May 15, 2006

God and Man in the New Catechism Compendium

Online Edition – May 2006

Vol. XII, No. 3

God and Man in the New Catechism Compendium

Reflections on the Use of Generic Man

Forty years after the close of the Second Vatican Council and in the year of the Eucharist, this Compendium represents an additional resource for satisfying the hunger for truth among the Christian faithful of all ages and conditions, as well as the hunger for truth and justice among those who are without faith.  The publication of the Compendium will take place on the solemnity of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, pillars of the Church universal and exemplary evangelizers of the ancient world.  These apostles saw what they preached and witnessed to the truth of Christ even unto martyrdom.  Let us imitate them in their missionary zeal and pray to the Lord that the Church may always follow the teaching of the apostles, from whom she first received the glorious proclamation of the faith.

From Introduction to the Compendium, by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger
President of the Special Commission for the
Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church
March 20, 2005, Palm Sunday

by Father Ralph Wright, OSB

The new Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church that emerged in its English translation at the end of March is a very fine document. The format, the language, the concise way of presenting a comprehensive account of the Catholic Faith that is the CCC is impressive. The Compendium is intended to go with the Catechism, not to be a substitute for it, and cross-references appear in marginal notes. It is designed to be very “reader-friendly”.

The English translation, too, is encouraging. The translators clearly aim to avoid the ideological pitfalls that have affected Scriptural and liturgical translations in recent decades — a situation that required the Holy See’s direct intervention on several occasions.

For example, the Compendium translators, in many instances, appropriately retain the standard English usage of “man” as a collective generic, as it is used in the original Catechism, thereby demonstrating that it is still valid currency in the English-speaking world of the Catholic Church.

But the inclusive (generic) use of “man” is still hotly debated. This is perhaps unsurprising considering the influence — especially in academic circles — of persistent claims that the English language is inherently “sexist” because it lacks a neuter-gender collective noun for the members of the human species; that we must all accept this view of the language; and translators must reflect it in order to be “inclusive”.

A few observations based on my own reading and writing about “generic man” over the last twenty years may provide some useful context.

“Man” made taboo

Back in 1985, in A Feminist Dictionary, authors Cheris Kramarae and Paula A. Treichler began their entry “man as false generic” with the following:

Convention in English of using the word “man” to refer “generically” to people both men and women. Though custom and convention are used to defend this and related usages, sound arguments based on research demonstrate that the claims of generic meaning are false: these words do not include everyone equally.1

This bland dogmatic statement has led many men and women over the last twenty years or so to feel some sort of guilt when they have used the word “man” or its plural “men” to refer to human beings collectively. I believe that this has been a huge deception — whether intentional or not — a kind of smear campaign, not unlike using the term “pro-choice” to conceal a position of neutrality on the morality of abortion.

Why do I believe this? Because “man” in its generic sense of “human being” goes back to the very origins of the English language, more than a thousand years ago. It was the first and original sense of the word “man” before it ever acquired the sense of male human being in contrast to “woman” as female human being. How can a word be a “false generic” if it is the original meaning of the word in the language?

Later the word acquired its second sense: man as distinguished from woman — the male as distinct from the female of the species homo sapiens. Until the past couple of decades, the word “man” in both these senses was accepted in our language, and everyone learned in school how to detect from the context which of the two meanings was intended by the writer or the speaker.

Many English words have several meanings. It is taken for granted that the appropriate meaning will be made clear by the context, and usually this happens automatically. (Consider, for example, the different meanings of the words “earth”, “air”, “fire” and “water”.) This is just the way the language normally works, and its workings are not impenetrable.

I remember reading an account by the celebrant of a Sunday Mass who was deeply upset because the young woman who was serving had to listen to several instances of generic “man” in the course of the service.

The writer felt that the girl should have been profoundly offended by this. It occurred to me at the time that a clarification of the different meanings of the word “man”, the two legitimate and separate senses, would have gone a long way to remove the supposed offense.

He became “human in appearance”?

When the Catechism of the Catholic Church came out in English in 1995, with its direct acceptance of the generic (and genuinely inclusive) sense of “man”, many people, men and women alike, were glad to see that the translation retained this, as the presence of generic “man” in our language and our literature for a thousand years was beyond dispute. But the battle also involved the text for a new Lectionary (which is now coming up again for review by our bishops) — and it continues today over the translation of the new Missale Romanum that that the bishops will be voting on in the near future.

At the time of the first revision of the Sunday Lectionary I wrote an article2 in which the following examples appeared, comparing the original (non-inclusivized) Jerusalem Bible with the new Lectionary version, from the Twenty Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A, Philippians 2:1-11.

If we begin from verse six and look at the text that appears in the original Jerusalem Bible version, we read:

In your minds you must be the same as Christ Jesus:
his state was divine, yet he did not cling to his equality with God
but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave, and
became as men are; and being as all men are, he was humbled
yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross. But God raised him high and gave him the name which is above all other names so that all beings in the heavens, on earth and in the underworld,
should bend the knee at the name of Jesus
and that every tongue should acclaim Jesus Christ as Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Compare this with the same passage in the new Lectionary (p. 830):


Have in you the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus,
Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather he
emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming
obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on
him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and
under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord
to the glory of God the Father.
(emphases added)

Those who recall the historic controversy about whether Jesus was in fact truly Man as well as truly God, will be shaken by the phrases: “human likeness” and “human appearance” (used here to translate the Greek anthropos). This is just the kind of sensitive area where there is really no substitute for the generic use of “man”.

The Word after all did not take on the “appearance” or the “likeness” of human nature, He took our very manhood into His divine nature in the mystery of the hypostatic union, and we believe that He will continue to have that nature for ever.

