Father Joseph Illo found himself in the center of national media attention after he announced his decision last week to disallow female altar servers at Star of the Sea parish in San Francisco. Many responses have been negative, with the most recent media commentary titled: “Altar Server Scandal Is Reminder of How Far The Catholic Church Has To Go With Women.” The situation has predictably brought the public square to focus on questions regarding the role of women within the Church, and whether decisions like these are unjustly discriminatory. Popular media responses seem to indicate that they are, and that Fr. Illo’s decision is emblematic of Catholic patriarchy and intransigence.
But as a Catholic woman and former altar server, I understand and fully support Father Illo’s decision.
Although technically the Church has permitted female altar servers, it remains true that She does not require it. In fact, the salient sentence from the Code of Canon Law (230) regarding the involvement of both men and women as altar servers (among other offices) permits it with the caveat, “by temporary designation.” This phrasing invites a question about the soundness of what has so often become the norm in American parishes where female serving is concerned. So now we must ask: Why might it be fitting that women not serve at the altar, even if Canon Law permits it?
We should begin by noting that altar boys originally served the priest with offering the Mass as acolytes. This was the highest of what were called the minor orders, which were elements of priestly formation and preparation. Minor orders was distinguished from “major,” or “sacred” orders, in which the seminarian was ordained to the holy office of priesthood. After minor orders was reformed in 1972, the acolyte became a lay ministry rather than an order. It was then that canon law included an article that permitted men and women (as implied in the use of the Latin laici, or lay people) to stand in for acolytes as needed. Thus began the transition from acolyte seminarians to what are today called altar boys and girls.
The media is employing this canon law allowance to criticize and oppose Fr. Illo’s decision. We should note two things about the allowance, though. First, as we have seen, the role of an acolyte is inherently related to the priesthood, and second, the contemporary altar girl bears no resemblance to that purpose for which the office was created. Many think that the Catholic Church has taken a step in the right direction by opening her doors more widely to the involvement of females in the liturgy. But given that the Church never has and never will ordain women, it’s difficult to see how altar girls could ever benefit from their service in the way that altar boys can. As Fr. Illo himself said, “Nothing awakens a desire for the priesthood like service at the altar among the brotherhood of young men.”
Now I’d like to emphasize the flip side of this discussion. Too often is the Catholic Church—in this case, Father Joseph Illo—criticized for speaking of what women cannot do. But nearly everyone omits that the Church also speaks more highly of women than any institution you could name. And when the Church uses the word “woman” She uses it to mean a woman’s entire personhood, not her contribution to the workplace alone (feminism), or the beauty of her body alone (pornography). Our recent popes have spoken often of the importance and dignity of women in and for the Church. Consider, for instance, the following excerpt from Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity of Woman, John Paul II):
Therefore the Church gives thanks for each and every woman: for mothers, for sisters, for wives; for women consecrated to God in virginity; for women dedicated to the many human beings who await the gratuitous love of another person; for women who watch over the human persons in the family, which is the fundamental sign of the human community; for women who work professionally, and who at times are burdened by a great social responsibility; for "perfect" women and for "weak" women - for all women as they have come forth from the heart of God in all the beauty and richness of their femininity; as they have been embraced by his eternal love; as, together with men, they are pilgrims on this earth, which is the temporal "homeland" of all people and is transformed sometimes into a "valley of tears"; as they assume, together with men, a common responsibility for the destiny of humanity according to daily necessities and according to that definitive destiny which the human family has in God himself, in the bosom of the ineffable Trinity.
I would hardly call this discrimination or patriarchy. Just because the Church points to fundamental differences and therefore characteristic role discrepancies between men and women does not mean that She considers women as lesser. There is surely a difference between inequality and complementarity, a difference that much of the media seems to overlook.
The critical role of men in society and culture is also largely ignored amid debate over women’s roles in the Church. Unfortunately, the feminist movement has effected an environment in which any emphasis of our need for masculine virtue is perceived as an exclusion of feminine virtue, rather than a complement to it. This mentality is gravely dangerous, and the Church has fallen prey to it.
Thus when considering an issue like whether or not girls should be altar servers, we must look at the matter in the context of our culture’s current state, rather than simply one priest’s decision. We are suffering now from a terrible cultural crisis in terms of how we view the roles of men and women; the distinction between the two is fading in the popular eye, and is perhaps almost invisible. The Church, in turn, is facing that same crisis.
Cultural dynamics, including loss of home life, bad catechesis, the feminist movement, and the eruption of widespread pornography consumption, have ushered in the cessation of celebrating male virtue. The importance of men being made in the Holy Trinity’s image, or the value of selflessness for the sake of a woman and family, or the inseparable connection between human sexuality and a lifelong commitment between a man and woman, have all been lost, and this loss is affecting the Church in a devastating way. Men have been “grievously wounded” by it, as Cardinal Burke stated in a January 5 interview. He continued:
The goodness and importance of men became very obscured, and for all practical purposes, were not emphasized at all. This is despite the fact that it was a long tradition in the Church, especially through the devotion of St. Joseph, to stress the manly character of the man who sacrifices his life for the sake of the home, who prepares with chivalry to defend his wife and his children and who works to provide the livelihood for the family. So much of this tradition of heralding the heroic nature of manhood has been lost in the Church today.
The priesthood is inherently a masculine vocation because Christ is the exemplar for priesthood. The relationship between Christ and His Church is essentially the relationship between a bridegroom and his bride, male and female. It is right for men to seek to imitate Christ, the most perfect paradigm of the masculine role. If masculinity is no longer valuable, why embrace the priestly vocation, which is an imitation of Christ as the High Priest? If no one around you values the masculine virtues, why choose something so intrinsically male?
And so we may return to Fr. Illo’s decision. Viewed by the modern eye, it appears archaic, discriminatory, and uncharitable toward women. But viewed in light of the Church’s rich tradition of the male priesthood and the inherent dignity and complementarity of both male and female, he is exercising a prudential judgment that is clearly keeping the Wisdom of the Church in mind. Instead of viewing him with a primarily critical eye, I invite my readers to consider his decision in light of the under-tapped potential of altar serving for male discernment and the complementarity that the Church holds to exist between man and woman.