The 1994 statement permitting girl servers was a mistaken tactical retreat which led to a fall in priestly vocations. It?s time to withdraw it
Undoing the damage will take time: the sooner the Church starts to clear up the mess, the better
By William Oddie
The rector of the Catholic Cathedral of Phoenix, Arizona, has decided that girls will no longer be allowed as altar servers (though they will continue elsewhere in the diocese). [For links... here. NB: the decision in Phoenix is sparking meaningful conversation across the globe.] His reason is simple: he thinks that an all-male sanctuary promotes vocations to the priesthood. ?The connection between serving at the altar and priesthood is historic,? he says: ?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.? I?m not sure, to be pedantic, that that?s entirely orthodox (in the context of the Mass, only the priest himself performs specifically priestly acts), but one knows exactly what he means: what the server does is intimately related to the Eucharistic action and can be seen as an intrinsic part of it: the server is a kind of extension of the priest himself; if there were no servers, the priest would do what they do. According to Fr Lankeit, 80 to 95 percent of priests served as altar boys.
The question is, why shouldn?t that happen when there are also girl servers? There are two reasons: firstly because the causal link between servers and priestly vocations is weakened if some or most of the servers in the sanctuary are excluded from it. But secondly because as soon as girls appear, the supply of altar boys tends simply to dry up.
The first time this occurred to me was in the house of friends with whom I was staying in France. One of the guests at dinner one evening was Archbishop AndrÃ© Vingt-Trois of Tours (now Cardinal Archbishop of Paris). The subject of conversation at one point was the way in which, in the local Parish Church, presumably in an attempt to involve women in the celebration of the Mass, not only were all the readers women but so also were all the servers girls; my wife (not I) compared it to a farmyard, with the priest as the cock strutting about in the middle of a flock of hens. Archbishop Vingt-Trois said that the priest may have had no choice over the all-girls serving team: ?Once the girls arrive, he said, the boys disappear: you can?t see them for dust? (his explanation was much more graphic in French). And he was adamant that though there were, of course other factors contributing to the decline in priestly vocations, the decline in the number of all-male sanctuaries was certainly one of them.
I suspect, though there?s no way to prove this, that many if not most Catholics, once they think about it, will have the feeling that this is either obviously true, or at the very least a plausible hypothesis. For what it?s worth, the US website Catholic Answers carried out a poll in which they asked the question ?does having girl altar boys help with vocations to the priesthood??
The answers were as follows:
YES, Girl Altar Boys help Vocations To The Priesthood: 2.98%
NO, Girl Altar Boys don?t Help Vocations To The Priesthood: 64.29%
Girl Altar Boys, Have No Effect At All On Vocations To The Priesthood: 32.74%
It?s a pretty small sample, of course: but I would be surprised if it?s not true that almost nobody thinks that girl servers help vocations to the priesthood, that of the remainder, about two thirds think it doesn?t help, and another third thinks it makes no difference. If the question had been asked differently: if the question had been ?does an all-male sanctuary foster vocations to the priesthood??, I suspect that more than that two thirds would have replied ?yes?, since historically it has observably done so. In the US, only one diocese now restricts serving at the altar to boys and men, Lincoln, Nebraska, and it is apparently the case that vocations there are higher than elsewhere.