Altar Girls and the Pope’s New Document

Q:  With the Pope’s Spiritus Domini document, the girls of our country are enthusiastic in becoming altar girls.  But after reading your article “Canon Law and Altar Girls” and Spiritus Domini, I understood that the Acolyte and Lector ministries which were abolished after Vatican 2 were reinstated again.  But this time, both male and female lay people can be taken in for the ministry.  Have I grasped this correctly?

Secondly, our Archbishop issued a document for his diocese in 2010, and … it says that altar girls are not permitted in the Archdiocese.  Now since interpretation of the canon 230.2 was released in 1992, in favour of altar girls, and also since the canon doesn’t give permission to individual Ordinaries to decide on the matter, is the ban on altar girls legal?

Thirdly, can the Archbishop adhere to the same law he has issued saying NO to altar girls even now, since the Pope has changed the law.  And in any case, can a Parish Priest legally say he doesn’t like to start altar girls in his parish?  Thank You. –Fernando

A: There are a number of different questions raised here by Fernando, and he seems somewhat confused about the facts in some respects; but his query was prompted by an Apostolic Letter issued earlier this year by Pope Francis, regarding the ministry of women in the Church.  While the letter itself is very brief and perfectly clear if you’re a canonist, it is nevertheless creating a lot of confusion among the lay faithful, thanks largely to poor journalism and the desire of some people to further a political agenda.  Let’s take a look at the legal and historical context into which this letter fits—and then it should be easier to understand what it means, and what it doesn’t mean.  Along the way, Fernando’s questions should all be answered.

Around the world, Catholics are familiar with the concept of the altar boy, ordinarily a school-aged boy who assists the priest during the celebration of Mass.  Sometimes adult men have filled the role instead of younger children; but the concept is the same.

But many Catholics are not aware that in generations past, the role of altar boys (or older altar servers) was also a minor order in a seminarian’s path to ordination to the priesthood.  Well before being ordained a priest, a seminarian was first made an acolyte, a fancy word for an altar server.  In fact, as was discussed in “Who Can Conduct an Exorcism?” until just a few decades ago the Church conferred four minor orders on all seminarians: porter, exorcist, lector, and acolyte.  Originally, the names of these four minor orders described ministerial roles to be carried out at liturgical functions—the acolytes lit the candles and carried them in processions, for example.  Over time, however, these orders held less and less meaning in practice.

That’s why in 1972, Pope Paul VI vastly simplified the road to ordination and eliminated some of these vestiges of ancient practice, by suppressing the minor orders entirely. In his motu proprio document Ministeria quaedam, the Pope declared that henceforth, the term “minor orders” would be replaced by “ministries.” And of the four former minor orders, only two would now continue in use as “ministries”—lector and acolyte.

These two ministries are not the exclusive domain of seminarians any more, and they haven’t been for quite some time!  As has already been mentioned, even very young boys have already been functioning as altar boys (i.e., as acolytes) for generations.  This role hasn’t been reserved only to boys planning to become priests some day, either: it has been open to all boys, regardless of what they want to be when they grow up.

As for lectors—the other existing ministry which once used to be a minor order—the task of reading the first/second readings and the responsorial psalm at Mass has routinely been given to capable lay men and women since the introduction of the Novus Ordo Missae, about 50 years ago.  Once again, the role of lector is no longer reserved only to those men studying for the priesthood.  As a matter of fact, it isn’t even reserved to men, since we all know that women can and do function as lectors too.

The legal provision for lay altar servers/acolytes and lectors is found in canon 230.2, which tells us that lay people can receive a temporary assignment to the role of lector in liturgical actions.  It adds that all lay people can function as commentators, cantors, or fill other such roles, in accord with the law.  Although canon 230.2 doesn’t actually use the word “acolyte,” this is implicitly contained in its reference to “filling other such roles.”

In “Canon Law and Altar Girls” we saw that in 1992, a dubium was submitted to the Vatican, asking for clarification as to the wording of canon 230.2.  Since the paragraph speaks of “lay people,” and the role of lector is routinely given to both men and women … doesn’t this reasonably imply that the role of acolyte can similarly be given to girls as well as boys?

The Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts agreed (their ruling can be read here, but only in Latin).  After all, if you take a close look at the Latin wording of canon 230.2, the way that it is written would indicate that since lectors aren’t all men, the same could logically be said of altar servers.  This is why “altar girls” were permitted in the Church from that point on.  (Fernando seems to suggest that permission for female altar servers is granted by Pope Francis’ new document—but on the contrary, the Vatican document acknowledging the possibility of altar girls is now nearly 30 years old.)

The Vatican’s discussion of female altar servers, however, did not end in 1992.  The Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts indicated that the Vatican would provide further instructions on the subject; and that’s exactly what we subsequently got from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (CDW), in 1994.  The CDW’s comments can be found at the same link provided above, and likewise are only available in Latin.

The CDW points out that canon 230.2 states that “lay people can” fill certain liturgical roles—and that “can” doesn’t mean “must.”  This in turn implies (according to the CDW) that bishops cannot be compelled to permit female altar servers if, in their judgment, it is preferable to continue to leave that task only to men/boys.  The CDW noted that the Church has a tradition of male altar servers, and derives a large number of its priestly vocations from the ranks of altar boys, many of whom who discern a call to the priesthood while serving at the altar at a young age.  And the CDW concludes by observing that the laity cannot be said to have a “right” to carry out the liturgical functions mentioned in canon 230.2.

