Dec 31, 2007


Online Edition – Vol. II, No. 9: February 1997


Can Rome Resist Pressure for Language Changes?

by Helen Hull Hitchcock

If the Vatican succumbs to pressure from America, English-speaking Catholics all over the world may be forced to use feminist language in Mass by the end of this year.

Seven American cardinals made a surprising visit to Rome on December 13, 1996, reportedly to urge the Vatican to approve the revised Lectionary for Mass submitted by the US bishops’ conference 4 years ago.

The proposed new books for Mass, the Lectionary (Bible readings used at Mass) and the Sacramentary (Roman Missal) use "gender neutral" language throughout. The revised Sacramentary, which would be used in all English-speaking countries, is not yet in its final form, but is expected to be submitted to Rome for approval this summer. It was approved by the US bishops in November with some amendments.

The cardinals met, at the request of the US bishops’ conference officials, with Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Archbishop Jorge Arturo Medina Estévez, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.(1)

A visit by such high ranking prelates for such a purpose is without precedent. It illustrates rather dramatically the seriousness of the conflict that has developed during the past several years over the matter of translation of scriptural and liturgical texts, and the difficulty the Vatican will encounter in evaluating proposed revisions. It also suggests the American bishops’ desire to present a "united front" on the conflicted issue of translation.

Vatican approval of an "inclusivized" Lectionary would create a domino effect involving many other liturgical texts. In order to approve the revised Lectionary, the Holy See would have to reverse the 1994 decision not to permit two recent Scripture translations to be used in the Catholic liturgy: the Revised New American Bible on which the American Lectionary is based, and the New Revised Standard Version used for the Canadian Lectionary.

If the proposed American Lectionary is approved without substantial revision, a major obstacle to approval of the massive revision of the Sacramentary (or Roman Missal), the work of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy [ICEL].

A. Vatican concession of this magnitude on translation issues would also:

1) pave the way for approval for use in Catholic worship of other even more radical Scripture translations, such as the New Grail Psalter and the ICEL Psalter (the New Grail was rejected by the US bishops in 1993. The ICEL Psalter, published in 1995 with the imprimatur of Cardinal William Keeler, then president of the NCCB, was not presented to the bishops for approval)

2) remove all obstacles to "political correcting" of all liturgical texts, prayers, hymns, etc.

3) sweep away all objections to an inclusivized re-translation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, an objective vigorously sought in some quarters.

What Accounts for the Delay?

The process for approving a Lectionary begins with the submission of a Bible translation for the bishops’ approval; then the texts are selected for the Lectionary using that version of the Bible. The proposed new Lectionary must be approved both by the bishops’ conference and the Holy See.

In the US, the Lectionary generally used is based on the New American Bible. Other translations approved for liturgical use are the Jerusalem Bible and the Revised Standard Version – Catholic Edition.(2) All of these approved versions, however, have been recently retranslated to incorporate feminist language. Of the Bible translations authorized for the Lectionary, only the RSV-Catholic Edition is currently in print in the US. (It is available from Ignatius Press, San Francisco.)

The proposed Lectionary is based on a translation prepared under the auspices of the NCCB, the Revised New American Bible.(3) The main reason for the delay in approving the revised Lectionary is the dispute over the use of "gender neutral" language in texts used for Mass.

The Language Debate

The principal reason for the re-translations of scripture and liturgical texts, mostly done during the 1980s when feminist/liberationist revolutionary influence in the secular world and in the Church had reached a new high, was to purge sexism from the Bible to achieve justice for women and eliminate the "patriarchal oppression" of Christianity.

The International Commission on English in the Liturgy [ICEL], the body that produces translations of liturgical texts for all English-speaking churches throughout the world, had already determined to use so-called "inclusive language" by 1975:

Since 1975 ICEL has pledged itself to the use of "horizontal" inclusive language (referring to the assembly) in all of the texts prepared under its auspices…. Inclusive language on the horizontal level is used throughout the present revision of the Missal.

Over the course of the 1980s, ICEL also studied the question of masculine language used of God … the revisions have avoided the use of masculine pronouns to refer to the First and Third Persons of the Trinity. In both the translated and original prayers an effort has been made to use a larger variety of titles and images for God…(4)

Yet, during the bishops’ intense debates on the proposed ICEL Sacramentary even some of the sharpest exchanges avoided raising the issue of so-called "inclusive language".

