Canon Law and Altar Girls

Q: What does canon law say about altar girls?  How did we end up with altar girls after so many centuries without them? –Ginnie

A: The whole issue of permitting girls to serve at the altar has become so ideologically contentious, on both sides of the issue, that it may be difficult to imagine that the whole controversy actually began as simply a question of Latin grammar. While approved translations of the code exist in all the major modern languages, only the Latin text is regarded as the official one.

Canon 230, which ultimately gave us altar girls, is contained in the section of the code dealing with the obligations and duties of the lay faithful, and has three paragraphs. Each contains the Latin word laici, meaning “lay people.” In order to get a complete picture, let’s take a look at each paragraph in turn.

The first paragraph (c. 230.1) states that lay men whose age and talents meet the requirements prescribed by the Bishops’ Conference, can be given the stable ministry of lector and of acolyte (altar server), through the prescribed liturgical rite. Many Catholics in the US may not be familiar with this practice at all, so it merits some discussion.

We all know that lay people can be lectors, who read the readings and psalms at Mass. In many places, this task is performed simply by volunteers. Sometimes the priest who is about to celebrate a scheduled Mass may walk to the microphone a minute or two in advance, and ask if anyone is willing to read.

Similarly, we all are familiar with the notion of altar boys (who sometimes are adult men), who assist the priest during Mass, particularly at the offertory. After some training, and with some routine practice, boys as young as 8 or 10 years old serve in this capacity. Often a parish will put together a monthly schedule, listing which boys are expected to serve at each scheduled Mass.

But canon 230.1 does not pertain to either of these situations! What is it for, then?

This paragraph actually refers exclusively to the practice, which is not seen at all in many places, of officially conferring the ministry of lectors and altar servers on qualified men. Conferral of this ministry is historically tied to the “minor orders” which traditionally formed part of a seminarian’s training to become a priest. “Acolyte” and “lector” were actually orders, which preceded (among others) the orders of “sub-deacon,” “deacon,” and finally “priest.”

Nowadays, seminarians who are preparing to become priests no longer receive these minor orders. The process has been greatly simplified, and today a man technically becomes a cleric only when he is ordained a deacon (c. 266.1).

Since priests-in-training no longer receive the orders of acolyte and lector, canon 230.1 provides the option for a bishop to confer these ministries—no longer called “orders”—on qualified men, whether they are seminarians or not. Note that in this particular paragraph, the Latin is very specific: the term used is viri laici, or lay males. (We looked at the code’s use of the Latin word vir in another context back in “Can Women be Ordained Priests?”) In other words, the wording of canon 230.1 indicates that it does not apply to women. This is entirely consistent with the Church’s position that the priesthood was established by Christ for men only; since the original orders of lector and acolyte used to form part of a man’s journey toward the priesthood, it makes sense that even now, these ministries may be conferred in a stable manner on men and not on women. This practice, which is certainly not common in our country, is a vestige of the traditional orders.

Now look at the following paragraph, canon 230.2. It states that lay people can receive the temporary assignment of lector in liturgical activities. It also notes that all lay people can exercise the roles of commentator, cantor, or other functions.

This paragraph addresses the scenario that is most familiar to us: the lector at a given Mass is either an on-the-spot volunteer as mentioned above, or is somebody who is “installed” for a year or so (which incidentally does not constitute the “stable ministry” envisioned by the first paragraph!). When needed, lay people can also lead the singing or read some sort of commentary on the day’s readings—which latter role is not to be confused with actual preaching, since only a cleric may preach (see “Who May Preach?”).

The Latin of this second paragraph is different from that of the first. Here, the word viri is omitted entirely. The word laici, when used by itself, can mean either lay men or lay women, or for that matter a combination of both! Women can, therefore, be given the tasks mentioned in canon 230.2. And they generally are, as most of us can attest; women frequently serve as lectors or cantors or the like. Since this “temporary assignment” bears no resemblance to conferral of the traditional minor orders on seminarians, the Church—under Pope John Paul II, the Supreme Legislator who promulgated the 1983 Code of Canon Law—saw fit to permit women to serve in these liturgical capacities.

