Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Altar Girls and Priestly Vocations

Many of you have probably already heard that the Diocese of Arlington has authorized two indult Tridentine Masses to be celebrated in different regional locations within the diocese, and that the bishop has also authorized young women to serve at the altar along with young men if the pastor believes that such is pastorally wise after consulting his parishioners. This is a first in the Arlington diocese's history.

There are some Catholics who believe that we should not have altar girls. Although I do not count myself in their company, I wonder if Catholics who support female altar service have ever bothered to consider the argument offered by those who oppose female altar service, or if they are even aware that there is an intelligent argument. Most seem to assume that opposition to female altar service arises out of sexism, either: a) the belief that the presence of women in the sanctuary profanes it; or b) the belief that young women serving at the altar can lead young men to feel insecure in their masculinity. Maybe there are Catholics who believe this way, but when I've talked to most Catholics who oppose female altar service, they oppose it for totally different reasons than the ones I've mentioned.

Most Catholics who oppose female altar service feel the way they do because they believe that altar service is connected to the priesthood, and that allowing young women to serve at the altar obscures this connection to the priesthood and leads to universal confusion. Whereas young men would once have looked on their altar service and seen a connection to the priesthood which might have led them to discern a vocation to the priesthood, opponents of female altar service believe that young women serving at the altar leads young men to lose sight of this connection to the priesthood and thus to lose a path to discernment for the priesthood. Opponents of female altar service also believe that allowing young women to serve at the altar can be confusing for them, insofar as it might lead them to feel that they have a vocation to the priesthood when the Church teaches that such a vocation is impossible. In short, opponents of female altar service generally oppose it because they feel that it confuses both the young men and the young women who serve at the altar, and the rest of the faithful along with them.

It is interesting to note that many who advocate for the ordination of women to the priesthood and for an end to mandatory celibacy for priests often claim to do so in the name of the vocation shortage. There are too few priests, they say, so perhaps we should begin opening the priesthood to married men and to women who feel called to serve Christ and the Church in priestly ministry. If we accept that this issue is similar to other controversial issues in which some are expressing legitimate concerns and others are only using the crisis at hand to support their own preconceived agendas, we can accept that it is likely that some are legitimately concerned about the vocation shortage and that some are only using the vocation shortage to bolster their agenda. In any event, I'd like to know what Catholics concerned about the vocation shortage think about what Catholics opposed to female altar service are saying. Since there is a vocation shortage, is it pastorally prudent to open altar service to young women when this might lead to fewer young men discerning a vocation to the priesthood? And is there really any connection between allowing female altar service and the decline in priestly vocations?

Mind you, I do not oppose female altar service. I just thought this would be an interesting issue to discuss.

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