Wednesday, August 1, 2007

A Brief Summary of the Normative Instructions Pertaining to Altar Girls

I. The 1983 Code of Canon Law

Canon 230 §1
Lay men who possess the age and qualifications established by decree of the conference of bishops can be admitted on a stable basis through the prescribed liturgical rite to the ministries of lector and acolyte.

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.
[Laici ex temporanea deputatione in actionibus liturgicis munus lectoris implere possunt; item omnes laici muneribus commentatoris, cantoris aliisve ad normam iuris fungi possunt.]

II. Official Interpretations

1. The Pontifical Commission for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts
a. In 1984 Pope John Paul II established the Pontifical Commission for the Interpretation of Texts in his motu proprio “Recognito Iuris Canonici Codice.” The purpose of this commission was the address issues resulting from the new code of canon law and, naturally enough, to interpret said code of canon law resolving any ambiguities which may be present.b. In 1988 Pope John Paul II issued the apostolic constitution “Pastor Bonus” which extended the competency of this commission.c. The below 1994 communication from the CDW was actually the result of the Pope’s request that the decision of the Pontifical Commission for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts be officially published (the round about result of the dubium mentioned in the text).

2. The Congregation for Divine Worship: March 1994 Communication
Rome, 15 March 1994
The Pontifical Council for the interpretation of Legislative Texts was recently asked if the liturgical functions which, according to the above canon, can be entrusted to the lay faithful, may be carried out equally by men and women, and if serving at the altar may be included among those functions, on a par with the others indicated by the canon.
At its meeting of 30 June 1992, the members of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts examined the following which had been proposed to them:
Utrum inter munera liturgica quibus laici, sive viri sive mulieres, iuxta C.I. C. Can. 230 #2, fungi possunt, adnumerari etiam possit servitium ad altare.

The following response was given: "Affirmative et iuxta instructiones a Sede Apostolica dandas."
Subsequently, at an Audience granted on 11 July 1992 to the Most Reverend Vincenzo Fagiolo, Archbishop Emeritus of Chieti-Vasto and President of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, Pope John Paul II confirmed the decision and ordered its promulgation…

1) Canon 230 #2 has a permissive and not a preceptive character: "Laici . . . possunt." Hence the permission given in this regard by some Bishops can in no way be considered as binding on other Bishops. In fact, it is the competence of each Bishop, in his diocese, after hearing the opinion of the Episcopal Conference, to make a prudential judgment on what to do, with a view to the ordered development of liturgical life in his own diocese.

2) The Holy See respects the decision adopted by certain Bishops for specific local reasons on the basis of the provisions of Canon 230 2. At the same time, however, the Holy See wishes to recall that it will always be very appropriate to follow the noble tradition of having boys serve at the altar. As is well known, this has led to a reassuring development of priestly vocations. Thus the obligation to support such groups of altar boys will always continue.

3) If in some diocese, on the basis of Canon 230 #2, the Bishop permits that, for particular reasons, women may also serve at the altar; this decision must be clearly explained to the faithful, in the light of the above-mentioned norm. It shall also be made clear that the norm is already being widely applied, by the fact that women frequently serve as lectors in the Liturgy and can also be called upon to distribute Holy Communion as Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist and to carry out other functions, according to the provisions of the same Canon 230 #3.

4) It must also be clearly understood that the liturgical services mentioned above are carried out by lay people ex temporanea deputatione, according to the judgment of the Bishop, without lay people, be they men or women, having any right to exercise them.

In communicating the above, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments has sought to carry out the mandate received from the Supreme Pontiff to provide directives to illustrate what is laid down in Canon 230 #2 of the Code of Canon Law and its authentic interpretation, which will shortly be published.
In this way the Bishops will be better able to carry out their mission to be moderators and promoters of liturgical life in their own dioceses, within the framework of the norms in force of the Universal Church.