Finally, canon 230.3 asserts that when the needs of the Church require it, lay people who do not have the stable ministry of lectors or acolytes as described in the first paragraph, can supply some of their functions, including (among other things) distributing Holy Communion. In practice, we see this rather frequently—in fact, in some places it occurs too frequently, as we saw in “Questions About Eucharistic Ministers,” addressing the often excessive use of lay extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist. The phrase “when the needs of the Church require” limits the role of lay people in such functions to only those times when a shortage of clergy truly calls for the laity’s assistance.

In any case, the Latin of this third paragraph is like that of the second paragraph: it simply says laici, without including the male-only viri. Thus the third paragraph pertains to both lay men and lay women.

So how does all this add up to altar girls?

In 1992, a dubium, or doubt, was submitted to the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts. As we saw in “Do Lapsed Catholics Marry Validly Outside the Church?” this Council has been given the exclusive right and authority to issue authentic—i.e., official—interpretations of all legal documents promulgated by Rome, including the Code of Canon Law. Whenever there is a question raised about the correct way to interpret a given canon, this Council has the final say.

The dubium that was raised was this: does canon 230.2, which mentions lectors, cantors, commentators, and “other functions,” also pertain to the function of altar server?

The Council answered in the affirmative. (All the Council’s authentic interpretations are posted on the Vatican’s official website, but in Latin only, and can be found here.) Regardless of one’s personal preferences, there was no other possible answer to the question, since the whole notion of altar servers as we know them is covered by this paragraph. Were it not for canon 230.2, there would be no canonical justification for the existence of altar boys at all!

The problem, however, is that canon 230.2 mentions not viri laici, but just laici. It pertains not only to altar servers, but also includes other roles which are commonly exercised by women as well as men. Thus the canon cannot be interpreted to exclude the possibility of altar girls.

This is why girls are permitted to serve at the altar as well as boys.

Note, though, that while girls are permitted to serve, there is nothing in the law that requires it. In fact, another document was issued in 1994 on this very subject, this time by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (included in Latin on the same Vatican webpage as the authentic interpretation of canon 230.2). The Congregation noted that each Bishops’ Conference retains the authority to determine how best to implement the use of altar girls, acknowledging that using only boys as altar servers remains traditional. The letter also pointed out that many vocations to the priesthood are fostered among young men who function as altar boys, implying that giving this role to boys is still to be strongly encouraged.

Here in the US, as we know, the Bishops’ Conference declared that the decision to employ girls as altar servers or not is left to the diocesan bishop. Today nearly every diocese in the country permits girls to serve at the altar.

As most of us are already well aware, this has sparked outcry among those who contend that allowing girls to be altar servers is a step toward women’s ordination—something which, as discussed in “Could the Pope Change the Law to Allow Women Priests?” the Church is unable to permit. On the other hand, it was hailed as a giant leap forward by those who see the ban on women serving in church ministries as an antiquated practice, in urgent need of updating.

Could the law be changed? Absolutely! We saw in “Are There Any Limitations on the Power of the Pope?” that only those laws which have their basis in divine/natural law cannot be changed. Laws pertaining to altar servers, however, clearly do not fall into this category. It is entirely possible that Benedict XVI, who as Pope is the Supreme Legislator, could choose at some point to reword canon 230 if he sees fit. Assuming that he does not wish to do away entirely with the concept of altar servers, it appears that it would probably be necessary to reorganize canon 230 completely. Simply changing the second paragraph to read viri laici would not do the trick, for that would simultaneously eliminate not only altar girls, but also female lectors, cantors, commentators, and those women serving in any other conceivable liturgical role—and this might perhaps be farther than the Holy Father would wish to go.

No matter what the Pope were to decide, we would as Catholics be duty-bound to obey him. In the meantime, we are required to accept the validity of the current law, regardless of our own personal preferences.

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