Thank Heaven for Little Girls?

A while ago, I was reading the Papal encyclical, Allatae Sunt, by Pope Benedict 14th in 1755. The encyclical has much to say regarding Rome’s relations to the East and so it is a worthwhile read, though I don’t think it is always accurate. That is just to say that I am not Catholic. But then I ran across a series of statements that I desired to get clear on regarding women servers at the altar.

Pope Gelasius in his ninth letter (chap. 26) to the bishops of Lucania condemned the evil practice which had been introduced of women serving the priest at the celebration of Mass. Since this abuse had spread to the Greeks, Innocent IV strictly forbade it in his letter to the bishop of Tusculum: “Women should not dare to serve at the altar; they should be altogether refused this ministry.” We too have forbidden this practice in the same words in Our oft-repeated constitution Etsi Pastoralis, sect. 6, no. 21.

Allatae Sunt, sec. 29.

Now I am not clear on a few points and so I wish to invite informed Catholics to help get clear on them. What is the standing of this statement? Is it revisable or has it been revised? Is this a moral issue or a prudential one? And if the latter, how are we to understand the Pope’s terms of “evil practice?” How does this statement relate to the current practice in the Catholic Church of permitting female altar servers and lay eucharistic ministers? What does Vatican II have to say on the matter or is there some other sourece in the code of canon law that explains the history and reasoning behind the apparent moral revision here?

To be clear, I do not wish to make a claim or argument regarding current practice. I only wish to get clear on what exactly is going on here in relation to contemporary Catholic practice.

7 Responses to Thank Heaven for Little Girls?

  1. William Tighe says:

    As far as I am aware, deaconesses never, ever participated in the administration of the Eucharist during the Divine Liturgy, just as they never, ever fulfilled any liturgical role durning the Liturgy. In houses of women religious — and in Constintinople, as in Antioch, almost all the deaconesses who are known to history were either the founders of such houses or their abbesses — they might administer the Eucharist from the reserved Presanctified Gifts to those (only) within their communion, and that only when there was no male deacon to administer them.

    In the Syriac regions of Mesopotamia, deaconesses had also as well as their roles in nunneries that of assisting the bishop/priest/deacons at the baptisms of adult women, and of carrying out instructional and catechetical work among adult women, who were, for the most part, sequestered in confinement in their households — to whom they also brought the Eucharist from time to time.

    In other words, the deaconesses were not “female deacons” but either a “fourth order” of clergy or else a lay ministry for women. It seems pretty clear to me that the latter was in fact the case — and thus that it is precisely due to “dogma” and not “practicality” that they did not and should not undertake any of the functions of the deacon.

  2. Alex says:

    Abba Poemon,

    Can I ask a question? I know it’s off topic but why would that upset you? It’s my understanding that the previous roles of deaconesses in the Church did vary, but that certainly at times it wasn’t uncommon for them to participate in the administration (sorry I couldn’t think of a better word) of the Eucharist. Another role would be that of a woman preacher, of which there are many saintly examples in the Church (something which the Catholic church, by contrast, forbids).

    I guess my point is that it seems, based on my very limited knowledge, that the reason we don’t have women doing these things anymore has more to do with practicality than dogma.

    On the other hand, I think it would bother me too – I just can’t really explain why, other than the fact that the altar has in my experience seemed like, well, kind of a special thing for us guys.

  3. William Tighe says:

    I have just been able to find the Latin original of the phrase of Pope Gelasius’ letter to the bishops of Lucania (modern-day Basilicata), Bruttium (modern-day Calabria) and Sicily of 494 that is at issue in this posting. Here is the Latin original, followed by an English translation:

    Nihilominus impatienter audivimus, tantum divinarum rerum subisse despectum, ut feminae sacris altaribus ministrare firmentur, cunctaque non nisi virorum famulatui deputata sexum, cui non competunt, exhibere.

    [‘Nevertheless we have heard to our annoyance that divine affairs have come to such a low state that women are encouraged to officiate at the sacred altars, and to take part in all matters imputed to the offices of the male sex, to which they do not belong.’]

