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Cardinal Burke On Female Altar Servers

January 12, AD2015

CS Mass for Life2

On January 5, 2015, Matthew James Christoff of the organization The New Emangelization published an interview he conducted with Raymond Cardinal Burke. In this interview, the cardinal made some very candid remarks about the Catholic Church becoming “feminized” as a result of radical feminism from the 1960s and 1970s. The candor of the cardinal’s remarks set off a firestorm of criticism; this article is a defense of the cardinal.

When one reads the entirety of the interview, one is struck by the profoundness of the cardinal’s discussion and talking points. Though there is much that could be said, I will restrict myself to defending the cardinal on one specific remark made concerning female altar servers. The cardinal said:

The introduction of girl servers also led many boys to abandon altar service. Young boys don’t want to do things with girls. It’s just natural. The girls were also very good at altar service. So many boys drifted away over time. I want to emphasize that the practice of having exclusively boys as altar servers has nothing to do with inequality of women in the Church.

There is no need to recount here the vitriol launched against the above remarks. Rather, an opportunity has been afforded the public by the cardinal to look at this matter more deeply.

At least in the United States, the subject of females serving at the altar is a touchy subject. It is sensitive precisely because it is mistakenly viewed by many people as a “gender equality” issue, which Cdl. Burke indirectly alludes to in the above quote. The fact of the matter, however, is that the issue has become sensitive owing to questions surrounding the implementation of female altar servers. Let us look at this matter in some depth.

The question of females serving at the altar, for our purposes, goes back a few decades. The question came before Pope St. John Paul II shortly after his election as Supreme Pontiff in 1978. The pope answered the question in April, 1980 in the document Inaestimabile Donum, declaring that females were not to serve at the altar.

Three years later, in 1983, the pope promulgated the revised Code of Canon Law. This was the end of a long project in Rome from the Second Vatican Council and took nearly twenty years to complete. Though Inaestimabile Donum had laid down the precept of females not serving at the altar, the 1983 Code called this precept into question.

The specific question arose over the interpretation of canon 230 §2 (in Title II: The Obligations and Rights of the Lay Christian Faithful). The canon reads, “Lay persons can fulfill the function of lector in liturgical actions by temporary designation. All lay persons can also perform the functions of commentator or cantor, or other functions, according to the norm of law.”

One can clearly see in the above text that there was some conflict between the precept in Inaestimabile Donum and the 1983 Code of Canon Law. The doubt (dubium) created by this conflict was put before the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, which responded that both men and women were permitted to serve at the altar. This response was duly approved by Pope St. John Paul II, who ordered its promulgation.

The above decision led Cardinal Antonio María Javierre Ortas, the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, to issue a communication to all the presidents of the episcopal conferences in March 1994. This communication gives four specific instructions on the permitting of females at altar serving:

  1. Canon 230 §2 is permissive and not a precept. Bishops are free in their territories to judge if there is a need for females to serve at the altar.
  2. Bishops have the obligation to support groups of altar boys as they promote vocations to the priesthood.
  3. A diocesan bishop who permits females to serve at the altar must give clear reasons for doing so to the faithful entrusted to his care. He may point to the (then already existing) norm of women serving in other functions as permitted in canon 230 §3.
  4. Any service undertaken by the lay faithful are not to be understood as a “right” but as a temporary deputation (ex temporanea deputatione).

Though the 1994 communication made it clear that women are now permitted to serve at the altar, the matter was taken up again several years later.

In 2001, the Congregation for Divine Worship, through Cdl. Javierre Ortas’ successor, Cardinal Jorge A. Medina Estévez, issued a letter that explained further the matter at hand. A bishop had sent a letter to the Congregation asking whether a diocesan bishop “would be able to oblige his priests to admit women and girls to service at the altar.” The 2001 letter is the Congregation’s response to the question.

Cardinal Medina Estévez reiterated that a diocesan bishop was to hear the opinion of the local episcopal conference and then make a “prudential judgment” based upon “local pastoral need.” In doing so, bishops were to bear in mind the “sensibilities of the faithful,” the “reasons” that “motivated such a permission,” and the “different liturgical settings and congregations.” The cardinal continues on to say that boys are not to be excluded from the altar, nor are priests to be required to make use of female altar servers.

