Online Edition – Vol. II, No. 3: May / June 1996
The Inclusive Language Balancing Act
Ideology Threatens to Topple True Translation
by K.D. Whitehead
At a liturgy conference in Los Angeles in October, 1995, the Chairman of the US. bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy (BCL), Bishop Donald W. Trautman of Erie, Pennsylvania, cited as an example of “good news for liturgists good news for all of God’s people” the fact that, his words, “scholars … are at work revising the New American Bible Lectionary so that it will have a balanced use of horizontal inclusive language.””Inclusive language”, as feminists originally defined it, is language that is specifically intended to include women by excluding generic masculine forms such as man/men/he/him, which are held by feminists to “exclude” women. (In standard English, of course, these forms already do include all human beings when used in certain contexts, that is, they do not exclude women, as all English speakers easily and naturally understand). Contemporary liturgists have recently made a distinction between “horizontal” and “vertical inclusive language”. “Horizontal” is said to refer to relationships between human beings, whereas “vertical” denotes relationships between human beings and God . The meaning of “balanced”, in this context, is not abundantly clear, but it has a more positive connotation than “unbalanced”.The phrase about a balanced use of inclusive language is evidently an important and meaningful one for Bishop Trautman, however, since he twice used the same phrase in a brief letter he wrote on September 5, 1995, to all the American bishops in his capacity as Chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy. In this letter he warned his fellow bishops about The New Testament and Psalms An Inclusive Version, published in 1995 by Oxford University Press (OUP). This new Protestant translation, in his view, features a decidedly unbalanced use of inclusive language.The OUP Inclusive Version, Bishop Trautman informed his fellow American bishops, is “a most irresponsible translation that offends the doctrine of the Church and the revealed truth of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” This translation, he added, “eliminates all references to God the Father. The Lord’s Prayer begins ‘Our Father-Mother in heaven'”. The OUP editors, he concluded, “have done a great disservice to biblical scholarship and the need for a balanced use of inclusive language.” (emphasis added)The leap from scoring off obvious excesses perpetrated in the name of inclusive language in the OUP Bible, to speaking about the “need” for the very kind of language responsible for these excesses came without any transition or explanation. But Bishop Trautman underscored his point by repeating the phrase in later the letter.
“In some instances the [OUP] translation is not based on the inspired text and even adds words not found in the original. In my opinion, it is not so much a translation as a rewrite based on contemporary political and social ideologies. This new version represents a radical and extreme reaction to the need for a balanced use of inclusive language. Without question it is a distortion of the inspired word of God.” (emphasis added)
Now, it was a very welcome development that the chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy found it necessary to issue a warning concerning the dangers and excesses of inclusive language. For in the view of many knowledgeable observers, all of the strictures contained in Bishop Trautman’s letter, and more, could readily be applied to many other translations employing inclusive language, including those advocated by his committee.This kind of feminist-inspired language, it has been cogently argued by more than a few observers, is nothing but a highly artificial construct dictated by a fundamentally anti-Christian modern radical ideology. It may sometimes seem to have acquired status as now acceptable English usage, at least in some quarters, but this is mostly because of the enormous, relentless, and continuing pressures of feminist ideology in our contemporary society.But the commitment to “inclusivize” any translation inevitably distorts the meaning. At the simplest level, the translator who renders “they” where the original says “he” has already mistranslated something in the text before him; rendering “human being” for “man” only compounds this basic problem of inaccuracy. It is the translator’s responsibility to render what is there, what the original text actually says, and to do so in standard English. Nor is this just a question of preferring rote, literal translations over supposedly more sophisticated