In Pope’s Welcome of Women Acolytes and Lectors, A Lesson for LGBTQ Catholics, Too

Pope Francis listens to a lay woman proclaim the Word of God at the chapel in his residence.

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

5 replies
  1. Mandi Martin
    Mandi Martin says:

    A small step but a great one. I also hope that does include non-binary people like myself. Let’s hope more steps and changes follow.

  2. Tom Bower
    Tom Bower says:

    Perhaps I am too liberal in my interpretation of Papal instruction, but why not accept the change from “lay man” to “lay person” for what it says? My understanding of the church is that it is made up of clergy/religious and laypeople (at this point sexual status is no longer an issue). Since we only have two options (lay or not) why can’t all other divisions among our lay status simply be ignored? Seriously what is the difference? If we aren’t clergy/religious, just listen to the Holy Spirit’s call to serve.

  3. Lillian Bruce Moskeland
    Lillian Bruce Moskeland says:

    As a woman, I have been waiting for the “Church” to catch up with reality. I know that the hierarchy of Rome moves slowly and fearfully. I have been happy with the small steps taken by Pope Francis. I have no illusions as to the changes being proclaimed by a man who must lead the faithful throughout a world that is vast and diverse. This is one of those small steps that will reverberate throughout that world.

  4. Martin Pendergast
    Martin Pendergast says:

    What might be significant for LGBT+ Catholics is Pope Francis’ acknowledgment in the Apostolic Letter that ‘a DOCTRINAL DEVELOPMENT has taken place in recent years …'(see below) – “A number of Assemblies of the Synod of Bishops have highlighted the need to deepen the subject doctrinally, so that it may respond to the nature of the aforementioned charisms and the needs of the times, offering appropriate support to the role of evangelisation that is incumbent upon the ecclesial community. Accepting these recommendations, a doctrinal development has taken place in recent years which has highlighted how certain ministries instituted by the Church are based on the common condition of being baptised and the regal priesthood received in the Sacrament of Baptism; …”
    Maybe the same can be acknowledged in the context of gender and sexuality …?

  5. Vernon Smith
    Vernon Smith says:

    In a similar vein to Tom Bower’s comment above about taking the change from “lay man” to “lay person” for what it says, remember: we are talking about a statement of Canon Law here. Granted, I am not usually invested much into legalism. However, this is a case in which we should take advantage of the legalism! If the legal language now in place is inclusive of all lay persons, it makes no distinctions based upon gender identity of any sort. Therefore, if a local bishop starts barring LGBT+ people from roles as lectors and acolytes, folks in the pews can raise a ruckus and argue correctly that they are in clear violation of Canon Law. Period! Let’s not question and overthink it. Just seize upon the change and take advantage of the glacial reforms when they actually do emerge.


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