Two reasons for the bishops’ silence on the matter are: 1) in 1990, 2 years before the revised ICEL texts were introduced, the NCCB had adopted a set of Criteria (5) to govern use of "inclusive language" in scriptural and liturgical texts, which in effect conceded the claim that feminist language was pastorally necessary, thus preempting objections raised on this issue; 2) there were ample problems with the texts — doctrinal as well as stylistic — that needed repair without bringing up the neuralgic language issue directly.

In spite of the bishops’ inability to discuss the matter openly, the feminist critique of the Scripture and doctrine of the Church, as well as demands for "expanded liturgical roles" for women was a barely concealed leitmotif during the debates on the Sacramentary and the discussion of the proposed Lectionary as well.

The Power of Feminism

In 1994, the Catholic Biblical Association of America board issued a statement after the Vatican’s decision not to allow the two Bible translations to be used for Catholic liturgy:

We consider demeaning the treatment of the American hierarchy in this matter", the statement said. The Vatican action "suggests that the NCCB and its resources are not able to determine what is doctrinally sound and pastorally appropriate…. We further hope that the NCCB will insist that approval of the NAB Lectionary … be expedited. (6)

One of the CBA board members, Bishop Emil Wcela, said he regards "inclusive language" as a normal change in the language, and believes that critics are wrong to suggest that translators have been influenced by feminism. "Radical feminists, for the most part, do not consider themselves to be Catholics", he said.(7) Bishop Wcela, also a member of the NCCB Ad Hoc Committee on the Review of Scripture Translations which oversaw the Lectionary project, was recently appointed to the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy.

In fact, influential feminist liturgists, biblical scholars and theologians had greatly intensified their assault on the doctrine and worship of the Church during the years the revised texts were being considered. Books and articles specifically attacking the language of the "patriarchy" appeared like mushrooms.

One of the most influential and the most rhetorically skillful of these works is by Fordham theologian and president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, Sister Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ, entitled She Who Is. Her highly publicized and prizewinning book was published in 1993, during the heat of the bishops’ debate over the translations incorporating feminist language. Her arguments echo those of other feminist writers, both secular and religious. If there is any thought that feminist critics of the "patriarchal hierarchy" of the Catholic Church could be mollified by a "moderate use of horizontal inclusive language", as a good many bishops evidently hope, all such thoughts would be dashed on even a cursory reading of her book.

Sister Johnson is searching, she says, for "emancipatory speech about God", and finds that "feminist interpretation makes piercingly clear that [biblical texts] as such were written mostly by men and for men in a patriarchal cultural context and reflect this fact."(8)

So oppressive and pervasive is the patriarchical influence on Christianity, she says, that the biblical text must be reinterpreted within the context of "the struggle for emancipation from sexism."

Sister Johnson’s determination to liberate Catholicism from the oppressive patriarchy is so profound that she must feminize Jesus:

Jesus was so closely associated with Sophia that by the end of the first century he is presented not only as a wisdom teacher, not only as a child and envoy of Sophia, but ultimately even as an embodiment of Sophia herself. (9)

Patriarchy so indelibly stains the language, Johnson believes, that there is no way of rehabilitating masculine "metaphors" for God, like "Father", or pronouns like "He". Therefore it is essential, in order to achieve true egalitarianism and justice for women, that entirely new metaphors must be created; and God must now be called "She Who Is":

SHE WHO IS: linguistically this is possible; theologically it is legitimate, existentially and religiously it is necessary if speech about God is to shake off the shackles of idolatry and be a blessing for women. In the present sexist situation where structures and language, praxis and personal attitudes convey an ontology of inferiority to women, naming toward God in this way is a gleam of light on the road to genuine community….

Politically, this symbol challenges every structure and attitude that assigns superiority to ruling men on the basis of their supposed greater godlikeness. If the mystery of God is no longer spoken about exclusively or even primarily in terms of the dominating male, a forceful linchpin holding up structures of patriarchal rule is removed. (10)

But Sister Johnson’s opinions are no more radical than those of Sister Mary Collins, OSB, of Catholic University of America (whom she quotes), or Sister Kathleen Hughes, RSCJ, of the Catholic Theological Union, Chicago, who co-authored a feminist lectionary called Silent Voices: Sacred Lives.

Both Collins and Hughes are longtime members of ICEL, and Collins was project director of the ICEL translation of the book of Psalms. The ICEL Psalter was begun in 1978.