To date, the above documents remain in effect, and have not been superseded or abrogated.

In the light of the official documents on the matter, Cdl. Burke’s remarks become much more intelligible. To begin, it is clear that having females serving at the altar is an innovation of recent development (dare I say that the impression is given that the entire matter revolves around a loophole in canon law?) and conditions were laid down for this practice by the Holy See. The question is have these conditions been observed by the pastors of the Church?

The main point of contention of females serving at the altar concerns what constitutes the “pastoral advantage” in the “local pastoral situation” spoken of by Cdl. Medina Estévez. The issue here is the undefined nature of the words themselves. In fact, they are as clear as mud. The terms could have such a wide application so as to have a near-universal nature. Almost any reason could be justification for “pastoral advantage.”

God and history will judge the understanding and application of the pastors of the Church as to what constitutes “pastoral advantage.” For our purposes, it suffices to say that the climate of the times in which this matter was raised leaves one questioning whether or not altar serving became bound up within the notion of “political correctness.” This is most intriguing, considering the argument advanced by the liberal avant-garde that the Eucharist itself should not be used as a “political weapon.”

However “pastoral advantage” was understood in the past, we are looking at the instruction in the present and have the assistance of further developments within the Church — most notably the teaching of Pope Benedict XVI on the hermeneutic of continuity.

The documents are clear: the tradition of the Church is for males to serve at the altar and this is to be upheld. However, what happens when this cannot be done (and why)? Moreover, we must also ask what are acceptable situations/needs that necessitate females to serve at the altar? It is possible to present different points of view, but at the end of the day, there appears to be one that stands out: a shortage of males.

It is not necessary to spell out the pride of place enjoyed by the “shortage of males” observation. It is the most obvious, and thus needs no debate. Instead, the obvious appears to have either fallen on deaf ears or escaped the eyes of those who have attacked Cdl. Burke. Burke is a man who, both as a cardinal with access to information and statistics from the Holy See and as a man who lived through the times discussed above, dares to uphold common sense in the face of hostility.

This hostility is most surprising because it is possible to argue that, in a way, and despite his “conservative” credentials, Burke just might be closer to liberalism on this point than one could see at first glance. Given the history outlined above, women have been used by men as tools for political correctness, and Burke’s comments consider them “freed” from this yoke. Females are no longer victims that are oppressed by the regime set for them by the domination of the male patriarchy. Why are women not singing this man’s praises?

In conclusion, despite his apparent solidarity with the plight of women, Cardinal Burke stands condemned in many of their eyes. There are many mysteries of history. This is just one of them.

Kevin J SymondsKevin Symonds was born and raised in Massachusetts. He attended Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio where he obtained his Bachelors and Masters degrees in Theology with emphasis in the classical languages. He has published Internet and magazine articles and resides in Texas.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

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  • Grace–amoiesu.wordpress.com

    Excellent research! I have also blogged on this topic. https://amoiesu.wordpress.com/2015/04/19/390/

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  • David Peters

    Kevin this is a great article, and very in depth! I personally don’t have an issue with the girls being altar servers, but I never thought of what the Cardinal stated here, and I see his point very clearly. I think he is right. Also if the Church says to do something a certain way then let’s do it!

  • Kate Hunter

    Today’s Mass Reading January 19, 2015:

    Hebrews 5:1-10
    Psalms 110:1-4

    Hebrews 5:1-10
    1 For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. 2 He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness. 3 Because of this he is bound to offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people. 4 And one does not take the honor upon himself, but he is called by God, just as Aaron was. 5 So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him, “Thou art my Son, today I have begotten thee”; 6 as he says also in another place, “Thou art a priest for ever, after the order of Melchiz’edek.” 7 In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard for his godly fear. 8 Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; 9 and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him,10 being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchiz’edek.

    Psalms 110:1-4
    1 The LORD says to my lord: “Sit at my right hand, till I make your enemies your footstool.” 2 The LORD sends forth from Zion your mighty scepter. Rule in the midst of your foes! 3 Your people will offer themselves freely on the day you lead your host upon the holy mountains. From the womb of the morning like dew your youth will come to you. 4 The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest for ever after the order of Melchiz’edek.”

