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The Abolition of "Man"

Holy legend tells that when the angels first heard Adam speak they fled in fear. For they had only known the Father ever to speak a Word. Precious indeed is the gift of speech, and especially precious is the Church’s speech during the divine liturgy.

Consequently, one of the more jarring experiences in Catholic liturgical life is to hear the verbal collision when part of the congregation responds using “inclusive language.” Some people respond, “It is right to give him thanks and praise” while others respond, “It is right to give God thanks and praise.” Prayer, the very act that should unite us, is made a source of division. In view of the importance of the Church’s liturgical prayer in the lives of the faithful, such confusion and division is more than a superficial annoyance.

Many faithful Catholics sense a profound problem in the use of inclusive language but are unable to articulate it. This leaves them in the unenviable position of having a strong opinion but not much of a defense. In fact, the term “inclusive language” is itself polemical; the implication is that if you don’t advocate “inclusive” language, you must be in favor of “exclusive” language. “Gender-neutral language” is probably the most irenic and accurate term. I use “inclusive language” because it has become the commonplace.

A distinction is commonly made between “vertical” inclusive language used to refer to God and “horizontal” inclusive language used to refer to created persons. Vertical inclusive language legislates against using masculine names or pronouns for God. For instance, “Creator” or “Redeemer” should replace “Father” or “Son.” Also “God” should be repeated rather than using a masculine pronoun, such as: “God sent God’s child to redeem God’s people.” Another way to avoid a masculine pronoun in the third person is to rewrite it in the second person, as in revision of “God is praised in all his works” to “God, you are praised in all your works.” Still another strategy is to alternate feminine and masculine pronouns or names for God.

Although there are individual cases of vertical inclusive language finding its way into the liturgy in certain parishes and religious communities, it is clearly not the mind of the Church. This is evident in the “Criteria for the Evaluation of Inclusive Language” of the U.S. National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB), approved in 1990:

“Great care should be taken in translations of the names of God and in the use of pronouns referring to God. While it would be inappropriate to attribute gender to God as such, the revealed word of God consistently uses a masculine reference for God. It may sometimes be useful, however, to repeat the name of God, as used earlier in the text, rather than to use the masculine pronoun in every case. But care must be taken that the repetition not become tiresome.

“In fidelity to the inspired Word of God, the traditional biblical usage for naming the Persons of the Trinity as ‘Father,’ ‘Son,’ and ‘Holy Spirit’ is to be retained. Similarly, in keeping with New Testament usage and the Church’s tradition, the feminine pronoun is not to be used to refer to the person of the Holy Spirit” (Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy Newsletter 26, October/November 1990, 232).

The norms for translation prepared by the Vatican for the U.S. bishops in 1997 echoed these proscriptions, adding that “neuter pronouns” must also not be used for the Holy Spirit. The Vatican guidelines added, “There shall be no systematic substitution of the masculine pronoun or possessive adjective to refer to God, in correspondence to the original text” (quoted in Mass Confusion [1998], James Akin, 230).

In 1993, when a Paulist priest in Boston baptized in the name of the “Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sanctifier,” the baptism had to be performed again-or, perhaps more precisely, for the first time. Since vertical inclusive language is not a serious consideration for the liturgy of the Church, let us discuss it briefly and spend most of our time investigating horizontal inclusive language.

Advocates of vertical inclusive language argue that our speech about God is not literal but purely metaphorical. God is incomprehensible, hidden and ineffable to us, and therefore all of our names for God necessarily fall short of God. One name is just as good-or just as bad-as any other. Therefore the unwavering adherence to “Father” and “Son” and masculine pronouns is tantamount to idolatry. Such speech about God enshrines masculine images and makes it impossible for women to relate to God in their personal religious experience.

It is true that God is beyond our comprehension, but it is not true that our names for God are arbitrary. The Trinitarian names are unrevisable because they are not a human application of a symbol to God but rather the very names by which the persons of the Trinity have chosen for us to use regarding them. We are not simply babbling when we speak the names of the persons of the Trinity, which Jesus has revealed to us. Rather we speak literally about the Uncreated God when we say of the first person of the Trinity, “He is Father.” The New Testament bespeaks this confidence forcefully. In the gospels, God is referred to as “Father” one hundred and seventy times while only twenty-two times in the entire Old Testament.

The Scriptures are making a point. God is not a deity behind the revealed God. If he is ultimately not “Father” but “Incomprehensible Mystery,” then revelation did not take place. Because meaningful speech about God is possible and because the names of the Trinity are revealed as a gift to the believing community, revision of “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit” is impossible. We can call God by other names, but no substitution for the revealed personal names of the Trinity could possibly bespeak the intimate relationship that these names do. We do not have the authority or the ability to name God as he is in himself. When Jesus called upon his Father, he was applying a personal name, not a metaphor. 

