Archbishop Raymond Burke, the Roman Catholic Church’s top legal authority, has stated that reading at Mass or distributing communion is not a right of the baptized. “Assistance by “persons of the feminine sex” at the altar” is also not a right.

Pope John Paul II, of course, allowed “persons of the feminine sex” at the altar. The recent altar server pilgrimage to the Vatican drew thousands of boys and girls. “Archbishop Burke clarified, however, that the reality of the matter is that neither the presence of girls at the altar, nor the participation of lay faithful “belong to the fundamental rights of the baptized.””

The attitudes to women, particularly around menstruation, has a long history, going back into Biblical times. In 241 AD Dionysius, Archbishop of Alexandria, wrote: “menstruous women ought not to come to the Holy Table, or touch the Holy of Holies, nor to churches, but pray elsewhere.” Pope Gelasius I (494 AD) objected to women serving at the altar. The Decretum Gratiani (1140 AD), which became official Church law in 1234 AD, part of the Corpus Iuris Canonici has

  • Women may not distribute communion
  • Women may not teach in church
  • Women may not touch sacred objects
  • Women may not touch sacred vestments

The Corpus Iuris Canonici (1234 – 1916 AD) also has:

  • A woman may not touch the corporal
  • Women may not receive communion during their monthly periods
  • Women should receive communion in their hand on a ‘housel-towel’ or on the tongue
  • Women should be veiled when receiving communion
  • Women may not be singers in Church

From 1917

  • Women may not distribute holy communion
  • Girls or women may not be Mass servers at the altar
  • Women should have their heads veiled in church
  • Sacred linen must first be washed by men, before women touch them
  • Women may not read out Sacred Scripture in church

IMO, and with respect, I suggest the understanding of laity as there to pay, pray, and obey is not the understanding of Jesus. Renewal of liturgy has rediscovered liturgy is (as the origin of the word suggests) “the work of the people”. It is not a spectator sport. It is a team sport, where each has a particular role. I would suggest that the laity, in fact, are the ones appropriately reading lessons, leading the prayers of the faithful, bringing forward the bread and wine, taking up and presenting a collection and other gifts for the poor, etc. Clergy should not usurp these tasks. Laity have responses particular to them in the liturgy. Clergy should not usurp these responses. Many post-Vatican II church buildings do not have a “sanctuary” (this became a problem with a recent Vatican ruling that priests not “leave the sanctuary during the Sign of Peace”). In such a building, at which point is a “person of the feminine sex” deemed to be “assisting at the altar”? May she take up the collection, but not present it? In such a church building may no woman go beyond the front seats or pew? Or even sit in the front seats or pews if there is no physical barrier between her and the altar?

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