase pastoral outreach, improve the spiritual role of priests, and increase religious vocations.

To start, I am not going to touch on the role of women as ordained priests. It is not because I do or do not agree with the suggestion, but because the exclusive role of men as priests is so deeply ingrained in the tradition of our church the issue is a non-starter with anyone whose opinion matters (and they would all be men).

St. Pope John Paul II used his 1994 Apostolic Letter Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men to summarize the reasons why women could never be priests:

“[because of]…the example recorded in the Sacred Scriptures of Christ choosing his Apostles only from among men; the constant practice of the Church, which has imitated Christ in choosing only men; and her living teaching authority which has consistently held that the exclusion of women from the priesthood is in accordance with God’s plan for his Church.”

Although I would love to write something inflammatory on the subject (and anything written about this is bound to inflame somebody), I honestly don’t have the spiritual maturity to suggest an interpretation of God’s plan for His church when discussing who is or is not qualified to act on behalf of Jesus as a church leader.

But while I am unqualified to explore the dogma of male ordination to the priesthood, my role as a parishioner qualifies me to touch on the role of women in other services to the community.

It is time to allow women to become deacons in the Roman Catholic Church.

The history of deacons goes back to the earliest years of the Church. Male deacons primarily served at the pleasure of bishops in order to conduct most of the administrative functions of the diocese. At the beginning of Church history, there also existed women deaconesses who would tend to the needs of the women of the community — though in those days, that generally meant presiding over the baptism of women faithful — which at that time took place in the nude.

The ‘official’ rationale for opposing the admission of women to the diaconate centers on the mind-numbing exercise of interpreting the intentions of the 4th century Church. When the Council of Nicea was clarifying the role of deaconess, they were clear that these were persons who, unlike male deacons, were not ordained. Furthermore, as people started wearing clothes to baptisms, there was no longer a perceived need for women to minister to women. So, along with the increasing importance of male deacons, the role of female deaconesses gradually faded.

Today, opposition to deaconesses remains little changed from Nicea. The more conservative interpretation collectively encompasses the roles of deacon, priest and bishop as ‘ordained’ – or empowered by the Sacrament of Holy Orders. And as pointed out earlier, only males can be ordained because, well,  Jesus was male and only males can act in the personhood of Christ. Deaconesses were never meant to be deacons, the argument continues, so why start now.

More liberal arguments contend that deacons cannot (among a number of priestly actions) conduct the sacramental duties associated with the Eucharist (consecrating bread) or administering the Sacarment of Penance — examples of actions that represent the personhood of Christ. Since deacons cannot act in personhood of Christ, they must be acting as Christ’s servant. Therefore, the male-personhood restriction to deacons should not apply. (I told you it was mind-numbing).

I’m going to simplify vocabulary here by calling for male and female deacons. Today, we do not assume that a lay deacon is a ‘priest in training’ and the 4th century Church’s dismissal of the spiritual needs of women was a trend that reflected little more than the social norms of Late Antiquity. (Someone find me a scriptural reference that women’s spiritual needs are to be ignored). Attempts to maintain separate deacon/deaconess roles reflect nothing more than an interest in retaining 4th century job descriptions and career paths.

Today, thanks to Vatican Council II’s restored emphasis on the role of deacons, if I, as a man, have a problem with my career, my marriage, or any other issue of personal importance, I can reach out to a handful of male deacons at my parish.

Would I reach out about problems involving my marriage or issues of a sexual nature to a woman deacon? Would I want to talk to a women about manhood issues? Not likely.

And that is the point. Women in our Church have few (if any) women of spiritual standing to talk to about problems that involve womanhood. Women don’t have the luxury of reaching out to a spiritual leader/mentor who really understands the female perspective of spousal abuse, post-partum depression,  breast cancer, family discord or any other facts of life that affect women in a unique way.

The absence of female deacons in our Church denies women equal access to adequate pastoral care. And in today’s world, that inequality of access is wrong.


Young ladies and young men must have equal opportunity to act as altar servers.

