The rector of Sts. Simon and Jude Cathedral in Phoenix decided on a new policy – no girl altar servers at the Masses. Fr. John Lankeit, explained his decision from several perspectives: historically, that girls never used to be allowed to serve; philosophically, that men and women are different, priesthood is a male role and that altar serving is connected to priesthood; and practically, that this decision would place young men in a position to be more likely to consider the priesthood, which is a priority for the Catholic Church today.
The editors at America magazine picked up the story from the opposite angle; the editors petition to Save the Altar Girls. The Phoenix cathedral policy is bad, they say, because it undermines the equality of all the baptized, it is a form of discrimination that relegates women to second-class citizens in the Church, it will not go over well with parents who want their daughters to have the same opportunity as their sons, and by making priesthood more exclusive it will hurt vocations.
I only want to make one observation. The Phoenix priest is operating out of the conviction that the question on women priests has been closed: only men can be ordained priests. You can explore that further here. Since serving is connected to what the priest does at the altar (in a psychological way, not necessarily in a theological way) it makes sense to him that we should reserve the ministry of altar server to boys.
The editors of America magazine recognize that the girl altar severs issue is related to female ordination, making a statement that boggles the mind: “Inevitably the issue of women’s roles in the church raises the question of women’s ordination to the priesthood…but since Pope Benedict XVI, despite continued agitation, has reaffirmed the policy of John Paul II to allow no discussion of the topic, the matter of altar servers must be considered a separate and independent issue.” It is not accurate to say the this is a policy of the Pope: the Catholic Church in general, lay and clergy, has come to the conclusion that a female priesthood is not possible. Although the editors of America magazine claim the issues “must be considered separate”, in the same sentence they note that the issues are not separate. The argument that excluding girls from serving undermine their dignity would also compel the Church to ordain women priests, because refusing to do so would undermine the dignity of women. If, however, women’s dignity is not diminished by a male priesthood, then neither is it undermined by only boys serving at Mass.
I truly believe that the editors of America magazine are seeing the matter from the wrong side, and that a male priesthood affirms the dignity of women. If women were sitting at a dinner table, being served by men, we would not think that the situation undermines the dignity of women but rather that it affirms it. As Jesus says, who is greater, the one who sits at table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at the table? (Luke 22:7). The priest, and the altar server, offer their service to the whole congregation: they are serving men and women. There is something valuable about teaching young men to serve, and I think that women need to be more willing to be served, whether at the Mass or in daily life.