Wednesday 14 September 2011

Continuing the debate about a male-only sanctuary

Part-time Pilgrim answers a number of my observations and raises some fresh questions in a series of comments on the last post.

I will answer them here as I suspect posts are more read than comment threads, and I think this is important stuff.

I should mention in passing that Triduana also made a very useful contribution to the debate in the same comment thread (which you can read here)

Here's (some of) what P-t P had to say with my comments interspersed. The full comment thread is of course on the previous post. P-tP quotes me and responds: I have tried to make this clear by prefacing the quotations of my words with BT and putting his comments in italics.

[BT: I think that this slightly misunderstands my point. I was not claiming authority from the Old Covenant, but example. There is a difference. I think the Jewish people were formed in this way for a reason, even if we do not fully understand it.]

Yes, I did misunderstand your point. Claiming authority was exactly what I thought you were doing. If it’s an example you are presenting, it’s worth considering whether this example is a good one to follow. It is one where access is restricted according to status – Priests are more important than male Jews, male Jews more important than female Jews and gentiles least important of all. This, very human way of organising things seems to me like another example of humankind being “unteachable” rather than a good pattern for current practice.
It may seem like that to you, but I am not convinced by that argument. In broad terms we see the formation of the people of the Old Covenant as preparation for the New. Clearly there is much that was rendered unnecessary by the New Covenant (eg the animal sacrifices, the dietary laws etc). But the male-only priesthood is not in that category, so I have to wonder on what basis you decide that the male-only approach to the altar is. For centuries the Church, in practice, has decided the other way.
[BT: There has never in the history of the Church, as far as I am aware, been any move to exclude women from reception of Holy Communion. The issue is about ways of service, and there is an unbroken tradition, instituted by the Incarnate God Himself, of male-only priesthood.]

Here, I think you have misunderstood my point. I am certainly not arguing for women to be admitted to the priesthood. Whilst there is an unbroken tradition of male-only priesthood, there is not an unbroken tradition of reserving part of the church for men only.
I am glad you are not arguing for women to be admitted to the priesthood.
We don't know early practice in detail: what we do know is that the earliest Masses were male-only: the Last Supper and the Road to Emmaus. Women were clearly admitted to the mysteries early and uncontroversially (or we should surely have heard about the controversy!) but given Jewish formation and sensibilities it seems at least as likely that they were kept separate and at some distance from the sacrificing priest as that they were at the altar. But we don't know. But for as long as we do know, we have a history of male-only sanctuaries, unbroken (except for the ceremonies of matrimony) until very very recently.
[BT: So the question becomes: does service in the sanctuary follow the traditions and laws associated with admission to the priesthood or those associated with admission to the reception of Holy Communion?]

If we followed your recommendation the answer would be neither, wouldn’t it? As a married man I am barred from the priesthood but would be permitted to serve on the altar. My wife and daughters (all unmarried) would be barred from both the priesthood and the sanctuary.
No: celibacy is not an essential requirement of priesthood: maleness is. You are not comparing like with like. A male altar server is permitted as a substitute for an acolyte (a man in minor orders) if one is not available.
[BT: I do not know of any evidence that demonstrates female ministration at the altar, or at the ‘breaking of the bread,’ even at the earliest times.]

Neither do I and I am not arguing for women priests. I know of no evidence that in the earliest times women were excluded from a particular area of the place where the Eucharist was being celebrated either.

As I said above, I am glad you are not arguing for women priests. With regard to 'earliest times' we have no evidence either way, as I have noted above. However, we have centuries of tradition since...

[BT: I think the idea that this 'emerged' is speculative. I have noticed that those who challenge traditional practice often make claims about earlier practice in absolute terms, when they are in fact speculation.]

I would argue it is self-evident, rather than speculation. There could be no notion of a sanctuary before there was a church building for the sanctuary to be in.

I dispute the self-evidence of this, for the reasons I noted earlier about Jewish formation and sensibilities. Women could well have been kept at a distance from the table (or grave) that was serving as a sacrificial altar, even before church buildings were raised and sanctuaries constructed. The most you can say is that we don't know. It may equally have been that allowing women to be present at all took a while to 'emerge.' (As did allowing the non-baptised to stay beyond the Mass of Catechumens, for example).

[BT: I don't blame P-t P for this, as I suspect he or she has 'learned' this from someone else... There has been a lot of dubious misinformation put about to support some of the 'progressive' changes.]

