Why We Should Not Support Altar Girls

For hundreds of years, the ability to serve at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass has brought about countless priestly vocations for the young men privileged to serve. In the words of the Archbishop of Westminster, Bernard Cardinal Griffen:

“To serve at the altar, as to sing in the choir, is next to the priesthood the highest privilege which a human can enjoy. He represents the faithful and takes a most intimate part in the rich treasures of the Church’s liturgy and ceremonial. Those sacred ceremonies should be carried out with devotion, dignity, and attention to detail.”

What Is an Altar Server?

An altar server is a lay assistant to the priest during the Mass or in other religious functions such as Benediction and Eucharistic Adoration. The altar server assists the priest at the Sacred Liturgy; he is privileged to walk into the sanctuary. Remember, the Mass is the Sacrifice of Calvary. It is not a memorial, but rather the Mass truly is the Sacrifice of Calvary. For that reason, all altar servers must display the utmost respect and reverence. They should only ever serve while in the state of grace. And they should display the utmost piety. For example, each and every single time that the server walks past the Tabernacle, he is to genuflect on his right knee to Our Lord Who is truly present in the Eucharist.

An altar server is not to be confused with an acolyte. Before the Second Vatican Council, the acolyte was the highest of the minor orders, having duties including the lighting of the altar candles, carrying the candles in procession, assisting the subdeacon and deacon, and the ministering of water and wine to the priest at Mass. Acolytes wore either the alb or the surplice over a cassock. The order of acolyte was conferred on a seminarian at a minor ordination.

After the changes to the minor orders in 1972, the acolyte survived but became one of two lay ministries (along with that of lector) instead of an order. Today, Traditional Catholic orders preserve the traditional orders, including the acolyte. Hence, the importance of not confusing the acolyte with the altar server.[i]

On January 10, 2021, Pope Francis, in yet another rupture with Tradition, ordered a modification to the 1983 Code of Canon Law to state explicitly that any baptized man or woman could be admitted to the instituted ministries of lector and acolyte.

Why Should Only Males Serve at the Altar?

Throughout Tradition, the role of altar server has always been reserved to males – and rightfully so. This issue is not one related to the equal dignity which men and women have, though it is so often erroneously cast into this context by our society so obsessed with revolutionary egalitarianism and “women’s liberation” (an Error of Russia, mind you). Rather, this issue is to be governed by theological matters related to the Sacraments and the First Commandment (the proper worship of God).

The role of the altar server is conformed to the liturgical Sacrifice of Christ in a qualitatively different manner than that of a lay person in the pew. This should not surprise us for all the worship of God is ordered and hierarchical, with each role related in its own unique manner to the Mystical Body of Christ.

The altar server’s proximity to the physical altar and the sacrificial action – by which man renders due worship to God – inclines him toward hearing God’s call to the priesthood. By serving at the altar, a young man is able better to discern the priesthood. In fact, such liturgical service is one of the greatest sources of graces for priestly discernment. It often inclines a young man towards ordination. Thus, it is contrary to piety to have a girl serve because it can provide a false understanding (even expectation!) that she might be called by God to the priesthood.

Furthermore, many young men have openly said they feel very uncomfortable serving alongside young girls. When such young men stop serving, it makes it that much harder for them to hear and follow a religious call. Given the grave crisis in the priesthood today, and the lack of priestly vocations, we should all be extremely invested in making every effort so that our sons are best disposed towards answering a priestly vocation. Conversely, there is an even graver crisis in women religious vocations, and having young girls serve at the altar exacerbates that dreadful problem! (This is a subject matter for another article.)

Following this reasoning, some might say that a married man should not serve. While it is certainly preferable for a young (unmarried) man to serve, precisely on account of these discernment graces, other theological considerations also bear on this matter. Mystically, the liturgical sanctuary represents Christ the Head, whereas the nave containing the faithful represents the Body of Christ. In the inspired and infallible word of God we read that, in the beginning, He established man as the head and woman as his helpmate. In His infinite wisdom, God has confirmed the grace of headship upon the man.

