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Cardinal Burke On Female Altar Servers

January 12, AD2015 33 Comments

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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