In the Vatican journal Notitiæ ( Vol. 16, 1980), the liturgical scholar Aimé-Georges Martimort … goes on to quote Pope St. Gelasius in 494, who wrote to the bishops of Sicily and southern Italy: “We have heard with sorrow of the great contempt with which the sacred mysteries have been treated. It has reached the point where women have been encouraged to serve at the altar, and to carry out roles that are not suited to their sex, having been assigned exclusively to those of masculine gender.”
Every edition of the Roman Missal from 1570 till 1962 carried the prohibition of female altar service, as did the 1917 Code of Canon Law (c. 813, §2), not to mention the earlier documents of the postconciliar liturgical reform itself.
But if the emphatic and uninterrupted tradition of the Church reserved the sanctuary, and especially the altar itself, for ministers of the male sex, what was the main reason for this? Many have noted that the admission of “altar girls” often has the effect of discouraging young boys from a service no longer seen as masculine in character, so that a fruitful source of future priestly vocations is thereby placed at risk. It has also been pointed out that a further obstacle is posed by this innovation to reunion with the Eastern Orthodox, who roundly reject it.
But such objections do not get to the heart of the matter, which is pinpointed by Martimort as “. . . the link which was understood to unite the lesser ministries to the priesthood itself, to the point where they had become the normal stages leading to the priesthood. This link is already present in the perspective of St. Cyprian [d. 258].”
Thus, the Church’s unwillingness from time immemorial to have females acting at the altar has clearly been linked to the fact that altar service is closely related to the ministerial priesthood, which, as John Paul II reaffirmed definitively in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, can never possibly be conferred upon women.
The server is presented visually and symbolically in that role by his male, clerical dress (cassock and surplice), by his location at the altar, and by his actions, which provide proximate assistance and preparation for the quintessentially priestly act: the offering of the Eucharistic Sacrifice.
But in recent years the Latin-Rite Church, by inviting females to serve at the place of priestly sacrifice dressed in the sacerdotal garb of alb or cassock, seems to be speaking with a forked tongue. At the level of her purely verbal communication the Church promulgates documents excluding women’s ordination irrevocably; but in her “body language” during the Eucharist — her most sacred liturgical action — she is now insinuating the exact opposite. The presence of female servers at the altar is a silent but eloquent challenge to the Church’s infallible teaching that women can never be priests.
… Female altar service is a novelty that clearly will not be rolled back overnight; so at this early stage, the best scenario would be one in which an increasing number of priests — and, hopefully, bishops — show themselves willing to face down the predictable opposition and lead by personal example, returning to the practice of celebrating with male servers only. And they will be greatly assisted in doing that if increasing numbers of lay Catholics (of both sexes) openly support and encourage them in this initiative.
Here is a comment received via email which notes some important details:
In response to a dubium submitted by a bishop to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments on whether a bishop had the authority to compel his priests to employ the use of females to serve at the altar, the then-Prefect, Cardinal Medina Estevez replied in 2001 in the negative. In explaining this, he concluded: "Therefore, in the event that Your Excellency found it opportune to authorize service of women at the altar, it would remain important to explain clearly to the faithful the nature of this innovation, lest confusion might be introduced, thereby hampering the development of priestly vocations." (July 27, 2001; Prot. 2451/00/L, emphasis added)
In doing so he was merely restating the provisions of the 1994 Circular Letter to the Presidents of the Episcopal Conferences on this issue, in which it was decreed: