Monday, March 10, 2008

Reflecting on Inclusive Language

Three letters-to-the-editor were published in yesterday’s Star Tribune in relation to recent events at St. Stephen’s Catholic Church. One of these letters has caused me to reflect on gender inclusive language and to recall the insights of theologian Elizabeth Johnson on the use of feminine images of God.

But first, here are the letters from yesterday’s Star Tribune:

They kept the faith

My heartfelt support – emotional and spiritual – goes to the people of St. Stephen’s parish who have chosen to relocate their worship service (“The push for conformity shoves away parishioners,” March 2).

I know a number of people, myself included, who choose not to support the worship dictates of the men who call themselves our leaders. We have kept our faith, but we have lost our church.

Diocese spokesman Dennis McGrath states that “they had plenty of warnings to get their act together.” What a heavy-handed, thuggish way of putting it!

Apparently they did get their act together and found a place where they could celebrate their faith in a way that harmonizes with their values.

Susan Weyrauch
Eden Prairie

Whose gospel is it?

Let’s see if I got this right – among other things, the parishioners of St. Stephen’s Catholic Church thought they, mere mortals, could improve upon the teachings of our creator, our Lord Jesus Christ, and change the words to the prayer that Jesus himself taught us to pray (“Our Father and Mother, Who Art in Heaven”?)

Yikes! Who died and made them God?

Joe and Becky Eibenseiner
Sauk Center, MN


What would Jesus do? I doubt very much he would alienate devoted followers using tough-guy talk like Dennis McGrath did when he said, “They’ve had plenty of warning to get their act together.” This is the type of intolerant leadership that drives people away from the church.

For many people, congregations such as St. Stephen’s and St. Joan of Arc’s are their last stop before leaving the church for good. The basic tenets of the Catholic Church are faith, hope and charity, yet for these faithful, it gives no hope or charity.

Would Jesus put more emphasis on carrying out the message of his gospels or following the rubrics?

I think he’d be leading the disenfranchised parishioners out the front door of the church down the road to where faith, hope and charity have real meaning.

Joe Boller


Joe and Becky Eibenseiner clearly oppose using feminine images when thinking and speaking about God. Furthermore, they base this opposition on what we read in the New Testament about Jesus’ choice of words and images for God . Yet it seems obvious to me that since Jesus lived in a patriarchal society he would have used predominately patriarchal language when talking about God. Does this prohibit us today from employing other images and language when speaking about God? I don’t believe so. After all, as the late Vincent Rush used to say: “All revelation is culturally conditioned.” This for me is another way of saying that God is ultimately bigger than any one image that can be ascribed to God.

Also, if the Eibenseiner’s are that picky about adhering to the exact words of the historical Jesus, then I assume they say the “Lord’s Prayer” in Aramaic!

According to the Chancery, one of the “problems” with St. Stephen’s was that inclusive language was being used in the English-speaking liturgies. (Such language is still being used in the 9:00 a.m. liturgy now being held off church property.) Hence we begin the “Lord’s Prayer” with: “Our Father/Mother who art in heaven . . .”

Why do folks like the Eibenseiner’s and those in Chancery feel so threatened by inclusive language and thus by feminine images of God?

Theologian Elizabeth Johnson addressed this and other related questions in a recent interview with the editors of U.S. Catholic magazine.

Following are excerpts from this interview.

U.S. Catholic: Let’s talk about “God acting womanish,” as you call it. Where does this theology stand today?

Elizabeth Johnson: There are major images of God in a female form in scripture and in our mystical tradition especially. Maternity is the main one, but the wisdom texts about Sophia are another. Some theologians make the case, too, that the Spirit has a female name in Hebrew and acts in feminine ways.

Then come the questions of why aren’t we using those images of God in our liturgies, why aren’t we teaching young people that this is an approach to God that can be used as well? The three major words for God are still Father, King, and Lord in Christian hymns, prayer, and liturgy. What that sets up unconsciously, whether you want it to or not, is the assumption that men have more in common with divinity than women do. Those three particular images also are very patriarchal because they refer not just to a male but to a ruling male, somebody who is dominating or being father in a patriarchal sense. Now that isn’t, of course, what scripture means or what Jesus meant when he called God Abba.