In deep communion with all the members of your Episcopal Conference. I remain
Yours sincerely in Christ,
Cardinal Antonio Maria Javierre Ortas


III. A Disputed Interpretation
a. According to some this interpretation of canon 230 was obvious since women had been allowed to act as cantors, lectors, extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, et cetera and there is no reason why service at the altar should be singled out for exclusion.
b. According to some this interpretation of canon 230 is based on a false reading of the sub-canon and disregards other important legislative texts. This perspective is summed up by Kenneth Whitehead thus:
The decision of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts not only contradicted constant tradition, but overturned what had been a clear prohibition of female altar servers in two principle Instructions of the Holy See on implementation of the Council's liturgical reform: Inaestimabile donum (April 17, 1980) and Liturgicae Instaurationes (September 5, 1970). To wit:
Inaestimabile donum 18: "There are, of course, various roles that women can perform in the liturgical assembly: these include reading the Word of God and proclaiming the intentions of the Prayer of the Faithful. Women are not, however, permitted to act as altar servers".
Liturgicae Instaurationes 7. In conformity with norms traditional in the Church, women (single, married, religious), whether in churches, homes, convents, schools, or institutions for women, are barred from serving the priest at the altar".
The interpretation by the PCILT was apparently based on its reading of a sub-canon in the 1983 Code of Canon Law concerned with "other functions" in the liturgy at which lay people are allowed to assist. The first and principal part of the canon in question (c.230.1) specifies that only lay men (viri laici) can be "installed" permanently in the Church ministries of lector and acolyte; but then the next sub-canon (c.230.2) says that lay persons (laici) can fulfill these functions "by temporary deputation". Thus, it was decided, females are not explicitly excluded from these functions by canon law, even if they may not be installed as such.
Once the question was framed in this way, even Pope John Paul II no doubt felt pressure to concede that canon law did not explicitly exclude females from performing any liturgical functions that do not require ordination.
With the perspective of eight years of experience, it seems clear that what the Congregation's letter rightly calls the Church's "noble tradition" should have been preserved intact. There is profound symbolism inherent in the male priest representing the male Christ giving himself to His bride, the Church. Most fittingly, those who serve the priest directly during the Eucharistic Sacrifice should themselves be male.
As it happened, nearly all of the U.S. bishops hastily authorized the innovation with little or no thought given to its consequences -- although it is surely no coincidence that one of the consultants to the PCILT at the time the ruling was made was Bishop John Keating of Arlington, who did not permit the practice in his own diocese.
The fact that, according to the Canon, the permission for girls to serve at the altar is only a temporary "function" anyway -- it is not really a "ministry" -- should have given the bishops more pause. Serving the priest at the altar during Mass has certainly never been presented as merely a "temporary function". But now it has been left to the Congregation with its present letter to try to mitigate some of the damage that has been done by the break with the Church's "noble tradition" since 1994.
It is worthwhile to recall that the matter of altar servers involves the discipline but not the unchangeable doctrine of the Church -- as it is to remember the historical context in which this permissive decision was made. The PCILT interpretation of Canon 230.2, a decision it reached in 1992, was not made known to bishops until the letter from the CDW dated March 15, 1994…But by now the Congregation should have no doubt that the confusion in question has long since been introduced, and, no doubt, either, that priestly vocations have already been greatly hampered thereby. Still, given the initial decision Pope John Paul II made to accept an interpretation of Canon law that recognized no distinction between vested girls serving the priest at Mass and women readers or cantors -- in spite of the tradition and explicit post-Conciliar liturgical Instructions to the contrary, the Congregation for Divine Worship probably has with this letter at least tried to help limit and to make up for some of the damage that has been done. Though if the interpretation of Canon 230.2 remains as it is, problems and confusion will continue.

IV. The Holy See’s July 2001 Clarification

This most recent clarification affirms that the Bishop’s prerogative on this matter is permissive rather than preceptive in relation to the priests of the diocese.

Letter of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments
July 27, 2001

