Christ himself chose to limit the ordination of priests and Bishops to men only; consequently, the Church does not have the authority to ordain women to the priesthood or the Episcopate. Women cannot be validly ordained as priests or Bishops. Altar servers are not ordained, so girls could possibly serve at the altar. However, it is wiser and more prudent to restrict girls from serving at the altar, for the following reasons.
1. Boys serve at the altar partly as a way to introduce youths to the priesthood, which is for males only. Currently, the vast majority of altar servers do not become priests. However, this trend can and should change. Boys should be encouraged to consider the priesthood from an early age. And they should be encouraged to become altar servers as a good first introduction to the priesthood. But if girls serve along side boys, the role of altar server will not be viewed by the children or their parents as an introduction to the role of a priest.
Now some say that the role of altar girl can be an introduction for the girls to the religious life, so that boys would see serving at the altar as a precursor to the role of a priest, and girls would see it as a precursor to the role of a religious sister. This view is incorrect. It is not the role of women religious to serve at the altar. Nuns are called to the consecrated life for prayer, self-sacrifice, and works of mercy. Nuns are not called to take those roles which are most fitting only for the ordained, but which do not absolutely require ordination. There are certain roles in the Church which require ordination, and other roles which, while not absolutely requiring ordination, are most fitting only for the ordained.
2. The altar servers assist a male-only priesthood. As a group, even though most do not become priests, the altar boys are a foreshadowing and a reflection of the male-only priesthood. By example, the altar boys teach that only men can and should be priests and Bishops.
Some may say that we should view the role of altar server as separate from the priesthood, since altar servers are not ordained. But those who serve at the altar serve along side ordained priests, assisting them closely throughout the holy Mass. The reduction of male-only roles to nothing other than those roles absolutely requiring ordination erodes the teaching of the Church on the male-only priesthood. Following this erroneous path would lead to a reduction in the role of the priest to nothing other than a dispenser of Sacraments. Such is not the will of God.
3. God intends men and women to have different roles in the Church, the family, and society. This teaching of Tradition and Scripture is not restricted, within the Church, only to the role of priests and Bishops, but to many other roles as well. In the family, the husband is the head of the family, not the wife; nor does the family have two heads, husband and wife. In society, it is not the will of God to have all roles filled by both men and women without regard to gender. Some differences in roles makes for a wise and orderly society.
When girls serve along side boys at the altar, the teaching of the Church that men and women are intended by God to have different roles is contradicted by example. Children learn the incorrect idea that boys and girls, men and women, can and should have the same roles in everything. When only boys serve, children learn the correct teaching that some roles are for males only. The choice of males only as altar servers wisely reflects the wider teaching that not all roles are for persons of either gender. The use of both girls and boys at the altar contradicts by example this understanding of different roles based on gender.
4. The Church must not be overly influenced by sinful secular society. The Church has teachings which come from Divine Revelation. But secular society also has its teachings, some of which are irreconcilable with Church teaching. One such contrary teaching is the idea that there should be no distinctions, no differences in roles, based on gender. The widespread and very recent innovation of having altar girls is not a reflection of the teachings of Tradition and Scripture, but is a reflection of the teachings of secular society. Although the Church does not absolutely forbid girls to serve at the altar, the choice of boys only as altar servers better reflects the teachings and traditions of the Church. This wise choice also undermines the false teaching of secular society that male and females must have the same roles in everything.
5. There is a tendency in the parishes and dioceses today to over-hire women. Perhaps partly because women cannot be ordained, there is a tendency to permit or encourage women to be in the majority in every non-ordained role. This is seen in many parishes where most extraordinary ministers of holy Communion are female, where most lectors are female, where most parish council members are female, etc. It is also seen in parishes where the proportion and number of altar girls increases and that of boys decreases. The end result of this tendency is for women to dominate every role other than that of ordained deacons, priests, and Bishops. There is no teaching in Tradition or Scripture which supports this tendency; it is not the work of the Holy Spirit.
This over-use of women in various non-ordained roles presents religious service as if it were primarily the domain of females. The result is that males tend not to see religion as a possible vocation, despite the fact that only men are priests. The use of altar girls further extends the roles of females in religion, also further undermining the view that men are called by God to be leaders of the Church.
6. A certain percentage of Catholics believe that it is best not to have altar girls. Yet the Lincoln, Nebraska diocese is said to be the only diocese left in the United States which does not permit girls to serve at the altar. The percentage of dioceses in the U.S. which have only boys as altar servers is less than one percent. Yet the percentage of Catholics who believe that girls should not be altar servers is significantly more than one percent. The insights of these more conservative Catholics into the Faith is not represented in the widespread practice of choosing altar girls.
Now the Church is not and should not be a democracy. So it should not be the case that the majority view, permitting girls to serve, entirely eclipses the insights of a faithful minority. Having some dioceses which do not permit altar girls witnesses to the insights of this minority of the faithful, and it witnesses to the majority of years, from the founding of the Church until the present day, when only males served.
7. The Church has the authority to forbid females to serve at the altar and to choose to have only males as servers. For such has been the traditional practice of the Church. But the Church does not have the authority to forbid males to serve at the altar, and to have only female altar servers. Those who serve at the altar serve a male-only priesthood. Thus male altar servers are the norm, and female altar servers are the exception.
If every diocese and parish were to permit female altar servers, then this practice would teach by example that female altar servers are a norm, not an exception. How can a practice be understood as an exception if it is found in every diocese and parish without exception? Furthermore, such a practice of permitting female altar servers, if it were found in every diocese, would teach by example that it is wrong to have only male altar servers. The exception would then become the rule, and the norm would become prohibited. Such a disorder contradicts the tradition of the Church from the beginning and is therefore contrary to the will of God.
by Ronald L. Conte Jr.
March 23, 2006