Women are ruining the Catholic Church.
Well, it’s not exactly ruin. But American Cardinal Raymond Burke is convinced that when we allowed girls to be altar servers beginning in the 1970s, we opened the door to a “feminized” church, the priest shortage and even the decline in marriage.
If that sounds like too much, it’s fair enough as a summary of recent comments by the cardinal. He made it clear in earlier criticism of the style and priorities of Pope Francis that he believes a loss of traditional order and discipline is harming the church. Cracks in the great edifice of historical patriarchy are part of the problem.
Cardinal Burke is not alone in believing this, but his prominence draws special attention. He is a former Archbishop of St. Louis and was a member of the Vatican Curia until his recent removal by the pope.
Give the cardinal half a point for identifying an important influence in the last half-century of Catholic history. He says that “most priests have their first deep experiences of the liturgy as altar boys. If we are not training young men as altar boys … we should not be surprised that vocations have fallen dramatically.” Since we are still training boys as altar servers, the implication is clear: boys needed to feel that they were entering an exclusive club in order to be influenced toward the priesthood.
When girls were allowed into the clubhouse, the boys no longer saw value there. It wasn’t special for them. And the priesthood, with its own character of specialness, lost its minor league to draw from.
Although not in those terms, this was a complaint voiced frequently by priests in the 1970s as they saw three developments unfold: large-scale resignations from the priesthood, a rapid fall in new vocations coming forward and the growing appearance of women serving not only at the altar but taking new roles of service and management in parishes and church organizations. Cardinal Burke is today repeating a claim commonly heard 40 years ago.
There is truth to it, of course. The overly masculinized church was certainly going to be affected as girls and women took roles of responsibility. To the cardinal, it all went too far. The feminist movement that began when he was a young priest has led to parish life and liturgies “so feminine in many places that men do not want to get involved,” he says.
“Apart from the priest, the sanctuary has become full of women.”
Cardinal Burke reflects a great feeling of loss, which should be acknowledged. But that is only part of the story. In our faith we see rising and new life coming through loss and death.
With women able to take responsibilities in the church, men are freed to be less concerned about dominance. With women part of every conversation and debate, the insights, experience and vision of women provide better balance to plans and programs. With women more visible in church life, the full range of talent, the entire basket of gifts we have from God, begins to be available in our community as it had not been up to now.
We don’t have a thoroughly masculinized church any more; nor do we have a feminized church, as Cardinal Burke fears. We have a more humanized church. That is a direction surely intended by the Founder.