Back to the Future: Revisiting Girl Altar Boys
by Mary Ann Kreitzer
When Bishop Paul Loverde approved girl altar boys in 2006, he ensured that the fight over maintaining the Church’s long-term practice of male servers would be a perpetual one, at least in Arlington. Call to Action (CTA), a notorious dissent group demanding women’s ordination, anything-goes sexual ethics, and other heretical positions, led the original fight in the mid 1990s with their “Let the lasses serve at Masses” mantra. Today, the issue is simmering again. A handful of disgruntled parishioners and ex-parishioners from Corpus Christi Mission in South Riding, VA, whose administrator, Fr. Michael Taylor, is phasing out altar girls, organized a letter campaign and a November 20th vigil at the chancery demanding “equity” for the girls. Not surprisingly, the issue is closely tied to dissent, as CTA joined the fray and sent out a press release advertising the chancery protest.
Before discussing the current controversy, however, a recap of the history puts the issue in perspective. The previous bishop of Arlington, John Keating, was one of only two in the United States (Bishop Bruskewitz of Lincoln, NE being the other) to opt for boys-only when the Vatican first permitted girls to serve in 1994. Keating called the altar boys his “farm team” for the priesthood and, under his leadership and that of Vocations Director Fr. James Gould, Arlington was the envy of most dioceses in the country. Between 1993 and 1998, the year of Keating’s death, while many dioceses ordained at most one or two men a year (sometimes none), Arlington welcomed at least 35 new priests.
The move to girl altar boys actually preceded Vatican approval when a number of disobedient bishops adopted the practice in their dioceses. Like Communion in the hand, which also grew out of disobedience, these bishops pressured the Holy See for change based on the fact it was a de facto practice. In 1992 the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts ruled that canon 230§2 in the Code of Canon Law allowed girl servers. However, the ruling also stated that the Latin term possunt in the code permitted girls to assist, but did not mandate them. The Vatican, based on the council’s interpretation, allowed girls to serve beginning in 1994 promulgating the decision in March with a letter from the Congregation for Divine Worship to the presidents of bishops’ councils. The Congregation wrote that, “The Holy See wishes to recall that it will always be very appropriate to follow the noble tradition of having boys serve at the altar. As is well known, this has led to a reassuring development of priestly vocations. Thus the obligation to support such groups of altar boys will always continue.” The letter also clarified the roles of lector and Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist saying, “It must also be clearly understood, “that the liturgical services mentioned above are carried out by lay people ex temporanea deputatione, according to the judgment of the Bishop, without lay people, be they men or women, having any right to exercise them.”
In 2001, an unnamed bishop, who most believe was Bishop Loverde, asked the Holy See whether priests could be required to use altar girls. The answer came in a July 2001 letter that reiterated a bishop’s right to either allow or disallow girl servers. It stated, “In accord with the above cited instructions of the Holy See [the 1994 letter] such an authorization may not, in any way, exclude men or, in particular, boys from service at the altar, nor require that priests of the diocese would make use of female altar servers.” In other words, the bishop does not have the authority to force a priest to use girls at the altar. To sum up, the Vatican stressed 1) that the historical tradition of altar boys is one worth preserving, 2) girls may serve but no priest can be forced to use them, and 3) in the Tridentine form, girls may not serve period.
Knowing that many of the priests in Arlington agreed with Bishop Keating’s assessment of the relationship between vocations to the priesthood and boys serving at the altar, Bishop Loverde delayed implementing the change which, according to the grapevine, he wanted to do since his installation in 1999. In 2006, in a shrewd move that minimized criticism, he approved the Tridentine Mass in two parishes and lifted the diocesan ban on girl altar boys at the same time. While liberal parishes immediately filled the sanctuary with girls, many others maintained the tradition of all-male servers. Today, fewer than half the parishes in the Arlington diocese have girl altar boys.
The latest controversy arose at Corpus Christi Mission in South Riding last year when Bishop Loverde assigned Fr. Michael Taylor to the parish replacing a more liberal priest. Fr. Taylor decided to phase out altar girls allowing those currently serving to finish their terms but not training any new ones. That caused one angry mom, Jennifer Zickel, mother of two little girls, to spearhead a protest movement with a blog, a Facebook page, a letter-writing campaign, and a vigil at the chancery. She also got her 15 minutes of fame with an article in the Washington Post on November 19th which was promptly linked to Facebook and her blog. The article, accompanied by a woeful picture of Zickel with 7-year-old Natalie leaning on her shoulder peering sadly at the camera and 4-year-old Emily sitting on her lap sucking her thumb, is instructive. The Post writes that when Zickel read in the weekly bulletin that Corpus Christi would no longer train girls to be altar servers, she “burst into tears and ran to the bathroom. ‘I knew right then that our family couldn’t stay at this church anymore,’ Zickel said, her voice breaking. ‘I’m a mama bear, and they’re going after my girls.’”