In her 1992 Introduction to the Psalter, Sister Mary Collins wrote:

Translation according to principles of dynamic equivalence raised questions about gendered language in the psalter. Where do women stand in the story of salvation?… Was it God or the story-telling men of the Hebrew peoples who marginalized women at Sinai? Who is the mysterious God whose name, made known to Moses, could not be pronounced, and to whom Israel’s leaders gave other names and titles not canonized with the biblical text?(11)

The translators decided to free God from the patriarchy. The ICEL Psalter was submitted to the Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine in 1993 for an imprimatur.

"At that point the text was entirely free of gender-exclusive pronouns for God. Before the imprimatur was granted, however, the committee insisted that translators use male pronouns for God in a very few places", wrote Gabe Huck in the Forward. "The intention of [ICEL] is that this text be evaluated and revised before the end of the 1990s." (12)

Though the Psalter was never submitted to the bishops for approval for use in the liturgy, it is being promoted for this purpose by Liturgy Training Publications of the Archdiocese of Chicago. That it is not permitted for use in the liturgy clearly frustrates the intention of the translators.

"Because this translation is intended for contemporary liturgical use", wrote the late biblical scholar Father Carroll Stuhlmueller in the Psalter’s Afterword, "it follows the principles of dynamic equivalence, rather than formal equivalence."(13)

The Psalms, Father Stuhlmueller continued, "reflect the prayer of the temple liturgy that was voiced by an allmale [sic] assembly", and the Psalter translation "ought neither impede nor distort the good news of God’s all-inclusive embrace by using discriminatory language", so the generic "he" of the psalms and canticles are changed, words like "man", "sons", "brethren", "forefathers" are avoided, and "in order to deal with direct references to God’s name several strategies" have been used. On the other hand, the personification of Zion may be "integral to the imagery and meaning of the psalm", so the feminine metaphor is left intact.(14)

Justification for changing language for God (so-called "vertical inclusive language") is provided, Father Stuhlmueller observes, in the NCCB’s 1990 "Criteria".

Clearly, a "moderate use of horizontal inclusive language" in the texts proposed for Catholic liturgy is not the ultimate objective of liturgical reformers. "Vertical" cannot be separated from "horizontal", as the advocates of the new translations perhaps unwittingly admit.

What is "Dynamic Equivalency"?

One focus of the language controversy is the "dynamic equivalency" theory of translation. After the Council, when Latin texts were being translated into the vernacular, a document known as "Comme le prèvoit" (1969) provided guidelines for translation which advocated "dynamic equivalency".

The principle of "dynamic equivalency" allows great freedom to the translator to interpret what he believes the original writers intended to say, and to render this meaning freely, to make it more intelligible or acceptable to people who speak a different language and live in a different culture or historical period.

The job of the translator, according to this theory, is not simply to transmit the original meaning of a text from one language into another as transparently as possible, but rather to decide what the "dynamic equivalent" of a text would be if it were written today. This principle, in essence, justifies re-phrasing, changing or even eliminating not only words, but entire concepts that the translator judges would not be adequately understood by the target audience. The translation can become virtually a paraphrase.

Critics of the new Lectionary and Sacramentary translations believe the "dynamic equivalency" principle allows far too much freedom for the translators to indulge personal opinions and preferences, not only to control the style of the text, but to alter the content and meaning as well. The original text thus becomes vulnerable to the ideological bias of the translators — to feminism, or liberationism, for example.

The principles of translation, then, are not merely an arcane concern of linguists, especially when sacred texts are involved. Those who have raised questions about the effect this theory has on the revised texts for Mass include some of the cardinals who went to Rome.

There are at least three interrelated areas of concern involving the theory of translation employed: 1) concern about preserving the sacral language of texts used for Mass; 2) concern that the theological and doctrinal meaning of the inspired text of Scripture and traditional Mass texts remain unchanged; and 3) concern about the beauty of the words of worship.

Finally, and underlying these other concerns, is the problem of feminism’s rejection of "sexist" language and the "patriarchal" religion of the Catholic Church.

Further Complexities

Since the Lectionary for the US is produced under the authority of the American bishops, other national bishops’ conferences are not involved in seeking Vatican approval for the proposed Lectionary. By contrast, the ICEL Sacramentary revision involves eleven other national conferences, each of whom must approve the texts.

But the dispute over translation of biblical texts is not just an American problem. A similar dispute involving the Canadian Lectionary came to light in 1994 when the Vatican rejected both the American Revised NAB and the New Revised Standard Version for liturgical use.

The Canadian bishops had already published a Lectionary based on the NRSV without submitting it to the Vatican for prior approval. Because their books were already in print, Canada was granted temporary permission to use this Lectionary, but only until the translation controversy is resolved. It is not permissible to use the Canadian Lectionary in any other country.