renderings that convey the sense rather than merely giving the words. The fact is that it is inclusive language itself which is generally not standard English and is immediately recognized as artificial by normal English speakers, hearers, or readers.Almost all of the devices and practices common in inclusive language translations regularly resort to the practices so sharply criticized by Bishop Trautman in the OUP Bible. Among these are adding “words not found in the original”; and producing a “rewrite based on contemporary political and social ideologies”. Further, knowledgeable critics of inclusivized translations have steadily warned of the always very real danger that “all references to God the Father” would be eliminated. Such blasphemies as “Our Father-Mother in heaven” are not really any surprise, once feminist claims are accepted, and once it has been conceded that inclusivizing inspired texts can in fact be legitimate. This point has been forcefully argued by Benedictine Father Ralph Wright, for example, that “if you discard ‘man’, ‘God’ goes too.”Why is Bishop Trautman is so concerned about the OUP Bible? Clearly not because of objection to inclusive language as such. The Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy (BCL) which he heads promotes and defends inclusive-language translations of the Roman Missal currently being produced by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL).In the latest segment of these ICEL Missal revisions, approved by the bishops at their meeting in November 1995, the text is thoroughly inclusivized. As summarized by CREDO:
“Man/mankind: homines appears 19 times in the Latin text of Segment 4. ICEL translates the word as ‘humanity,’ ‘humankind,’ ‘our race,’ ‘human family,’ ‘human race,’ ‘us’ or ‘our,’ ‘all those,’ ‘all,’ ‘man and woman,’ ‘the living,’ ‘neighbor,’ ‘the world,’ ‘truly human,’ and ‘your people’s.’ ‘Man’ as a universal term or ‘mankind’ never appears in the texts. In many cases, the sentences have been significantly recast in order to accommodate a gender-neutral term.”True God and man: Deum et hominem referring to Christ appears once in the texts of Segment 4. ICEL translates Deum et hominem as ‘truly God and truly human’ rather than the traditional ‘God and man.'”Brothers/brethren: Fratres appears 21 times in the Latin texts of Segment 4; it is translated brother once (because it pertains to Christ); the rest of the time it is translated ‘brothers and sisters’ (12 times); ‘neighbor’ (2 times); ‘them’ or ‘those’ (3 times); ‘all’ (1 time); ‘relatives, friends, and benefactors’ (1 time); or not translated (1 time). Additionally, fratres carissimi [dearest brothers] appears 7 times and is translated ‘brothers and sisters’ 6 times.”
If this is the translation Bishop Trautman and the BCL favor, then what was so disturbing about the OUP “Inclusive Version”? Possibly that this “radical and extreme reaction” might be viewed as a harbinger of things to come might give the whole inclusivist translation business a bad name before the BCL and ICEL succeed in imposing it on the liturgy of the English-speaking Church through their revisions of the Roman Missal and lectionaries?Until now the American bishops, with depressing regularity, have provided the required two-thirds majority vote for proposals of their liturgy committee and ICEL. Like assemblies or legislatures practically everywhere, the members, preoccupied with many things, simply go on rubber-stamping what their committees produce. Aren’t their committees of fellow-bishops reliably expert even though the bulk of their work is actually done by staff? Few bishops have time to read the hundreds of pages sent them, much less to scrutinize them critically. This is the way things usually work in all bureaucracies including the U.S. Congress. Aides draft the laws; actual members may never read them.As Bishop Trautman assured the liturgy conference in Los Angeles, “scholars are at work revising the New American Bible Lectionary,” And ICEL experts are revising the Roman Missal. (One cannot help wondering where we would be if Jesus had committed the integrity of His revelation to the scribes of His day, the acknowledged experts in the study of the Scriptures…)But then, suddenly, in the midst of all this humming official activity, the OUP, a publisher unaffiliated with the BCL or ICEL, comes out with its own Bible revision. It is a text that is so bad (or merely so premature, in that it does no more than carry inclusivist translation principles to their logical conclusion) that it is evidently feared it may finally reveal all inclusive language revisions to be “radical and extreme”.
From Whence the Clamor?