This is a puzzling statement coming from a mother whose daughters are too young to even think about being altar girls for several years. Are these little children really clamoring for equal rights with the boys or is this all about Mom’s agenda? I went searching for answers on Zickel’s blog and Facebook page and found some interesting information. First, there are numerous links to dissent groups. On April 25, 2011 Zickel posted an invitation to the May 1st meeting of the local CTA chapter which also put out a press release November 16th advertising the upcoming chancery protest. On October 3rd she blogged about “Two new articles you must read” from the National Catholic Reporter (NCR), the dissenters’ mouthpiece, and America, the Jesuits’ magazine well-known for challenging Church doctrine. Clearly, Zickel approves of the feminist claptrap in these articles. So let’s take a closer look at them.
In NCR, Kate Childs Graham, writes For Altar Girls: A Modest Proposal, a feeble attempt at satire which comes across as a feminist screed. A taste of her purple prose will be sufficient (emphasis mine): “There is no need to spend time developing leadership that, according to the hierarchy, can never be. Surely, it’s better to be consistent -- best not to make false promises, plant false hope in girls who aren’t supposed to have a vocation to the priesthood, and couldn’t fulfill that vocation even if they were called, at least in the institutional church. My question is: Why stop there? Perhaps girls shouldn’t receive communion, be confirmed, take reconciliation or be baptized. After all, you really wouldn’t want a bunch of girls running around thinking they are priestly people. Perhaps it’s best for girls to just stay home on Sundays, darning socks or fixing supper. Maybe the church should be a male-only space. There’s no use giving women a sliver of room, when men could easily take up the whole thing.”
Ah yes, the familiar feminist accusation that an institutional Church that won’t ordain women (but canonizes female founders, mystics, and names women Doctors of the Church) is really a misogynist brute. One is tempted to laugh and send this silly woman to a Catholic encyclopedia of the saints for a reality check. The America editorial, while not as blatantly ridiculous, also implies that the mean old Church is treating women unfairly “welcome to tidy up the sacristy, arrange flowers and clean linens but not to set the gifts at the altar or hold the sacramentary or censer.” The authors show their true colors when they call ordaining women to the diaconate an “open question” while disingenuously saying the altar girl issue is not really about women’s ordination. Of course not, it’s just an odd coincidence that femaile ordination always accompanies the altar girl discussion.
While there have been a number of arguments against girls serving at the altar, Fr. Brian Harrison writing in The Roman Theological Forum presents a most compelling one. Calling the 1994 decision to allow female servers the “most radical single liturgical change ever officially permitted by the Church's supreme authority,” Father goes on to describe the historical ban against women approaching the altar because of the profound connection between the priesthood, the Eucharistic celebration, and the altar. “Right from ancient times, in convents of cloistered nuns situated far off in the desert where priests and deacons seldom visited, the Church allowed the Mother Superior to take the Eucharistic Body of Christ from the tabernacle in order to give Holy Communion to the other sisters; however she was not allowed to make use of the altar in doing so.” He goes on to quote a French liturgical scholar, writing “Martimort's study helps us to understand the patristic perspective on this point. After citing a good number of ancient texts and canons against female altar service, he observes: ‘It seems that the true motivation for this constant practice of excluding women from the altar ... is the link which was understood to unite the lesser ministries to the priesthood itself, to the point where they had become the normal stages leading to the priesthood. This link is already present in the perspective of St. Cyprian [he died as a martyr in 258].’”Fr. Harrison goes on, “Thus, the Church's bimillennial rejection of female service in the sanctuary has clearly been linked to the fact that such service is very closely related, symbolically and often causally, to the ministerial priesthood itself. And this can never possibly be conferred upon women.”
Ironically, Fr. Harrison’s interpretation gains credibility from the very people, like Jennifer Zickel, who agitate for girl altar boys. They, like Fr. Harrison, see the close link between service at the altar and women’s ordination. The fact that they argue for altar girls based on non-discrimination and equality shows exactly where they are headed. If it’s a question of equality, becoming an altar girl is simply a wedge issue toward female ordination, the BIG equality issue. Catholic feminists, either through ignorance or malice, have little or no understanding of the Fatherhood of God, the priest as alter Christus, and the true dignity of women. They will never be satisfied until the Catholic Church is a carbon copy of the Unitarian with no dogma, no tradition, no sin, and ultimately no God. They do not speak with an authentic Catholic voice and they do not reason with an authentically Catholic mind.
One sees the female priest connection in Zickel’s material. On 8/23 she posted a Women’s Ordination Conference (WOC) press release on her blog, Women's Ordination Conference Decries Ban on Altar Girls in Phoenix Diocese. She introduced it with the message to “Please consider contacting me so that we all can stand up to the siege that is placed on Vatican II.” The release illustrates that the controversy is not just about girl altar boys, but about women’s ordination. Note this quote from a spokesman: “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.” One need not address the accuracy of WOC’s claim to see that they conveniently omit the fact that the Commission is not a teaching authority and that the doctrine of the Church relies, not solely on Scripture, but on Sacred Tradition as well. There isn’t a word in Scripture about Mary’s Assumption into heaven, but Catholics must believe it as dogma. WOC’s statement is simply irrelevant.
