I am often asked my opinion about girl altar servers–yea or nay?
Readers of my blog and of my book Letters on Liturgy and anyone who attends Mass at Our Lady of the Rosary, Greenville will know of my preference and opinion–and that is “nay” But why do we have all altar boys?
I am very aware that, in writing about the subject that I am tiptoeing through a minefield. “But the Vatican permits altar girls! Why not?” Then the sentimentalists chip in, “You’re being so mean to little girls!” Or the liturgical modernists: “It’s a lovely thing to welcome all God’s children to the table of fellowship!” or the pragmatists, “The girls can do just as good a job as the boys. Why exclude them when we need more kids to be altar servers?”
So here’s why I say “Nay” to girl altar servers. First there is the traditional argument that serving the altar is often a stepping stone to a priestly vocation and as the priesthood is closed to females, it is appropriate to reserve altar serving to boys. I’m not so convinced by this argument. Maybe. Maybe not. I think a vocation to the priesthood is more complicated.
However, I think there are more profound reasons for reserving the role of altar server to boys, and this leads to a conversation about the wider cultural context.
In the post war period in the West we have experienced the sexual revolution. We often think of this simply in the terms of the summer of free love, increased promiscuity and widespread availability of artificial contraception and abortion. However, these are merely the symptoms of a much deeper revolution not simply in sexual behavior, but in the understanding of what the sexual act is and what it is for.
The first aspect of this discussion usually involves the concept of natural law. Put simply, “Sex is for making babies. If you use it for mere recreation and not procreation you’re doing it wrong.” OK. But sex is not only for marital union and procreation. Our reproductive systems are also linked with our sexual identity. I have male genitals and male chromosomes so I am a man. My wife has a female reproductive system and female chromosomes so she is a woman. Therefore a man is a Father or potential father. A woman is a mother or a potential mother.
Our identity as male or female is a foundational element of our identity as persons and therefore as human beings. The sexual revolution, therefore, was about much more than free love, the pill and abortion. It was also about who we are as men and women and therefore who we are as a human race.
The sexual revolution includes, therefore the ideologies of feminism–in which women desired to become more like men and homosexualism in which men became more like women. Yes, yes, I know these are big, vague generalizations about extremely complicated social issues–however generalities (while untrue) are often also true. They help us to see the big picture and understand the larger concepts–so I stick by my generalities while admitting their faults.
So the sexual revolution includes feminism and homosexualism which subvert traditional sexual roles. Those traditional sexual roles have always determined a woman’s core identity as wife and mother and the man’s core identity as a husband and father. The secular materialistic world prefers to identify a person not as a wife, mother husband and father, but according to their place in the power structures of the world. “What is your job? How much do you earn?” determine a person’s value and identity.
This is why a key aspect of feminism has been for “women’s rights” rights to what exactly? More power, more money, more influence, more control. In other words, “More access to the things that the male dominated world consider worthwhile–more access to the things that give you real worth and identity.–not being a mother or a father but being a person of power in the secular society.
So what does this have to do with girl altar servers you might ask? You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to see that the push for girl altar servers is part of a feminist agenda driven by feminist assumptions about the world and the church. Put simply, girl altar servers help to subvert traditional gender roles and therefore create confusion in our boys and girls as their self understanding and personhood is in formation.
It is virtually universal in human society that boys and girls are segregated as they grow up. This is not only for their protection from abuse, but also so that their identities will be formed in a healthy and wholesome way. Boys and girls belonged to different clubs, had different hobbies and past times. They played differently and enjoyed each others’ company in healthy ways. They had different rites of initiation into womanhood and manhood. The more they are forced together the more confused they become about what it means to be a girl and eventually a woman and what it means to be a boy and eventually a man.
Of course having girl altar servers doesn’t cause these problems any more than allowing girls to join the Boy Scouts. However, all of these decisions–minor in themselves–contribute together to a shift in assumptions and expectations that are part of the wider sexual revolution.
This, I have come to understand, is part of our reason for having only boy altar servers.
So how does this work in practice? In our parish we encourage boys to be altar servers. They love serving and when I’m outside greeting people coming to Mass the boys run up, “Father can I serve today?” We typically have five or six boys serving the weekend Masses and at the main high Mass at 10:30 we will have up to twenty boys serving. The younger boys fit in and learn the ropes. The older boys mentor them as big brothers.
What about the girls? We have formed a fine girls’ choir and the girls are encouraged to contribute to worship by singing in the choir–and they do so to a cathedral-standard–leading the Mass parts and hymns and singing the Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony that makes up our Catholic worship.
Have I explained all of my thinking on this topic to our boys and girls? No. This is just the way we live and worship together. It’s natural. It’s traditional. It’s Catholic. Detailed analysis is not always necessary. Life that is local is real and reality trumps theory every time.
Finally, some will ask how we managed to create this situation in a modern American parish. I outlined the steps in my book Letters on Liturgy but basically, when I came to the parish I did not alienate the girls who were serving. They were good girls from fine families. Instead we segregated boys and girls. Boys served at some Masses. Girls at others. Girls wore the cassock albs. Boys wore traditional cassocks and surplices. We started the girls choir. Eventually the boys naturally migrated to altar serving and the girls to the choir. In time we stopped training new girl altar servers.
Now there are few objections and when there are we take the time to listen to the concerns and explain our position. There is, of course, some disagreement but the overall joy that our boys show in serving the altar and our girls in singing in a choir to be proud of is sufficient reward.