A bishop recently asked the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments whether a Diocesan Bishop would be able to obligate his priests to admit women and girls to service at the altar. This Dicastry has considered it opportune to send this letter to the Bishop in question, and given its particular importance to publish it here [in Notitiae].
Further to recent correspondence, this Congregation resolved to undertake a renewed study of the questions concerning the possible admission of girls, adult women and women religious to serve alongside boys as servers in the liturgy.
As part of this examination, this Dicastry consulted the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts which replied with a letter of July 23, 2001. The reply of the Pontifical Council was helpful in reaffirming that the questions raised by this Congregation, including the question of whether particular legislation could oblige individual priests in their celebration of the Holy Mass to make use of women to serve at the altar, do not concern the interpretation of the law, but rather are questions of the correct application of the law. The reply of the aforementioned Pontifical Council, therefore, confirms the understanding of this Dicastry that the matter falls within the competence of this Congregation as delineated by the Apostolic Constitution Pastor Bonus, n. 62. Bearing in mind this authoritative response, this Dicastry, having resolved outstanding questions, was able to conclude its own study. At the present time, therefore, the Congregation would wish to make the following observations.
As is clear from the Responsio ad propositum dubium concerning canon 230 §2 of the Codex Iuris Canonici of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts and the directives of this Congregation, which the Holy Father had mandated in order to provide for the orderly implementation of what is set out in canon 230 §2, and its authentic interpretation (cf. Circular Letter to the Presidents of Episcopal Conferences, Prot. n. 2482/93, March 15, 1994, see Notitiae 30  333-335), the Diocesan Bishop, in his role as moderator of the liturgical life in the diocese entrusted to his care, has the authority to permit service at the altar by women within the boundaries of the territory entrusted to his care.
Moreover his liberty in question cannot be conditioned by claims in favor of a uniformity between his diocese and other dioceses which would logically lead to the removal of the necessary freedom of action from the individual Diocesan Bishop. Rather, after having heard the opinion of the Episcopal Conference, he is to base his prudential judgment upon what he considers to accord more closely with the local pastoral need for an ordered development of the liturgical life in the diocese entrusted to his care, bearing in mind, among other things, the sensibilities of the faithful, the reasons which would motivate such a permission, and the different liturgical settings and congregations which gather for the Holy Mass (cf. Circular Letter to the Presidents of the Episcopal Conferences, March 15, 1994, no. 1).
In accord with the above cited instructions of the Holy See such an authorization may not, in any way, exclude men or, in particular, boys from service at the altar, nor require that priests of the diocese would make use of female altar servers, since "it will always be very appropriate to follow the noble tradition of having boys serve at the altar" (Circular Letter to the Presidents of the Episcopal Conferences, MArch 15, 1994, no. 2). Indeed, the obligation to support groups of altar boys will always remain, not least of all due to the well known assistance that such programs have provided since time immemorial in encouraging future priestly vocations (cf. ibid.).
With respect to whether the practice of women serving at the altar would truly be of pastoral advantage in the local pastoral situation, it is perhaps helpful to recall that the non-ordained faithful do not have a right to service at the altar, rather they are capable of being admitted to such service by the Sacred Pastors (cf. Circular Letter to the Presidents of the Episcopal Conferences, March 15, 1994, no. 4, cf. also can. 228, s.1, Interdicasterial Instruction Ecclesiae de mysterio, August 15, 1997, no. 4, see Notitiae 34  9-42). 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.
Having thus confirmed and further clarified the contents of its previous response to Your Excellency, this Dicastry wishes to assure you of its gratitude for the opportunity to elaborate further upon this question and that it considers the present letter to be normative.
With every good wish and kind regard, I am,
Sincerely yours in Christ,
Jorge A. Card. Medina Estevez,