What is “balanced” inclusive language? How does it differ from the inclusive language which even the Chairman of the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy finds excessive in the “Inclusive Version”? No criteria are offered as to how this kind of usage is to be “balanced” or what it might be balanced with.It is hardly clear that the case for inclusive-language has ever really been made, or, for the most part, even argued, in any general or public way within the Church. The supposed need for it seems to have come from the secular culture , although it is no secret that feminists within the Church have clamored most vigorously for “reform” of the “sexist” language of Scripture and the liturgy for years. The ICEL has been committed to the concept of inclusivism since 1975; and, in 1985, a BCL document referred to inclusive language as if were a quite natural and presumably fully completed “cultural development of the English language”.In 1990, the U.S. bishops adopted a set of “Criteria for the Evaluation of Inclusive Language Translations of Scriptural Texts Proposed for Liturgical Use” proposed by their liturgy committee. How this, or any, national conference of bishops had the authority to tamper with and perhaps even to change what Scripture manifestly says when translating it was not explained. The fact that the American bishops adopted such Criteria would seem to indicate that the legitimacy of inclusive-language translations was already taken for granted by many. There is no evidence that the topic was ever thoroughly discussed by the bishops’ conference as a whole.The Criteria, while properly referring to the need for vernacular translations of the texts used in the liturgy, present the use of inclusive language as an already accomplished fact in our English-speaking culture. In the words of the Criteria:
“- Some segments of American culture have become increasingly sensitive to “exclusive language,” i.e., language which seems to exclude the equality and dignity of each person regardless of race, gender, creed, age, or ability (emphases added).”- There has been a notable loss of grammatical gender in American usage of the English language (emphasis added).”- English vocabulary itself has changed so that words which once referred to all human beings are increasingly being taken as gender specific, and, consequently, exclusive.” (emphasis added)
All these points are presented as purely factual and descriptive in the Introduction to the bishops’ Criteria. But in fact, there has not been any loss of grammatical gender in modern standard English, nor has English usage generally been changed, except in some specialized cases, to accommodate feminist demands for “non-sexist” language.The Criteria also fail to specify what “segments of American culture have become increasingly sensitive to ‘exclusive language'”. It would have been more accurate to say that a doctrinaire and determined radical feminist movement has tried very hard to bring about the situation described in the bishops’ Criteria; but it is not accurate to say that their goal has been accomplished, as the Criteria imply; nor do the Criteria say why the demands of this particular “segment of American culture” should be accommodated.It is accurate to say that many people have been made to feel uncomfortable by the feminist “segment” when they have used the words “man” or “he” in the generic sense to refer to everybody, or even to refer to God. In some circles, strenuous efforts have been made to employ femspeak consistently, for example in educationese or government bureaucratese, where absurd and monotonous “hes and shes” proliferate like weeds. But in ordinary speech, even ardent feminists often lapse. It is probably impossible to speak this way consistently; try it yourself.Furthermore, the Criteria’s attempt to link the alleged injustice of excluding people by “gender” with exclusion also by race, creed, age, or ability is, again, a pure importation from a decadent and confused modern secular culture. (In fact, this is one of the principles employed in the OUP Bible condemned by Bishop Trautman.) How does language, inclusive or otherwise, exclude people by race, creed, age, or ability? Are these things included in the bishops’ Criteria in order to validate the feminist claim that “sexism” is equivalent to “racism” as an injustice and moral wrong? Could these Criteria also imply that Catholics, for instance, should drop their own Creed if the non-believing “segment of American Culture” feels excluded by it?
Feminist Pressure Continues
Feminist pressure to force general acceptance of their imperatives regarding language probably peaked in the 1970s and 1980s. This objective succeeded in being taken with surprising seriousness in some rather unusual circles (such as, Catholic liturgical circles!). But it cannot be demonstrated that there has been any real “loss of grammatical gender in American usage” or that “English vocabulary has changed,” as the bishops’ Criteria uncritically assert.In fact, today the heyday of inclusivism shows more than a few signs of running down, and criticism of such “political correctness” now appears with increasing frequency even in secular journals.The undeniable fact is that, even after the enormous feminist pressures that have been exerted, hardly anybody, not even feminists themselves, uses inclusive language naturally and effortlessly when writing or speaking. And when it is attempted, the results, almost without exception, are stilted and graceless instantly recognizable as simply “not English”. The misbegotten inclusive-language translation of The