Online Edition – Vol. III, No. 8: November 1997
At Last: The Truth Hits Home!
Scripture scholar concedes translators are under "great pressure" from special interest groups.
Throughout the 20-year controversy over inclusive language, proponents of standard English have tried continually to win recognition of a single essential point: so-called ‘inclusive language’ is not a natural, spontaneous mode of speech but a highly artificial jargon with a political purpose. Those who employ inclusive language do so not to make themselves better understood but in order to signal their sympathy for feminism. At root, the dispute over inclusive language has been, and must be, a dispute about whether feminism deserves public sympathy and support.
Many universities, foundations and political organizations are explicit in their advocacy of feminism and have deliberately embraced inclusive language as an instrument useful in bringing about social change in accord with feminist objectives. Predictably, in the 1980s and 1990s, the executive bureaucracies of the liberal Protestant churches, without exception, mandated the use of inclusive language in public worship. The position of the Catholic Church in English-speaking countries has been more ambiguous. On one hand many of her priests and bishops have deep personal sympathies for the political goals of feminists; on the other hand the more consistent and articulate feminists have declared war on the central truths of Christian faith a position not open to Church officials. Consequently episcopal advocacy of feminist means (such as inclusive language) is marshaled and exercised without reference to feminists ends (such as worship of an androgynous deity). There are obvious parallels here with clerical homosexuality and the politics of gay rights, where a politicized sexual agenda is camouflaged by the language of pastoral outreach.
The tactic of combining silence about ends with vocal support for the means to those ends has been extremely successful. So much so, that even some conservative bishops are prepared to back inclusive language translations as a harmless concession to contemporary attitudes. Such bishops resist the implication that they have been sold a bill of goods, and often display resentment toward their fellow Catholics who insist that inclusive language is a Trojan Mare: that is, partisan politics in the guise of innocent linguistic updating.
Confirmation of the central tenet of anti-inclusivists has recently come from a surprising and significant source. Father Richard J. Clifford, S.J., is a high-profile advocate of inclusive language one of the editors of the revised psalter of the New American Bible, which has been rejected by the Vatican precisely because its translators subordinated accuracy to feminist sensibilities. Writing in the August 16th issue of America magazine, Father Clifford confesses:
The difficulty of producing responsible inclusive language texts should be honestly acknowledged by all. Many inclusive language translations today are badly done, reckless rewritings by ignorant amateurs. There is great pressure on translators of the Bible today, not only from proponents of inclusive language but from other groups as well: those who seek renderings of "the Jews" in the New Testament that are accurate without fostering anti-Judaism; those who seek translations for terms relating to disabilities that do not imply a person is wholly defined by a disabilityfor example, "those who are blind" rather than "the blind."
This is an astonishing admission — in fact, coming as it does from one of the persons closest to the project of revising the psalter, it amounts to a concession that the main argument of anti-inclusivists has been right all along. Notice that Father Clifford no longer argues that inclusive language is the natural contemporary idiom of speech, the translator’s normal medium of thought and expression. Rather, there is great pressure on translators to translate in a particular way. Yet pressure is not needed to ensure that someone does what comes naturally; there is no pressure, e.g. for translators to use plural verbs with plural subjects. Further, Father Clifford concedes that this pressure comes from "proponents of inclusive language"a "group" (his word) whose special-interest is advanced by lobbying the translator precisely in order to deflect him from his spontaneous course. This group, moreover, is admitted by Father Clifford to be one of several applying pressure to achieve "politically correct" results. Again, these are not our words about his predicament but his words about his predicament.
Elsewhere in the same article, Father Clifford writes, "Not every sentence of the Bible can be rendered inclusively and still be accurate." But why not? Father Clifford’s statement is right, of course, but it is right because he (inadvertently?) presumes the point his opponents have been making for years: that inclusive language is an arbitrary handicap imposed on speakers, and sooner or later must come into conflict with the natural expression of what these speakers want to communicate.
At the June meeting of the U.S. bishops, Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, singled out Matthew 5:23-4 as an instance where the Vatican’s rejection of inclusive language had negative impact on the translation. This was the version originally submitted to Rome by the American bishops:
Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother or sister has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.
Natural English? Hardly. Outside of a legal brief, no one has ever used the language exemplified above unless he had a pistol pressed to his head. Clearly Father Clifford has it right. Bible translators are under great pressure from special interest groups. The name of the game is appeasementthere is no other word for yielding to outside pressure by placationand what we see in the inclusivized Matthew passage is simply the imprint of this appeasement. The U.S. bishops who went to Rome to argue that such appeasement was part of "a pastorally responsible and accurate translation" did not have a difficult task. They had an impossible task. It would not be surprising if none had the heart to attempt the case when sitting across the table from a biblical scholar with the original Greek open before him. There are limits, even to professional loyalties.
Disciplined logical coherence has seldom been a major concern of feminists or other groups that use the weapon of political correctness to achieve their aims: their goal is not propagation of truth but the accomplishment of social change. Father Clifford’s argument, then, should not be taken as a white flag waved by inclusivists. But he has made a crucial concession, and it is hard to see how his confreres can in the future deny what he has affirmed. It seems that proponents and opponents of inclusive language have, at long last, come to agree on the terms of the debate.
The question facing the Church is: How much mistranslation of scripture and liturgy is tolerable in order to appease advocacy groups? And the answer is obvious.