Horizontal inclusive language seeks to avoid the use of words like “man,” “he,” “his,” and so forth to refer generically to men and women, as in “Man is a rational animal” or “He who hesitates is lost.” The argument is that these terms are exclusive of women and should not be used with the expectation that women will feel referred to by them. To be inclusive of women, the previous examples should read something like, “Humans are rational animals,” “A human is a rational animal,” or “Humankind is a rational animal” and “One who hesitates is lost,” “They who hesitate are lost,” or “He or she who hesitates is lost.” 

The problem being raised is whether or not “man,” “he,” and so forth can function as terms that are not gender-specific. The word “man” has a non-gender-specific form that refers to the human species as a whole. “Man” also has a gender-specific form that refers to a male of the human species. For instance, the hymn “People Look East” uses the non-gender-specific form of man: 

“Angels announce to man and beast,

Him who cometh from the East.”

Here the angel clearly is being called to announce Christ’s coming to members of the human species regardless of gender. On the other hand, the phrase, “A man should love his wife as he does his own body” clearly uses “man” as a gender-specific term. “Woman” is always a gender-specific term referring to female men. 

It is instructive to note that not all noun forms unspecified for gender are masculine when used as gender-specific. For example, when unspecified, the word “duck” refers to either male or female ducks. Yet in a gender-specific case it refers only to female ducks; “drake” is always gender-specific and refers only to male ducks. The same is true of the words “cow” and “goose” (“bull” and “gander” are the respective male-specific forms).

There are two basic positions that advocate the use of horizontal inclusive language for the liturgy. One maintains that the English language has already changed so that “man,” “he,” and so forth are no longer ever unmarked. In ages past they functioned as unmarked but now always as marked. Therefore, to attempt to use “man” as unmarked is an obsolete use of English which is insensitive to women. Let us call proponents of this view “conservative inclusivists” because they assert that they are not attempting to effect change but only to take note of the way things are. 

The second position does not argue that the language has already changed but rather that it should be changed. In this view women are not being slighted by the use of obsolete language but are being oppressed by the prevailing male-dominated paradigm. “Man” and “he” should be avoided, neutered, or statistically balanced with “woman” and “she” as a means of linguistic equality. This position recognizes that “man” is currently used in English to refer to both men and women but considers it abusive. “Man” is not an innocently unmarked term but places women secondary, not deserving independent mention. Let us call supporters of this view “progressive inclusivists” because they are agitating for reform.

With respect to inclusive translations of texts for the liturgy, the conservative inclusivists have by far the stronger case. They have only to prove their position-namely, that the language has already changed and the new Church translations are merely reflecting modern English. Ostensibly, this position would not then be advocating a feminist agenda or attempting to change the way we speak but simply translating texts into the “vernacular.” 

The progressive inclusivists, on the other hand, must argue that the texts of the Church liturgy ought to lead the way in freeing English from oppressive masculine influence. This would involve the task either of proving that standard English did not develop naturally but is part of a greater patriarchal conspiracy to dominate or that, although standard English did develop innocently, it should be discontinued by everyone because it has recently been perceived by some as unfriendly. 

Should they, by no small feat, be able to make either of these cases convincingly, the progressive inclusivists’ difficulties would have just begun. There are significant theological problems with attempting to translate divinely inspired texts with the intention not of communicating the texts themselves literally but of reforming the receptor language at the same time. The Church has a duty to hand on what she has received. The bishops are successors to the apostles, not the evangelists. In handing on the Scriptures, the bishops’ role is to safeguard them, not to “improve” them by sensitizing or sanitizing them. 

Translating with a mind to reform the receptor language subjects the word of God to an ideology and produces a text distorted by extraneous concerns, even if they are good concerns. Such a project would do the Church’s liturgy a great disservice. It would trivialize the liturgy by giving it over to manipulation for ideological ends. A translation of a sacred text should attempt to be transparent, letting the original shine through. It should not detract from the original message by drawing attention to itself, as inclusive language-so controversial and emotionally charged-would surely do. The progressive inclusive language project threatens to use the word of God as a soapbox from which to proclaim its own secondary message. The idea of reforming the divinely inspired texts instead of simply handing them on is contrary to the bishops’ duty.

There are further problems with this project as well. An engineered change in the language of the liturgy will never be at rest. The liturgy will quickly become out of date and will require constant upgrading, like software. This constant revision impugns the sacredness of the liturgy. The eternal worship of the Church would fall prey to colloquial trends. Would the use of gendered pronouns then become a concern of faith and morals? If so, what would that mean for churches speaking in romance languages, with all of their gendered pronouns and adjectives? A language like French would be destroyed by inclusive alteration. If the language has not in fact already changed, then the liturgy of the Church should not be the battleground, even if the inclusive language project is a good one. 

