Sunday, October 26


In Which I say Something Controversial

Today, the Synod on the Word of God voted, overwhelmingly but with the most dissenting votes of any of its other resolutions, for women to be installed, officially, as lectors:
[I]t passed with 191 votes in favor, 45 opposed and three abstentions, according to our sources.

“It is hoped that the ministry of lector be opened also to women, so that their role as proclaimers of the word may be recognized in the Christian community,” the proposition states in its final sentence.

What Pope Benedict XVI will do with that proposal is unclear, according to Vatican people I spoke with shortly after the synod vote.

The issue, of course, is not whether women can act as lectors, or Scripture readers, in Catholic liturgies. They already do so all over the world, including at papal Masses.

The question is whether women can be officially installed in such a ministry. Until now, the Vatican has said no: canon law states that only qualified lay men can be “installed on a stable basis in the ministries of lector and acolyte.” At the same time, canon law does allow for “temporary deputation” as lector to both men and women, which is why women routinely appear as lectors.

I think it's a good idea. Restricting instituted lectors to men isn't theologically justifiable; it is a discipline, but, unlike celibate clergy, I don't see how it is an edifying discipline.

In actual practice, of course, basically nobody but seminarians are ever instituted as lectors, so every lay lector is technical acting as a temporary deputation--despite the fact that, often, lay lectors are given blessings to commission their work.

The practice of installed lectors proclaiming the first reading comes to us from the Tridentine (Extraordinary) Missal. When you see the 1962 Missal done well, there will be an installed lector (vested in cassock and surplice) reading the epistle, facing the congregation.*

The only innovation of the Missal of Paul VI with respect to the proclamation of readings was to allow anyone to fill in as lector when no installed lector was present. In the Introduction of the Lectionary for Mass (1981; revised 1998) we read the following in paragraphs 49-57:
Liturgical tradition assigns responsibility for the biblical readings in the celebration of Mass to ministers: to readers and the deacon... The liturgical assembly truly requires readers, even those not instituted... Whenever there is more than one reading, it is better to assign the readings to different readers, if availible... [A]n instituted reader must wear the distinctive vestment of their office when they go up to the ambo to read the word of God [i.e., cassock and surplice--Drew]. Those who carry out the ministry of reader just for the occasion or even regularly but without institution may go to the ambo in ordinary attire, but this should be in keeping with the customs of the different regions.
So, importantly, the unusual aspect of Paul VI's Missal is not that lectors proclaim the readings (aside from the Gospels, of course); the unusual aspect is that non-instituted individuals are permitted to act as lectors in case of necessity.

Allowing women to be instituted as lectors would solve this unusual legal aspect.

There is no question that it could be permitted, because the office of lector (as with all the other former "minor orders") are strictly disciplinary, and in no way sacramental or even inherently related to the sacrament of Holy Orders:
Although several medieval theologians regarded minor orders as sacramental, this view is no longer held, for the fundamental reason that minor orders, also the subdiaconate, are not of Divine or Apostolic origin. The rites by which they are conferred are quite different from ordination to holy orders. Minor orders are conferred by the presentation to the candidate of the appropriate instruments, in accordance with the ritual given in the "Statuta Ecclesiae antiqua," a document which originated in Gaul about the year 500. We do not know how even in Rome the porters and exorcists were ordained in former times. Lectors received a simple benediction; acolytes were created by handing them the linen bag in which they carried the Eucharist; subdeacons by the reception of the chalice.
The Catholic Encyclopedia

Incidently, theologians used to say that the Major Orders (deacon, priest, bishop) were also conferred by the reception of the appropriate instruments, but this view was repudiated by Pope Pius XII in Sacramentum Ordinis (1947).

Either way, the office of lector is not a sacrament, but a function, confering absolutely no character. Because it is a completely disciplinary function, there is absolutely nothing "inherent" to it whatsoever--and certainly nothing inherent to it which would hinder women from recieving it.

At one point in time, it presumed the legal status of a cleric; but the legal status of cleric has now been restricted to the diaconate, priesthood, and episcopacy.

Frankly, given the fact that lector is not a clerical role, I struggle to see what difference there is between blessing someone with the intent that they regularly read the readings at Mass, and instituting them to regularly read the readings at Mass. How exactly the two are conceptually, much less practically, distinguished, or how the difference between an instituted reader and a non-instituted reader is anything more than a historical fiction, I could not say.

That's not entirely true. There is one difference, and it is only practical: whether or not the lector must dress in cassock and surplice is determined by whether or not they are an instituted lector (in which case, when a deacon is present, they must) or an uninstituted (but blessed) lector (in which case, they simply may). And, I'm all in favor of the proliferation of cassock and surplice.

For sake of reference, here are two blessings, the one used to institute lectors and the one used to bless uninstituted lectors. Keeping in mind that, in ancient Rome, lectors were instituted with a simple blessing and that institution-by-giving-instruments is not recorded until AD 500, it becomes even more difficult to say how, exactly, the two are different.

The institution of a lector:
Lord God,
Source of all goodness and light,
you sent your Son, the Word of life,
to reveal to mankind the mystery of your love.

Bless + our brothers
who have been chosen for the ministry of reader.
Grant that as they meditate on your word
they may grow in its wisdom
and faithful proclaim it to your people.

We ask this through Christ our Lord.
R. Amen

Each candidate goes to the bishop, who gives them the Bible, saying:
Take this book of holy Scripture
and be faithful in handing on the word of God,
so that it may grow strong in the hearts of his people.
R. Amen
The blessing of an un-instituted reader:
Everlasting God,
When he read in the synagogue at Nazareth,
your Son proclaimed the good news of salvation
for which he would give up his life.

Bless these readers.
As they proclaim your words of life,
strengthen their faith
that they may read with conviction and boldness
and put into practice what they read.

We ask this through Christ our Lord.
R. Amen.
*"In sung Masses--solemn Masses and high Masses--all that the deacon or subdeacon or lector chant or recite of their own office is omitted by the Celebrant."
Frederick McManus, Handbook for the New Rubrics (Baltimore: Helicon Press, 1961) p. 119-20



The difference between a person blessed to read and a person instituted to read is essentially a historical fiction. Neither is confers a character, both confer a duty in the church's liturgy--neither of which is clerical. If we say "You can instituted as lector for mass," will this really "lead people to think that women can be priests"--when we already say, "You can be blessed as a lector for mass"? Is that rational? Really?

And if so, how, precisely, given that being a lector is no longer a clerical position?

Revised Update II - Will Pope Benedict do it?

That's a hard call.

The most analogous case is the appointment of a woman to leadership an office in the Congregation for Religious (shorthand name)--Italian Salesian Sr. Enrica Rosanna was made under-secretary of the Congregation for Religious. Until then, an unofficial theology of the delegated authority of the Curia held that curial leadership shared in the clerical status and authority of the pontiff, and so had to be male. The breach of that unofficial theology was noted at the time by John Allen: "It’s true that a cleric co-signs letters from the congregation that exercise the pope’s delegated 'power of jurisdiction,' but nevertheless the appointment put Rosanna in a position of leadership in the universal church." Benedict's right-hand man suggested that there might be more.

So that would suggest that Benedict might be favorable to the idea.

On the other hand, it's only an analogous case, so some other factor may change the pope's mind with respect to this issue. More likely, however, is that Benedict might be hesitant to act because of the intricate changes in liturgical law. Simply issuing the alternate endings for the Mass took three years.

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