If you combine Father, Lord, and King with the God of theism, then you’ve got a problem. That’s one of those static ideas that does not feed the souls of a lot of people, men as well as women.

U.S. Catholic: Why?

Elizabeth Johnson: It’s very simple. Women are no longer relating to men in their lives as lord and king, and father no longer has that sense of control and domination that it had in a previous era. Women are no longer relating to their own fathers that way, let alone marrying men who act as fathers that way. Look at the partnership concept in marriage. Fathering is much more nurturing than it used to be.

There’s little that women then can bring into a relationship with God who is going to be their lord and king or their father. It goes blank, and not only that, but women are very uncomfortable with it. It’s not just neutral, it’s negative. Women think, “I don’t want a dominating man: Go away until you grow up and learn how to treat me like a human being.” When that comes into the religious life of women, it becomes the heart of this crisis. You can have all the dictums in the world, but the old images just don’t work anymore.

U.S. Catholic: What does it mean that we call God by male terms?

Elizabeth Johnson: I have this sentence that I quote over and over again: The symbol of God functions. The male symbol of God functions to privilege a certain way of male rule in the world and to undercut women’s spiritual power, women’s own sense of themselves as made in the image of God.

We women have to abstract ourselves from our bodies to see ourselves in the image of God if God is always depicted as male. It has serious ramifications for spirituality and for the identity of believers and for the community.

U.S. Catholic: Why is there so much resistance to using feminine images of God?

Elizabeth Johnson: I think the rejection of the inclusive language lectionary, which the U.S. bishops applied for in 1992 and which was rejected by the Vatican, was a clear recognition that once you start making room for even nonsexist language about humanity, let alone feminine images of God, there’s a fear that women will want to move in socially and politically, and then you’ve got a challenge to church structure as we know it. I think there’s a great deal of fear of women’s power.

U.S. Catholic: Can you imagine a church that took female images of God to heart?

Elizabeth Johnson: Let me say, I think women and men are equal in sin and grace. I don’t think women are going to be the salvation of the church or of this country. I think we can all get on power trips. I’m convinced of it, maybe because I’ve been in a women’s religious community, and I have six sisters. I am disabused of this romantic notion of women’s greatness as compared to men.

At this moment in history, women have figured out what’s wrong with the current pattern and how their experiences have led to different ways of relating, organizing, and running things. Given the chance, they would bring that pattern into the church and let it play off and see what develops.

To read U.S. Catholic’s interview with Elizabeth Johnson in its entirety, click here.


Clayton said...

I wonder if Johnson read the Pontifical Biblical Commission's 1994 document on the Interpretation of the Bible in the Church?

I wonder how many people know that the Church did not simply reject feminism, but insists on looking at feminist theology in a nuanced way. It seems to me that some people find the nuances inconvenient to their cause...

Here's the salient passage from the Commission's 1994 document (emphasis mine):

Feminist exegesis has brought many benefits. Women have played a more active part in exegetical research. They have succeeded, often better than men, in detecting the presence, the significance and the role of women in the Bible, in Christian origins and in the church. The worldview of today, because of its greater attention to the dignity of women and to their role in society and in the church, ensures that new questions are put to the biblical text, which in turn occasions new discoveries. Feminine sensitivity helps to unmask and correct certain commonly accepted interpretations which were tendentious and sought to justify the male domination of women.

With regard to the Old Testament, several studies have striven to come to a better understanding of the image of God. The God of the Bible is not a projection of a patriarchal mentality. He is Father, but also the God of tenderness and maternal love.