In 2001, the CDW issued a letter (which is not on the Vatican’s website) in response to an individual query, explaining various aspects of this issue even further.  For one thing, it stated that women/girls cannot be given the liturgical roles described in canon 230.2 if by so doing, men/boys would be excluded.  In other words, if (let’s say) a parish needs ten altar servers, and there are ten boys willing and able to serve, then the parish cannot deny any of those boys the role of altar server in order to permit girls to participate too.  As was already mentioned back in 1994, many altar boys go on to become priests—so denying boys the possibility to become altar servers, simply because girls want to serve too, is not an option.

The 2001 letter also noted that while a diocesan bishop may permit the use of female altar servers in his diocese, he cannot force parish priests to do this if they judge that it is better not to.  Once again, the CDW pointed out that it is a time-honored tradition in the Church that altar servers are men/boys.

Thus Fernando’s archbishop had complete authority to declare that in his archdiocese, girls are not permitted to function as altar servers.  And even if he had permitted it, he couldn’t compel the parish clergy to give the role to women/girls if they disagreed.  There is no legal violation here at all.

So if that was already the situation a couple decades ago, what was the point of Pope Francis issuing Spiritus Domini now?

The answer is that while Spiritus Domini makes a passing reference to what has just been mentioned here about canon 230.2, its real focus is on the preceding paragraph.  Canon 230.1 originally said that laymen can be given the stable ministry of lector and of acolyte, through the prescribed liturgical rite.  At issue here is the difference between the laity functioning as altar servers or lectors on a temporary, as-needed basis, and the formal installation of certain lay persons in those ministries on a more long-term (“stable”) basis.

In much of the world, installing lay people in these ministries is entirely unknown.  What we are far more familiar with is the notion that school-aged boys (and now girls) can choose to serve at the altar as acolytes—but when they get too busy with their school activities, or grow up and go off to college, they frequently cease to be altar servers and that’s the end of it. They may very well have served Mass for years, but generally, their role was never viewed as something permanent or even necessarily long-lasting.

Similarly, most of us have probably seen laymen and women serve as lectors during Mass. These are ordinarily adults who have volunteered to read the readings, psalms, and other parts of the Mass on a more-or-less regular basis. At many parishes, these volunteers take turns, rotating during the course of a week or month so everyone has a chance to read. If someone becomes ill or too busy, or moves out of town, he simply notifies the parish that he is unable to continue the role of lector, and his service ends.

In both these situations, the lay people engaging in these tasks are not formally installed in these ministries at all.  There is, therefore, nothing stable about their role as lectors or acolytes—and since nowadays people frequently tend to go off to college, or change jobs and move to a new city, installing them in stable ministries in one parish for the long haul isn’t necessarily useful.  (See “Questions About Eucharistic Ministers” for more on this topic.)

Before the issuance of Spiritus Domini, the Latin text of canon 230.1 stated unequivocally that only lay men could be installed as lectors or acolytes.  This was a clear vestige of the fact that traditionally, these two ministries were minor orders, filled only by men preparing for the priesthood.

But what Pope Francis says in Spiritus Domini is that henceforth, both lay men and lay women can be installed in these two ministries.  The entire change in canon 230.1 consists of removal of only one word of the Latin text!  The Pope noted that some bishops have expressed the need to “respond to the nature of the aforementioned charisms and the needs of the times, offering appropriate support to the role of evangelization that is incumbent upon the ecclesial community.”

Note that there is absolutely no suggestion in the Pope’s letter that installing women in these ministries is obligatory in every diocese around the world.  Precisely as we saw regarding the changes to canon 230.2 in 1992, “can” doesn’t mean “must.”  Once again, this is a judgment-call left to individual diocesan bishops around the world,  Thus far, it appears that the vast majority of the world’s bishops aren’t doing anything at all to install women as lectors/altar servers in their dioceses—and that is totally okay, since Spiritus Domini does not require them to do so.

Now Fernando has the answers to his questions.  But at the same time, many readers probably are now asking another question of their own: if the change in canon 230.1 doesn’t involve any obligatory actions by Catholic bishops, and most of them don’t seem to be interested … then what’s the point of Spiritus Domini?

Pope Francis basically explained the reason for issuing this letter in the passage quoted above, where he mentioned that “a number of Assemblies of the Synod of Bishops have highlighted the need to deepen the subject doctrinally.”  This is presumably a reference to the 2019 Amazonian Synod, which famously led to statues of the “Pachamama” being thrown into the Tiber River in protest.  Judging from the apparent general indifference of most bishops to this matter, we may reasonably conclude that the bishops who sought this change in canon 230.1 constitute a tiny minority of the world’s bishops—at least at the moment.

So why has this document received so much attention from the secular media around the world?  It is seen by many as a baby-step toward allowing the priestly ordination of women, which as we all know is not permitted in the Church—and which St. John Paul II noted in 1994 cannot be permitted, as was discussed at length in “Could the Pope Change the Law to Allow Women Priests?”  Sadly, there are plenty of people around the world who want to remake the Church as they want, rather than as God wants (here’s a commentary by one such theologian, exclaiming in frustration that “Only a handful of bishops seem to have explicitly and publicly welcomed the Pope’s decision to allow women to be formally instituted as lectors and acolytes,” and interpreting their lack of enthusiasm as “resistance to the Pope”).  It is bad journalism, which seeks to create the news rather than report it, that bears the blame for the undue fanfare that this letter has received in the press.

So now we can see that Fernando, apparently together with other Catholics of his archdiocese, had an inaccurate idea of what Spiritus Domini is all about.  This change in one little-used paragraph of the code cannot be interpreted as mandating women ministers in the Church.  No bishop, and no parish priest, can be forced to give women/girls the role of lector or altar server at Mass, if he genuinely thinks that in the specific circumstances of his diocese or his parish, these are best left to men and boys.

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