Catechism of the Catholic Church provided ample proof of this, if added proof were needed.On the day these lines were being written, a Washington political reporter, writing about the current federal government budget stalemate, quoted the advice political advisor Dick Morris was supposed to have given to President Clinton, urging the latter to stick to his guns: “He who defines first, defines last”, this political advisor reportedly told the president.Evidently, even Mr. Clinton did not blanch at the normal English use of the generic pronoun. And it is most unwise to imagine that English speakers have stopped, or are going to stop, “doing what comes naturally”, just because feminists claim that women are excluded by standard English.Are they excluded or not? There is not a single dictionary of the English language published today that does not include “human being” as one of the accepted definitions of “man”. This is true even of those dictionaries that, responding to feminist pressures, have moved the definition of an “adult male human being”, rather than “a human being” into first place among the meanings of the word.And this has been the case since English first emerged as a language more than a thousand years ago. As anthropologist Suzanne Scorsone has pointed out, “the English language has always, from the earliest days of which we have any written record, used the word ‘man’ in two senses. Always there have been the generic (equivalent to the Latin homo) and the male gender-specific (equivalent to vir)... This double use of ‘man’ is not a source of confusion; it rather carries important nuances of meaning which cannot be conveyed by any alternative phrasings.”Can anyone honestly argue that women have been “excluded” throughout all the thousand plus years that English has been spoken? Can women tolerate such an idea? Must we now revise the entire canon of literature in English in order to remedy this supposedly faulty usage?In short, “inclusive language” is required neither by sensitivity to women’s concerns feminists do not speak for women in any collective sense nor by the imagined injustice that standard English allegedly does to women.More than that, it is scarcely “pastoral” for the Church to attempt to impose systematic and far-reaching changes in scriptural and liturgical language on all of God’s people in English-speaking countries merely because “some segments of American culture” and hardly those most noted for their authentic Catholic faith and practice claim to feel excluded by standard English usage. What about the surely much larger segments of American culture made uncomfortable if not actually offended by the new translations?The bishops’ Criteria refer to the fact that some people are engaged in what the document calls “impromptu efforts at inclusive language”. The Criteria thus seem intended to address what the bishops acknowledge is unacceptable improvisation in the liturgy.But any improvisation in the liturgy of whatever kind was already clearly forbidden (Sacrosanctum Concilium, #22). Ironically, the Criteria effectively justify and regularize the very abuse and defiance of the liturgical norms of the Church caused by improvising feminist language. This can scarcely be deemed either “pastoral” or “balanced”.
In early 1993, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) declined to approve an inclusive-language English translation of The Catechism of the Catholic Church, and instead commissioned a translation of the Catechism in standard English. In the light of this development, many observers concluded that inclusive-language revisions were going to be in for some pretty rough sledding in Rome. This conclusion was strengthened when, as reported in the press in October 1994, the Holy See had rescinded earlier approval of the inclusive-language New Revised Standard Version of the Bible (NRSV) and the Revised New American Bible (RNAB) New Testament and Psalms.[Ed. note: The NRSV was used in the new Canadian lectionary, and the American bishops planned to use the RNAB in a revised lectionary. See related story in the March 1996 issue of the Adoremus Bulletin.]In the view of many of those who have examined it, the NRSV Bible a revision of the Revised Standard Version by the politically leftist National Council of Churches is really almost a caricature of a translation rather than a translation as such. The culprit is once again the translators’ exclusive commitment to inclusivism. The NRSV renders Mark 1:17, for example, as: “‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” The expression “first-born among many brethren” of Romans 8:29 becomes the absurd “the first-born within a large family.” And so on, and so on. Bad as the translation of this NRSV Bible is, however, the RNAB is even more problematic.It was an extraordinary move on the part of the Holy See to ban these translations, which had not only been approved earlier by a Vatican congregation; but also by more than one national hierarchy. Rome’s usual practice is to ratify what any national hierarchy has approved. So when Rome actually banned the NRSV and the RNAB for use in the liturgy of the Church, despite strong protests from some members of the American and Canadian hierarchies, the presumption could only be that there were some serious doctrinal problems involved.This interpretation was strongly re-enforced when, in August 1995, after translation consultations involving American bishops and the Vatican’s officials and scholars, the CDF issued “secret norms” to be used for the translation of biblical texts. These “norms” were not made public, it was explained, because they were still considered “provisional.”