Feminist exegesis, to the extent that it proceeds from a preconceived judgment, runs the risk of interpreting the biblical texts in a tendentious and thus debatable manner. To establish its positions it must often, for want of something better, have recourse to arguments ex silentio. As is well known, this type of argument is generally viewed with much reserve: It can never suffice to establish a conclusion on a solid basis. On the other hand, the attempt made on the basis of fleeting indications in the texts to reconstitute a historical situation which these same texts are considered to have been designed to hide—this does not correspond at all to the work of exegesis properly so called. It entails rejecting the content of the inspired texts in preference for a hypothetical construction, quite different in nature.

Feminist exegesis often raises questions of power within the church, questions which, as is obvious, are matters of discussion and even of confrontation. In this area, feminist exegesis can be useful to the church only to the degree that it does not fall into the very traps it denounces and that it does not lose sight of the evangelical teaching concerning power as service, a teaching addressed by Jesus to all disciples, men and women.

Clayton said...

I wonder how many people have been following recent developments, such as the 2004 CDF letter On the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World, and, more recently, the Vatican's international convention on the theme "Woman and Man, the Humanum in Its Entirety," held just last month.

Pope Benedict XVI's speech during the convention may be found here...

Especially significant is this passage:

In Mulieris Dignitatem, John Paul II wished to deepen the fundamental anthropological truths of man and woman, the equality of their dignity and the unity of both, the well-rooted and profound diversity between the masculine and the feminine and their vocation to reciprocity and complementarity, to collaboration and to communion (cf. n. 6). This "uni-duality" of man and woman is based on the foundation of the dignity of every person created in the image and likeness of God, who "male and female he created them" (Gn 1: 27), avoiding an indistinct uniformity and a dull and impoverishing equality as much as an irreconcilable and conflictual difference (cf. John Paul II, Letter to Women, n. 8). This dual unity brings with it, inscribed in body and soul, the relationship with the other, love for the other, interpersonal communion that implies "that the creation of man is also marked by a certain likeness to the divine communion" (Mulieris dignitatem, n. 7). Therefore, when men and women demand to be autonomous and totally self-sufficient, they run the risk of being closed in a self-reliance that considers ignoring every natural, social or religious bond as an expression of freedom, but which, in fact, reduces them to an oppressive solitude. To promote and sustain the real advancement of women and men one cannot fail to take this reality into account.

A renewed anthropological study is certainly necessary based on the great Christian tradition, which incorporates new scientific advances and, given today's cultural sensitivity, in this way contributes to deepening not only the feminine identity but also the masculine, which is often the object of partial and ideological reflections. Faced with cultural and political trends that seek to eliminate, or at least cloud and confuse, the sexual differences inscribed in human nature, considering them a cultural construct, it is necessary to recall God's design that created the human being masculine and feminine, with a unity and at the same time an original difference and complimentary. Human nature and the cultural dimension are integrated in an ample and complex process that constitutes the formation on one's own identity, where both dimensions, that of the feminine and that of the masculine, correspond to and complete each other.


More on the convention, from participant Genevieve Kinke, in a podcast here. (Genevieve's section of the podcast begins about mid-way through the show).

Clayton said...

You missed one letter from this week. See this letter on St. Joan's website:

nebrshugyo said...

“All revelation is culturally conditioned.” - is that culturally conditioned or culturally constructed?

Whether conditioned or constructed, do changes in the prevailing culture demand or require a change in conditioning or construction too?

If so, does this mean that God's self-revelation in Jesus, and the Triune God's continuing ministry through the Church are hopelessly constricted?

crystal said...

I think that more important even than the exclusive language used are the beliefs behind that language .... when women can be priests, I'll take the "women are really equal, just different" stuff more seriously.

Michael J. Bayly said...

nebrshugyo asked:

Does this mean that God's self-revelation in Jesus, and the Triune God's continuing ministry through the Church are hopelessly constricted?

I would say "ever-unfolding" rather than "hopelessly constricted."

