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.
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.