I am upset by this – partly because it is condescending not to blame people for their ideas (or typos) if those ideas (or spellings) are wrong but also because I hate being lumped in with people who use ideas about the “early church” to challenge what the Catholic church teaches, a group that includes both “progressive Catholics” and Protestants but not me.
I apologise for the condescension (and I do hold you responsible for typos, though realise that my putting [sic] after them may irritate - but I am pedantic, and it's my blog, so if I can't sic all over it, what's the point...?)
There's a bit of history here that may help explain the background to that comment. Many years ago, when I was an altar boy and patens were being suppressed (de facto but not de jure) I raised concerns about fragments of the consecrated Hosts being dropped with the Benedictine monk in charge of my religious education at school. He ridiculed me in front of the class for my concern, saying that in all probability after the Last Supper, the crumbs were thrown to the birds. I found this humiliating at the time, and in retrospect I find it much worse. I therefore have a strong visceral reaction to that type of speculation posing as fact, and to rein in my irritation, I had to remind myself that you were probably not in the same category as him, and [wrongly it transpires] differentiated you from him in my mind (and condescendingly in type) by guessing that you had heard this line of argument from some such liturgist as him.
As for being 'being lumped in with people who use ideas about the “early church” to challenge what the Catholic church teaches' - well not what the Church currently teaches perhaps, but you did seem to be taking that tack in questioning immemorial practice, unless I really misunderstood. We don't know that the idea of a 'sanctuary' emerged, as you speculate. It seems at least as likely, to me, that the sense of a sacred space around the sacred actions was there from day one. The formalisation of that in architecture may have come later, but that's a separate issue.
I agree – allowing women on the sanctuary no has connection with the Second Vatican Council.
That's not what I said: I said it had no connection with the official teachings of the Second Vatican Council. I think it has a lot to do with the changes unleashed after the Council and in the name of the Council. To put it the other way about, without the Council and its aftermath, it would have been unthinkable.
I visited Margaret Clitherow’s shrine on Saturday. When she was executed in 1586 someone could have described the Tridentine mass that was regularly and secretly celebrated in her home as “a fad of a few decades.” Time proved that this was not the case. Similarly if you are right about keeping women off the sanctuary, the church will revert to its former rules and will do so soon. If I am right, it won’t. Either way, you can’t blame that rule change for all the ills in the church, which is what it seems to me, the above paragraph does.
I don't think anyone could have described the Tridentine Mass as the fad of a few decades. There seems to be a modern myth that Trent re-wrote the Mass in the way that the Consilium did after Vatican 2. The reverse was the case. Trent codified what was already the practice, and did away with many new innovations. However, old innovations (ie rites that could prove their currency for, I think, 200 years) were permitted to co-exist - such as the Sarum use. Thus the Tridentine Mass that was celebrated in 1586 was nothing new, no fad of a few decades...
If you re-read what I wrote you will see that I was not attributing all the ills of the Church to this one rule change, but to the de-sacralisation of worship, of which this is one example.
I am still not convinced. I don’t think I understand your case beyond “Women ought not be allowed on the sanctuary because they were not allowed there for hundreds of years.” On this basis everything we have done for a long time should be preserved and nothing changed. For the church to go back on a decision already made, I want to hear a compelling argument why the presence of women on the sanctuary makes it less holy.
But I think the burden of proof is on those who made the decision to reverse the immemorial practice. As Vatican 2 said in Sacrosanctum Concilium: nothing is to be changed unless the good of the Church certainly requires it (or words to that effect - my copy is not to hand, but if you want I'll dig it out and ferret out the exact reference...) The Church's practice is always on the side of tradition unless there is compelling reason to change: Hold fast to that which is good, as St Paul said.
It is not my case, incidentally, that 'the presence of women on the sanctuary makes it less holy.' It is my case that the presence of women on the sanctuary is at odds with Catholic tradition, and is part of a large number of changes, some large some small, that have resulted in a catastrophic crisis in liturgy, worship, practice and faith.
If I am honest, I don't know why women should not be on the sanctuary. But an architect once told me that in dealing with old buildings, if one came upon a part of the structure whose purpose one did not understand, one has to proceed with great caution. Pulling it out, because it seems pointless, nearly always results in disaster. I fear modern liturgists never learned that lesson...
[BT:We attend the Extraordinary Form of Mass (typically once a month) and the Ordinary Form the rest of the time. They observe, and they draw their own conclusions. None of them would venture onto the sanctuary, and none of them feel ‘excluded’ or ‘de-valued’ or anything else negative as a result. They simply recognise the wisdom of the Church’s historic tradition in this area as in so many others. It works - and they all prefer the Extraordinary Form, as they find it more prayerful, more sacred.]

