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Substantial Classification of Male and Female in Altar Service

The evolution of the ministry of altar servers has a long history. In the early Church,
many ministries were held by men and women. By the early Middle Ages, some of
these ministries were formalized under the term "minor orders" and (along with the
diaconate) used as steps to priestly ordination. One of the minor orders was the
office of acolyte. Formerly, it was strictly forbidden to have women serving near the
altar within the sacred chancel (infra cancellos), that is, they were prohibited from
entering the altar area behind the altar rails during the liturgy, except to clean or in
convents of nuns.[1] In his encyclical Allatae Sunt of 26 July 1755, Pope Benedict XIV
explicitly condemned females serving the priest at the altar with the following

Pope Gelasius in his ninth letter (chap. 26) to the bishops of Lucania condemned the
evil practice which had been introduced of women serving the priest at the
celebration of Mass. Since this abuse had spread to the Greeks, Innocent IV strictly
forbade it in his letter to the bishop of Tusculum: "Women should not dare to serve
at the altar; they should be altogether refused this ministry." We too have forbidden
this practice in the same words in Our oft-repeated constitution Etsi Pastoralis, sect.
6, no. 21.[2]

The references to "the Greeks" pertains to the Orthodox practice of ordaining

women as deacons. With the practice of private Masses (Mass by a priest and one
other person, often offered for a deceased person), scandal was an additional reason
not to have a woman or girl alone with a priest. However, it has been customary in
convents of women for nuns to perform the ministry of acolyte without being
formally ordained to that minor order. So in a sense, women were the first altar
servers as it was only at the beginning of the modern era when it became customary
for men, particularly young boys, to substitute for acolytes in parish churches
without being ordained to minor orders. This practice was needed when the Council
of Trent developed the seminary system where men in minor orders would go away
to schools for training to be a priest rather than study under a parish priest.[citation

Around the time of the Second Vatican Council, some dioceses without authorization
allowed girls in the lay ministry of altar servers. For example, this practice started as
early as 1965 in Germany. The Vatican sought to put an end to such experimentation
with the 1970 instruction Liturgicae instaurationes,[3] and affirmed that only males
could serve the priest at the altar.[4] However, the practice nonetheless continued
in some places, and the Vatican reaffirmed the prohibition against female altar
servers in the 1980 instruction Inaestimabile donum.[5]

1Female altar servers. (2017, October 04). Retrieved October 08, 2017, from
With the promulgation of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, some argued that this
reservation to males no longer held,[6] based on the inclusion of both males and
females in canon 230 2: "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." In many
dioceses, females were allowed to act as altar servers without explicit clarification
on the matter from the Holy See.

The clarification came in the form of a circular letter[7] from the Congregation for
Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments to presidents of episcopal
conferences on 15 March 1994, which announced a 30 June 1992 authentic
interpretation (confirmed on 11 July 1992 by Pope John Paul II) from the Pontifical
Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts. This authentic interpretation said
that canon 230 2 states that service at the altar is one of the liturgical functions
that can be performed by both lay men and women. The circular letter, written by
the cardinal-prefect of the Congregation, also clarified that canon 230 2 has a
permissive and not a prescriptive character, that is, it allows, but does not require,
the use of female altar servers. Thus it was for each diocesan bishop to decide
whether to allow them in his diocese.

A later document, from 2001,[8] made clear that, even if a bishop decided to permit
female altar servers, the priest in charge of a church in that diocese was not obliged
to accept them, since there was no question of anyone, male or female, having a
right to become an altar server. Furthermore, the document states that: it will
always be very appropriate to follow the noble tradition of having boys serve at the
altar.[8] This tradition has been maintained by most dioceses in the non-Western
world, traditionalist Catholics, in some clerical societies, especially with regards to
those who practice the Tridentine form of Mass.

Pope Benedict XVI had some female altar servers in Papal masses in London (2010),
Berlin, and Freiburg (2011).

Whether or not the right to equality is violated if female altar servers are prohibited or

Thesis Statement
No, because there is a substantial classification that necessarily must be considered
and justifies the non-application of the right to be treated equally or the right to be
given equal opporunity.

The right to equality, like in Civil Law, is not absolute and is subject to exceptions.
For the exception to be valid, there must be a consideration of a substantial
classification or qualification. In the case at bar, the substantial classification is the
direct causal connection between male altar servers and priesthood.
In the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix, girls are not allowed as altar servers and
are instead offered the role of sacristan the person who prepares the church and
the altar area before the Mass. According to Rev. John Lankeit, rector of the
cathedral, altar servers have a direct role in the Catholic Eucharistic ceremony,
assisting the priest, and are the only lay people directly involved throughout the
entire service. Other lay people may serve as lectors or Eucharistic ministers,
helping the priest distribute communion. Further, the connection between serving at
the altar and priesthood is historic. It is part of the differentiation between boys and
girls, as Christ established the priesthood by choosing men. Serving at the altar is a
specifically priestly act.2

This causal connection between altar servers and priesthood is too important to just
be set aside. If we place the right to equality and the abovementioned causal
connection in opposite scales, the scales shall tilt towards the promotion of

Nonetheless, females are not totally deprived of service. The Bishops, as moderators
and promoters of liturgical life in their own dioceses, may still give female servers
the opportunity to serve albeit in those areas more in line with the vocation
available to them. While there may have been differences in the nature of service
allowed to males and females, both genders are still equally given the privilege to

Boys and girls are different and require different motivational and formative
methods. Boys in particular are attracted to activities that cater especially for them,
they also tend to have a greater need for such structured activities. The structured
nature of the Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist and being able to serve in and for it,
excites the spirits and ego of young boys, and thus the attraction to priesthood. On
the other hand, young girls usually due to many factors such as puberty and
hormones - tend to shy away from it and would rather join activities which are
more nurturing and motivational.

The question should be framed as to what is best for the good of souls in each diocese
and parish. Altar service is eminently pastoral, not administrative. The right to equality is
never abrogated, but only placed in line with the goals and purposes of the Church.