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  • Burke:” The introduction of girl servers also led many boys to abandon altar service. Young boys don’t want to do things with girls. It’s just natural. ”
    This is natural? This is healthy? This statement is true? Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary proofs and that which can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof (borrowed from Hitch).
    This cardinal of bling with his 20 foot cappa magna is trying single-handedly to undermine Pope Francis with his middle age preoccupation with misogyny. His statements are ludicrous and cannot be proven by any shred of evidence. Is there any cause to doubt why Francis demoted him to a ceremonial position?

    • NurseTammy

      In a very practical way, girls are very proficient at detail oriented stuff in the Elementary/Middle school age range when servers begin – probably more so than boys. Its funny to me that people think that the issue is whether or not the girls can do the task “as well as” the boys, the problem is actually that they are likely much better. It would be very easy for boys to get discouraged and want to quit when surrounded by very competent girls.

      We need to give boys a safe zone where they can learn the task among peers at thier own pace and they will eventually excel.

      There are plenty of roles of service for women of all ages…enough so that we can and should leave altar service for adolescent boys.

      At one Church I attended, they had a father / teen daughter lectoring team. I wondered if she came to the task because altar service was not an option. Proclaiming the Word of God is no small task and a huge honor and she/they did a great job.

      I have served as a Catholic Chaplain in a Catholic Hospital. Many of my peers were ordained clergy in Protestant denominations and a few of them were women. They used to treat me as if I had been wronged in that I could not be ordained. They found it very odd that I didn’t want to be ordained and I was completely comfortable with the options I had in Roman Catholicism to live out my service.

      I serve God every day as a Roman Catholic woman and I have never ever gotten up one day and thought “well, I would love to be effective today but I am shacked to strict gender roles of my Church”. On the contrary, from my point of view, my options to serve feel limitless.

    • “On the contrary, from my point of view, my options to serve feel limitless.” Limitations are a function of culture, religious belief, socio-economic status, physical ability, etc. The exclusion of women from the priesthood is a factual limitation because it does not allow for men and women to experience equality of opportunity. Altar servers, priests, etc……are all defined by RCC disciplines not by the words of the Christ. You have a perfect right to feel no limitations to serve; other women have a perfect right to feel limitations!

    • fredx2

      If it offends you so much, don’t be a Catholic. But don’t try to change our religion to comport with your personal politics.

    • Girls/women as altar servers; women priests, etc….absolute gender equality is existing Church discipline which can change…it is not dogma

    • Kevin Symonds

      Hello Phil and thank you for posting.

      I think the issue here is whether the matter is one of “gender equality” vs. Divine Revelation.

    • Harry Flynn

      Phil,

      As the article states, that which is obvious admits of no debate.

      I am not going to argue with you, and I doubt anyone else would either, the merits of Burke’s statement on boys doing things with girls. I mean, truly, Phil? Tree houses, “girls keep out”, “no girls allowed,” etc.? None of this rings a bell?
      Again, I will not argue with you, but I think you need to re-assess your position.

      This will be my only post on this matter. You are, of course, free to respond with something berating or condescending. Hopefully, however, you will choose the high road and respond with charity.

  • Andre B

    Let me add an anecdote of my own. I grew up serving as an alter boy at my parish. We had a deacon that (along with his wife, gasp!) worked tirelessly for the parish – both in terms of organizing and working at various events (pancake breakfasts, etc.), as well as teaching Sunday school. This couple, who arguably donated more of their time to the parish in one week than most of the congregation ever had or would in their lives, had many children – all of them girls. Naturally, these girls wanted to emulate the service their parents were giving to the parish, and when they were young, they all served at the alter.

    Who is anyone to accuse these parents of using their children as tools of political correctness? How does allowing these girls to – in what limited ways the Church’s male patriarchy deems acceptable – follow in the footsteps of their role-models make them victims?

  • Kate Hunter

    My friend who recently died of cancer at 34, at the age of 6, asked her mother if she could be a priest, and her mother said “I don’t see why not”.

    The seed was planted.
    So as friends, she went to serve in the altar. My father said no.

