In a break with tradition, the Vatican has officially approved girls serving at the altar during Roman Catholic Masses but stressed Wednesday that the decree is unrelated to the church's opposition to women priests.
The church's decision was not unexpected. Bishops in the United States have long voiced support for girls serving at the altar. Indeed, many U.S. Catholic parishes have had altar girls for years, but their status has been clouded and a cause for disagreement among the faithful. The Vatican agreed to consider the issue a year ago.
By unambiguously granting girls the same privileges as boys to assist priests at Mass--the central act of Catholic worship--the Vatican has all but ended the controversy.
Altar servers, generally ages 8 to 14, assist the priest by lighting altar candles, participate in the ritual washing of the priest's hands, and present the bread and wine to the priest to be consecrated as the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
Archbishop William H. Keeler of Baltimore, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, called the decision a welcome one.
"I think everyone will accept it. They'll have to accept it," said Father Charles Miller, who teaches homiletics and liturgy at St. John's Seminary in Camarillo. "No one wants to say little girls are inferior or little girls don't deserve it."
But there was dissent. Women for Faith & Family, a conservative Catholic lay group based in St. Louis, called the decision a "pastoral error" that would cause further confusion and unduly raise hopes that women would eventually be ordained as priests.
An unknown number of Catholic parishes in the United States have had both altar boys and altar girls since the mid-1980s, including some in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
These parishes relied on a change in canon law in 1983, which, unlike previous church codes, no longer specifically forbade altar girls.
Among them is St. Elizabeth Catholic Church in Altadena. Father Richard Prindle, the parish's pastor, said Wednesday that the Vatican announcement may come as a surprise to his altar servers. "I think they're probably completely unaware there was ever an issue," Prindle said.
Other parishes, however, have awaited an explicit authorization from the Vatican before allowing girls to serve. "There was a feeling that maybe some had jumped the gun," said Father Gregory Coiro, a spokesman for the Los Angeles archdiocese.
Now that the issue has been clarified, Coiro and Miller said, tensions should ease. They said much of the opposition was not related to girls serving at the altar as such, but to allowing the practice before the Vatican had clarified its position.
"In the minds of some people, it was sort of a litmus test of how loyal you were to the Holy See whether you allowed female altar servers or not," Coiro said.
The approval, announced Wednesday by papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro, came in a letter by the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments that was approved by Pope John Paul II. In 1992, the Congregation for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts had said there was nothing in canon law to forbid altar girls.
Permission for the use of altar girls does not represent a major innovation, Navarro said, but rather an interpretation that church statutes concerning lay altar servers are equally applicable to both sexes.
Despite the authorization, local bishops have the last word on whether to authorize altar girls in their dioceses.
In Washington, Msgr. Frank Maniscalco, spokesman for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, said that before local bishops implement the changes involving altar girls they would confer among themselves at their national conference in November.
The Los Angeles archdiocese, the nation's most populous, will introduce guidelines next week, Coiro said. The guidelines, among other things, ask parish priests to fully explain the changes to parishioners.
Members of the laity, including women, have long served as lectors, reading the appointed Scriptures during Mass and assisting the priest in dispensing the Sacraments to parishioners.
Vatican sources were quick to insist that there was no prospect of any change in the Vatican prohibition against women priests. The Pope has been unbending in his opposition to women priests.
Unlike the issue of altar girls, the ordination of women goes to the heart of Catholic theology, which holds that because Jesus was a male and chose only men as his disciples, the church has no right to admit women to the priesthood.
"This decision has nothing to do with ordained ministry, which has a different juridical and doctrinal nature," Navarro said. "It would be wrong to interpret this as the first step toward woman priests."
Stammer reported from Los Angeles and Montalbano from Rome.