Your question calls to mind a passage in theologian Richard R. Gaillardetz's book By What Authority? A Primer on Scripture, the Magisterium, and the Sense of the Faithful:

The 'sense of the faithful' . . . emerges with full vitality when the whole church dares to embrace that eschatological modesty most becoming of a pilgrim Church, a Church that believes that it abides in the truth but does not possess it in its entirety. This pilgrim Church will be faithful to its truest identity when all the baptized - pope, bishop, and layperson - acknowledge the wisdom of listening before speaking, of learning before teaching, of praying before pronouncing. (p.118)



nebrshugyo said...

"there’s a fear that women will want to move in socially and politically, and then you’ve got a challenge to church structure as we know it. I think there’s a great deal of fear of women’s power."

I tried posting about this yesterday, but I posted in the wrong discussion thread.

Doesn't Johnson risk reducing ecclesiology to a zero-sum "power game?" There's gotta be more to the Church than this.

Liam said...

Having been a veteran in the trenches on behalf of inclusive language for many years in the 1990s, I can confirm there is a lot more than power involved, and reducing the issue to power is not only incorrect but also a strategic blunder.

First, there is a prescriptive vs descriptive issue involving the language. While certain segments of secular culture have adopted more inclusive language than was common in the past, as a descriptive matter, the adoption is far from uniform or deep in the culture. People who say "no one uses 'man' in a gender-universal sense any more" really mean "no one I care about" rather than "no one" - because it's not yet true.

So, then the next questions are

1. Should the language of the liturgy be changed prescriptively to encourage a change in the vernacular that has yet to become universal?

2. Who gets to decide that question?

3. Who gets to implement it if the answer is Yes.

4. What are the principles for implementing it?

5. How is the deposit of faith safeguarded in the process?

6. Who has the duty to so safeguard it?

7. What are the principles for such safeguarding?

8. Which community in which these discussions ought occur is "the Church"?

I could go on and on. Mind you, these were questions that all got raised among proponents of inclusive language. And there were many different - and quite conflicting - answers. (In the course of an inclusive translation project that occurred over three years, I learned a lot about all the tangled stuff underneath all this. And uncovered pearls like the heresy that Jesus ceased to be man after the Ascension...but I digress.)

The attempts to force inclusive language in the name of justice and ending oppression without having resolved this and related questions first among the entire Church have set back inclusive language for decades, I fear. If there is a next time, it will likely be at a considerable lag from any further developments in the actual spoken and written language as used in the secular world. Which is usually the case for liturgical texts anyway.

Ray from MN said...

Michael asked: Why do folks like the Eibenseiner’s and those in Chancery feel so threatened by inclusive language and thus by feminine images of God?

Is this a matter of "feeling threatened" or is it a matter of humility and obeying the Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church?

Nobody brings this up much, but you can use all the inclusive language you want in personal prayers and group prayers that are not a part of the liturgies of the Church. That's between you and God, and your prayer partners.

The prayers of the liturgy are a different matter and are determined so that the Church remains ONE, holy, Catholic and apostolic.

I have "issues" with many of the translations of the Church also. Just how did "Et cum spiritu tuo" get to be translated as "And also with you?" How did "pro multis" get to be translated as "for all?" I don't like it but I don't spend much of my time griping about it.

I think what we have here are lots of folks who have many complaints about the Church and they want changes to be made on a parish by parish basis.

In other words, they want to break up the Church into thousands of denominations, just like the 30,000 or so protestant denominations and independent churches.

That is not what Jesus wants. When He named the apostle Simon as head of the Church [the one Church], He said: "You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church [singular]. And the gates of the underworld can never hold out against it [singular]. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in heaven." [Jerusalem Bible trans.]

It appears that Jesus believed that those who "hold out against" the Church are being influenced by the underworld.

When the Church tells me how they want me to pray in Mass, I humbly submit as that is Jesus talking. What I think about it makes no difference.

One my own time I can acknowledge the infinite aspects of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and pray to all of them if I wish.

kevin57 said...

Ray, if you don't mind my saying, I think you have control issues. You want everything in the Church to be in a straightjacket. I totally agree that the issue of language in liturgy is a very difficult one. Heck, the English speaking bishops and the Vatican have been in dialogue over it for years already and will likely spend at least a couple more before anything is concluded.