    At 7th grade, I went to learn about Marian devotions and the rosary. My friend did not.

    At Wheeling Jesuit college she took feminist courses and decided that the Church was wrong about the priesthood, and became an Episcopalian priest.
    I learned Theology of the Body.

    Cancer took the life of my friend, who in her last moments defended her refusal of the sacraments.

    We must treat our relationship with the Church in the same way that we treat marriage, with reverence to the mystery of of gender, in the divine revelation of our ancestors Adam and Eve, and the sacrifice of Christ and Mary.

    I have a lot of respect for the Norvus Ordo Missae because it is the tradition I grew up with and the tradition that served to bring in so many Protestant converts, making the Mass universally accessible all Christians who do not use Latin.

    But this event in my life with female altar servers has been marked in my mind. For a woman who loved to serve the altar since she was 12, how can you deny her the priesthood when she had been serving that role for over a decade?

    There is a danger for altar severs to not remember that serving the altar was once a position that increased priestly vocations. We must remember that our Mass also reflects our rabbinical ancestry in the Temple, and our Jewish roots of the Eucharist. We must remember the Circumcision and Presentation of Christ, and the roles of both Simeon and Anna who waited and prayed in the Temple for the arrival of the Messiah.

    For women who feel “left out” in a position on the altar, reflections of Mary’s special role at the foot of the cross, not on the cross, can become a daily meditation. Mary, in her Fiat, has taught us all to say Yes to become perfect saints. St. Paul’s recommendation to wear the veil can redeem a special role for women in Adoration of the Sacrifice of the Mass. Who is it that is the new Ark of the Covenant? Who is it that stands on the head of Satan? Revelation is revealed in every daily Mass. Where can you find women in the Mass? Everywhere that you find Mary.

    We must pray that our vocations increase, but that does not mean that the vocations need to cross.

    Our catechists must be better trained to reveal that every Christian has a unique vocation in her holy Church, as saints.

    We must increase our devotions to the Holy Family at an early age.

    We must all return to ADORATION of the Eucharist.
    Praise be to God and Honor to Mary.

  • Andre B

    Given the history outlined above, women have been used by men as tools for political correctness, and Burke’s comments consider them “freed” from this yoke. Females are no longer victims that are oppressed by the regime set for them by the domination of the male patriarchy. Why are women not singing this man’s praises?

    I wonder if anyone made similar arguments as GI’s were returning from WWII, displacing all the women it was necessary to recruit into the workforce in the men’s absence. ‘Women, you are now freed from this yoke, and you may now return to your homes where you won’t be dominated by male patriarchy!’.

    Not only do you give no foundation for the idea that women were manipulated in the name of political correctness (and to what end, pray tell?), but you smear not only any male advocates they have had who were acting in good faith, as well as any women who did feel a genuine calling to serve at the alter.

    Why aren’t women signing his praises? I don’t know, why don’t you read the reasons he gives for boys no longer serving as alter boys (eg. the growing sloppiness of the mass), and ask yourself if there’s any implication behind the idea that this doesn’t seem to bother the girls.

    • Kevin Symonds

      Dear Andre,

      Hello and thank you for posting.

      Regarding your discussion of WWII and GI’s, I think you will like my upcoming book on the history of the Prayer to St. Michael the Archangel.

      If you would like, please send me your E-mail address and I will be glad to send you a link to the book when it becomes available.

      Again, thank you for posting!
      -Kevin Symonds

  • NurseTammy

    Our society has suffered so much from men who dont follow through with being good fathers and husbands and when they fail, we women have to take up the slack that was never meant for us.

    What I think we teach young men to not bother with things because if they don’t bother to follow through with something, a girl will come along and do it for them.

    In the Church where we raised our kids, the Priest had a lovely way about this…he let it be known that serving at the Altar was THEIR task and THEY had to step forward, learn how, do their best and follow through. If they didnt bother or bailed out, no girl could or would come along and finish /fix it for them.

    While many see altar service as a good training ground for the Priesthood, I also love this as a lesson for future husbands and fathers.

    • Kevin Symonds

      Hello NurseTammy and thank you for posting!
      I read your post and my mind thinks back to the ending of the movie “Courageous.” Have you seen this movie?

