Ask a Priest: Female Altar Servers


Question: I attend a church that does not permit female altar servers. Is there any justification for this practice? Wasn’t one of the innovations of Vatican II the abolition of gender discrimination aside from the priesthood?

Answer:  Female altar servers in the Latin Rite is a relatively new phenomenon.  In the Eastern Byzantine Rites not even laity are allowed in the sanctuary (behind the iconostasis). In the Jewish religion in the time of Jesus, no women were permitted in the inner courts of the Temple and only the High Priest in the inner sanctuary of the Holy of Holies twice a year.

In the Orthodox Jewish communities today men and women are separated in the Synagogue.  In the Islamic faith, women are only permitted (with veils) in the back and outer part of the mosque to worship, not in the front with men.

The reason for this is a clear delineation of hierarchy and patriarchal structure in the history of the three great monotheistic faiths.  Thus to allow females to act as lectors, extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist and as altar servers is a real break with tradition and the past.

In a similar vein, we can look back to a time when women could not be elected to Government, could not be doctors, lawyers etc. and could not even vote. It is not therefore surprising that one will find churches and traditionalist communities resisting what they might consider recent innovations.  However, I think it is a step in the right direction towards greater respect and equality of the sexes

Peter Monty, SJ is Chaplain for the Deaf in Ottawa.

  • Peter Bisson
    Posted at 02:17h, 26 October Reply

    Thank yo Peter!

  • Donna
    Posted at 08:05h, 26 October Reply

    Try to imagine how that feels to a woman.

  • Robert Czerny
    Posted at 17:14h, 26 October Reply

    Thank you Fr. Monty – to the point, enlightening and enlightened. I’m bewildered by selective respect for tradition; for instance, it’s OK to abandon some traditional certainties (such as the institution of slavery) but not others (the subordinate status of women). And I’m also bewildered by the circular logic of selective listening: if you only ask the foxes “Who should run the hen-house?”, the decision is a foregone conclusion; but if you ask for a consensus from the foxes and chickens the answer will be, shall we say, more nuanced. One day, women and men together will establish full “respect and equality of the sexes” (Fr. Monty’s phrase) in the Church. But for now, the weight of tradition and the insufficient number of enlightened foxes in the Church mean that ‘one day’ is not tomorrow. Meanwhile, women are doing more and more, and constantly better, in the Church and the entire Church is benefiting.

  • Monica S.
    Posted at 20:28h, 27 October Reply

    Thanks Fr. Peter. I’m enjoying reading the posts from “Ask A Priest”. I found both the previous article on spiritual mediums and today’s on female altar servers to be thought-provoking and informative in terms of Catholic tradition and how this tradition fits into the bigger picture . Patriarchy has done so much harm in the world and I believe all institutions have suffered from it (including the “institution” of the family). I’m always glad to hear of movement in any of the great religions away from patriarchal structures. Looking forw
    ard to more Q & A’s from Ask A Priest in future issues!

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