I would also agree that it is to the Church universal that the sacraments and how they are celebrated belong.

But as I've pointed out, the Church in Rome has been steamrolling bishops' conferences on this topic. My lament is not who has ultimate authority but how that authority is being exercised. I know from my sources that there is virtually no give-and-take. They're control freaks in the Vatican. There's no way to control one billion people's public prayer like they want to. The world is way too complicated...and frankly, educated, to be treated as children. It's a pity because Rome is failing to acknowledge that there can be a rich variety and depth of spirituality to things they aren't looking at. It's also not historical or "sacramental" in the broadest, most basic sense of that word, meaning that Christ makes himself present thorughout all of creation.

Much of what's going on reminds me of how Rome reacted to the Eastern Churches centuries ago and their liturgies. It tried to Romanize them too much and they walked away. It took centuries to heal that rift, a rift that continues still to a large degree...and Rome lost anyway. Sad.

nebrshugyo said...

Kevin57, the Eastern Rite and Eastern Orthodox approach to inculturation is one thing.

Are we dealing with the same sort of inculturation with respect to worship at St. Stephen's and St. Joan's parishes over the last 40 years?

The GIRM is only the most recent expression of the 1,000 year process of inculturation expressed by and within the Latin Rite. Does one parish get to modify based on its comparatively brief encounter with 1,000 years of tradition? The short answer is "No." Otherwise we'll end up with different liturgies at every parish, based on an Internet-speed definition of context and culture.

"One Lord, one Faith, one Baptism" presupposes a common Faith expressed in common worship and common prayer. For a community, for example, to unilaterally change the wording of the Lord's Prayer, privileges a local, time & cultural understanding over the common Faith, worship and prayer of the Church.

Ray from MN said...


Ray, if you don't mind my saying, I think you have control issues. You want everything in the Church to be in a straightjacket.

Kevin how is it that I could have control "issues" when I submit to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. I may not like some of them, but I have no control over them.

Just like when I was in the United States Army. And for that matter, just like it was when I have been a member of or employed by any organization. I agree to submit by their rules or I don't join them.

Archbishops Flynn and Nienstedt have no control over them either. But they do have telephone numbers in Italy that I don't have access to.

You seem to have the "control issues." How is it that you can claim to be a member of a Church with so many rules and practices with which you disagree?

You maintain that the people in the Vatican are "control freaks."

How so?

They told St Joan's to stop having laypeople deliver the homily. St Joan's finally agreed to have their lay speakers give their talks before Mass starts. The chancery agreed with that. Some other minor changes were agreed to. The average person would not detect those changes.

But the folks at St Stephen's, one day that I was present, were having laypeople read environmental poetry at the Epistle, a lay team read the Gospel and delivered the homily, a female lay minister led the service during the "offertory", she "co-consecrated", holding the chalice and the priest who was present was mostly relegated to a chair off to the side. The words said were not those prescribed.

I understand that some of their liturgies have no priest present.

I couldn't quite figure out what was going on. Neither could the chancery and they told them to stop.

And they don't want to stop.

Is that what you want out of your church? A bunch of people making it up just like folks in protestant storefront parishes?

The Vatican allows charismatic, polka, folk, children's, vernacular, Latin, chanted, sung, organ, piano, guitar and who knows how many kinds of Masses. The Church has a dozen or more different rites, many dating back to the earliest days of the Church.

The one thing they require is that the Mass be celebrated by a priest, using the correct words as set down in the General Instructions of the Roman Missal.

The chancery made no comments whatsoever about the peace and social justice ministries of St Stephen's that most people acknowledge as some of the best in the state, if not the country.

It's been recently reported that people in Australia were being baptized with the words "Creator, Liberator and Sustainer" rather than "Father, Son and Holy Spirit" to be more gender inclusive. The Church has declared that those baptisms are invalid and those people will have to be found and re-baptized.