Your Excellency,
Further to recent correspondence, this Congregation resolved to undertake a renewed study of the questions concerning the possible admission of girls, adult women and women religious to serve alongside boys as servers in the Liturgy.
As part of this examination, the Dicastery consulted the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts which replied with a letter of July 23, 2001. The reply of the Pontifical Council was helpful in reaffirming that the questions raised by this Congregation, including the question of whether particular legislation could oblige individual priests in their celebration of the Holy Mass to make use of women to serve at the altar, do not concern the interpretation of the law, but rather are questions of the correct application of the law. The reply of the aforementioned Pontifical Council, therefore, confirms the understanding of this Dicastery that the matter falls within the competence of this Congregation as delineated by the Apostolic Constitution Pastor Bonus, § 62. Bearing in mind this authoritative response, this Dicastery, having resolved outstanding questions, was able to conclude its own study. At the present time, therefore, the Congregation would wish to make the following observations.
As is clear from the Responsio ad propositum dubium concerning can. 230, § 2, and its authentic interpretation (cf. Circular Letter to the Presidents of Episcopal Conferences, Prot. n. 2482/93 March 15, 1994, see Notitiae 30 [1994] 333-335), the Diocesan Bishop, in his role as moderator of the liturgical life in the diocese entrusted to his care, has the authority to permit service at the altar by women within the boundaries of the territory entrusted to his care. Moreover his liberty in this question cannot be conditioned by claims in favor of a uniformity between his diocese and other dioceses which would logically lead to the removal of the necessary freedom of action from the individual Diocesan Bishop. Rather, after having heard the opinion of the Episcopal Conference, he is to base his prudential judgment upon what he considers to accord more closely with the local pastoral need for an ordered development of the liturgical life in the diocese entrusted to his care, bearing in mind, among other things, the sensibilities of the faithful, the reasons which would motivate such a permission, and the different liturgical settings and congregations which gather for the Holy Mass (cf. Circular Letter to the Presidents of Episcopal Conferences, March 15, 1994, no. 1).
In accord with the above cited instructions of the Holy See such an authorization may not, in any way, exclude men or, in particular, boys from service at the altar, nor require that priests of the diocese would make use of female altar servers, since "it will always be very appropriate to follow the noble tradition of having boys serve at the altar" (Circular Letter to the Presidents of Episcopal Conference, March 15, 1994, no. 2). Indeed, the obligation to support groups of altar boys will always remain, not least of all due to the well known assistance that such programs have provided since time immemorial in encouraging future priestly vocations (cf. ibid.)
With respect to whether the practice of women serving at the altar would truly be of pastoral advantage in the local pastoral situation, it is perhaps helpful to recall that the non-ordained faithful do not have a right to service at the altar, rather they are capable of being admitted to such service by the Sacred Pastors (cf. Circular Letter to the Presidents of Episcopal Conferences, March 15, 1994, no. 4, cf. also can 228, §1, Interdicasterial Instruction Esslesiae de mysterio, August 15, 1997, no. 4, see Notitiae 34 [1998] 9-42). Therefore, in the event that Your Excellency found it opportune to authorize service of women at the altar, it would remain important to explain clearly to the faithful the nature of this innovation, lest confusion might be introduced, thereby hampering the development of priestly vocations.
Having thus confirmed and further clarified the contents of its previous response to Your Excellency, this Dicastery wishes to assure you of its gratitude for the opportunity to elaborate further upon this question and that it considers this present letter to be normative.

With every good wish and kind regard, I am, Sincerely yours in Christ,
Jorge A. Card. Medina Estévez

V. The Most Recent Instructions

On March 25, 2004 the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments released the instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum which unambiguously clarified a number of issues including the use of the communion plate and exactly when it is appropriate to use extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion. Paragraph 47 briefly describes the current legislation regarding altar servers, which has been presented above.

47. It is altogether laudable to maintain the noble custom by which boys or youths, customarily termed servers, provide service of the altar after the manner of acolytes, and receive catechesis regarding their function in accordance with their power of comprehension. Nor should it be forgotten that a great number of sacred ministers over the course of the centuries have come from among boys such as these. Associations for them, including also the participation and assistance of their parents, should be established or promoted, and in such a way greater pastoral care will be provided for the ministers. Whenever such associations are international in nature, it pertains to the competence of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments to establish them or to approve and revise their statutes. Girls or women may also be admitted to this service of the altar, at the discretion of the diocesan Bishop and in observance of the established norms.

The July 27, 2001 instructions are considered normative, therefore it should be noted that the “discretion of the diocesan Bishop” is permissive and does not in any way bind diocesan priests to allow altar girls in their Masses. An obligation of this sort would only exist in the event that the bishop chooses to forbid the use of altar girls, in which case diocesan clergy would be effectively denied this option. Further, in light of the venerable and laudable nature of the distinct role of boys and/or young men at the service of the altar, a decision on the part of priests to cultivate this practice can be seen as nothing less than laudable as well.


1. Code of Canon Law, 1983

2. Pope John Paul II, Motu Proprio: Recognito Iuris Canonici Codice

3. Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Constitution: Pastor Bonus

4. Congregation for Divine Worship, March 1994 Communication

5. Kenneth Whitehead, The Question of Altar Girls Revisited, Adoremus Bulletin, March 2002

6. Sacred Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship, Inaestimabile Donum, April 17, 1980

7. Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship, Liturgicae Instaurationes, September 5, 1970

8. Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, July 27, 2001 Norms; Notitiae - 421-422 Vol 37 (2001) Num/ 8-9 - pp 397-399

9. Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Redemptionis Sacramentum

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