Thursday, July 27, 2006

Hermeneutics of sacramental fittingness: altar girls?

In our series of discussions on "the hermeneutics of sacramental fittingness" on the various liturgical innovations since Vatican II, the next topic I would like to introduce for public consideration is that of altar girls. When the Vatican approved the use of "female altar servers" in 1994, it was careful to state that this was in no way to be construed as a move in the direction of the ordination of women (see the Vatican communique of March 15, 1994). This was because the position of acolyte was traditionally understood as a minor order in the Church preparatory, if distal, to becoming a priest. With the position open to girls, however, two things seem to be at play. On the one hand, the traditional understanding of the position has been undermined by the official position the Church has taken on the matter, amending the minor order of 'acolyte' to be understood now as 'altar server,' inclusively so as to include also females, to whom the priesthood remains closed. On the other hand, well before the Vatican approved the use of "female altar servers" in 1994, the use of altar girls was already being actively promoted by those interested in leveraging the Vatican into accepting the ordination of women, since getting altar girls approved was seen as a case of getting the proverbial camel's nose into the tent. These two understandings of the position are clearly at odds with one another in ironic ways -- the Vatican's new position backing away from it's traditional view of the acolyte as a transitional minor order en route to becoming a priest, while the dissenters' view actually embraces that transitional undestanding as a ticket to women's ordination. It remains an open question as to what extent the Vatican's decision to approve the use of altar girls in 1994 was influenced by the widespread disregard of its prohibition of them that represented the immediate status quo ante. The question before us, however, is another question -- not the question of legitimacy which has been settled by the Church. Our question is this: what is the fittingness of having the priest served at the altar by girls? Is this a matter of indifference, as many would suggest? Is it altogether unfitting, as others would insist. Why? What think ye? Have at it!

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