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No 54 Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study Program September 1994


by John F. McCarthy

        In a letter dated 15 March 1994, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments announced an authentic interpretation by the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts of Canon 230.2 of the 1983 revised Code of Canon Law and its own Instructions for the implementation of this interpretation. 1 In a forthcoming canonical analysis I shall explain why this intervention of the Holy See, approved by Pope John Paul II, is correctly to be understood as an indult granted to those local bishops who wish to use it but which does not abrogate the universal law prohibiting the use of female altar servers. Nevertheless, by these Instructions, authorization has been given by the Holy See to local bishops in their own dioceses to allow the use of female altar servers and thus to open to the presence of women the sacred space - the presbyterium - surrounding the altar during the Eucharistic Sacrifice.

        The destruction of the sanctuary around the altar - as far as the notion of the presbyterium is concerned - is fraught with dangers that are only partly mitigated by the fact - stressed in the Instructions given by the Congregation for Divine Worship - that the sanctuary has already been opened in many dioceses for women to serve as lectors and to distribute Holy Communion. With the implementation of this new indult, every semblance of a presbyterium disappears from the Mass. We ask ourselves why this change was called for and what it hopes to achieve. The short answer is, I think, that it was called for by religious feminists, and what they hope to achieve eventually (from their viewpoint as feminists) is a female priesthood together with the destruction of the male priesthood as it has been understood for the past two thousand years. We are indebted to Donna Steichen 2 for pointing out to us so graphically and with such abundant evidence the real motives and aims of the leaders in the American and the Canadian religious feminist movements and the influence that their pleas have had upon the thinking of the bishops who asked for the Indult. It appears that the only motive for admitting female altar servers is an emotional attachment to the idea of having females at the altar during the Eucharistic Sacrifice - an attachment diametrically opposed to the principal reason for which the sanctuary has been preserved for almost two thousand years.

        On a superficial level, one might think that a sufficient reason for admitting female altar servers is the idea of fairness - to give girls an equal opportunity to serve at Mass along with boys. But this reason does not hold up. To reserve the space around the altar for males - and especially for priests - illustrates the difference of roles between males and females - and between priests and non-priests - in the unfolding of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, while to allow women to serve but not to preside illustrates a kind of inferiority of women to men - an impression which seems to suggest the need in fairness to open up the priesthood to women. Thus, the admission of female altar servers has given new impetus to feminists in their drive to overturn the institution of the male priesthood.

        It is important to realize that in Catholic liturgical tradition a space has always been reserved to the priest during the Eucharistic Sacrifice. In an informative monograph, Father Michel Sinoir 3 has documented the fact that traditionally all other persons who were accustomed to be at the altar were there only in relation to an expressed or potential vocation to the priesthood. Thus, the deacon and the subdeacon were there as persons on the way to becoming ordained priests, and so were those in minor orders. Young boys were admitted, partly because of the need of service, but also and perhaps primarily because it was a way to encourage a priestly vocation in those whose careers were not yet decided. Thus, in a potential way, often unidentified young boys in the group were on the way to the priesthood. But women cannot be on the way to the priesthood, except in their own minds and in their own desires.

        Now, the question of desire is a big one. No one can read Donna Steichen's Ungodly Rage without realizing the diabolical aims that leading religious feminists have with regard to the priesthood as established by Our Lord Jesus Christ. Women are not now being admitted to serve at the altar because they are needed for altar service, but for the sole reason that they are females, so that females, too, can be there at the altar, for the honor and satisfaction that this may bring to them. The goodness of such motivation is highly questionable. One could conceive of women who, from a deep dedication to the true meaning of the Mass, might want to participate as altar servers, but such motivation is patently alien to those women who have been calling for a female presence at the altar, while, at the same time, it is precisely women dedicated to the true meaning of the Mass who are repelled by the thought of their serving at the altar.

        It is always dangerous to eliminate a practice whose purpose has not been adequately understood. Nowhere in the course of growing hierarchical sympathy for feminist demands has due consideration been given to the reasons for which the sanctuary around the altar was originally established and has for so long been preserved. I think that the principal reason is a mystical one: to protect the priest from the incursion of demonic forces during the sublime ritual of the Eucharistic Sacrifice. With the presbyterium thrown open, what protection will the priest celebrant have from occult forces operating through unmortified feminist minds and hearts?

