Recognizing "the gifts of each baptized person" -- women and men -- Pope Francis ordered…
Experts say changing canon law an important step in recognizing the role of women
In practical terms, Pope Francis’ latest apostolic letter that changed canon law to permit women to be officially installed as lectors and acolytes will not change the reality in situations where women have long served in those roles.
But with Spiritus Domini, an apostolic letter issued motu proprio (on his own accord) on Jan. 11, experts said the pope continues a development of doctrine regarding the role of the laity and the common priesthood of the faithful that was outlined by the Second Vatican Council and later refined by recent popes, including, now, Pope Francis.
Spiritus Domini changed the wording of Canon 230, Paragraph 1, to say that “laity,” not just lay men, “can be admitted on a stable basis through the prescribed liturgical rite to the ministries of lector and acolyte.”
In an accompanying letter to Cardinal Luis Ladaria, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the pope wrote that the consolidated practice in the Latin Church had confirmed that the ministries of lector and acolyte, “being based on the Sacrament of Baptism, can be entrusted to all the faithful who are suitable, whether male or female.”
“Offering lay people of both sexes the possibility of accessing the ministry of acolyte and lector, by virtue of their participation in the baptismal priesthood, will increase the recognition, also through a liturgical act [institution], of the precious contribution that many lay people make, including women, to the life and mission of the Church,” the pope wrote.
Katie Ann-Marie Bugyis, a theology professor at the University of Notre Dame, told Our Sunday Visitor that “(Pope Francis) framed it really beautifully, talking about the Sacrament of Baptism and what all of us are able to do by virtue of our baptism, and how this calls us all into a royal priesthood.”
Bugyis, an expert on the history of women’s roles in the Church, said that it was “straight out of St. Paul” that Pope Francis emphasized that the Holy Spirit, through the sacraments, grants the faithful what they need to build up the Church and proclaim the Gospel.
“This is very significant, recognizing our baptismal character, that all of us have been stamped in a really indelible way by that, and what that might ultimately call us to in terms of the various ministries that we might perform in the Church, both official and unofficial,” Bugyis said.
The apostolic letter further solidifies Church teaching that serving at the altar, distributing holy Communion and reading the New Testament epistles and Old Testament passages at Mass are ministries that the lay faithful, men and women, can carry out without the benefit of holy orders.
“The document is very clear that this change is possible precisely because the ministries of lector and acolyte, which used to be minor orders, have ceased to be steps toward priestly ordination, and that is actually what opens the door to entrusting these ministries to lay people,” said Melissa Moschella, a philosophy professor at The Catholic University of America.
Dating back to the early Church, acolytes and lectors were grouped in the “minor orders” that also included porters, exorcists and subdeacons. Men would be instituted as lectors and acolytes on their way to being ordained deacons and priests. Seminarians today, as part of their priestly formation, are still instituted as lectors and acolytes.
“The way the ecclesiastical grades used to be understood were that those were stepping stones on the way to priesthood,” said Bugyis, who has written a book on the various ministries that Benedictine women performed in England during the Central Middle Ages.
Throughout the Middle Ages, Bugyis said, women’s access to the sanctuary and the altar was increasingly restricted amid concerns over ritual impurity related to menstruation and childbirth. Though women were officially banned from the sanctuary, Bugyis said what happened in practice was often very different, especially in women’s religious communities.
“Reading the Scriptures liturgically becomes an issue as well,” Bugyis said, “And a real tension point of course is who gets to read the Gospel and whether or not women can read the Gospel, and whether or not this is something that should be exclusively restricted to the grades of diaconate or the presbyterate.”
Spurred by the Second Vatican Council, which brought about a shift in the understanding of the laity’s apostolate, Pope St. Paul VI issued his apostolic letter Ministeria Quaedam in 1972 that reformed the minor orders. He decreed that lay men could be installed as acolytes and lectors as long as it was understood that those roles were not steps toward ordination.
“That started a process that began to separate the clergy from the laity, and the role of the clergy from the role of the laity,” said Msgr. Jason Gray, a canon lawyer who is a priest of the Diocese of Peoria, Illinois.
In 1983, Pope St. John Paul II updated canon law to say any lay person could perform those roles, but not be officially installed in them. In 1994, the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments said a bishop could allow women and girls to be altar servers but not acolytes. That same year, John Paul II issued Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, his apostolic letter that reaffirmed the male-only priesthood.
“He made clear the distinction between what was lay ministry and ordained ministry,” Msgr. Gray said.
In the ensuing decades, women, especially at the parish level, increasingly served as lectors and acolytes, but under Church law a bishop could not officially install them in those roles, until now. In a prepared statement, Bishop W. Shawn McKnight of Jefferson City, Missouri, welcomed the change in canon law.
“I am thrilled and grateful for this action by the Holy Father. Women, by virtue of their baptism, just like lay men, have a right and a responsibility to those ministries which the Church has instituted ‘based on the common condition of being baptized and the regal priesthood received in the sacrament of baptism,'” Bishop McKnight said.
Moschella, of The Catholic University of America, said the pope’s apostolic letter is a formal acknowledgement of the “very important ways” in which women have been serving the Church for years, and for the unique gifts they bring to the Christian community.
“I understand its symbolic meaning perhaps for many people,” Moschella said. “Frankly, I think what is more important is to recognize is how crucial women’s roles are in the Church outside of the liturgical context, the crucial roles that they play serving the community, the roles they play as wives and mothers, the roles that they play in society and in their workplaces, building up the kingdom of God there.”
In the document, Pope Francis quotes from his 2020 apostolic exhortation Querida Amazonia, in which he said he wanted the Church to give more official roles to women that would help them to have “a real and effective impact” in their service to Christian communities, especially those in mission territories where priests are scarce.
“I think this is the fruit of that,” Bugyis said. “Hopefully it’s not the final fruit. But I think it’s a good beginning.”
Brian Fraga is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.