Although the approval process for the Sacramentary is separate from the Lectionary, in the US both processes involve the bishops’ committee on doctrine, as well as the liturgy committee. The liturgy committee supervises the ICEL Sacramentary, and the doctrine committee reviews the work of ICEL before the texts are presented to the conference for vote. The Ad Hoc Committee for the Review of Scripture Texts is responsible for the Lectionary.

Further complicating the procedures, the NCCB committees involved tend to have interlocking memberships. For example, Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati is chairman of the doctrine committee as well as president of ICEL’s Episcopal Board (15), and Bishop Emil Wcela, auxiliary of Rockville Centre, is a member of the Ad Hoc Committee, as well as the bishops’ liturgy committee and the board of the Catholic Biblical Association. Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, a former chairman of the liturgy committee was then appointed to the doctrine committee.

Few bishops other than those directly involved in the retranslation projects are able to follow all the complexities of the processes, and this hampers the bishops’ ability to evaluate the many proposals for liturgical changes and new texts.

Some bishops wonder why the so-called "secret norms" for translation of the biblical texts devised by the Vatican after a first round of talks between American and Vatican scholars have never been made available to other bishops.

Bishop Wcela, in a 1995 interview, complaining of the delay in approving the proposed Lectionary, said that "no one knows what the rules of the game are" in Biblical translation done under Church auspices.(16) But Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, chairman of the bishops’ liturgy committee during the ICEL Sacramentary process, told reporters last June that he now believes it is better to keep the "secret norms" secret.

Bishop Trautman also linked the fate of the ICEL Sacramentary to the approval of the proposed Lectionary. He told reporters last November that he did not expect approval of the Sacramentary to come soon, considering the problems encountered with the Lectionary project. Although conference procedures for revising a Lectionary do not require the same scrutiny by the other bishops as the ICEL revisions, it is significant that so many bishops proposed hundreds of amendments to the ICEL proposals despite the confusing process.

The reported unanimity among all seven cardinals on the language of the proposed Lectionary is mysterious, especially considering the intense debates which surrounded the proposed revision of the Sacramentary.

Some of the cardinals, notably Cardinals Hickey, Bevilacqua and O’Connor, submitted many amendments to the proposed texts. In fact, they have argued vigorously (though often vainly) for amendments rejected by the Bishops’ Committee on Liturgy.(17) Their arguments have raised theological as well as pastoral questions about the ICEL texts. Similar problems would apply to the proposed Lectionary.

It seems likely that some of these problems surfaced in the confidential Vatican discussion in December. Perhaps the cardinals’ reported "unanimity" was less a a desire for the proposed Lectionary than for the Holy See’s active intervention to resolve the conflict.

What Will Happen?

Will the Vatican withstand pressure to accept the Lectionary and with it the principle of inclusivizing all liturgical texts? Will they feel at a disadvantage when confronted with what may seem to be a cultural or pastoral problem confined to the English-speaking Church? Possibly. But Cardinal Ratzinger and Archbishop Medina Estévez are undoubtedly aware that similar pressure for liturgical change and "inclusivizing" now affects other languages and other countries as well. It is far from clear that the Vatican has been persuaded.

Significantly, no announcement following the meeting indicated approval for the Lectionary is imminently forthcoming. In fact, there will be another delay. Still another consultation between American and Vatican scholars and officials will take place early in 1997.

If reports of the cardinals’ unanimity in favor of inclusivizing Catholic worship are accurate, this shows that the advocates of the feminist agenda for the Church are a force of unparalleled power in the Church in the US, despite the fact that secular criticism of aspects of feminist ideology is increasing and resistance to coerced "political correctness" in language is becoming widespread.

It would be deeply ironic if the Catholic Church were to be pushed aboard a band-wagon just as its wheels are about to fall off. (In fact, the urgency of liturgical reformers to get the new texts approved may reflect their fear that delays are not in their favor.)

Beyond the irony, if the worship of the Catholic Church is overwhelmed by feminist ideologues, this would have disastrous implications not only for Catholics, but also for other Christian churches in the West that have resisted — or are working strenuously to overcome — a destructive feminist agenda.

In 1993, Pope John Paul II cautioned a group of US bishops that liturgical prayer should be: "…free of ideological influence and doctrinal ambiguity".(18) Since the national conference was unable to accomplish this, many bishops — and many thousands of Catholics — now rely on the Holy See for help — and hope.