[Ed note: The March 1996 issue of the FDLC Newsletter published by the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions announced, without explanation, that a new Lectionary for Mass, prepared by the Bishops’ Committee on Liturgy and “revised according to the norms” has been “presented in Rome”.]The issuance of new translation “norms” surely indicates that Church authority at the highest level has at long last become alerted to the dangers to the faith inherent in inclusivist English translations. It will indeed be ironic if the integrity of the English-speaking Church’s worship of God will have been preserved through the perception by non-native English speakers in Rome of what feminist language does to Catholic faith and worship.However, it would be both premature and unwise for those who recognize the necessity for sound and accurate translations in the Church’s liturgy and worship to conclude that the fight against inclusivism has been won. So far, the US bishops continue to approve successive segments of the inclusivized revision of the Roman Missal. Indeed, Bishop Trautman seems tranquilly confident, as he told the liturgy conference in Los Angeles in October after Rome had rescinded the NRSV and RNAB translations and issued its “secret norms” that our future English liturgy will nevertheless include what he calls a “balanced use of horizontal inclusive language.”Bishop Trautman was among those American bishops and biblical scholars who were publicly very critical of the Vatican’s disapproval for the liturgical use of the NRSV Bible. “Inclusive language is a necessity in our American idiom and culture today”, he said. “It is necessary in Scripture, in the liturgy, and in catechetics.”Is it possible that a Bishop Trautman’s surprisingly severe criticism of the Oxford University Press “Inclusive Version” of the New Testament and Psalms may help sell a balanced use of feminist liturgical language to the Vatican authorities who must approve the ICEL revision of Roman Missal currently in progress?Having already aroused the ire of some American bishops by insisting on a corrected Catechism translation, as well as by the withholding of approval for liturgical use of the NRSV and RNAB Bibles, the Vatican congregations may understandably be anxious to approve anything they can approve that issues from the English-speaking bishops’ conferences. If that is the case, it is to be hoped that Rome will now require a much fuller and more rigorous discussion than has taken place to date of how even a “balanced use of horizontal inclusive language”, may erode the Catholic faith.K. D. Whitehead is the translator of 19 books from French, German, or Italian, and is co-author of the forthcoming book Flawed Expectations: the Reception of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which Ignatius Press will publish in 1996.
1 Bishop Donald Trautman, “The Quest for Liturgy Both Catholic and Contemporary,” Address to the Annual Liturgy Conference of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, October 27, 1995, in Origins: CNS Documentary Service, January 11, 1996.
2 See, for example, the essays collected in The Politics of Prayer: Feminist Language and the Worship of God, Helen Hull Hitchcock, Editor, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1992.
3 See Ralph Wright, OSB., “Generic Man Revisited”, in Ibid., especially pages 95 and 105.
4 CREDO Newsletter, October 1995.
5 See Hitchcock, Introduction to op. cit., Note #2 supra, especially pages xlii-xliv.
6 The U.S. bishops’ Criteria for the Evaluation of Inclusive Language Translations of Scriptural Texts Proposed for Liturgical Use are included in toto as Appendix B in Ibid., Pages 327-336.
7 The Washington Post, January 19, 1996.
8 Suzanne R. Scorsone, “In the Image of God: Male, Female, and the Language of the Liturgy,” in Hitchcock, Ed., op. cit., Note #2 supra, pages 229 & 234.
9 See “Vatican Rejects NRSV Bible for Liturgical, Catechetical Use,” in Arlington Catholic Herald, October 27, 1994.
10 Bishop Trautman’s letter.
11 Bishop Donald Trautman, loc. cit., Note #1 supra.
12 See “Vatican Ruling against Bible Text Draws Criticism”. in Arlington Catholic Herald, November 10, 1996.
13 Bishop Donald Trautman, “The Quest for Liturgy Both Catholic and Contemporary”, Address to the Annual Liturgy Conference of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, October 27, 1995, in Origins: CNS Documentary Service, January 11, 1996.
14 See, for example, the essays collected in The Politics of Prayer: Feminist Language and the Worship of God, Helen Hull Hitchcock, Editor, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1992.
15 See Ralph Wright, OSB., “Generic Man Revisited,” in Ibid., especially pages 95 and 105.
16 Loc. cit., Note #2 supra.
17 See Hitchcock, Introduction to op. cit., Note #3 supra, especially pages xlii-xliv.
18 The U.S. bishops’ “Criteria for the Evaluation of Inclusive Language Translations of Scriptural Texts Proposed for Liturgical Use” are included in toto as Appendix B in Ibid., Pages 327-336.
19. The Washington Post, January 19, 1996.
20. Suzanne R. Scorsone, “In the Image of God: Male, Female, and the Language of the Liturgy,” in Hitchcock, Ed., op. cit., Note #3 supra, pages 229 & 234.
21. See “Vatican Rejects NRSV Bible for Liturgical, Catechetical Use,” in Arlington Catholic Herald, October 27, 1994.
22. Cited in Credo , loc. cit., Note #2 supra
23. Bishop Donald Trautman, loc. cit., Note #1 supra.
24. See “Vatican Ruling against Bible Text Draws Criticism,” in Arlington Catholic Herald, November 10, 1996.