ORGAN OF THE ROMAN THEOLOGICAL FORUM
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Living Tradition, Oblates of Wisdom, P.O. Box 13230, St. Louis, MO 63157, USA
|No 58||Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study Program||May 1995|
by Brian W. Harrison(This article is adapted from an address given at Fort Lee, New Jersey, on 20 May 1995
[the] general discipline of the Church [against female altar service] has been set in stone by canon 44 of the Collection of Laodicea which dates generally from the end of the 4th century and which has figured in almost all canonical collections of East and West. 4Martimort also recalls that Popes ever since St. Gelasius in 494 had denounced this practice as an abuse. It appears there were already feminist influences making themselves felt in Sicily and southern Italy at that time, and Pope St. Gelasius felt obliged to write to the bishops of those regions saying:
We have heard with sorrow of the great contempt [mépris] with which the sacred mysteries have been treated. It has reached the point where women have been encouraged to serve at the altar, and to carry out roles that are not suited to their sex, having been assigned exclusively to those of masculine gender. 5Every edition of the Roman Missal from 1570 till 1962 carried the prohibition of female altar servers, as did the 1917 Code of Canon Law (c. 813, §2), not to mention the documents of the post-conciliar liturgical reform in their earlier and less radical phase.
Those ministries which are performed outside the sanctuary may be entrusted to women if this be judged prudent by the priest in charge of the church. The provisions of n. 66 about the place whence the scriptures are to be read should be taken into account (emphasis added).And what exactly does §66 of the Instruction say?
The Bishops' Conference may permit a woman to read those scripture passages which precede the Gospel, and to give out the intentions in the Prayer of the Faithful. It is for them also to specify the place whence she may most suitably announce God's word to the people (emphasis added).If we take §§66 and 70 together, the Instruction's meaning is perfectly clear: if there are to be women readers, the Bishops are to decide which of various possible places outside the sanctuary is most appropriate for them to read from. The very fact that the Vatican saw any need at all for new and separate episcopal decisions regarding the location of the lectern or ambo, in the event that women are use it, is indicative. It shows that §66 of the Instruction, even taken in isolation from the explicit restriction found in §70, was not including the sanctuary itself among those places where Bishops might legitimately decide to admit women. For if the legislator had envisaged the admission of women readers to the sanctuary as a legitimate option, then no. 272 of the Instruction, which deals expressly with where the readings can be done and clearly (although only implicitly) includes the sanctuary as a suitable place, would have been sufficient to cover this question. There would then have been no need for further episcopal decisions as to where in the church building women in particular should read the Scriptures. 8
It seems that the true motivation for this constant practice of excluding women from the altar ... is the link which was understood to unite the lesser ministries to the priesthood itself, to the point where they had become the normal stages leading to the priesthood. This link is already present in the perspective of St. Cyprian [he died as a martyr in 258]. 9This idea of altar service as basically a stage along the road to the priesthood is still reflected not only visually by the fact that altar servers dress like priests, in cassock and surplice, but also linguistically in the terminology used in some languages. In Spanish, for example, an altar boy is called a monaguillo, which etymologically means "a little monk." And in Italian the word for altar boy is chierichetto - a "little cleric," which means that the term used naturally for"altar girls" in Italian is in itself an affront to Catholic doctrine: they are called donne chierichetto, "little female clerics." But it is Catholic doctrine that females cannot become clerics (that is, in the post-conciliar Church, priests or deacons).
The iconostasis symbolically is Heaven, and its liturgy, which anticipates Heaven, is celebrated only by members of the clergy. The nave is symbolically the earth, the abode of men and women who are preparing themselves to enter into Glory. This is by analogy the same mystery as that of Christ-the-Bridegroom, renewing in the sanctuary his sacrifice, which is gratefully received by the Church-his-Bride who is still in pilgrimage here below. 11It follows that to defend female altar service by arguing that the servers, after all, are only doing things of minor importance (serving wine and water, etc.), rather than performing actions that require the sacrament of orders, is to miss the point. That kind of merely pragmatic or functionalist perspective betrays a very limited understanding of the sacred liturgy, which is profoundly symbolical, suggestive, and permeated at every point by imagery. What is crucial in this question of altar service is the whole scenario of the sanctuary, the overall visual impression of what and who is present there, and the subliminal message which as a result is sent out by this scenario.
The presence of women in the sanctuary, which is the place of Christ the New Adam, Bridegroom and Saviour, and hence the place of the bishop, bridegroom of his [local] church, the place of the priest and the deacon - this unjustifiable feminine presence, even if it does not destroy the objectivity of the perpetually renewed redemptive Act, nevertheless greatly harms the personal faith of each member of the congregation by confronting it with a sign which falsifies the mystery; it impoverishes our faith. 13This falsification of the sacred symbolism of the liturgy at its very heart - the Holy of Holies which is the altar of sacrifice - is the deepest reason why female altar service is a serious deformation of the Church's worship.
The implication is that the general liturgical norm prohibiting female altar servers remains in existence, so that in general women may not serve at the altar unless a local ordinary intervenes by a positive act and grants permission for his territorial jurisdiction. Thus, the Congregation has clarified the authentic interpretation to mean that an indult is given to diocesan bishops to permit the use of female servers. 15This brings me to the main point. If in fact the authentic interpretation of c. 230.2, and accompanying Instruction constitute an indult - in other words, an exception to the rule, a concession to depart from the norm of exclusively male altar service - it should follow logically that nobody has the right to impose this exception on those who want to worship according to the norm. In other words, it should be acknowledged that priests and faithful who find no inner peace while assisting at Masses served by women or girls have a right to be able to assist at Mass celebrated according to the norm. It would therefore seem to be very opportune to seek official recognition of this right. No doubt it will take much more than this to effectively counteract the feminist tide which threatens to sweep over the post-conciliar Roman-rite liturgy in many countries. But at least such recognition would have the effect of lighting a candle.
by John F. McCarthy