Pope Francis took a significant step in expanding lay ministry as he conferred the ministries of catechist, lector, and acolyte upon laymen and women in St. Peter’s Basilica in January 2022. What will be the effect of expanding official ministries in the Church? Will the pope’s attempt to recognize the “precious contribution” that women make to the Church defuse or escalate divisive expectations for the ordination of women?
Previously, the lector and acolyte conferrals were limited to men, usually preceding holy orders. Before 1973, the minor orders of lector and acolyte were steps taken on the way to ordination to the priesthood. That year, Pope Paul VI in Ministeria Quaedam renamed them as lay ministries. Candidates for orders continued to receive the conferral of these ministries, but the male laity were also eligible. Most dioceses—likely lacking the energy—didn’t expand the ceremonial conferrals. Pastors merely appointed qualified (one prays) readers and trained altar boys (and occasionally adult men) as servers.
In 1995, despite the intervention of Mother Teresa, Pope John Paul II approved female altar servers. The move was similar to the present installation of female lectors and acolytes. Both actions are widely seen as a step in the “inevitable” historical development of women’s ordination, liberating women from unjust patriarchal ecclesial structures. Others saw the approval of female servers as hurtful to the girls. Altar boys traditionally served as apprentices to priests. Some of them might become priests. But the girls are doomed forever to be trainees because Church doctrine cannot change. So approving altar girls was indeed an act of unjust ecclesial “male domination.”
The Christian view of the human person teaches that the body is the “sacrament” of the soul. “When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them” (Gen. 5:1-2). Hence, the word “man” expresses the original unity and community life of male and female in marriage.
Feminism undermines authentic Christian anthropology because it denies the complementarity of the sexes and distorts femininity and motherhood. Feminists, however, hold that society oppressed women, placed glass ceilings on career opportunities, refused equal pay for equal work, and so on. Men use women only to satisfy their sexual desires, enslave them in marriage, and make babies. The feminist solution is social engineering from the top down: reform laws that provide equal career opportunities in mandatory affirmative action programs, easy divorce, and contraception and abortion on demand.
However, feminist social engineering brings considerable turmoil: divorce, single mothers, promiscuity, disease, transgenderism, etc. Secular government and corporate programs try to manage the unrest without undermining the feminist distortion of femininity or upholding the norm of marriage and motherhood. They have too much invested in feminist social structures that have shaped civil laws, personnel policies, and promotion and staffing practices. So they indoctrinate employees and citizens with programs promoting the alleged merits of diversity, equity, and inclusion—reinforcing politically correct feminist pathologies.
Movement in the direction of the ordination of women was almost certainly the hope of many who promoted altar girls, a hope renewed by the expansion of these official ministries to include women. Do they foreshadow a change in Church teaching, including the ordination of women?
Scripture and Sacred Tradition forbid the ordination of women as unnatural. Women cannot become fathers, and men cannot become mothers. John Paul II merely reaffirmed Church doctrine with his 1994 declaration “that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.” The ordination of women necessarily remains beyond their grasp without schism. Feminist groups already do “ordain” one another—so perhaps we’ll see another example of the schismatic shedding of doctrinal deadwood, purifying the Church of dissident activism.
But these lay ministries reveal an underlying threat more serious than the specter of women’s ordination: the bureaucratization of the Church. Chancery bureaucracies are growing and increasingly intrude on the daily lives of priests. Bureaucratic programs of questionable value threaten to swallow up their day-to-day pastoral duties. As a result, a priest risks losing a sense of his priestly identity and spiritual fatherhood. After all, women are good at managing programs, too—so a priesthood defined in functional terms presents no obstacle to the ordination of women and keeps that futile hope on bureaucratic life support.
An ecclesial vision to expand lay ministry functionaries continues the fragmentation of the Church. The bureaucratization of the Church will metastasize (until the money runs out). There will be rampant growth of “ministry” programs, multiplying “inclusive” ceremonies for every type of church work. The advocates of “inclusive” ministry will implement tiresome policies, procedures, and programs that will sap the Church’s strength and marginalize healthy Christian families because they are too busy for “ministry.” But some Catholics will ignore the ministry mania and aspire to live according to the demands of authentic Christian anthropology: mothers, fathers, children, and single folks celebrating the sacraments under the spiritual fatherhood of priests and building up family life in the “domestic Church.”
As for mothers, their “precious contribution” is, in fact, the formation of children and our culture.
To put it briefly, when it comes to lay ministries, more compelling than the question of the ordination of women are these: Will the expanding ministry bureaucracy distract us from the reverent and joyful celebration of the sacraments? Or will we return to the sanity of sacramental simplicity?