By Colin B. Donovan, STL
(EWTN) Many Catholics are perplexed by the authorization of girl altar servers by the Pope. They are uncertain about the pastoral wisdom of this decision given 1) the shortage of vocations to the priesthood, 2) the traditional place of altar boys as a source of vocations, 3) the tendency of some younger boys to not want to share activities with girls and 4) the natural religiosity of the female sex which results in their saturating non-ordained offices in the Church. Yet, it is a decision which has been made by the highest authority in the Church and to which Catholics must defer and make their peace.
It is important to make some theological distinctions, too. This is not a matter of faith but of Church discipline. While having boys serve at the altar is a long-standing ecclesiastical tradition it is nonetheless a human institution, NOT divine, and therefore capable of change for sufficient reason. The judgment about what is sufficient rests with the Holy See.
What MIGHT have been those reasons? Since the Church had already opened other non-ordained offices to women (Reader, Extraordinary Eucharistic Minister, chancellor, marriage tribunal official and so on), all of which were previously excluded to women, and in some cases lay men also), the exclusion of girls from the unofficial office of "altar server" was something of an anomaly. In fact, it was on canonical grounds which the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts proposed ending this exclusion. For his part, the Pope may have been looking ahead to the publication only a few weeks later of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, his letter affirming the male only priesthood. The two decisions taken together amount to drawing precise theological lines between what is Church tradition and what is Apostolic Tradition, allowing women all offices in the Church not excluded by Divine Law (such as the priesthood).
In granting the permission the Pope gave to each bishop the full authority to decide whether pastoral circumstances in his diocese necessitated the authorization of altar girls. In an interpretation of this ruling, the Pontifical Commission for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts has stated, with papal approval, that even if a bishop permits altar girls in his diocese, priests are not required to use them.