        At the funeral Mass of noted feminist Sister Marjorie Tuite, O.P., on 29 June 1986, in the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer in New York City, feminist friends crowded around the altar of sacrifice. In the words of feminist Ruth McDonough Fitzpatrick: "At the consecration the priest on the altar was surrounded with women. He was trying to elbow them back to give him his sacred space. But all of us extended our hands and said the words of consecration." 4 In the best circumstances a celebrating priest has a delicate task in defending himself from "the wickedness and snares of the Devil." In the presence of the evil and uncontrolled force of witchcraft operating within the religious feminist movement, the dangers presented by the opening to women of the presbyterium surrounding the altar are too great and numerous to calculate.


1. Acta Apostolicae Sedis, (1994), pp. 541-542.

2. Donna Steichen, Ungodly Rage: The Hidden Face of Catholic Feminism (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991).

3. Michel Sinoir, La question de l'admission des femmes au service de l'autel (Paris: Téqui, 1994), pp. 17, 26-28.

4. Steichen, Ungodly Rage, p. 312.


The Catechism: Highlights and Commentary, by Brennan Hill and William Madges.
Australian edition: Collins Dove, 1994, 166 pp. American edition: Connecticut, Twenty-Third Publications, 1994.
(Page numbers cited in this review are those of the Australian edition.)

Reviewed by Brian W. Harrison

        It is no secret that The Catechism of the Catholic Church has not been greeted with enthusiasm by the theological establishment in the affluent West. Some of the more radically outspoken dissidents have openly denounced it. However the present volume, by two theology teachers from the Jesuits' notoriously liberal Xavier University in Cincinnati, has opted for the stiletto rather than the meat-axe in its effort to effectively demolish what is arguably the most important single magisterial document of the twentieth century. Rushed into print so as to pre-empt the long-awaited English version of the Church's new and monumental witness to her ancient faith, this slim commentary is part of the concerted effort of dissenting academics to ensure that the Catechism will be Dead On Arrival when it reaches English-speaking centers of Catholic education. However, the method employed is not that of directly attacking the Catechism, but rather, of calmly relativizing its authority.

        The language of this commentary is quiet and reserved. No caustic rhetoric à la Richard McBrien or Rosemary Ruether disturbs its placid pages. Instead, its typical approach is to summarize, section by section, what the Catechism itself says, and then to dissect it with benign condescension. The authors praise anything in the Catechism which they think can be represented as "moving away" from some traditionally held position, and then proceed to reduce definitive Catholic doctrine to the status of just one more option (an out-dated one at that) in the theological supermarket. The format almost parodies that of the Sermon on the Mount ("You have heard it said of old ... but I say unto you ..."). That is, the commentary routinely intones: "The Catechism's view is (such-and-such), ... but many theologians today are saying (so-and-so)." One-sided reading lists are then appended in an effort to ensure that the orthodox "such-and-such" will be effectively crowded out by the anti-Roman, progressivist, ecofeminist "so-and-so," in any further study carried out by the reader.

        Speaking of format, these authors seem determined to compensate for Rome's rejection of an inclusive-language translation by expressing their own paraphrases of the Catechism's "highlights" in rigorously feminist newspeak. Apart from one grudging mention of "Father, Son and Holy Spirit" in its summary of the Trinitarian section, no masculine terminology is ever allowed in reference to the Deity as such. This not only makes for ungainly prose ("God's parental tenderness," for example, as well as ugly repetitions and stilted substitutions for the appropriate personal pronoun); it also obscures the personal relation between the Father and the Son, since after "God" is mentioned, Jesus cannot be called "his" Son! A typical sorry result is this summary of §§215-217 of the Catechism: "God is a God of truth and fidelity, One who is always faithful to divine promises. God's wisdom governs the world. God's truth is contained in revelation, especially in the revelation of the Son, Jesus Christ" (p. 27, emphasis added).

        More important than form, however, is content, and unfortunately the authors' skepticism regarding orthodox Catholicism is apparent from the start, where they not only dissent from, but even misrepresent, the Catechism, in its teaching about the most basic religious belief of all: the existence of God. They summarize as follows the Catechism's teaching in §§31-33: "While there are no scientific proofs for God's existence, there are many aspects of the world's order and beauty which render God's existence probable."

        Then, in the commentary, we find this astonishing statement: "The Catechism reflects the fact that Catholics have generally moved away from attempts to prove God's existence" (p. 23). (The titles of the first four "suggested readings" on the subject "God" (p. 34) do not exactly radiate a sense of joyous confidence in the reality of a personal Father-Creator: Losing God, by Michael Gallagher, What is God?, by John Haught; Search for the Absent God, by William Hill; and She Who Is, by Elizabeth Johnson.)