  • Birgit Atherton Jones

    I wholeheartedly agree with both Cardinal Burke and you, the author of this excellent piece. As with other pastoral allowances that are made into protocol, this legalized innovation has proven to usurp the natural progression from altar boy to priestly vocation.

    As a woman, I’m tired of being patronized and much prefer being a part of mankind, rather than artificially being a subject of political correctness. Sadly, too many priests seem to bow down to popular opinion of the politically correct rather than standing for what has traditionally been an all male role.

    Years ago, our dear pastor enforced his preference for male altar boys. Even though only three were of age, we made due quite well. I was pleased to see our youngest serve so often, as he had become disinterested in a past parish that utilized so many girls that his name only came up once every six weeks. Thank you for this piece of rational information.

    • Andre B

      As a woman, I’m tired of being patronized and much prefer being a part of mankind, rather than artificially being a subject of political correctness. Sadly, too many priests seem to bow down to popular opinion of the politically correct rather than standing for what has traditionally been an all male role.

      I wonder, what actions to allow women into traditionally all-male roles wouldn’t you view as politically correct? I’ll presume that voting and working in professions like the law don’t number among them.

      I was pleased to see our youngest serve so often, as he had become disinterested in a past parish that utilized so many girls that his name only came up once every six weeks.

      Good thing this parish had so few boys that your son was able to maintain his interest. Just imagine how disinterested boys in large parishes must be!

    • Harry Flynn

      Hi Andre, I do not want to seem untoward here, but I think you are being sarcastic to the point of being disrespectful. There are better ways to communicate your point.

    • Andre B

      Hi Harry,

      I think there are times when being blunt is best, so don’t worry about seeming untoward. As for myself, I saw no reason to respect the positions Ms. Jones presented, though I did offer her a chance to clarify/qualify her statement about political correctness, as well as invite her to consider the plight of boys who have to show patience and humility (virtues last time I checked) in parishes with large numbers of alter boys.

    • Birgit Atherton Jones

      Thank you!

    • Birgit Atherton Jones

      Andre, it’s always amusing when a male attempts to school a female on her preferences and political correctness as it applies to her. To answer your question, I have no problem with women assuming any role for which they are suitable. So much for your effort to pigeonhole me as a repressed female.

      Matters of Church Law and Natural Law, however, do illuminate the distinct and equal, yet complementary differences between male and female roles. For example, priesthood will always be an all-male role. Pope JPII ended that discussion and made the distinction quite clearly. In the same vein, the conditional admission of girls as altar servers can be problematic, as the good cardinal has explained much better than I.

      As with many traditions, once the door has been opened there will be those who abuse the spirit of the ruling. Pastoral reasons for female servers are acceptable – such as a shortage of young men. It’s also optional, at the discretion of the pastor and/or bishop. The use of females when there are plenty of males, however, skews the intent of the ruling in such a way as to usurp this traditionally male role – a role that has proven to inspire priestly vocations in young men.

      The point I was making about our son serving in our large parish was that there was no pastoral need for female servers – there was a plentiful population of boys. This inflation of available servers created an over abundance. Surely it isn’t difficult to imagine that it’s frustrating to only be called to serve once every 6 weeks or more (including weekday Masses). A secular example would be having too many players on a team. There’s a logical reason for keeping the numbers at a certain limit.

    • Andre B

      Andre, it’s always amusing when a male attempts to school a female on her preferences and political correctness as it applies to her.

      It’s just as amusing to watch you hide behind ‘as a woman’ in efforts to limit women’s involvement in their parishes.

      To answer your question, I have no problem with women assuming any role for which they are suitable.

      Forgive me, but that’s not really what I asked. The Bishop himself thinks that “the girls were also very good at altar service”, so it’s not a question of whether or not they are suitable. The question was what type of actions can be done to allow (or promote, if you prefer) women in traditionally male roles that wouldn’t seem PC to you? Apparently, any attempt to use female alter servers, outside some arbitrary shortage of male alter servers, constitutes a PC attempt to undermine the priesthood.

      The point I was making about our son serving in our large parish was that there was no pastoral need for female servers – there was a plentiful population of boys.

