Before the introduction of female altar servers, it was customary to reserve all service at the altar in the Christian Churches to males.  It was strictly forbidden to have women serving near the altar within the sacred chapel, that is, they were prohibited from entering the altar area behind the altar rails during the liturgy. In his encyclical Allatae Sunt of 26 July 1755, Pope Benedict XIV explicitly condemned females serving the priest at the altar with the following words:
"Pope Gelasius in his ninth letter (chap. 26) to the bishops of Lucania condemned the evil practice which had been introduced of women serving the priest at the celebration of Mass. Since this abuse had spread to the Greeks, Innocent IV strictly forbade it in his letter to the bishop of Tusculum: "Women should not dare to serve at the altar; they should be altogether refused this ministry." We too have forbidden this practice in the same words in Our oft-repeated constitution Etsi Pastoralis, sect. 6, no. 21."
In the period of liturgical experimentation following the Second Vatican Council, some dioceses allowed girls to act as altar servers. For example, this practice started as early as 1965 in Germany. The Vatican sought to put an end to such experimentation with the 1970 instruction Liturgicae instaurationes, and affirmed that only males could serve the priest at the altar. However, the practice nonetheless continued in some places, and the Vatican reaffirmed the prohibition against female altar servers in the 1980 instruction Inaestimabile donum.
The ban on female altar servers has been maintainted, however, by traditionalist Catholics, in a few dioceses, in some clerical societies, especially with regards to the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum.
With the promulgation of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, some argued that this reservation to males no longer held, based on the inclusion of both males and females in canon 230 §2: "Lay persons can fulfill the function of lector in liturgical actions by temporary designation. All lay persons can also perform the functions of commentator or cantor, or other functions, according to the norm of law." In some dioceses, girls were allowed to act as altar servers under the new canon law, without any explicit decision on the matter from the Holy See.
The decision came in the form of a circular letter from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments to presidents of episcopal conferences on 15 March 1994, which announced a 30 June 1992 authentic interpretation (confirmed on 11 July 1992 by Pope John Paul II) from the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts. This authentic interpretation said that canon 230 §2 states that service at the altar is one of the liturgical functions that can be performed by both lay men and women. The circular letter, written by the cardinal-prefect of the Congregation, also clarified that canon 230 §2 has a permissive and not a preceptive character, that is, it allows, but does not require, the use of female altar servers. Thus it was for each diocesan bishop to decide whether to allow them in his diocese.
A later document made clear that, even if a bishop decided to permit girl altar servers, the priest in charge of a church in that diocese was not obliged to accept them, since there was no question of anyone, male or female, having a right to become an altar server.
The 1994 declaration that there was no canonical prohibition against girl altar servers was published shortly before Pope John Paul II's Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis of 22 May 1994, which affirmed that the male-only priesthood is a matter of Divine Law and cannot be changed. Ordinatio Sacerdotalis however said nothing about girl altar servers being forbidden, as was expected as the subject of this apostolic letter was priestly ordination.
- This was observed because the original acolytes were in formation for the priesthood. Today, in the traditional Roman Catholic Church, it is still a minor order before ordination.)
- Catholic Moral Theology, Fr. Jone OFMCap, Nr. 315.
- Encyclical Allatae Sunt, 26 July, 1755, Pope Benedict XIV, paragraph 29.
- "All earlier permissions for experimentation with the Mass, granted in view of the liturgical reform as it was in progress, are to be considered as no longer in effect", Liturgicae instaurationes, n. 12.
- "In conformity with norms traditional in the Church, women (single, married, religious), whether in churches, homes, convents, schools, or institutions for women, are barred from serving the priest at the altar", Liturgicae instaurationes, n. 7.
- "Women are not, however, permitted to act as altar servers", Inaestimabile donum, n. 18
- The Code of Canon Law: A Text and Commentary, ed. by James A. Coriden, Thomas J. Green, and Donald E. Heintschel, Paulist Press, 1985, ISBN 0-8091-0345-1.