        In fact, the Catechism is completely in line with Vatican I's infallible definition that the existence of God can be known with certainty by natural human reason. What it really says in §31 is (with emphasis added):

Created in God's image and called to know and love him, the person who seeks God discovers certain ways of coming to know him. These are also called proofs for the existence of God, not in the sense of proofs in the natural sciences, but rather in the sense of 'converging and convincing arguments,' which allow us to attain certainty about the truth.

        The present commentary, however, starts us out on the rather shaky basis of a God whose existence is merely "probable" and whose essential attributes seem uncertain. One of the unhappiest features of much contemporary theological "exploration" is the stale, pervasive reek of pantheism: that blurring of the distinction between God and man, Creator and creation, which finds vulgar reflection in the "New Age" superstitions now attracting many spiritually-starved Westerners.

        Thus, Hill and Madges politely disparage the Catechism's echo of the First Vatican Council's clear distinction between reason and revelation, nature and grace, and then recommend that we follow Karl Rahner, who "moved beyond this view," teaching us "to find God as ... the ground of all human existence" (p. 23). After all, revelation "is given to all" (not just to Christians). Instead of being handed down from Heaven, it "emerges through personal and communal experience and through human culture" (p. 24), since "all creation, and uniquely human beings, has been 'graced' with God's presence and power" (p. 23). The authors also fault the Catechism for neglecting "many alternative possibilities for imaging God" suggested by "inter-faith dialogue, liberation theology, process thought and feminist theology." They complain that while the Catechism still stresses the idea of God's transcendence, "the emphasis today seems to have shifted to the immanence of God" (p. 31).

        Indeed it has. The narcissistic New Age sub-culture loves to find divinity "in here" rather than "out there." Many feminist currents prefer a deity (often identified as "the Goddess") who is totally immersed in nature and in "humankind," while the insidious influence of "process thought" reduces God from the omnipotent, immutable Creator to a sort of cosmic version of Casper the Friendly Ghost: an eternally evolving spirit, well-meaning but vulnerable, who merges with us into the changing universe and is swept along in its eternal flux, being bumped and bruised in the process just as much as we are. As our authors recall approvingly, process theologians claim that "God [in his own essence, not only by virtue of the incarnation] is a 'fellow-sufferer' ... with humankind" (p. 32). This amounts to a radical denial of the first article of the Creed, whose demanding, law-giving "patriarch" - God the Father Almighty - must needs be replaced by a more manageable and accommodating nature-spirit. (Those two dreamy lines from a Cat Stevens ballad capture well the flavor of this thinly-veiled paganism: "I don't want no God on mah lawn: / just a flower I can help along!")

        Other articles of faith receive similarly short shrift. Praising those theologians who "have built upon the foundational work of Teilhard de Chardin" (whose dangerous errors and ambiguities remain under Roman censure), Hill and Madges see "Adam and Eve and the story of the Fall" as "ancient myths," and describe original sin as "a universal tendency to sin" - by which they mean that this tendency has been there from the first moment of man's existence. Forgetting that this involves the theological absurdity of making God the author of evil, they suggest that such an understanding of sin may be "more compatible with the findings of contemporary anthropology and social sciences than the view found in the Catechism that speaks of a historical fall from a state of original justice" (p. 33).

        This sad commentary looks askance even at that which should inspire the greatest fervor in every Christian heart: "the sacrificial aspect of Jesus' death, wherein he took upon himself our guilt and offered himself to save all people from sin" (p. 42). The authors note that the Catechism stresses the above "interpretation" of salvation; but they expect us to find more relevant their own 'updated' version - one so dripping with 'progressive' buzz-words and gobbledygook as to sound like a deliberate caricature of theological trendiness. "Today," we read, "salvation is often linked to the ongoing event of creation and viewed as a dynamic process whereby the saving power of God continually 'happens' in human experience" (p. 42).

        By now you will not be surprised to learn that the Church's definitive teaching on the divinely-instituted hierarchy does not appeal to our authors. They frown at the "limitations" of the parallel drawn by the Catechism (§§857-862) between the Apostolic college and the present Church hierarchy; they suggest that the apostolic succession is nothing more than "continuity with the teachings" of Jesus (the classic Protestant view of apostolicity); and they tell us of the "broad consensus among biblical scholars" that "the Bishop of Rome only gradually gained primacy over the other bishops" (p. 56). Indeed, we learn that Pope Leo I, four centuries after the apostolic age, was the one who "formulated the Roman office of the papacy, tracing it from Jesus to Peter to the Bishop of Rome" (pp. 56-57). By this distortion of both history and faith, which confuses the existence of the Roman primacy with its increasingly direct and explicit exercise during the first five Christian centuries, such "biblical scholars" effectively cast doubt on the institution of the papacy by Christ Himself - a truth infallibly defined by the Councils of Florence and Vatican I.