      So, you’re suggesting that there can be an over abundance of alter servers. If that is the case, then surely it holds regardless of genders, so why not make that case instead of blaming it solely on the use of female servers? You apparently went from so many servers that, by your own account (even including weekday masses), you went from serving once / 6 weeks (if that often), to three boys being able to handle – I’m guessing – a minimum of 8 masses a week? What’s the math on that?

      So much for your effort to pigeonhole me as a repressed female.

      I won’t speculate as to your own level or repression, I took issue with your apparent desire to repress other women. So far you’ve done nothing to disabuse this notion.

    • Randall Ward

      Andre, you have been trained well. You might try letting your own mind and body speak to you every once in a while.
      Or you could read the bible, which plainly tells us that women are weaker than men and that men should protect their wife and all women. Myself, I trust Gods wisdom.
      Jesus allowed women to follow him and take minor parts in his ministry, but that doesn’t change the nature of women.
      My own personal experience of 70 years with women have shown me that women are plenty smart and not as loving as men, but loving, but lacking wisdom outside of their roles assigned by God.
      I will bet that personal experience does not count with you; thats why I say you have been trained well in the “scientific” method, which is another way of saying “without God”.

    • Andre B

      Randall,

      you have been trained well. You might try letting your own mind and body speak to you every once in a while.

      I’m no mind-reader, but I still get the feeling you are suggesting that I’m not thinking for myself, and my comments here boil down to mere parroting of others. Not exactly a good start.

      Or you could read the bible, which plainly tells us that women are weaker than men and that men should protect their wife and all women. Myself, I trust Gods wisdom.

      I’ve always been taught to be wary of what others say the Bible “plainly” tells us. Sola scriptura and all that.

      thats why I say you have been trained well in the “scientific” method, which is another way of saying “without God”.

      Are you suggesting that we can’t use the scientific method to learn anything about God, or what he intends?

    • Randall Ward

      You are thinking as you have been trained by the 500 years old “science system”
      Instead of saying the bible is a fuzzy book, you should read it first, it isn’t as fuzzy as you think. I am Catholic not a protestant. What I gave you is a direct quote from the bible, no interpretation required.
      You can observe the world God made, using your eyes and your brain and your hands; so you can learn something about God by observation. You can learn about God by the revelation that God has given us.
      You can learn about God by saying this prayer; “God, I don’t know if you are there, but if you are there, show me.” He will show you, personal, one on one. You will know and if you keep crying out He will come into your life and never leave you.

    • Andre B

      You can observe the world God made, using your eyes and your brain and your hands; so you can learn something about God by observation.

      I take it then, that you are correcting yourself re: scientific = without God.

    • Kevin Symonds

      “Are you suggesting that we can’t use the scientific method to learn anything about God, or what he intends?”

      Andre,

      The answer to your question depends. Are you building from a Scotian “metaphysical univocity” foundation?

    • Andre B

      Hi Kevin, actually, since the question had to do with what Randall meant, it has nothing to do with my metaphysics 🙂

  • Elijah fan

    I disagree but praise your work ethic in that you did excellent detail work on the history of this and I’m bookmarking it. Your seeing the canon support for altar girls as part of a politically correct climate is exactly ..exactly how I see the death penalty change which has section 39-40 of Evangelium Vitae using the front and back of a death penalty scriptural couplet Gen.9:5-6 …lol…using them against the death penalty by hiding the death penalty middle of the couplet…maybe the oddest moment in encyclical history. Talk about politically correct vis vis the liberal world!!
    But again…great history work here. But if vocations depend on manipulating boys into being on the altar alot…where does God calling them come in? Does God call them prior, during, or after the physical manipulation onto an altar repeatedly?

    • Kevin Symonds

      Hi Elijah fan and thank you for commenting.
      I think you understood well an important distinction in my article. The first part is a history of the permitting females to serve at the altar. The second is its application to Burke’s comment and/or my defense of him.
      Please note that neither the document nor I have stated that vocations depend upon “manipulating” boys into altar service. The documents speak towards the long-standing tradition of allowing boys to see the work of a priest and letting the impact happen.