Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

Women priests? America ducks the question

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 03, 2011

America magazine is distraught over the news that the cathedral in the Phoenix diocese will no longer use female altar servers. An editorial in the Jesuit journal announces: “The rejection of altar girls disregards the counsel of the Second Vatican Council that the charisms of the baptized “are to be received with thanksgiving and consolation.”

Oh, really? Then the counsel of the Second Vatican Council was more or less universally disregarded during the first 30 years after the Council. It was disregarded by the Council fathers—who, one would think, knew what they intended when they wrote and approved the documents. In fact the Church only approved the use of female altar servers after most of the Council fathers were dead. Odd, don’t you think? But let’s examine the logic of the editorial: 

By virtue of baptism, the council reminds us, “there is neither male nor female. For you are all ‘one’ in Christ Jesus.” There is “a true equality between all with regard to the dignity and activity which is common to all the faithful in building up the Body of Christ.”

Yes, those words do appear in Lumen Gentium. But they do not appear in a vacuum. The Church has always recognized distinctions between the sexes, particularly in matters of service to the Church. (St. Paul was eloquent on the subject.) Most notably, the Church teaches that only men can be ordained to the priesthood, and altar service has traditionally—and quite naturally--been linked to priestly ministry. Those who lament the introduction of female altar servers have argued for years that by encouraging young women to be acolytes, the Church may be raising unrealistic expectations that they might someday become priests.

The editors of America recognize this problem, and address it thus:

Inevitably the issue of women’s roles in the church raises the question of women’s ordination to the priesthood. Recently a cardinal in Lisbon and some bishops in Brazil, among others, also raised the question; but since Pope Benedict XVI, despite continued agitation, has reaffirmed the policy of John Paul II to allow no discussion of the topic, the matter of altar servers must be considered a separate and independent issue.

Do you see, in that paragraph, a ringing endorsement of the Church’s teaching on the impossibility of ordaining women? Neither do I. America is not arguing that young women should serve at the altar despite the fact that they cannot be ordained. America is arguing that young women must be allowed to serve at the altar, and then we’ll talk about the possibility of ordination later.

So if you're one of those people who fears that the introduction of female altar servers will turn up the pressure for women's ordination, this editorial should make you worry just a bit more.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: j.fleming8019 - Oct. 05, 2011 10:54 AM ET USA

    I am thinking of starting a new organisation. It will be called MOC! Movement for the Ordination of Children! If the only passage of scripture relevant to ordination is the Galatians verse, then all you need for ordination is baptism. Alice in Wonderland - all shall have prizes!

  • Posted by: - Oct. 05, 2011 5:56 AM ET USA

    It is interesting how the editors of America engage in relativising the faith. Not to ordain women either as priests or bishops cannot legitimately be described as "the policy of John Paul II": it is the established faith of the Catholic Church not to ordain women.

  • Posted by: KL Flannery - Oct. 04, 2011 11:52 PM ET USA

    Great name, "AgnesDay"!

  • Posted by: claire5327 - Oct. 04, 2011 7:02 PM ET USA

    Women were serving around the altars since the beginning of our Faith. Serving around the altar is not serving On The Altar as Priest. Mary, Our Blessed other served around the altar so did other women who followed Jesus. Never to confuse the two different servitude! If Jesus wanted women priests, He would have made HIS HOLY MOTHER the Head of the Church! If we believe in the Word of God through the Mouth of His Son and follow Him, then, let us believe in The Fullness of HIM, or none of HIM!

  • Posted by: Joseph Paul - Oct. 04, 2011 7:17 AM ET USA

    Phil, we needn't worry at all. These people will fade into the dust bin of history as they already are doing. The Jesuits are one of the decaying orders. All the growing orders are more likely to be orthodox as are the young people who truly embrace the faith of our Fathers handed down from Christ and the Apostles by the Saints.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Oct. 03, 2011 6:34 PM ET USA

    Maybe the Jesuits will allow me to teach seminarians in formation how to make and clean altar linens. What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.