John Allens' latest article in the NCR reports on the recent gathering of altar servers in Rome. There are a couple of observations in it which both irritated me and gave me some hope. The following is an excerpt hi lighting the thinking of one female writer for L'Osservatore Romano:
"Being an altar server was always understood as a service but, at the same time, as a privilege, because it leads one into the heart of the liturgical celebration, in the space of the altar, to direct contact with the Eucharist. The exclusion of girls from all this, for the sole reason of belonging to the female sex, has always weighed heavily and signified a profound inequality within Catholic education, which fortunately has been cancelled by now for several decades. Even if perhaps many pastors have been resigned to altar girls only in the absence of available boys, for young women overcoming this barrier was very important, and in fact that’s how it’s been understood: the presence of a female majority at the tenth gathering of 'ministrants' which recently took place in the presence of the pope demonstrates it."
"For girls, entering into the space of the altar has meant the end of any attribution of impurity to their sex, it’s meant the possibility of living this formative experience of extraordinary importance in religious education, and it’s meant a different kind of attention to the liturgy as well as coming closer to the faith by drawing near to its very heart."
As another essay earlier in the week by Gian Maria Vian, the editor-in-chief of L'Osservatore, also did, Scaraffia suggests that the gathering of young altar servers with the pope offered a counter-point to the sexual abuse scandals which have recently swirled around the Vatican.
"These happy youth, celebrating and proud of their role, who came to Rome in order to bring Benedict XVI their affection and enthusiasm were – certainly not on purpose, but in fact – a concrete and positive response to the accusations, true and false, which have been launched against the church in these months," she wrote.
I'm not sure I get how an orchestrated celebration of altar servers offers a 'concrete and positive response to the accusations'. If it's a concrete step, it might be in a negative sense. Rather than actively dealing with the adult issue of sexual abuse of male altar servers, the passive solution appears to be to accent the numbers of girls. This is deceptive because the true predator is more concerned with power and access, not gender. Of course when ones basic strategy has been to blame the abuse crisis on homosexuality, it is incumbent on one to allude to altar girls as a sort of solution.
I actually find this aspect of the article offensive. Why use these enthusiastic kids, a real bright spot for the Church, for apologetic propaganda for the Vatican's handling of the abuse crisis?
I also disagree with the author's contention that: "For girls, entering into the space of the altar has meant the end of any attribution of impurity to their sex," This may be true for 'girls' but it is not true for women. Eventually these girls, who have been in the heart of the Eucharistic celebration and in the sacred confines of the altar, are going to have to deal with the fact that access closes completely once they mature into women. I guess the Church is assuming these girls will grow out of their sort of 'Tom boy' phase and settle down into assuming their mature role as a passive female recipient of male sacramental authority.
Trouble is this isn't like girls playing Little League Baseball and switching to softball as they get older. When a girl switches to softball it's a recognition that only the truly exceptional woman will have the strength and quickness to play baseball at higher levels. That's just facing actual reality about physical differences in gender. No such physical reality applies to the priesthood. With regards to the priesthood the gender differences are totally abstract concepts with no similar legitimate basis in physical reality.
The argument based in Jesus's appearance as male is an argument meant to cover this fact. It's an argument that makes the priesthood a form of sacralizing the penis as God's way of evening out the fact men don't have a sacred life giving uterus. Adult men 'incarnate' Jesus and adult women incarnate babies. It's all fair. It's complimentary. God is good.
One of the troubles with this is that in Catholicism ordination is about far more than 'incarnating' Jesus at Mass. It's also about who has the sole right to the teaching authority and who 'knows' the will of god. This is neither fair, balanced, complimentary, or good. For women to passively accept this is to accept an abstract ideation as representative of actual reality. Reality presents the picture of men and women together raising and teaching children as co creators with equal responsibilities. Only by accepting the abstract reality from which the Church operates could one concede that only men have the right to assume sole authority for God's 'children' in Jesus's family. This necessitates accepting an abstract mental ideation for an actual reality and freely agreeing to having one's real experience of life confined by such an abstract.
Somehow I don't think most of today's altar girls are going to accept as reality the abstract ideation buttressing men's ordination. They will see it for what it is--smoke and mirrors. I also think this is precisely why Pope Benedict is all a dither about secular relativism. If Catholics start reality testing various pronouncements of the teaching authority they begin to see that there are numerous intellectual abstracts that are being presented as reality. Exactly because these doctrines are intellectual abstracts they do not nourish well in reality. Additionally, theological abstracts serve to rationalize one's way around the concrete teachings of Jesus. They allow and sanction things like war in the name of the Prince of Peace, the creation of a Clerical Empire in place of a totally dedicated service to the 'least among you'. They've been used to justify the genocidal murder of indigenous populations by secular authorities because the attendant priest baptises their 'souls' into heaven while the secular soldier mutilates the body.
I actually take great hope in the fact the altar girls out numbered the altar boys. These girls have the potential to serve Catholicism in more ways than just a limited time as altar servers. Perhaps they will be a leavening dose of reality in the abstract fantasy of male clericalism. They could bring some REAL gifts to the altar.