Girls at the Altar: Decompressing A Condensed Symbol

Yesterday, Michelle Arnold, a Patheos colleague, wrote in defense of altar service by girls and women. She reminds us that its history extends all the way back to the antebellum South and culminated in an endorsement from St. John Paul II, the same pope responsible for restricting the sacramental priesthood to men. What prodded Michelle into the lists was an essay by Rachel Lu making the case against. Having read them both, point and counterpoint, I’d like to offer a few thoughts of my own. Let’s begin with the two most common arguments against altar girls.


Adolescent boys can’t stand to hang around girls. Therefore, packing the sanctuary with girls will keep boys out, resulting in stillborn vocations to the priesthood.

This was Cardinal Burke’s point. Even if we grant it for the sake of argument, the fact remains that boys don’t become priests. Some indeed may think they perceive a calling, but a great deal of discernment must take place between those first promptings and final vows. Once attracted by altar service to the sacerdotal life, a candidate could change his mind. Conversely, young men who, during childhood, never advanced past the front pew might discern vocations solid enough to carry them all the way.

Let’s remember, in any case, that priestly vocations come from Guess Who. Michael Rose’s Goodbye, Good Men is usually read as an expose on those post-Vatican II seminaries where the only thing hetero was the doxy. But it’s also a testament to the strength of those vocations. All of the men Rose interviewed believed very firmly that God was calling them to be priests. Those not screened out in the first phases of selection by gimlet-eyed, agenda-driven vocations directors, placed themselves willingly in environments that forced them to defend Catholic orthodoxy, as well as their own place in the priesthood, at every turn. Some made it through to ordination, others were bilged after long battles, but all of them showed heroic grit. I just can’t picture younger versions of them deterred by a few girl thurifers. Our God is not that fickle.

No, I think it more likely that the boys put off by girls at the altar will be the ones not called to the priesthood – the boys who’d rather spend their free time setting off M80s or plinking squirrels with wrist rockets or sniffing airplane glue. In other words, boys like I was. It’s just as well that they leave the Mass to others and get to work forming the backbone of tomorrow’s laity.

Women Louse up Liturgy

I’ve heard this argument made a number of times, but never so bluntly as by Rachel Lu, who writes:

When men are in charge of liturgy, they generally favor austerity, solemnity and reverence. They are far more likely to have “high” liturgical sensibilities. When women claim a more central role, we frequently see a slide into lower and more culturally idiosyncratic practices. It generally starts with campy banners and popular-style hymnody, but may end with synthesizers and scantily-clad liturgical dancers. These liturgies are not beautiful or uplifting. They’re more like a never-ending hug from a grasping, obsequious aunt.

Self-catechized convert that I am, I am just beginning to wrap my head around the teaching that God has both masculine and feminine aspects – and so does the Mass. Ann Barnhardt flat-out blew my mind with this essay on why the Latin Mass reflects the masculine nature of the priesthood in a uniquely compelling way. Other observers have praised conservative forms of the liturgy for its more prosaic masculine qualities – its sense of order, its goal-orientation (i.e. its focus on the sacrifice). But, though altar girls participate in the liturgy, they don’t determine its forms. When it comes to decision-making, they stand at the very bottom of the parish food chain. If a given Mass takes on the look of a cut-rate Cirque du Soleil, it’s someone else’s fault, not theirs.

Arguments against liturgy that slants feminine (in the sense, for example, of being disorderly or emotive) really belong in a debate about female liturgical directors. But any such debate would have to open with the question of whether a love for masculine qualities is unique to men. My guess is no. Ann Barnhardt, beyond doubt a woman of the female persuasion, proves as much in her essay. It makes me wonder whether certain facets of masculinity are in fact easier appreciated from without.

There’s also the question of whether a surfeit of femininity is really the most disfiguring feature of today’s Masses. I showed up well after World Youth Day, ’93, but again, my experience says no. The worst Masses I’ve attended were masculine in the drabbest sense of the word: marked — or perhaps I should say marred — by pragmatism and indifference to beauty. Whether the liturgical directors were men I don’t know. But between the cheap sacramental objects, the absent incense, and the slouching posture of every soul in the sanctuary, the liturgies looked like the work of a Homer Simpson or an Oscar Madison.

To sum up, I doubt altar girls are responsible for the atrocities commonly imputed to them. Instead, they’ve become what Rod Dreher, borrowing from sociologist Mary Douglas, calls a condensed symbol: a stand-in for broad social trends or ways of thinking. To Catholics favoring a conservative ecclesiology, altar girls, with their obvious unsuitability for the priesthood, represent lay encroachment into priestly territory. For those determined to preserve some differences in the way boys and girls are socialized, altar girls represent an ominous blurring. When people become condensed symbols, they excite controversy without having to do anything in particular.

Both trends represented by altar girls are real, but both – particularly the second – are advancing so fast on all fronts that it’s hard to know what to welcome and what to resist. For those on the lookout, altar girls just seem like the wrong hill to die on. For one thing, they’ve got John Paul’s approval. But more importantly, any young person who remains in the Church despite so much cultural pressure to abandon it, deserves all the encouragement we can give. If teenage girls show no interest in becoming nuns, that’s no reason to risk making them into nones.

"Saint Joseph of Cupertino.'Nuff said."

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