Monday, January 26, 2015

Urban myths of the Catholic Church: Altar girls and vocations

A church in San Francisco has banned women from serving at the altar. This is the pastor's prerogative. What fascinates me is the conversation around these decisions, and around women's presence overall in sacred space.

The argument that is regularly trotted out begins with the observation that a majority (two-thirds of diocesan priests) report having been altar servers.1  Therefore altar service is a pipeline to the priesthood, which is only open to males, so we should not waste space on girls or women (a) who cannot become priests, and (b) whose very presence discourages boys from participating.2 Some go so far as to suggest that such permission led directly to a drop in priestly vocations.

In a thread on Deacon Greg Kandra's Facebook feed, someone thought it might be interesting to explore that suggestion more quantitatively.  I did a quick search, found the data at CARA and noticed that it contradicts the hypothesis: priestly ordinations in the US have gone up since women and girls have been allowed to serve.

So I pointed out the data was not difficult to obtain and what it showed.  There was some exasperation, as well as toe-tapping with a hint of "you're making it up" (at least that's how I read the "Well, we're waiting.").

Herewith is the data:

Let me be clear, I don't for a minute believe this correlation implies causality (see this graph showing the correlation between mozzarella cheese consumption and engineering doctorates from the delightful Spurious Correlation generator.)  Permission to let girls serve did not cause vocations to the priesthood to tick up.  The data do suggest that allowing women to serve did not result in a crashing of priestly vocations, but a far more detailed study would be needed to assert that with any certainty.

What did prompt the rise?3  People have theories,4 there may be peer reviewed work on the subject, but I'm unaware of it, but in all that I've read I've seen remarkably little conversation about God's work in it all.  The assumption seems to be the stream of men called is constant, so if vocations decrease, it is because there is a problem.  A problem with the times or the men or the Church or... pick your favorite high horse. Celibacy.  Altar girls.

But is it true that more men are ignoring a call to the priesthood or is it that the Holy Spirit is calling fewer men? And how would we know? What would the answer tell us about how the People of God should respond? To my mind, those are questions worth exploring, prayerfully, with an open and listening heart.  And perhaps a bit of data.

1.  A nearly equal number report having been lectors, arguably as fertile a ground for vocations as altar service, but I don't notice many parishes closing off that ministry to women on these grounds (though I was in such a parish long ago).
2.  The Burke effect
3.  To quote Clinton, one wonders if it is the economy, grad school applications go up when the economy goes down.  Did the bursting of the dotcom bubble send a few good men into the priesthood?  This is certainly true in the military.
4.  The person who pointed to the book cites Arlington as an exemplar of increasing vocations per capita, but I note that vocations are flat in Arlington over the past 5 years and at the same per capita rate as the US overall, so it's hard to argue for banning women servers on that score.


  1. What conservatives forget is that those girls grow up and may have kids of their own. If they weren't met with bigotry, odds are good that they'd strongly encourage their kids to participate in the Church. (Pope Francis recently made the comment that mothers and grandmothers are mainly how the faith is transmitted. He's got a point, although I find some of his speaking on women to be cringe-worthy.)

  2. It's the patronizing attitude of some of the comments that bothered me more than the ban, in fact. "I'm waiting." is something we say to disobedient children, not to other adults in a civilized conversation. And lecturing one of the world's experts on the diaconate is just breathtakingly painful to watch.

  3. Thanks for doing this. I'm a Catholic psychology professor. I'm generally frustrated by assertions about how people behave that are just pulled out of thin air when data are available to consider. The "girl altar servers discourage men from eventually becoming priests" ranks high on that list of frustrations. I just found your blog this week and love it. Thanks!

    1. I'm glad I'm not the only one frustrated! The plural of anecdote is not data.

  4. :) Just so. It's late, so I'll leave it at that.

    1. Someone linked to this post from a forum where later on in the comments someone said that the Vatican said there was a correlation and so that's that. Data? Data? And on Aquinas' feast no less!

      "The truth of our faith becomes a matter of ridicule among the infidels if any Catholic, not gifted with the necessary scientific learning, presents as dogma what scientific scrutiny shows to be false."

      St. Thomas Aquinas (De potentia 4,1)

  5. I read many faith blogs, but yours is by far my favorite, and this post makes the point: true faith is not exemplified by uncritical thinking. In fact, God gave us intellects, which to refer to today's readings are our lamps and should be placed upon a lamp stand.

    Keep up the good work.