Monday, August 13, 2018

Doctrinal Foundations of All-Male Sanctuary Service and the Problem with Ignoring Them

In the Temple of Jerusalem, the Holy of Holies was a place solemnly set apart, separated from the rest of the temple and its surrounding courtyards, on account of the mystery contained within it: the presence of God above the mercy seat, in the midst of the physical reminder of the covenant in blood. Out of fear and reverence for the Lord, lay men and women, lower ranks of priests and Levites, would not dare to enter the Holy of Holies. Only the high priest could enter, under precise conditions, ready to offer to the Lord his own prayers and the prayers of all the people.

Jesus Christ, our great High Priest, has pierced the veil and entered into the true tabernacle not made with human hands, preparing for us a way to follow Him into beatitude — even preparing for us, in this mortal life, a mystical banquet of His precious Body and Blood, so that we may be made sharers of the food of immortality. Yet, for all this intimacy of communion, He remains no less the Sovereign High Priest, crowned with glory, and we are no less His lowly servants in via. As we walk in pilgrimage towards the heavenly temple, there is still the distinction in kind between sacred and profane, baptized and unbaptized, the holy and the sinful, as well as the distinction of offices between ministers and laymen.

Far from being cut off from its ancient roots, worship in the New Covenant retains the spirit of chaste fear before the Lord, the awareness of stages of ascent into the holy presence of God, and a ministerial hierarchy that reflects the nature of the cosmos and the descent of grace from the Redeemer through the members of His mystical Body. These truths are consummately expressed in the spaces and structures of classic church architecture, furnishings, vestments, and vessels, and poignant prayers and gestures of homage, adoration, and humility.

Traditionally, the sanctuary above all was seen as the domain of Christ the High Priest, and therefore an area symbolically set apart from the rest of the Church, with all-male ministerial service — a custom that Roman Catholics kept intact for nearly 2,000 years in continuity with the Israelites who went before us, and that the Eastern Churches preserve in full integrity to this day.

Let us recall the rationale behind the custom of limiting service in the sanctuary and at the altar to men only. Servers and lectors are in some way an extension of the ministry of the priesthood, to which it properly belongs to handle the divine mysteries and all that is associated with them. Only men can be priests; therefore only males are suited to priestly functions. Moreover, servers and lectors are a substitute for clerics in minor orders, who, in optimal conditions, are the ones called upon by the Church to fulfill these very offices. The formal ministries of acolyte and lector, even after Pope Paul VI’s simplification and reconfiguration thereof, are open only to men. Ministers are men set apart by the Church for a special function that is not equivalent to general lay participation in the liturgy. Finally, serving as an altar boy was and still is a much-valued way to encourage vocations to the priesthood.[1]

Not long after the Council, this hitherto unbroken practice was abandoned, with the allowance of female lectors and, later, female altar servers. Now women and men freely mingle in the sanctuary and even at the very altar of sacrifice. Not only is this development contrary to the religious instincts of most cultures[2] and to well-known psychological requirements of boys,[3] it is also contrary to the common good of modern Christians who are living in an age of massive sexual confusion, where distinctions are blurred and the combination of reductive feminism and democratic egalitarianism treats men and women as if they were interchangeable.[4]

While Christian anthropology is sufficiently different from that of other cultures and religions to allow St. Paul to say that “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female” (Gal 3:28), the context itself and the exegesis of the Church Fathers show us that the Apostle is referring to the dignity of baptism and the goal of salvation: the grace of eternal life is freely available to all, with no distinction of race, class, or sex. Heroic charity is in the reach of every baptized man, woman, and child, and the hierarchy of heaven is established according to charity. This fundamental truth simply does not touch on how the Christian religion, as visibly and socially embodied in this world, makes use of the God-authored order of creation (and, in particular, the permanent features of human nature) for the hierarchical form of its organization and worship.

The ideological shotgun wedding of feminism and egalitarianism strikes at the fundamental language of revelation, wherein God/Christ is the bridegroom who acts and fertilizes, becoming the father and head of the family, and man/Israel/the Church the bride who receives as wife and bears fruit as a mother. As I have written elsewhere:
To ignore differences of sex or to pretend that such differences make (or should make) no difference in the fulfilling of liturgical roles is surely to ignore, and probably to contradict, the “theology of the body” given to the Church by Pope John Paul II. Especially in our times, when confusion about sexuality is rampant, how we conceptualize and implement male and female roles in the Church cannot fail to have huge ramifications in our theological anthropology, moral theology, and even fundamental theology, extending all the way to the inerrancy of Scripture and the trustworthiness of apostolic Tradition.[5]
At the very least, it is not beneficial to the faithful to allow traditional practices to be canceled out as if they were arbitrary exercises of power, mistaken to begin with — particularly when these practices have sound anthropological and dogmatic foundations.

In the case at hand, the gradual breaking down of various distinctions such as those between sanctuary and nave, ordained and non-ordained, ministers and recipients, has been able to feed into and feed upon the larger societal dissolving of distinctions between men and women, creating a perfect storm of confusion for the faithful.

A failure to see how the natural distinction of sexes is ordered to the common good of mankind and of the Church has, without a doubt, led to many abuses of power on the part of pastors or laity who take it upon themselves to create, abolish, or innovatively redefine offices, functions, symbols, and rites.

Pastors concerned with communicating and reinforcing authentic Catholic doctrine should become more concerned with the many ways, open and subtle, in which our liturgical practices symbolize certain truths of creation and redemption or, on the contrary, obfuscate that symbolism and risk undermining those truths.


[1] See this article for further argumentation.

[2] See Manfred Hauke, Women and the Priesthood: A Systematic Analysis in Light of the Order of Creation and Redemption, trans. David Kipp (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), esp. 85–194; cf. idem, God or Goddess? Feminist Theology: What Is It? Where Does It Lead?, trans. David Kipp (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995).

[3] I am referring here to the oft-observed pastoral phenomenon of male servers dropping away and recruits drying up when girls flow into the ranks and take over (something known to be off-putting for boys of a certain age range in particular), and the opposite phenomenon of boys and young men volunteering in large numbers to serve when the ministry is all-male, exacting in its duties and run along the lines of a disciplined band of soldiers.

[4] See Peter Kwasniewski, “Incarnate Realism and the Catholic Priesthood,” originally published in Homiletic & Pastoral Review 100.7 (April 2000): 21–29; online here.

[5] Published as Benedict Constable, “Should Women Be Lectors at Mass?

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