Altar Girl Decision Sparks Controversy

Commentary by Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
Staff Journalist

A decision by the rector of S.S. Simon and Jude Cathedral in the Diocese of Phoenix to restrict altar servers to boys in order to encourage vocations is drawing flak from the usual dissenting groups within the Church and the print publications that give them way too much ink.

According to the Diocese of Phoenix, Father John Lankeit, rector of the cathedral, decided to no longer allow girls to serve on the altar with the hopes of promoting the priesthood for males and religious vocations for women.

“The decision was made in order to encourage young men and women to honor their God-given differentiation and complementarity, and to discern more clearly how such differentiation points to specific vocations in the Church,” says Rob DeFrancesco, director of communications for the diocese.

“Boys’ service at the altar has roots in Church history prior to the creation of the modern seminary system where men are formed for priesthood. Before seminaries, serving at the altar was part of an apprenticeship for priesthood. Fr. Lankeit’s decision was made primarily in response to the shortage of priestly vocations, since serving at the altar points very clearly to the specific vocation of priesthood.”

He goes on to cite examples where limiting altar service to boys, such as in the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska and Ann Arbor, Michigan, produced many new priestly vocations. “The Diocese of Lincoln is considered a vocations ‘powerhouse.’ In a single parish in Ann Arbor, in 2008, there were 22 new seminarians and five women in formation for religious life.”

In fact, the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, also based in Ann Arbor, is receiving so many inquiries from young women interested in entering the order they can’t build facilities fast enough to accommodate the surge in vocations.

“Their order offers clear evidence that when the God-given differentiation between male and female is honored, both men’s and women’s vocations flourish,” DeFrancesco stated.

Naturally, feminists are jumping all over this decision, saying it is being imposed by a male clergy that hates women.

“This is not only disgraceful, it is impractical. Women comprise at least 80 per cent of church lay ministers, and they are backbone of most parishes around the world,” says Erin Saiz Hanna, executive director of the Women’s Ordination Conference.

“The Vatican’s stance on the ordination of women is based on arguments that have been refuted time and again. In 1976, the Vatican’s own Pontifical Biblical Commission determined that there is no scriptural reason to prohibit women’s ordination. Jesus included women as full and equal partners in his ministry, and the hierarchy would do well to follow suit,” Hanna concluded.

Hanna is using the usual distortions to try to build her case. The 1975 report of the Pontifical Biblical Commission did note that there are “no scriptural objections to ordaining women” but it didn’t say it was okay to do so. All it said was that there is no direct statement from Christ about it. However, we don’t need a direct statement because Scripture makes it quite clear that Jesus appointed only men as apostle-bishop-priest. Besides, as Hanna also neglects to note, Catholicism is not a “sola scriptura” religion but also takes into account Sacred Tradition, which is loaded with explicit statements against women’s ordination, i.e., the early council of Nicea which forbade the laying on of hands upon women in ordination.

Bryan Cone of the U.S. Catholic, a publication not known for its faithfulness to the Magisterium, also questions Fr. Lankeit’s decision, saying that girls are entitled to serve on the altar by virtue of their baptism. Unfortunately, he seems to have missed the part where Christ told the apostles to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” [emphasis added]

In other words, being baptized into a new life in Christ means being obedient to His commands, which are embodied in the Church He founded. And because pastors have the authority to determine whether or not girls can be altar servers, this decision is expected to be obeyed by the faithful.

Cone adds: “And just for practical purposes, how much longer will the parents of girls keep taking them to a church that now won’t even let them serve at the altar, much less eventually become priests?”

This scare tactic doesn’t hold much water judging by the comments I read on the U.S. Catholic’s site and that of another dissenting publication, the National Catholic Reporter (NCR). Commenters were by no means unanimously against Fr. Lankeit’s decision. In fact, many of them supported him, which is surprising for newspapers that tend to draw the readership of people who want to see the Church “change with the times.”

For instance, a commentator named I888myself writes at U.S. Catholic: “There shouldn’t be altar girls. It should be reserved for boys. Not only is the presence of girls serving a discouragement to many boys not wanting to appear feminine, but it just serves no purpose to have girls as altar servers. The other problem is the obsession some Catholics have with having the laity storm the altar, as though everybody deserves a turn.”

CWG writes at NCR: “Another brave and insightful priest has done the right thing and recognized the historical connection between a boy serving Mass and also beginning to recognize and discern a vocation to the priesthood.”

Someone named “paulte” also weighed in on the NCR site: “What business does the Women’s Ordination Conference, a non-Catholic group, have in telling a Catholic entity like the Phoenix Cathedral what to do about anything at all to include altar girls?”

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

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