I did not realize until this morning that it wasn’t official. American Catholics have long had women as lectors and extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, participating in the celebration of the Mass. In fact, I can’t remember a time when women weren’t engaging in those roles.

As of today, the Vatican has now given that official sanction. The Associated Press reports this with a predictable headline that notes they “still can’t be priests,” but neither can married men, either:

Pope Francis changed church law Monday to explicitly allow women to do more things during Mass, granting them access to the most sacred place on the altar, while continuing to affirm that they cannot be priests.

Francis amended the law to formalize and institutionalize what is common practice in many parts of the world: that women can be installed as lectors, to read the Gospel, and serve on the altar as eucharistic ministers. Previously, such roles were officially reserved to men even though exceptions were made.

Francis said he was making the change to increase recognition of the “precious contribution” women make in the church, while emphasizing that all baptized Catholics have a role to play in the church’s mission.

But he also noted that doing so further makes a distinction between “ordained” ministries such as the priesthood and diaconate, and ministries open to qualified laity. The Vatican reserves the priesthood for men.

This is a non-sequitur at best. The issue of women reading at Mass has never been a theological point but a question of practice. The doctrinal issue of the priesthood is much different, and much more tied to the Eucharist, transubstantiation, and the role of priest in persona Christi capitis. This doctrine appears in the Catechism, so it’s not exactly a big secret; I explained it a few years ago in this post, for anyone who wants to read it.  To recap it once again:

Priests act in persona Christi capitis during the Mass (CCC pp 875), especially during the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The congregation becomes an earthly part of the eternal celebration of the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, as described in Revelation, in which the Church becomes the Bride of Christ. The priestly authority comes directly from Christ Himself through the apostolic succession of the bishops and their authority to ordain priests for this purpose. It is in this role that priests can effect the transformation of the sacrifice of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ through the unity of the Holy Spirit with Christ and God the Father, as seen in Revelation, and offer it to the faithful as a sacrament of union with Christ and that eternal celebration. Acting in persona Christi capitis, the priest acts in place of Christ the bridegroom in that moment in time here in the world (CCC pp 1348). Also, the priest’s role in the Mass occurs through the power of Christ the bridegroom (CCC 1548). This is how the two will become one flesh, as in sacramental marriage in this world. If the congregation is the bride, the priest as groom must be male to act in persona Christi capitis, according to the teachings of the Catholic Church.

None of this has anything to do with the Mass readings, altar service, or distribution of the Eucharist. In earlier times, when every neighborhood had a Catholic church and there were plenty of priests and acolytes, all of this was handled by the ordained clergy. In recent decades, however, the shortage of priests and acolytes has moved these tasks to the laity, which is a departure from previous practice but not any kind of doctrinal change. This changed almost fifty years ago, when Pope Paul VI opened these tasks to the laity, which inevitably set the stage for both women and men to participate in these roles.

The motu proprio makes that pretty clear, as Crux reports:

Called a motu proprio, meaning a piece of legislation issued on the pope’s own authority, the new law revises canon 230 in the Code of Canon Law, which previously stated that “lay men who possess the age and qualifications established by decree of the conference of bishops can be admitted on a stable basis through the prescribed liturgical rite to the ministries of lector and acolyte.”

Now the revised text begins, “lay people who possess the age and qualifications,” making the sole condition for admittance to the ministries one’s baptism, rather than one’s gender.

In an explanatory note issued alongside the new law, Italian priest Father Angelo Lameri, professor at the Pontifical Lateran University, called the new law “a maturation of a process begun in 1972 by St. Paul VI,” who that year declared in his own motu proprio Ministeria quaedam that one need not be a priest or seminarian in order to be an altar server, opening the role to laity.”

In 2016, Pope Francis made a similar gesture when he modified the rubric for the foot-washing ritual during Mass on Holy Thursday, formally allowing women to be selected, even though this had also been the common practice for years in countries such as the United States.

This is an important point to remember in this coverage. The Catholic Church has allowed women in those roles for decades as a tacit acknowledgement of the implication of Paul VI’s opening them to the laity. The Vatican had never formally changed the canon law to reflect that, but clearly they haven’t objected to the practice over the last 48 years or so. All Pope Francis did yesterday was close the loop — which isn’t insignificant, but isn’t earth-shaking either.

Update: Well-known canon lawyer Ed Condon gets into more detail on the history and significance of the Holy Father’s action at The Pillar, a new Catholic outfit Condon co-founded with JD Flynn:

Some theologians have advocated for a kind of non-sacramental “deaconess” role for women – a non-sacramental role which seems to have existed for women in the early Church. While Pope Francis has not absolutely ruled out the possibility, in Querida Amazonia he called for other “forms of service” for women, which would entail “stability, public recognition and a commission from the bishop.”

The ministries of lector and acolyte could be seen as the roles the pope has in mind in Querida Amazonia, or as the precedents to additional new, “commissioned” ministries, as yet undesigned or unannounced.

It is also possible the pope sees this new policy changing as a confirmation of existing functional practice in most parts of the world.

Be sure to read the whole thing.