There’s a certain faction within the Catholic Church that loves to hate Pope Francis.
It hardly seems to matter what he does. Any concession to the reality of the twenty-first century, however minimal, will be read as a betrayal of the highest order: against the Church, against God, against Truth with a capital T.
Case in point: Last week’s apostolic letter in which Francis made a slight modification to canon law recognizing that women can serve as acolytes (altar servers) and lectors (who read passages from the Bible) during Catholic Mass.
This is not a big deal: Girls and women have been allowed (if not necessarily encouraged) to serve as part of the Mass in “certain liturgical offices” since 1994. When Francis modified the relevant canon, replacing the gender-specific “lay men” with the more inclusive “lay persons,” he was bringing the wording in line with the reality that has existed for nearly thirty years.
The change brings about an extremely minor, practically irrelevant shift, in that any lay person who serves as an acolyte or lector can now be ceremonially inducted into that role. In the past men or women might serve, but only men could be formally initiated as permanent altar servers or lectors. Now, anybody can, at least on paper.
But that’s likely a distinction without a difference in most parishes. Formal induction into such roles is not an especially well-known practice, and it’s not needed for a church community to know which women serve those functions regularly.
That hasn’t stopped the traditionalist faction from denouncing the decision as one more step towards the ultimate destruction of the priesthood, which is the result they envision if women are ever allowed into that particular He-Man Woman Hater’s Club.
At the heart of it, though, it’s not even the priesthood they’re defending: It’s traditional gendered roles that keep women in their place — or, perhaps more to the point, keep men in their place as dominant over women. That’s why theologian Peter Kwasniewski characterizes this minor change as a major ideological victory for the wicked feminist left:
While Pope Francis’s motu proprio may look like a technicality — and surely would have no effect on all those places in the world where the sanctuary is already overrun with females — it represents, in fact, a tectonic shift both in theology and in praxis. For the first time ever, Francis is saying that the Catholic Church should officially institute women as liturgical ministers, i.e. not as substitutes for ministers, but as ministers simply speaking.
While such a decision does not logically demand an opening to women deacons or women priests, it is, at the same time, intelligible only against the backdrop of the pervasive feminism that has equated the worth of women with their taking-on of roles traditionally reserved to men. In that sense, it continues to stoke the flames of a false egalitarianism that will never stop agitating for women deacons and priests.
Kwasniewski misses the point of the move for women in the priesthood: It’s not about women needing to take male roles in order to be worthy, it’s about women seeking substantive leadership roles… which just happen, for some reason, to be the same roles only men are permitted.
But as Pope Francis argues, this change isn’t about who gets to take on power roles in the Church hierarchy (which, he notes, remains open only to men). It’s about allowing more people to take on active roles in their own religious communities instead of feeling like under-valued spectators:
To offer lay people of both genders the opportunity to enter the ministries of Acolyte and Lector, by virtue of their participation in the baptismal priesthood, will increase recognition, also through a liturgical act (institution), of the precious contribution that for a long time many, many lay people, including women, have offered to the life and mission of the Church.
… The choice to confer also to women these offices, which entail stability, public recognition, and a mandate on the part of the Bishop, renders more effective in the Church everyone’s participation in the work of evangelization.
In other words, letting women participate in their own damn religion, even in a lesser fashion, is a good PR move that will help stem the flow of people abandoning a faith that treats them as second-class citizens.
Traditionalists don’t care about retaining derrieres in pews, though: they’d rather maintain existing power structures that put women in subordinate roles. Consider the words of Scottish-based journalist David McLoone, where he falls back on the Bible to let him say the misogynistic part out loud:
The prominent liturgical role of women envisaged (and now legalized) by Francis stands in stark contrast with the authoritative and inerrant writings of St. Paul, teaching through the Sacred Scriptures. First Corinthians reads: “Let women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted them to speak, but to be subject, as also the law saith. But if they would learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is a shame for a woman to speak in the Church.”
And there it is. If the correct level of female participation in religion is silence and subjugation, even the tiniest shift in the direction of inclusion is catastrophic.
To be totally fair, there are those in favor of the change who also think it’s a big deal despite the fact that women have served informally in these positions for decades. The victory is symbolic, not practical, says Catholic researcher Phyllis Zagano:
Here we have the Holy Father putting into law that women can be inside the sanctuary, women can be near the sacred, that women are equally human.
I’m glad for Zagano and her symbolic victory, but if a religion decides that some accident of birth makes you unworthy of approaching the divine, what good is it?
In any case, the pope probably made yet another smart strategic move here. All but the most rabidly traditionalist Catholics will be either excited to cling at these scraps, or else profoundly indifferent to a bureaucratic change with precious little impact on their religious practices.
As for the traditionalists, they were going to be mad no matter what he said.
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