Yesterday, news broke that Pope Francis altered canon law to mandate that women be allowed to serve as lectors and acolytes. The pope’s action is a reminder for church reform advocates of just how change comes about in the church, and how this reform is only a stepping stone to true equality for all Catholics.
Growing up in a Vatican II-influenced parish, I took it as a given that women could lead and serve in nearly all church roles bar those involving ordination. Like so many parishes, including more conservative ones, women’s efforts were the backbone of religious education, charity and justice committees, and social events. At my parish, women were also instrumental to liturgical ministries, too. While I knew, and objected to, the prohibition on women’s ordination, it was not until high school that I became aware that women serving in formal roles was not a given for many Catholics. A number of parishes and dioceses banned women and girls from being altar servers, and even some that precluded women from proclaiming the Word of God.
Now, Pope Francis has undercut those holdout bishops and pastors who deny anyone not a cisgender man from having liturgical roles beyond simply being a member of the congregation. In a sense, the pope’s change in the newly released motu proprio decree Spiritus Domini seems oddly simple. It took a papal pen stroke and now the law is on church reformers’ side, even if implementing the changes globally may take time. Today, cisgender women and girls, can go to their pastor and request to be lectors and acolytes. Great!
But, in another sense, this change and its significance is not so simple. Kate McElwee, executive director of the Women’s Ordination Conference, makes an important point that the pope’s decree “is not a radical shift,” but adds, “the church recognizing widely accepted practices by Catholics around the world and taking the steps to be more inclusive is a radical thing.”
That is the lesson that church reformers, including LGBTQ people and their advocates, cannot forget. At the risk of stating a truism, changes in formal teaching come about after changes in practice. My childhood parish had, for decades, allowed women to serve as lectors and acolytes, as did (and still do) many other faith communities. Equally important, groups like the Women’s Ordination Conference have spent decades demanding gender equality in the church. The pope’s decree yesterday does not come out of a void. It comes only after these consistent and insistent demands that Catholics’ lived experiences and public advocacy make on the institutional church.
While Francis’ reform in canon law is welcome, it leaves us without answers to key questions. His change in canon 230, paragraph 1 of the Code of Canon Law rewrites the text as “Lay persons…” rather than the previous “Lay men…” Left unclear is whether transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people similarly must be welcome to these liturgical roles. These Catholics have, in a sense, been denied personhood in a church discourse tied to gender complementarity. More broadly, in too many instances many parish volunteers have been and still are being dismissed from liturgical and other parish roles when an LGBTQ identity becomes known. LGBTQ Catholics find ourselves in the same situation as women and girls had been in: we are at the mercy of the pastor’s or bishop’s discretion.
Such a situation is neither just nor, in the long run, tenable. Change is happening already. As the pope’s new edit illustrates, the pen stroke which changes canon law or doctrinal teaching is only a recognition that the church has already changed.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, January 12, 2021