The crux of the female altar server matter lies in the belief that eliminating young ladies as altar servers will result in more male vocations to the priesthood.

So, is there no other way to recruit men to the priesthood? No program of enhanced religious education, no after-school program of sports activities that can be combined to encourage consideration of religious vocations, no social events run by seminarians in the parish setting to introduce young people to religious life?

While young boys may find themselves uncomfortable around girls –  are there no scheduling options that can give young boys the space they need? Some dioceses that wish to encourage the Latin Mass often use that form as a setting to revisit the classical altar boy role without booting girls from the other masses.

Are these leaders serious in saying that only effective way to encourage priesthood is to post a sign that says ‘no girls allowed’ near the altar?

No one really knows how much of a factor altar serving is in encouraging vocations(*). There is only scant anecdotal data that points to pockets of increased priestly vocations at all-boy parishes, and even those instances can’t easily factor out the strength of a parish religious ed program, the vitality of the parochial schools, or the engagement of the diocesan recruiting team.

Some Church leaders do consider the possibility that a young lady serving at the altar may, as a result, be drawn to a vocation with the women’s religious orders. It’s not as though we don’t need more women religious to serve in our Catholic hospitals, schools, healthcare facilities or social service organizations. The Arlington archdiocese admitted as much, with Bishop Paul S. Loverde writing that altar serving provides “an experience which can facilitate a young woman’s discernment of the Lord’s call to religious life.”

By removing young women as altar servers, our Church says to our young ladies, “We know you want to serve our Lord and Church, and maybe this experience could encourage you to think of devoting your life in a religious vocation. But you are scaring the boys away and we need more men in the priesthood. So thank you, but please go back to the pews and sit next to mommy. We’ll think of something else for you to do. It’s nothing personal.”

Most arguments one reads about boys-only altar serving suggest that girls can be directed to other, less visible roles in the sacristy or steered to participate in other girls-only organizations in the parish.  Will these ‘alternate paths’ be full of the same spiritual experience as serving at the Lord’s table? Probably not.

This isn’t about equal rights. This is about providing all young people with equal opportunity to respond to a calling to serve.

Our young girls deserve equal opportunity to respond to the Holy Spirit’s calling to experience the spiritual connection that comes with being an altar server. This opportunity may lead to interest in roles with religious communities or as lay leaders in the parish. To deny young girls such an opportunity because of their gender is wrong.


So on what specific suppositions do I base a hypothesis that increased visibility of women in the church would enhance the role of priests and increase pastoral outreach?

We will start with the obvious —- more girls acting as altar servers will be exposed to the spirituality of our liturgy. This exposure may well fuel interest in pursuing vocations in any of the religious orders.

And I have already mentioned the value provided by female deacons in serving the women in our parish community — serving in a way that men just can’t because, well, because they are men.

And while our all male diaconate has held the privilege of proclaiming the gospel, what church foundations would be shaken to hear a woman’s gospel reflection?

Take the Gospel of the Annunciation. How long do women have to listen to a man explain the emotions of being an expectant mother?

A formal re-introduction of female deacons would also increase the pool of women candidates to act as parish administrators – a role that is already open to men and women at the discretion of the bishop. Numerous parishes already have parish administrators absorbing many of the critical operational roles in a parish where the priest/pastor is unable or incapable of serving.

In fact, there would appear a certain family-like symmetry in parishes where the spiritual pastor-priest works as an equal with a female parish administrator to advance the kingdom.

Finally, the good men who follow the priestly vocation would need less time in parish administration and more time to administer the sacraments and provide increased emphasis on the spiritual development of the flock. One would think that such an emphasis is the reason men became priests in the first place.

So yes, I hypothesize that increasing the visibility and roles of women at our liturgy and in service would increase pastoral outreach, improve the spiritual role of priests, and increase religious vocations.

It’s a hypothesis worth testing.


(*) – The US Conference of Bishops has conducted surveys strongly suggesting correlation – some 80% of one class of ordinands having served as altar boys.