Altar Boys: The Problem or the Solution?
THE COST OF ECCLESIAL EQUALITY
In August 2010 some fifty thousand altar servers descended upon Rome for the International Pilgrimage of Altar Servers with Pope Benedict XVI. It was the tenth such gathering of “ministrants” who serve the Novus Ordo Missae, and it marked the first time that altar girls outnumbered altar boys at the event. Writing in L’Osservatore Romano, Lucetta Scaraffia hailed the news as the correction of a “profound inequality,” marking the end of “any attribution of impurity” to females. Correction? Attribution of impurity? Sounds like something was drastically wrong with the long-standing tradition of boys serving at the altar. “Correction” implies that there was a “problem,” but was the centuries-old practice of altar boys a problem in the Church?
Regrettably, other than the article in L’Osservatore Romano, there was little written about the event to stir new debate regarding the prevalence of altar girls. The dust has seemingly settled on this issue. For nearly twenty years — since the promulgation of Acta Apostolicae Sedis, a Vatican interpretation of canon 230.2 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law — girls have poured into church sanctuaries like a wall of water rushing downstream from a broken dam. Just as quickly, boys have moved out of the way. If we agree with Scaraffia, then justice has finally been served, and we are finally at equilibrium. If the pendulum has swung a little the other way, well, it was necessary to correct a serious “problem.”
In reality, by trying to solve a problem, the Church contributed to a bigger one. By introducing girls into our sanctuaries, the Church opened the dam, allowing that wall of water to uproot the organic process that, for centuries, has cultivated vocations to the priesthood. The numbers reported last August should have sounded the alarm for bishops and priests who have the authority to employ only boys. Will we have to wait twenty more years before the dam is plugged? By then, the ratio of altar girls to boys might be nine to one, and going to Mass on Sundays will be, for many, a day trip across the diocese to a centrally located parish because of the priest shortage.
Of course, it’s not fair to lay blame for the priest shortage on the alb-covered shoulders of altar girls, who, by and large, do an excellent job serving. Certainly, they are equal to the task and perform at least as well as, if not better than, their male counterparts. So, then, why should there be any issue with altar girls? For starters, it’s not about performance. Traditionally, priests have come from the ranks of the altar-server corps, and the introduction of female servers would soon discourage and drive away boys called to the priesthood. Indeed, the Vatican has acknowledged the great contribution of altar boys to the priesthood and, at the same time, cautioned that female altar servers could have an adverse effect. In a March 15, 1994, circular letter to the heads of episcopal conferences about the pending promulgation of Acta, Antonio Maria Cardinal Javierre Ortas, then-prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (CDW), wrote:
The Holy See respects the decision [to use altar girls] adopted by certain Bishops for specific local reasons on the basis of the provisions of Canon 230.2. At the same time, however, the Holy See wishes to recall that it will always be very appropriate to follow the noble tradition of having boys serve at the altar. As is well known, this has led to a reassuring development of priestly vocations. Thus the obligation to support such groups of altar boys will always continue.
More recently, in a 2001 letter from the CDW in response to a bishop’s question about the use of altar girls, Jorge Cardinal Medina Estévez, current prefect of the CDW, reaffirmed that while female altar servers are permissible, altar boys are preferable and priests have the right to employ boys exclusively: “The Holy See [in giving] such an authorization may not, in any way, exclude men or, in particular, boys from service at the altar, nor require that priests of the diocese would make use of female altar servers, since ‘it will always be very appropriate to follow the noble tradition of having boys serve at the altar.'”
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