        Also infallibly defined (by the Council of Trent) is the institution by Christ of the seven sacraments - which the Catechism, of course, reaffirms (§1117). Hill and Madges, however, think otherwise. At first they resort to the old trick of denial by "reinterpretation," telling us that " 'Institution by Christ' is understood differently today, now that the Church recognizes the contribution of biblical criticism and historical studies." But in the next breath they cast caution to the winds and sympathetically present an open denial of the doctrine: "In effect, many theologians hold that the sacraments have been instituted by the Church under the inspiration of Jesus Christ" (p. 67).

        Although the Catechism states no less than three times (in §§1250, 1253, and 1279) that Baptism removes original sin, our authors claim that in its treatment of this sacrament "there is not the former emphasis on the removal of original sin." They themselves then proceed to dismiss this truth altogether: "Original sin is a later notion that is not constitutive of the theology of baptism" (p. 75). Next, the Catechism's teaching that Christ instituted the priesthood at the Last Supper (a truth infallibly defined by the Council of Trent and liturgically enshrined in the great Chrism Mass of Holy Week) is openly flouted: "Ordained priesthood does not seem to appear until the second century and does not seem to be associated with Jesus' apostles" (p. 77, repeated on p. 93).

        Central to nearly all of these dogmatic questions, of course, is the issue of biblical inspiration and inerrancy. We are faced today with a nearly universal dominance of "historical-critical" (read "rational-skeptical") exegesis in the Catholic biblical establishment. Since Vatican II it has reached even into the Pontifical Biblical Commission (which Paul VI prudently demoted in 1971 from its pre-conciliar status as an arm of the Magisterium). Given the contemporary fact of this virtual stranglehold, I can only regard it as practically a miracle of grace that the Catechism remains untainted by this blight of unbelief in God's Word: the historical writings of both the Old and the New Testaments are invariably cited on the clear assumption that what they say happened really did happen. This has not escaped the notice of Hill and Madges, who lament the very fact that so gladdens my heart: "One wishes," they sigh, "that contemporary exegesis would have been used much more extensively in the Catechism" (p. 24).

        The Church's moral teaching fares no better than her dogma at the hands of these authors. Noting with thinly-veiled disdain the Catechism's "idea" that "obedience to the moral law leads to the happiness and salvation promised by God" (cf. §§1776, 1850, 1871), they appeal to "psychology" in order to insinuate that only the immature or childish personality remains fixed at this stage of "moral development." It is suggested that we "expand" the Catechism's "understanding" of these matters "to include a greater role for personal discernment." After all, those "theologians [who] draw upon the resources of psychology ... understand that the mature individual has gone beyond an unreflective conformity to conventional laws" (p. 113).

        There is of course nothing very new about that sort of "psychology:" it was used, as you will recall, with devastating effect by the serpent in Eden. And there are no prizes for guessing that when the commentary arrives at the Catechism's coverage of the Ten Commandments, that "greater role for personal discernment" advocated by Hill and Madges translates into dissent from specific moral norms which have been proposed constantly and firmly - and therefore infallibly and irreformably - by the Church's magisterium. Nor are there any prizes for guessing what area of human behavior they have principally in mind. They complain that "openness or flexibility is generally not evident in the Catechism's treatment of sexual matters. It categorically condemns abortion, masturbation, homosexual acts and artificial means of contraception" (p. 140).

        It would take a book almost as long as the commentary itself to expose all of its insidious thrusts and jabs at the authentic faith and morals taught with such clarity in the Catechism. One has the impression that these authors, secure in their sense of power within the academic stronghold of the "American Catholic Church," see their task as that of smoothing the dying Catechism's pillow while preparing for its burial. Their brand of dissidence on a vast scale is in fact the very problem for which the Catechism hopes to provide a solution; which means that placing Hill's and Madges' commentary in the hands of ill-informed Catholics as a "guide" to the fruitful understanding or appreciation of this new magisterial landmark will be a classic case of setting the fox to guard the chickens. It should be avoided like a contagious disease.

[This review has appeared in the September 1994 issue of Fidelity (Australia), newsletter of the John XXIII Fellowship Co-op. Ltd., P.O. Box 22, Ormond, Vic., 3204, Australia. Fr. Brian W. Harrison, O.S., is Chairman of the Department of Theology and Philosophy of the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico in Ponce, Puerto Rico.]

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