The husband and father is called to be the head of his family. He is the spiritual leader and should lead the family prayers. (As a complementary parallel, the wife and mother is called to be the heart of the family.) The devotional life within the family should parallel and strengthen the family’s liturgical life in the parish. Thus, the father’s role in the family is analogous to the priest for his flock. Specific graces for this role of spiritual headship are also available to the altar server. It is contrary to God’s right order for the woman to presume this role.

Women Prohibited at the Altar

These theological and liturgical principles were acknowledged and understood by all Catholics in the past. So while the heresy of Modernism has greatly infected the hierarchy and laity of today, we can still perceive this spiritual wisdom in the Church’s teachings, including up to the very recent past.

In the encyclical Allatae Sunt on July 26, 1755, Pope Benedict XIV stated in paragraph 29:

“Pope Gelasius, in his ninth letter (chap. 26) to the bishops of Lucania, condemned the evil practice which had been introduced of women serving the priest at the celebration of Mass. Since this abuse had spread to the Greeks, Innocent IV strictly forbade it in his letter to the bishop of Tusculum: ‘Women should not dare to serve at the altar; they should be altogether refused this ministry.’ We too have forbidden this practice in the same words in Our oft-repeated constitution Etsi Pastoralis, sect. 6, no. 21.”

The prohibition of women serving at the altar was affirmed in the 1917 Code of Canon Law, with some clarification: “A woman is not to be the server at Mass except when a man is unavailable and for a just reason and provided that she give the responses from a distance and in no way approach the altar.” In simple English, this means no woman is to enter the sanctuary during Mass (the area between the Communion rail and altar). The 1917 Code limited the “serving role” of a woman to saying the responses, and then only if there was sufficient necessary cause.

In 1970 the Vatican condemned female altar serving in Liturgicae instaurationes, as well as in Inaestimabile donum in 1980. Not until a circular letter from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments to presidents of episcopal conferences on March 15, 1994, did the Vatican officially allow female altar serving in the Novus Ordo. This, however, is a complete rupture with Tradition and has surely led to liturgical abuses, women clamoring for ordination (which is heretical), and less men entering the priesthood.


There are three primary reasons why we cannot support altar girls:

    1. It is against nearly 2,000 years of Tradition. Tradition is not changed with the stroke of a pen and unraveled. The Church has affirmed many times the prohibition of women serving at the altar.
    2. It is fitting that only men should serve at the altar since serving is a participation in a priestly act.
    3. Altar serving is an effective way for boys to discern their vocation in life which may include, if it is God’s will, to become a priest.

This list is certainly not exhaustive. Who can fathom the depths of God’s eternal wisdom? If your reflection has led you to other reasons why the perennial custom of the Church is to only have men serve at the altar, we invite you to list them below (on the Disqus platform).

While some Catholic parishes have returned to male-only altar serving (e.g., Star of the Sea church in San Francisco, CA), many more parish priests need to assert that it is only fitting that males serve at the altar. There are a myriad of opportunities for women and young girls to be involved in the parish – whether it be preparing meals, preparing the altar linens, cleaning, assisting with catechism for children, and more. But to serve in a liturgical function within the sanctuary, vested with cassock and surplice, is only fitting for men.


[i] In the Novus Ordo, an acolyte has all the responsibilities of an altar server and a few additional ones, which are a break with Tradition. In this context, the acolyte is a permanent extraordinary minister of Holy Communion and can also be entrusted with celebrating Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. He is also the only lay minister who can do the purification of the vessels at Mass. An acolyte is given a priority to lead blessing ceremonies (Book of Blessings, Introduction, n. 18). In the absence of both a priest and deacon, the acolyte has priority to lead Sunday Celebrations (Directions for Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest, 1988, n. 30). Of course, these are modern novelties and not something that is in accord with Catholic Tradition. For those of us who steer clear of the Novus Ordo and attend only the Tridentine Mass, we thankfully will not be participating in such novelties.