Your family’s agreement with your position has allowed you to duck the question, so let me ask it in a different way. How would I explain to my wife (who reads at Mass) and my daughters (who have all served at mass when younger) how their presence defiles the holiness of the sanctuary? They can speak for themselves but I imagine they might feel excluded and would certainly feel devalued, for if women are of equal value with men why is there a place in church where men are allowed and women are not?
I had no intention of ducking the question, but of answering it honestly. My point is that if people are formed in a traditional Catholic way, it is a non-question. I have never said (or heard it argued anywhere) that women 'defile the holiness of the sanctuary.' It is only when a modern secular and feminist-influenced worldview is applied that these notions of 'exclusion' and feeling 'de-valued' apply.
One could as well argue: 'if women are of equal value with men why is there a role in church where men are allowed and women are not?' But we know that there is such a role, (priesthood) and that it does not mean that women are of any less value than men.
As to how you could explain it to your wife and children, it might be impertinent for me to answer - but rather than seem to duck the question again, I will have a stab at saying how I might address this with women and girls beyond my immediate family. Firstly, I would accustom them to the Extraordinary Form and help them to understand traditional Catholic worship: our heritage. Secondly I would instruct them in the history of the changes: Michael Davies' comprehensive account in his trilogy Cranmer's Godly Order, Pope John's Council and Pope Paul's New Mass would give the context. Thirdly, I would introduce them to many other Catholic women and girls who recognise that participation is more about interior life than exterior action.
Forgive this long and rambling reply and feel free to tell me to “butt out” if my comments are not welcome.
There is nothing to forgive: I found your comments thought-provoking in content and civil in tone. You have caused me to think more about something I believe to be important, and I hope it has given you some food for thought too. Feel free to raise any further questions, nail any evasions you detect, etc etc.


Ttony said...

Just a couple of observations on this fascinating dialogue from somebody broadly sympathetic to your point of view:

I have no idea which use/rite Margaret Clithrow knew: Trent or Sarum; or whether the recusant in the pew would necessarily have noticed the difference. Can I suggest that this is usually a red herring?

What about women (not nuns) who are sacristans? The office of sacristan is an opportunity for women in the old rite to care for the sacred vessels and set up the altar.

How, in charity, do we let down the women who for a generation have been told that they have a place on the sanctuary when we tell them that "they" were wrong to let them on in the first place?

The last point is, I think, really important.

Ben Trovato said...


You are quite right about the need to proceed with charity. That was one of the many problems with the implementation of the new liturgy in the 1970s - the appalling way in which the sensibilities of the Faithful were trampled on. We must do much better if we are to restore the liturgy.

So I think the Holy Father is right to take a gradual approach, and that catechesis must play a key role. When I write about restoring the male-only sanctuary, I do not mean tomorrow and by force; but it should be a goal to be worked towards, intelligently and sensitively.

Part-time Pilgrim said...


Thank you for your response. I would like to follow up some of the things you say and will do so later.
In her infancy, I don't know – whichever rite was used in York at that time; in her adult life (indulging in speculation that Ben won't challenge) I am confident it would be the Tridentine rite. At least two of the priest she sheltered (Fr John Mush and Fr William Hart) were educated at the English College in Rome. Of course she would not have noticed the difference (if any) between the two because she would only remember Anglican services.
However the insistence on conformity across the Roman rite was an innovation and an important one too, so not a red herring to mention her, especially as I have been thinking about her a lot recently; provocative perhaps but no more provocative than describing the practice of the church as “the fad of a few decades”.
Part time Pilgrim

Part-time Pilgrim said...

I don’t think we are going to agree on this.
You say that “the presence of women …… is part of a large number of changes, some large some small, that have resulted in a catastrophic crisis in liturgy, worship, practice and faith.” Clearly there are problems with liturgy, worship, practice and faith in the Western church but I would hold to call this a “catastrophic crisis” is an exaggeration. Neither do I think all of them can be laid at door of all of the “large number of changes”. I am sure you and other readers have heard this before so I won’t waste your time repeating the arguments in detail.
I am interested in your comment that “that participation is more about interior life than exterior action” when a lot of the posts on your blog argue, in my view correctly, that our exterior actions inform both our own interior lives and those of people who observe how we behave. Had you been at mass in my parish this morning you would have seen all the altar servers (male and female) move to the foot of the altar and kneel there until the Lord’s Prayer – a powerful example of reverence given to the congregation.
Clearly some innovations have not been helpful and one notable change has been reversed in the re-instatement of abstinence from meat on Fridays. I am sure others are needed (and am praying that the movement of Holyday’s of Obligation to the nearest Sunday is the next to go) but I would be sad if girls on the altar became a victim – collateral damage in my view – of a war to challenge irreverence. For all your protestations that women are superior to men, I suspect that the message this would send to girls and lay women would undermine their confidence in their role within the church. As you and Ttony both point out now that women have been allowed to serve at Mass, to tell them otherwise could cause great hurt and distress to some.
I repeat what I said in a previous comment – time will tell who is right and I am content to wait. In the meantime I think restoring kneeling for communion, re-introducing altar rails, proper respect for the Blessed Sacrament (by for example genuflecting every time we cross in front of the tabernacle) and the end to ad libs intended to make Mass more “accessible are all better subjects for any campaigns for change (and more likely to have the desired effect) rather than removing girls from the altar.

Ben Trovato said...

P-t P

Thanks for the civility with which you have conducted this discussion.

As you say, we are unlikely to agree, and time will tell.

I stand by catastrophic: souls are almost certainly being lost, and by any serious measure the Church in Western Europe and North America has suffered hugely in the decades since 1960.

However, cordial disagreement is not a bad outcome to a discussion.