Women on the altar -- Yay!

altarboysRoman Catholics who believe only males should serve the Sacrament or hold the lectionary open are backward and awful and almost without reason. Or so the Washington Post's Caryle Murphy and Michelle Boorstein would have you believe. Yes, members of the same mainstream American media that cautiously explain why some Muslims riot over political cartoons featuring Muhammad write a whole story without explaining the historic Christian view for an all-male priesthood and altar staff. Last week it was announced that the Arlington Diocese would introduce females at the altar. I was deeply curious about how reporters would handle this story since I belong to a church which has only male pastors. For the same reason we permit only certain males to serve as pastors, we permit only certain males to serve as deacons and acolytes. In other words, we're even more exclusive than your run-of-the-mill sexist, backward Roman Catholics! And what about those church bodies that frown on any lay assistants period?

Anyway, I sat slack-jawed as I read the puffery which passed for a news report of the change in Arlington. I honestly wish I could just quote the entire piece to show how unbalanced it is. Beyond the populist perspective -- as if all that matters is whether public opinion in the pews is tilted one way or the other -- the article just completely fails to mention doctrinal arguments for male-only acolytes. Imagine, if you will, that you were writing a press release for an imaginary group called Catholics for Female Acolytes and see if you would have changed anything from this Washington Post lead:

Despite the short notice, they were more than ready to make parish history yesterday at Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Arlington.

Emily Wallis held the lectionary open while the priest read from it. Angela Barbieri brought the ceremonial vial of water to the altar. And Margaret Lister followed the priest down the aisle to shake hands with her congregation, just as she'd always seen altar boys do.

"It was fun," Margaret, 7, said later. "I always wanted to be on the altar. I wanted to see what it was like to be helping the priest."

This particular priest, the Rev. Leonard J. Tuozzolo, was just as excited as his female helpers in their floor-length white robes called albs.

"This is very historical," the pastor, vested in Lent's penitential purple, said at yesterday's 9:30 a.m. Mass, during which female servers directly assisted in the liturgy. "We're no longer gender-restricted."

His assembled parishioners, including squirming children, young families and elderly couples, responded with loud applause and "Yays!"

The authors say the diocese is divided between "conservative and liberal Catholics" -- which means absolutely nothing, at least to me. I know many Roman Catholics and I love nothing more than to ask them about their views of their church and no matter how well I think I understand them, I would be loathe to describe them as conservative or liberal. The authors say the Arlington bishop "seemed to be trying to please both" sides by permitting two parishes to offer a Latin Mass. Ah yes, both sides. Because we know in Roman Catholic issues, there are usually two sides -- one liberal and one Tridentine-loving conservative. Let's go back to the love-fest where we see that girls are uniquely suited to the altar tasks:

Lyn McGee, who has 11-year-old twins -- a boy and a girl -- said she is glad she no longer has to explain to daughter Taylor why only her brother Conor could assist the priest at St. Anthony of Padua Parish near Baileys Crossroads in Fairfax County. St. Anthony is expected to begin allowing altar girls soon.

Taylor is more engaged in the Mass than her brother, McGee said, and she notices such things as his untied shoelaces. She believes that she can help him fix such things if she's a participant, McGee added. "She said, 'I can finally put him together before he walks down the aisle! He always has something dragging,'" McGee recalled.

altardancersFinally the authors get to the conservative folks who they say are displeased that this is a first-step toward a female clergy. Instead of citing doctrinal opposition to female priests or female altar servers, the authors instead look at what one scholar, theologian, expert, official, commenter on a blog worries about as an effect of ending the male altar service:

A mother named "Denise" expressed her concerns on Open Book. "The nature of young boys is that when you introduce girls into the activity, it lowers the value or status of the activity in their eyes and the boys' participation decreases," she wrote. "From these boys come our priests and the Arlington Diocese has been blessed with abundant seminarians. Why would we jeopardize that now?"

The Rev. Brian G. Bashista, head of the diocese's Office of Vocations, said there is no evidence of a connection between the sex of altar servers and the number of men entering the seminary. The most influential factors in men becoming priests or women becoming nuns are family and faithful priests, he said.

"This is a difficult time for some people," he said of the introduction of female altar servers, "and we need to be prayerfully patient."

Well, I guess if the unbiased diocesan official rebuts a negative claim from a one-named blog commenter then we've provided all the balance we need. But we also throw in a patronizing comment about those poor people who are slow to accept change. Because we all know that they're just fearful sexists who don't like any progress or equality between the sexes. To drive the point home, the reporters quote a few more parents and female acolytes who praise progress and equality between the sexes in the church.

Wow and wow. I have absolutely no doubt that it was easy to find any number of parents who were elated that Suzie got to help out at the altar. I would imagine that most everyone I know -- outside of my congregation and larger church body -- would think this was a non-issue. They would say that it's not even debatable whether churches should let girls serve as acolytes and lay readers. But didn't Caryle Murphy and Michelle Boorstein have any curiosity why the Arlington diocese made this change or why the altar servers used to be exclusively male? There are serious Roman Catholic arguments for a male-only acolyte corps. They should have been mentioned and treated respectfully.

Assuming the reporting duo isn't trying to be biased, they should really try harder to explain complex and nuanced religious issues next time.

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