    The epistle consisted of 27 decrees, of which four were concerned with women: XII concerns the consecration of virgins; XIII and XXI concern the prohibition against the veiling of widows; and XXVI, which deals with the “ministry” of women and of which the key phrase is excerpted above.

    I do not think that this is a reference to female “acolytes,” but rather (seemingly) to women presuming to act as deacons or even priests by “ministering” at the altars.

  4. This is a good question, Perry. I hope you get an answer.

    I’m a bit curious about the phrase “this abuse had spread to the Greeks” – I don’t know what it alludes to, and I assume it’s referring to Uniates or Orthodox. Is there are known referent for this? A practice that started somewhere and was wiped out? I’ve heard that Antioch has female altar servers, but I’ve never been able to confirm this (I wouldn’t like it at all if they did).

    Forgive me for asking a sidetracking question.


  5. William Tighe says:


    My off-the-cuff response would be that if Pope Gelasius is referring to “purported priestesses” (as I incline a bit to think) then Rome doesn’t allow the “evil practice,” but rather forbids it; but if he is referring to “girl acolytes” or rather “women serving/assisting a priest a the altar,” then I would prefer to let Rome defend itself (if it is able), as it is not a task I would be much willing to undertake. I suppose Rome might, however, wish to try to draw back from the language of categorical evil.

    What would well-informed Orthodox think? There is the example of St. Nektarios, who in his old age supposedly “ordained” a nun a “deaconess” to assist him in his infirmity at the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. I write “supposedly,” since many years ago a friend of mine who, knowing Greek, had investigated the matter thoroughly, claimed that St. Nektarios had made her a subdeacon (subdeaconess?) rather than a deaconess.

  6. Dr Tighe,

    My question is not over whether they are an exception or not but the moral status of the practice. Is the practice evil or no? If so, why does Rome permit an exception to an evil practice? If its not, there must be some reason why the judgment of the previous popes was mistaken.

    I certainly can’t be the first to ask these kinds of questions so I am looking for some historical clarification.

  7. William Tighe says:

    I have not read Allatae Sunt, but I have read the letter of Pope Gelasius I which it references. I don’t have the text to hand, but my recollection is that it runs something like — we have learned with vexation that respect for the sacred rites has sunk so low that even women are allowed to administer at the altars. The advocates of women’s ordination always brandish this letter as “proof” that there were “women priests” in the Catholic Church, in this case in Italy, if not in Rome, and they try especially to find them in Celtic Ireland.

    But assuming that it does mean “female acolytes,” I think one can say that the “concession” of 1994 is a permissive “exception” rather than otherwise. Just a few weeks ago a well-informed canonist explained to me that the then pope allowed “altar girls,” which he had hitherto firmly opposed, when it was brought to his attention that references to lay “altar servers” did not refer to them as “viri” but in gender-neutral terms. (Of course, I then added, why didn’t he change the appropriate canon(s), in that case, and rec’d only a shrug in response.)

    There was a subsequent “clarification” that female altar servers were permitted, not required, and that no bishop need allow them in his diocese, nor any parish pastor in his church. In the United States the diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska has never allowed them, and until recently (alas!) neither did the diocese of Arlington, Virginia. The Latin code of Canon Law of 1983 makes it clear that lay altar servers of any sort are a substitute for the “minor order” of Acolyte (the one Latin “minor order” which, along with that of Lector, was preserved when the other five were abolished in 1973) and that the office of Acolyte (as well as Lector) should be conferred widely on suitable males. This has not been done in America, and that simply because the “instituted office” (as it is now termed) of Acolyte (as well as that of Lector) is limited to males, whereas women can be thrust in as “lay lectors” and “lay altar servers.”

    One might also note that the Eastern Code of Canon Law of 1990 states explicitly that all those who serve at the altar in any capacity must be males, and also that when “girl altar boys” were allowed in the Latin Church in 1994 the bishops of various Eastern Catholic churches here in the United States (among them the Ruthenians and Ukrainians) issued formal statements to the effect that the change in the Latin discipline would have no effect in their churches, and that altar servers could only be males.

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