Though the progressive inclusivists may have no case for changing the liturgy, the question raised by the conservative inclusivists remains: Has English already become inclusivized? The argument here that the language has already lost its unmarked references; in normal, everyday language all masculine forms are marked and do not refer to women. 

If this were the case, then two conditions of language usage should be manifest. First, inclusive language should be used spontaneously by everyone, including those who are insulated from inclusivist agendas and taboos-that is, those who care not in the least whether they are inclusive or un-inclusive, who are entirely unfamiliar with the debate. Second, failure to use inclusive language should produce confusion in meaning on account of the use of outdated terms. 

Concerning the first point, television, newspapers, academic journals, and political addresses would not be the place to sample agenda-free language but rather bars, kitchens, and playgrounds. On this critical point, we can see that the inclusive-language advocates have yet to prove their point. In February 1997, the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut surveyed a thousand Catholic Americans concerning the use of inclusive language. (A poll this size is considered reliable to an overall accuracy of within three percent.) The results of the survey, published in the March 1997 Catholic World Report (CWR), revealed the following:

Most Catholics sense no need for new liturgical translations.

The overwhelming majority of Catholics are unfamiliar with the term “inclusive language.”

When the rationale for inclusive language is explained to them, most Catholics reject it.

When asked to choose between two sets of actual Biblical texts-one drawn from a standard translation, the other from a new inclusive-language version-Catholics choose the standard translations by comfortable margins.

The preference for standard English holds for all demographic groups: men and women, old and young people, daily communicants and lapsed Catholics.

The preference for standard English is strongest among the people who adhere most closely to Catholic teaching and practice; it is weakest among those who rarely receive the sacraments and those who reject Church teachings.

“The Roper poll asked respondents to compare four pairs of translations, matching one passage from the New American Bible with new ‘inclusive-language’ renditions suggested for use in the Revised New American Bible or new liturgical texts,” reported CWR editor Phil Lawler. “In every case, the majority of those who expressed a preference opted for the standard English version. Strong preference for the familiar translation hovered between 35 and 50 percent, while strong preference for the inclusive-language version never exceeded 22 percent. Although men were more emphatic than women in their choices, women too chose the standard translation in every case. 

“When asked to comment on the general principles that undergird the case for inclusive language, respondents were even more assertive. By a convincing 71-24 percent, Catholics rejected the notion that terms such as ‘man’ and ‘mankind,’ when used to refer to all people, seem to exclude women. When asked whether the Church should avoid the use of those masculine pronouns, respondents dismissed that suggestion by a resounding 69-21 percent margin. Here too, the responses of women were only marginally different from those of men; women rejected those propositions by margins of 69-26 percent and 69-22 percent respectively” (CWR, March 1997, 46).

Even if the results of the poll are viewed as biased, the fact that there is an ongoing heated debate is problematic for inclusive-language proponents. Even the American press continues to use “man” occasionally in print, radio, and television. This evidence clearly suggests that English speakers are not in peaceful possession of inclusive language.

Admittedly, “man” has lost some of its unmarked uses since ancient times. If a person were referred to today as a “holy maid and wonderful man,” a form that was intelligible in seventh-century Anglo-Saxon, it would be confusing if not downright humorous. This loss of intelligibility indicates a clear development in English and underscores the difference between real settled changes in language and the claims of the conservative inclusivists that today masculine forms can only function as marked terms.

If unmarked masculine forms were truly obsolete, using them should fail to communicate clearly. But this seems not to be the case. For instance suppose a woman visiting a zoo saw a sign on a door: “Do not enter! Man-eating jackals!” Would she be confused about whether or not it applied to her? If such a sign were met with resentment and not confusion, it would show that the language has not changed but is taboo. If the language has indeed changed, there would be not resentment but confusion, possibly humorous confusion on account of unintended meaning. 

Now, suppose a man visiting a zoo saw a sign on a door: “Do not enter! Woman-eating jackals!” He would likely refrain from entering in order to avoid taking a risk, but it would be unclear whether or not he was being referred to by the sign. He would be curious why these jackals were dangerous only to women. The reaction to the sign would be one of confusion and not resentment. 

We speak of God as “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit” because we have received the fullness of revelation in Jesus. “The only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known” (John 1:18). Also we spontaneously use “man,” “he,” and so forth as unmarked terms referring to male and female human beings because the language has not changed so that this usage unintelligible. The sacred liturgy is not the place to experiment with linguistic engineering, even for a good cause. Knowing this may not make the experience of liturgical verbal clashes less painful, but we must live “forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:2-3).


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