Oddly, in all of Zickel’s many blog posts and Facebook updates, there is no mention, not one, of Mary the Mother of God and the authentic role of women in the Church. Perhaps she is so focused on “equality” with the boys that the particular giftedness of women flies beneath her radar screen. In his letter to women, Blessed John Paul II wrote, “When we consider the ‘iconic’ complementarity of male and female roles, two of the church’s essential dimensions are seen in a clearer light: the ‘Marian’ principle and the Apostolic-Petrine principle.” Men and women have different roles in the Church, and the dignity of women, her “genius” as the pope describes it, lies in her modeling of the Blessed Mother, “our tainted nature’s solitary boast.” That genius is in no way damaged by reserving altar service to boys.
Zickel’s crusade is encouraging in one respect as it reveals how far the pendulum has swung back in the last fifteen years. When Les Femmes started in 1996 after CTA-Virginia invaded our parishes, we faced a group with a website and some active, hardcore dissenters. After being ousted from our churches, they began to meet in Protestant locales more in line with their beliefs. Today, while there is a D.C. Metro group listed on the CTA-USA website, it has no link. Other than Zickel’s single Facebook entry about a meeting last May, CTA is invisible. Chances are they morphed into the local Voice of the Faithful (VOTF) chapter, and, in fact, some of the old CTA crowd, e.g., Ellen Radday and Rea Howarth, belong to VOTF which has among its goals to “support priests of integrity,” i.e., those who support their dissenting agenda, and to “shape structural change within the Catholic Church,” whatever that means. The local VOTF group also advertised Zickel’s chancery protest.
According to Zickel’s “research” we also know that over half the parishes in the diocese do not have altar girls. And, while she urges people to “Join us in asking Bishop Paul Loverde to show leadership and consistency by requiring Arlington Diocese priests to allow girls to serve alongside boys at the altar,” it’s good to know her efforts are useless. Bishop Loverde lacks the authority to “require” any priest to use girls as altar boys. The Vatican has spoken on that issue. No priest can be forced to call girls to assist him at the altar.
It is also gratifying to see other priests in the country returning to the time-honored practice of altar boys. The rector of the Phoenix Cathedral recently announced he would have an all boy altar corps. Girls are invited to train as sacristans instead. This is not a new development. In Madison, WI in 2008 four priests from the Society of Jesus Christ the Priest, who serve a cluster of parishes, did the same thing. I suspect many other priests around the country only use altar boys and quietly go about their business with little notice. Personally, I know several in other dioceses. Hopefully, their numbers will increase as priests see their peers returning to a practice that served the church well for almost 2,000 years.
Thankfully, priests, like Fr. Taylor at Corpus Christi, see the value of restoring what’s been lost and are willing to take the heat to set things right. He deserves the thanks and support, not only of his own parishioners, but of all those who love Holy Mother Church. His actions fit well with the liturgical reforms instituted by Pope Benedict and reflected in the more accurate translation of the Mass that began on the first Sunday of Advent. I urge readers to pray for Fr. Taylor as well as for misguided women like Jennifer Zickel who are endangering the faith of their daughters so unnecessarily. Please pray also that many of Fr. Taylor’s brother priests have the courage to follow his bold example.
2 Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Letter to presidents of Episcopal conferences allowing altar girls, March 15, 1994, online at http://www.ewtn.com/library/curia/cdwcomm.htm.
3 Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, On possible admission of girls, women, and women religious to serve alongside boys as servers in the liturgy, Notitiae - 421-422 Vol 37 (2001) Num/ 8-9 - pp 397-399, available at http://www.adoremus.org/CDW-AltarServers.html.
4 Michelle Boorstein, Protests of VA parish’s move away from altar girls reflects wider Catholic debate, Washington Post, online at http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/protests-of-va-parishs-move-away-from-altar-girls-reflects-wider-catholic-debate/2011/11/17/gIQAnbRLcN_story.html
5 Let Them Serve Facebook page, April 25, 2011, 12:43 p.m., captured on November 20, 2011.
6 CTA Press Release.
8 Editors, Save the Altar Girls, America Magazine, October 10, 2011 online at http://www.americamagazine.org/content/article.cfm?article_id=13056.
12 Let Them Serve blog, entry for August 22, 2011, online at http://web.me.com/zickel/Site_71/Let_them_serve/Entries/2011/8/23.html, screen captured on November 20, 2011.
13 Pope John Paul II, Letter to Women, June 29, 1995, St. Paul Books and Media, Boston, p. 22.
15 Joyce Coronel, Cathedral’s Policy Change on Altar Servers Ignites Discussion, The Catholic Sun, August 23, 2011, online at http://www.catholicsun.org/2011/august/23/cathedral-altar-servers.html.