Change is rooted in distinction between lay ministry and ordained ministry.
Pope Francis has adjusted one paragraph of canon law so as to enable women to be formally given access to two ministries used at Mass.
He made the adjustment, affirming that the ability to carry out the formal ministry of Lector and Acolyte is based in baptism. The two ministries are lay ministries fundamentally distinct from the ordained ministry that is received through the Sacrament of Holy Orders by priests, who must be men (recall that priests, deacons, and bishops alone receive the sacrament of Holy Orders).
Women have already been reading at Mass and assisting at the altar for decades in many dioceses, including in Rome at Masses celebrated by the popes. In 1994 the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments permitted diocesan bishops to determine if women would serve in those capacities in their own diocese. However, up till now only men could be formally “instituted,” or designated, to the “ministry” of Lector or Acolyte, according to canon law.
The change the pope made needs some historical context to be understood.
The ministries of Lector and Acolyte go back through the centuries of the Church with various applications at different times. In early centuries, they were part of “minor orders” that were steps in a man’s preparation to be ordained a priest, before he received the sacrament of Holy Orders. Over the centuries, they became somewhat disconnected from priestly formation. In the 20th century, first with the First Code of Canon Law, and then some decades later with St. Paul VI, more changes were made.
Paul VI replaced the title of “minor orders” and designated them “ministries” while simplifying them to two, lector and acolyte. These were again to be used as stepping stones in formation toward priestly ordination.
For a more thorough summary of the historical context, see here.
In the letter accompanying Pope Francis’ document, he notes how there has always been a distinction between “lay” ministries and “ordained” ministries, even as situations have changed over the span of the two millennia of the Church’s life.
In the course of history, as ecclesial, social and cultural situations have changed, the exercise of ministries in the Catholic Church has taken on different forms, although the distinction, not only of degree, between “instituted” (or “lay”) ministries and “ordained” ministries has remained intact. The former are particular expressions of the priestly and regal condition proper to every baptised person (cf. 1 Pt 2:9); the latter are proper to some of the members of the People of God who, as bishops and priests, “receive the mission and capacity to act in the person of Christ the Head” or, as deacons, “are empowered to serve the People of God in the ministries of the liturgy, the word and charity” (Benedict XVI, Apostolic Letter in the form of Motu Proprio Omnium in mentem, 26 October 2009). Expressions such as baptismal priesthood and ordained (or ministerial) priesthood are also used to indicate this distinction.
The pope goes on to explain later in the letter that this ancient distinction between lay and ordained ministries, and its increased clarity, enables the Church to consider and reconsider various factors.
A clearer distinction between the attributions of what are today called “non-ordained (or lay) ministries” and “ordained ministries” makes it possible to dissolve the reservation of the former to men alone. If, with regard to ordained ministries, the Church “does not consider herself authorised to admit women to priestly ordination” (cf. Saint John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis, 22 May 1994), for non-ordained ministries it is possible, and today it seems opportune, to overcome this reservation. This reservation made sense in a particular context, but it can be reconsidered in new contexts, always having as its criterion fidelity to Christ’s mandate and the desire to live and proclaim the Gospel transmitted by the Apostles and entrusted to the Church so that it may be listened to in a religious manner, kept in a holy manner and faithfully proclaimed.
Why change it?
Pope Francis indicates that one reason the change has been called for is to “manifest more clearly the common baptismal dignity of the members of the People of God.”
In other words, the change works toward showing that all the faithful share the same dignity because we have all been baptized, and there isn’t any sort of elite or special class. This goes along with an appeal that Pope Francis has often made, to work against clericalism, which he sees as a “clerical class” somehow being treated as CEOs instead of men charged to follow Christ the Good Shepherd.
The pope also notes the practical needs of the mission in various places and says that the change “makes the participation of all in the work of evangelisation more effective in the Church.”
In this way, as well as responding to what is required for the mission in the present time and accepting the witness given by many women who have taken care of and continue to take care of the service of the Word and the Altar, it will become more evident – also for those who are moving towards the ordained ministry – that the ministries of the Lector and the Acolyte are rooted in the sacrament of Baptism and Confirmation. In this way, on the path leading to diaconal and priestly ordination, those who are ordained Lector and Acolyte will better understand that they participate in a shared ministry with other baptised men and women. In this way the priesthood proper to each member of the faithful (communissacerdotio) and the priesthood of the ordained ministers (sacerdotiumministerialeseuhierarchicum) will be shown to be even more clearly ordered to one another (cf. LG, no. 10), for the edification of the Church and for the witness of the Gospel.