Altar girl debate minus the debate

The Washington Post has a religion story that many readers have submitted for comment. The headline could not be more promising:

Protests of Va. parish’s move away from altar girls reflects wider Catholic debate

I love debates! I can't wait to read more.

First off, we get a tug-at-the-heartstrings picture of a beautiful soulful woman embraced by her beautiful and mourning daughters. We learn her story:

Mass had just begun at Corpus Christi Catholic Church when Jennifer Zickel, a Sunday school teacher, glanced at the church bulletin and saw something that made her sick to her stomach.

Tucked in with announcements about a new electronic donation system and a church dinner at Margarita’s Mexican restaurant was news that Zickel, the mother of two girls, had been dreading: Corpus Christi would no longer train girls to be altar servers.

Zickel burst into tears and ran to the bathroom.

“I knew right then that our family couldn’t stay at this church anymore,” Zickel said, her voice breaking. “I’m a mama bear, and they’re going after my girls.”

At this point, I'm very excited to read what defenders of male altar servers have to say. I mean, I know what everyone in my congregation would say -- we're Lutheran, not Catholic, but we have male-only altar servers. Our idea -- and I know not everyone agrees with the traditional view here -- is that the pastoral office is for males and altar service prepares one for that office. We have three pastors and we also have deacons who assist at the altar as well as acolytes and crucifers who also assist. Our congregation currently has two men in seminary and our newest pastor was someone who became Lutheran at our church, then became a deacon, then went off to seminary, and returned to our parish as assistant pastor.

Well, the weird thing about this story is that we never hear anyone defending the practice. It's just kind of odd. I mean, someone is quoted from the diocese pointing out that they've received very few complaints, but that's not a defense of the practice. There's helpful information that only about 1 percent of the families at the parish in question left over the matter and that only 50 letters -- from across the nation -- were received in complaint.

We do, however, get more heart-wrenching stories about the agonies facing mothers of girls. To wit:

Mary Barnes choked up as she described watching her seventh-grade daughter serve during Mass in a white robe while the boys were switched to black ones. Barnes has attended Corpus Christi, in a booming area of eastern Loudoun County, for 13 years.

“It’s really hard to sit in church every weekend looking at that,” said Barnes, a manager at AOL. “It’s demoralizing, understanding you’re not really wanted.”

I'm a mother of two girls who does not face this agony. I know many Catholic mothers in the Arlington diocese whose parishes do not have altar girls. I suspect most of them support this, given what I know about their general religious approach. I also have a friend whose parish moved to female altar girls and she wishes they didn't. Why aren't mothers like them included in a story about personal feelings about the change?

These personal stories are quite compelling. And their perspective is interesting and great fodder for a story. In response we get some fairly brief discussion of the history of altar service and what could be seen as a confusing argument in their favor.

We learn that some folks support male-only altar service as a way to help out with a clergy shortage. I understand that by experience -- seeing how that plays out in my own denomination. But I think it could have been fleshed out more for folks unfamiliar with the argument.

Anyway, what's in the story isn't bad. I enjoyed learning about the perspective of people who oppose the male-only practice, although it would have been nice to hear if the complaints were religiously motivated. The quotes made them sound more like a response to cultural changes than based on theology. That might be the case, but if they did have religious objections, that should have been included.

What's left out of the story is really key. Since we're talking about a change in position -- from permitting altar girls to not permitting them -- the story really must explain that change in position. We're not talking about tracking down some reclusive sect. I'm sure I could have found dozens of Catholic clergy and laypeople in the Arlington Diocese who could have weighed in. Is there a good argument for keeping them out of such an emotive story?

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