Did that happen at St Stephen's?

Some of that happened at another parish in the archdiocese 15 or 20 years ago.

If the Vatican was really populated by control freaks, they would have "liturgy cops" at every Mass. But they can't and won't do that. They trust their priests and parishioners. Sometimes that doesn't work out.

And remember, nobody locked anybody out of St Stephen's. A bunch of people notified the newspaper and marched to a different building to hold their fake mass. They later said they were just fooling and would continue to attend and support St Stephen's. But of course, the paper didn't report that.

When you have a billion members, it takes time to fix things. With our new Archbishop and extra staffing in the chancery, some of those things are getting fixed.

And St Stephen's will soon be getting a new pastor and let's pray that he, the Parish Council and the parishioners can resolve these issues and the parishioners will again be able to attend a proper Roman Catholic Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

Liam said...

Apropos Ray's comments:

Often in situations like this, the people with control issues are more likely to be those clinging to The Way We Do Things Here(TM). Rubricism is not only a fetishization of rubrics in ritual books; it is likewise a devotion to creative creation of one's own. That's slavery to rubrics, too. A good sign it may be that kind of slavery is when one refuses to budge when lawful authority directs otherwise.

Clayton said...


Pardon the interruption in this thread, but I wondered if you had a chance to see my response to you on the previous thread Greater Understanding. If you want to continue the conversation offline, you're always free to e-mail me.

kevin57 said...


I did indeed catch your response to my post. I did not respond because I thought that Michael did more than an adequate job in that regard.

I would be happy to continue our conversation, but here because I think that the voices of the many increase the wisdom of us all. At the same time, I cannot see much purpose in going much further in our dialogue unless certain premises are adhered to:

1) All must acknowledge that our knowledge as humans is always fragmentary, incomplete, and imperfect. Thus, as claims are made from the authority of psychology, theological or magisterium, it must be agreed that psychology can be wrong, theology can get it wrong, and the ordinary magisterium of the Church can err. This must be recognized.

2) Nevertheless, truth is one. Thus, good theology is good psychology is sound teaching on truth. Those elements must all be interchangeable as well. This must be acknowledged.

3) Your use of terms like "same sex attraction" must go. This term is not used in the realm of psychology and it is not used in church documents. Rather, "gay" (the term gays prefer) or "homosexual persons" which the Church uses are to be employed. "Same sex attraction" has no basis in the two domains of authority most often cited on these pages.

So, Clayton, if you are willing to affirm these three premises, we'll let the conversation roll! I'd look forward to it.

Clayton said...


Did Michael respond to the comment I addressed to you? I missed it.

My comment is still the last thing in the Greater Understanding thread...

Clayton said...


Guess the dialogue is over because your premises are untenable.

I was about to buy premise #1 until I arrived at:
the ordinary magisterium of the Church can err. That is simply not a Catholic position.

Premise #2 is sloppy and untrue. Von Balthasar reminds us that truth is symphonic, not that truth is the sound of a single instrument playing a single note. Psychology is not theology. Theology is not psychology. Neither of these disciplines are philosophy. Each is a distinct science with distinct aims and domains... complementary, to be sure, and when practiced authentically, they all support and inform each other. But theology is queen of the sciences. See John Henry Cardinal Newman's Idea of a University for more on this.

Premise #3 is dogmatic without warrant. The fact is that some psychology does use the term "same sex attraction". What's wrong with an objective term, rather than the political term "gay"? And for someone who believes that the Church can evolve in her teaching, why should she not be allowed to have her vocabulary change from "homosexual persons" for the sake of a greater precision?

By the way, what sort of dialogue is it when one party issues an ultimatum of ideological premises? A dialogue operating on the terms of only one party is really just a monologue with an audience.

Your premises are far from being common ground/first principles. Anyone seriously interested in dialogue starts with common ground, not contentious assertions...

Also, I think the comments box is the wrong place for an authentic dialogue... because there is an audience. Too easy for both parties to turn into ego-driven polemicists.