This is why we say in the Creed that He is now seated at the right hand of the Father. It is most unfortunate that the current version of the Lectionary has not opted for the use of generic man in this context in a way similar to that of the original Jerusalem Bible translation. If it is acceptable to use the generic for phrases such as “the Sabbath was made for man not man for the Sabbath”, and “I will make you fishers of men”, then in this context too the word needs to be used.

One instance of the generic use of man stands out above all the others as something to be defended at all costs: Jesus’ title, Son of Man. The Inclusive Language Lectionary3 (published in 1983 by the National Council of Churches) translates this title as “the human one”.

The validity of the title Son of Man for Jesus is based squarely on the belief that Man is legitimately to be used in a generic sense. It is that conviction that is gradually gaining acceptance and which I believe the translators of the Compendium could have endorsed totally.


Let us look at the text of the Compendium itself. The first chapter is, “Man’s Capacity for God”. Here are some examples of the use of “man” in this chapter:

Section 1. What is the plan of God for man?

God … freely created man to make him share in His own blessed life.

Section 2. Why does man have a desire for God?

God Himself in creating man in His own image, has written upon his heart the desire to see Him.

… God never ceases to draw man to Himself…

By nature and vocation, therefore, man is a religious being, capable of entering into communion with God.

This intimate and vital bond with God confers on man his fundamental dignity.

Section 4.

… In coming to the knowledge of God by the light of reason alone man experiences many difficulties

Section 5.

By taking as our starting point the perfections of man and of the other creatures which are a reflection … of the infinite perfection of God…

The second chapter is titled, “God comes to Meet Man”. But it appears that translators’ uncertainty begins in this chapter, as the word “people” now replaces “men”, as used in the original Catechism:

Section 6. What does God reveal to man?

… all people are to share in the divine life as adopted “sons” in the only begotten Son of God.

The CCC (52) said: God who dwells in unapproachable light wants to communicate His own divine life to the men He freely created in order to adopt them as His sons in His only-begotten Son. (emphasis added)


One of the words that plays a prominent part in the English version of the Compendium is “humanity”. The sense very often seems to be “human nature” and when it is used in this sense it seems appropriate. The following would be examples:

88 Our Lord Jesus Christ … true God and true man … consubstantial with the Father by His divinity, consubstantial with us by His humanity

119 His suffering and death showed how His humanity was the free and perfect instrument of that divine love which desires the salvation of all people.

132 He is the Lord who now in His humanity reigns in the everlasting glory of the Son of God…

But there are some cases when it seems the word “humanity” has been used to replace generic man as it had appeared in the original Catechism:

122 This love … reconciled all of humanity with the Father. The paschal sacrifice of Christ therefore redeems humanity in a way that is unique…

(CCC 613. Christ’s death achieves the definitive redemption of men … restores man to communion with God.)

And again:

50. God’s omnipotence … shows itself in the creation of … humanity out of love…

God did not create the abstract “humanity”, He created “man”. To illustrate the difference we might consider Saint Irenaeus’s famous quote that was so often on Pope John Paul’s lips, and which is retained in the Compendium with its generic sense intact:

53. “The glory of God is man fully alive; moreover man’s life is the vision of God”

Imagine if it had received the replacement: “The glory of God is humanity fully alive; moreover humanity’s life is the vision of God”. You will see what I mean by the statement above that God created “man” rather than “humanity”.

The problem is that “humanity” is not a true collective noun. It also functions as an adjective; it means the quality of being human, like “sanity” means the quality of being sane. An example: the familiar phrase, “man’s inhumanity to man” would be unintelligible if it were rendered “humanity’s inhumanity to humanity”.

It is heartening to find that when scripture is quoted in the Compendium it unflinchingly retains “generic man” :

11 God “desires all men to be saved” (I Tim 2:4)

81 “No other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)

338 “What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder.” (Mark 10:9)

451 “The sabbath was made for man not man for the sabbath” Mark 2:27)

465 “We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29)

593 Since “man does not live on bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4)

There are several cases where “people”, “the human person”, and “humanity” are used in ways and contexts that are unimpeachable. But there are others where one suspects that translating — perhaps through loss of nerve — “human person” substitutes for an original generic “man”.

A Reaffirmation of English

What we do see in this new translation, though perhaps intentionally with no great fanfare, is evidence that ten years after the first appearance of the English version of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, with its frequent use of the generic form of “man”, this meaning of the word “man” is still very much alive in our language. (I counted 46 uses of the generic sense of the words man/men in the Compendium.) It is, quite clearly, deemed entirely appropriate in 2006 for usage in a text that will presumably be used for catechesis wherever English is spoken.

This is a most welcome reaffirmation. One may hope that translations that reflect untainted English, such as in the Catechism and the Compendium, will become a kind of prototype of the “one-language version” of the Missale Romanum called for in Liturgiam authenticam.


1 A Feminist Dictionary. 1985. University of Illinois Press, p. 247; reprinted in 1992 as Amazons, Bluestockings and Crones: A Feminist Dictionary.

2 “Infelicities in the New Lectionary for Mass”, Adoremus Bulletin, November 2000.

3 National Council of Churches, An Inclusive Language Lectionary. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983. Another example of the lengths to which the translators go “inclusivize” Scripture is John 3:16, which becomes “For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Child.”


Father Ralph Wright is a Benedictine monk of the St. Louis Abbey, who teaches English at the Priory School. He is the author of several books of poetry, most recently Christ, Our Love for All Seasons (Paulist). His articles have appeared in Adoremus Bulletin, and he contributed an essay to The Politics of Prayer: Feminist Language and The Worship of God, edited by Helen Hull Hitchcock (Ignatius Press).



Father Ralph Wright, OSB