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I once knew a classmate who told me that she belonged to the Coptic Orthodox church. Out of curiosity, I asked her whether she had ever served the altar, because I figured that serving the altar was what many Christian families would push their kids for or want them to do. She told me that serving the altar was for boys.

Just recently, I made frequent visits to the local Catholic church just for fun. I noticed that the Roman Catholic church not only had female altar servers, but also had female singers that led the congregation to sing hymns, even though I do remember reading that the Roman Catholic Church did prefer to use castrati instead of real women. I know the Roman Catholic church is about as old as the Orthodox churches, so why would the Western church and Eastern church differ in their views of the inclusion of females in certain positions?

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    Castration is illegal everywhere now, and the Catholic Church would be condemned if it attempted to employ castrati, so for soprano voices it girls or nothing. – Dick Harfield Sep 19 '15 at 21:51
  • My next question would be about the age requirement to serve the altar. It seems many of them are teens. Can young adults serve too? – Double U Sep 19 '15 at 22:54
  • @Dick While you may be right that sopranos are female voices, you may have forgotten that trebles (boys) sing in many choirs worldwide, and a substantial number continue to do so once their voices break. – Andrew Leach Sep 20 '15 at 13:09
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The Catholic Church did not used to allow girls or women to be altar servers. In his Allatae Sunt on July 26, 1755 Pope Benedict XIV explicitly cited Pope Innocent IV:

Women should not dare to serve at the altar; they should be altogether refused this ministry.

He also referenced Pope Gelasius who stated that women serving at the altar was one of the "great evils" which had spread during his time.

In Canon 230, the Code of Canon Law reserves the role of acolyte, one who lights the candles in the Mass and prepares the Mass before the procession, to men. It is only in the necessary absence of acolytes, who are in fact clerics-in-training themselves, that 'altar boys' were permitted as temporary 'fill-ins'. These 'altar boys' were truly not 'boys' though, but rather typically adult laymen. The need of these temporary laymen was relevant during the Middle Ages in which clerics were attending seminary schools and were as such not able to assist the priest with preparing the Mass.

Due to the changing of times, the system of seminary schools has changed, and 'minor orders', to which clerics-in-training were devoted, passed somewhere into the abyss of times lost. While the participation of laypeople, as in laymen, in the Mass might have persisted for quite sometime, it is only of late, around the 1960's actually, that certain churches simply started to include girl altar servers not as in an act of need, but as in an act of regularity. The Vatican responded disapprovingly with the text Liturgicae instaurationes, written in the 1970. Despite this exercise of clarification, many churches still insisted on the practice, and so in 1980 the Vatican again affirmed a traditional position on the matter in the 1980 Inaestimabile donum. Granted the absence of the traditional 'minor orders' and the traditional definition of a 'cleric', the secularization of the Church urged Church leaders to interpret differently Canon 230, as though it were providing room for the inclusion of women in the liturgy as a regular practice. Not taking such a drastic step, which would be misinterpreting the role of laypeople in the Mass,the Pontificial Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts (it's a mouthful, I know) was submitted a doubt in the common interpretation of Canon 230. It was to this official council that the Canon would be left to interpretation. The Canon to be discussed, Canon 230.2, read as the following:

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

Traditionally, 'other functions' did not include altar serving, and if so, only in the most odd of cases. But the Council found otherwise. Furthermore, that the Latin term 'laici' used in the second paragraph in reference to the various functions that could be performed was in contrast to 'viri laici' used in the first paragraph to refer to the official titles of acolyte and lector implied that the former was referring specifically to men while the latter was referring to all laypersons, including women. So it was that the 'official' stance regarding whether women can be involved in altar serving became a definitive 'yes'. But the Council left such a decision ultimately up to the bishops. Furthermore, Church leaders including St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict continued to express support for traditional Mass rites rather than the contenporary practice. What is interesting is the progression of how girls came to be altar servers. The Church went from official clerics as the assistants of the priest, to layperson men, to layperson boys, to finally layperson girls.

Many traditionalists argue that laypeople serving Mass and fulfilling the roles of lector, cantors, and acolytes (the list goes on) were not intended by the early Church. If one reads the Canon one in fact finds that such instances were expressed as being only present when the Church did not have available official clerics present, who were likely in training to be priests. As such, many traditionalists interpret the Canon as being inherently conditionally true, in which such examples, laypeoples' roles are only in cases of great need. But the modern churches, now with little resistance from Pope Francis, quite obviously participate in such practices as though they were always meant to be regular, and if not, that are at least to be considered regular now. Only two diocese in the United States currently do not allow women participation in the process of Mass, and they are often looked at funny. For this reason, this issue has caused somewhat of a divide in the Church with several Catholics becoming perhaps overly zealous traditionalists and other Catholics becoming perhaps overly willing seculars.

  • There is nothing to argue about theologically, for the official statements of the Church are without error, which is the source of the Church's unity. What is to be discussed however is the way in which we carry ourselves as members of the Church. If that requires a stiff conversation here and there, it is better done than ignored. Divisions pass in time, as shall this. Truthful living has a way of manifesting itself in the Church. – Jecko Sep 20 '15 at 22:35
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In the Catholic liturgy of the Eucharist, everyone plays a role. The priest stands in for Christ, the deacons stand in for the Angels, and various roles stand in as members of the church and witnesses. Women can serve in these roles as they are equal members of the church with men as by virtue of our baptism, we are all joined to Christ and no one is more or less important based on sex, race, class, etc.

In general, anyone can serve as a ministers, either male or female, including ministry roles such as lectors, thurifers, Eucharistic ministers, worship leaders, altar servers, pastoral roles, etc. it is only the role of the celebrant that is reserved to men who are ordained priests, based on what the Catholic understanding of an ordained priest is.

Catholics believe that all believers become priests, or more precisely, participate in the one priesthood of Christ, through baptism. This is priesthood in the Order of Sacrificers, or a sacerdotal priesthood. The primary sacrifice we offer is that if our lives to God in Union with Christ's sacrifice. However, some men also are ordained as priests in the Order of Presbyter, or Elder, to administer the Sacraments and govern the community. So this is actually a second kind of priesthood, as well as a different degree of priesthood, as for them priesthood is also their primary vocation or occupation. The primary reason this order of priesthood is reserved to men is that Christ appointed only men to be bishops, and the Catholic Church does not consider itself authorized to depart from Christ's example.

Also, it is not the case that there is any preference for men to stand in for women as castrati in choirs or other roles. This practice belongs to a time in society where women were not properly valued or allowed to contribute in many ways. For example, there was a time when most female roles in plays were played but men dressed as women. This is not an issue that was specific to the Catholic Church or to choirs.

  • This is a good answer, but would be greatly improved with some references to official sources to prove it is indeed the official church position. – ThaddeusB Sep 20 '15 at 2:08
  • All believers become priests? Priesthood of all believers? Hey, isn't that a Protestant belief? Did the Catholic Church borrow that from the Protestants or what? How is the Catholic version different from the Protestant version? – Double U Sep 20 '15 at 2:32
  • That's really better answered as a separate question, but this has been the Catholic teaching since before Protestantism. My understanding is that when Protestants say this, they mean something different by it, including in some cases that they do not believe that the office of an ordained Catholic priest has powers or privileges it claims to have, or that those powers are not specific to the office such that they cannot also be exercised by the laity. – JAGAnalyst Sep 20 '15 at 2:38

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