1 The meeting was requested by the Administrative Committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and its president, Bishop Anthony Pilla of Cleveland. Those who attended were John Cardinal O’Connor of New York, James Cardinal Hickey of Washington, Anthony Cardinal Bevilacqua of Philadelphia, Bernard Cardinal Law of Boston, Roger Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles, William Cardinal Keeler of Baltimore, and Adam Cardinal Maida of Detroit ­ all of the cardinals who are active ordinaries of US archdioceses.

Vatican officials included Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, secretary of the CDF; Archbishop Geraldo Agnelo, secretary of the CDW, and Father Mario Lessi-Ariosto, SJ of the CDW. Cardinal Law is also a member of the Congregation for Divine Worship, as was the late Cardinal Bernardin.

2. One other translation has been given temporary approval, a "Children’s Lectionary", based on the Contemporary English Version of the American Bible Society. Approved by the bishops in 1991, the Children’s Lectionary was approved by the Vatican as an option for Children’s Masses only for a three-year experimental period in 1993.

3. More precisely, since a revision of the NAB Old Testament has not yet been published, the proposed Lectionary draws on the Revised New American Bible New Testament (1986) and Psalms (1992), with changes made in the NAB Old Testament text.

4. Introduction, Third Progress Report on the Revision of the Roman Missal, ICEL, 1992. p 10.

5. "Criteria for the Evaluation of Inclusive Language Translations of Scriptural Texts Proposed for Liturgical Use". The Criteria appended Nine Principles for Preparing Pericopes from the New American Bible for Use in the Lectionary for Mass, which gave instructions for selection of texts and use of language sensitive to sex, race, religion and disabilities. Texts of the Criteria and Nine Principles are in The Politics of Prayer, ed. Helen Hull Hitchcock, San Francisco, Ignatius, 1992. Appendix B.

6. Statement of the ten-member board of the Catholic Biblical Association quoted in Origins, November 10, 1994, p 376.

7. "Biblical Association queries Holy See on delayed translations" Long Island Catholic, August 9, 1995.

8. Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ, She Who Is, 1993, New York: Crossroad, p 76

9. Ibid. p 95

10. Ibid. p 243.

11. Mary Collins,OSB, Introduction to the Psalter, originally published in Worship, July 1992, reprinted in Psalms for Morning and Evening Prayer, 1995, Archdiocese of Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, p xxxv.

12. Gabe Huck, The Psalter, 1995, Archdiocese of Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications. Forward, ix.

13. "…The key to a dynamic equivalence translation is a more acute awareness that a modern receptor language expresses the thought, nuances, and presuppositions of its society in modes that are often different from those of ancient societies. Thus, while a formally equivalent translation seeks to render closely the distinctive structural and semantic characteristics of the source language (for example, grammatical and rhetorical structures, word order, tense, number and gender markers, literal translation of idioms not found in the receptor language), a dynamically equivalent translation seeks … to communicate as closely as possible the very content of the psalm or canticle to an English-speaking audience [so] ancient rhetorical structures and grammatical forms must be adapted to English modes of expression." Carroll Stuhlmueller, CP, The Psalter (op cit supra, Afterword, p xxvi]

14. Ibid. p xxx, ff.

15 . The American bishops’ conference is by far the most influential of of the eleven national bishops’ conferences who are members of ICEL. The NCCB provides about three-quarters of the annual ICEL budget.

16 . Interview in Long Island Catholic, August 9, 1995.

17. The liturgy committee makes the decisions about which of the bishops’ amendments to the translations and revisions proposed by ICEL will be accepted or rejected. During their semi-annual meetings, where the ICEL texts are subject to debate and vote, a bishop may request special consideration of any rejected amendment.

18. AAS 9 September 1994, Vol LXXXVI, N.9, p.755



Helen Hull Hitchcock

Helen Hull Hitchcock (1939-2014) was editor of the <em>Adoremus Bulletin</em>, which she co-founded. She was also the founding director of Women for Faith & Family and editor of its quarterly journal, Voices. She published many articles and essays in a wide range of Catholic journals, and authored and edited <em>The Politics of Prayer: Feminist Language and the Worship of God</em> (Ignatius Press 1992), a collection of essays on issues involved in translation. She contributed essays to several books, including <em>Spiritual Journeys</em>, a book of “conversion stories” (Daughters of St. Paul). Helen lectured in the US and abroad, and appeared frequently on radio and television, representing Catholic teaching on issues affecting Catholic women, families, and Catholic faith and worship.