Girl altar boys

The rather odd title of this post comes from an August 2011 article in the Catholic Herald which cites a survey asking parishioners if they agree that “Girl Altar Boys help Vocations To The Priesthood”.

But I’m not writing this post to criticize silly grammar. As everyone knows, the Catholic Church has much more serious problems than that. Instead, I want to highlight the intensely self-interested nature of the above article. Its author, William Oddie, is concerned only with preparing young boys for the priesthood, and for this reason alone he condemns the church’s use of female altar servants.

The irony here is that the very foundation on which a male-only priesthood lies (priests need to emulate Jesus, and therefore should be male), and which therefore introduces the conundrum of female altar servers, is precisely the foundation he rejects in his article (he’s not sure it’s “entirely orthodox”). If he thinks this position is not strictly orthodox, then surely the proper thing to do is to call for women to be allowed into the priesthood? This would allow altar duties to play a vocational role for both girls and boys, solving Oddie’s problem.

But even if there is an argument for a male-only priesthood, one that Oddie considers to be “entirely orthodox”, how does that justify prohibiting girl altar servers, when the role of altar server is not technically an apprenticeship for the priesthood, but simply a way for young people to become involved in their church?

Perhaps at play here is a rather interesting phenomenon Oddie shares with us: in certain churches, the rise of altar girls has resulted in a precipitous decline in male participation. The boys, so a friend of Oddie’s tells him, “couldn’t be seen for dust”.

This opens a whole new can of worms: why exactly is serving at the altar so distasteful to boys that they run away from it the moment girls are allowed to take their place, and what does this say about the church? But new worms aside, this once again reveals that Oddie’s sole interest here is not fairness or equality, but about getting more men into the priesthood. Business trumps ethics, even in the church.

As far as I’m concerned, neither girls nor boys should be serving at the altar. Kids should be discouraged from making religious commitments (just as they should be discouraged from staking out political affiliations) until they are old enough to consider their options carefully and critically.

In the meantime, let the priests handle the altar duties. If the church cannot attract new priests through the recruitment of grown men, but only through the indoctrination of children, then perhaps society is telling them something, and perhaps they ought to listen.

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