Dec 31, 2007


Online Edition Vol. IV, No. 2: April 1998


ICEL’s Strategies for "Shaping English Liturgy"

by Kenneth D. Whitehead

We might imagine that the days of feminist-inspired "inclusive language" in scriptural and liturgical texts would be numbered now that the Holy See has turned back ICEL (International Commission on English in the Liturgy) translations such as the recent

Rites of Ordination of Bishops, Presbyters, and Deacons

(See "

Vatican Rejects Ordination Ritual



Dec 1997-Jan 1998); and, especially, since the Holy See has recently put in place interim Norms for the Translation of Biblical Texts for Use in the Liturgy (hereafter "Norms"–



July-Aug 1997


These Norms quite explicitly exclude some of the worst practices of feminist influenced translators, such as referring to the Holy Spirit as "she" or "it", avoiding the use of "he", "his", or "him" when referring to God or Christ, or systematically translating masculine singular nouns and pronouns by shifting to the plural.

However, there still remain not a few problems connected with "inclusive language", at least one of them being, of course, how to gain acceptance of and secure compliance with the new Norms. These Norms remain far from universally accepted just because Rome has produced them.

Even the debate at the US bishops’ meeting in June 1997 concerning the approval of a new Lectionary text — a text supposedly modified as a compromise in accordance with these same Norms — indicated that some American bishops seem to be far from reconciled to the modification, much less to the elimination, of "inclusive language" in liturgical and scriptural texts.

Archbishop William Levada

of San Francisco, one of the authors of the modified, "compromise" Lectionary text that was finally approved by the bishops, continued to claim that the new version was "an updated, inclusive language text". This characterization was sharply disputed by former Liturgy Committee chairman

Bishop Donald Trautman

of Erie, Pennsylvania, who declared that the compromise Lectionary text had been "substantially and radically altered, rendering it no longer an inclusive language text".

The substance of this dispute cannot be decided, of course, until the full text of the revised Lectionary is available for more careful examination (Volume One has now been approved by Rome); but it is not without significance that these bishops, both of whom were familiar with the text, were arguing about the degree of "inclusive language" in the revised text, not about the more fundamental question of whether there should be


inclusive language at all in the Church’s liturgical and scriptural texts.

More than that, many bishops seem to have voted for the compromise revision of the Lectionary primarily to avoid further dispute on the issue. The bishops agreed to revisit the Lectionary revision in five years’ time, which certainly indicates that the question is not considered closed. As

Archbishop Elden Curtiss

of Omaha argued, at least the compromise text represented "some attempt at inclusive language, some improvements". He added: "In five years there will be at least a chance to try to improve the text".

Cardinal Bernard Law

of Boston expressed his sympathy with "those who have spoken of feeling angst, given where we find ourselves". Acceptance of the compromise text, even provisionally, would put the bishops "in a better position" with the Holy See in future negotiations, according to Cardinal Law. Plainly, the idea of future negotiations on inclusive language has not been ruled out.

And if this is what many of the bishops are still thinking and saying, we do not need much imagination to guess what most professional liturgists and scripture scholars are saying.

In short, the long-running dispute in the Church concerning inclusive language is not over yet. The Vatican’s Norms for the translation of Scripture texts do reflect a view that inclusive language inevitably distorts the Church’s faith and doctrine, in addition to the inelegance and even grossness and clumsiness it necessarily introduces into the Church’s liturgy, worship, and

lectio sacra

. Nevertheless there surely remains a long way to go before the principles enunciated in the Norms, excellent as they are, will be respected and followed in the United States as a matter of course. At present there is resentment at the Vatican’s "interference" in matters of English liturgical translation.

How did this whole vexed question of "inclusive language" come to loom so large in the Church, or get fastened so securely in the minds of so many of our leaders, scholars, and experts, many of whom persist in believing there is a pastoral need for inclusive language even in the face of evidence that the faithful largely do not like and do not want it?

The answer to this question lies at least in part in the power and influence that radical feminist ideology exerts in our society generally. Many leaders in the Church seem to have uncritically taken in feminist ideas and imperatives almost with the air that they breathe; and hence neither argument nor evidence — nor even the authority of the Holy See — any longer avails to dislodge from their minds the conviction that inclusive language is "needed".

In view of all this, it is worth taking a concrete look at how inclusive language came to be accepted and promoted in liturgical translations in English.

ICEL Shapes the Language of Liturgy

The story of how inclusive language actually got into liturgical translations in English is not without interest. Even some of its critics are probably largely unaware of how inclusive language came to be adopted by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL), the group that has been responsible for most English-language liturgical texts since the Second Vatican Council.

The story is told in one of the contributions to the volume published by ICEL in 1990,

Shaping English Liturgy

. Edited by long-time ICEL members

Peter C. Finn


James M. Schellman

, the book was published by the Pastoral Press in Washington, DC, in honor of South African

Archbishop Denis Hurley

, who for many years was chairman of ICEL’s Episcopal Board. The volume remains an invaluable source book for anyone attempting to understand the views of the group which has produced most of the liturgical texts in English.

This "shaping" of the liturgy in English has not been the result of any secret conspiracy, by the way, contrary to what some Catholics might sometimes be tempted to believe. The process that was followed has been candidly, indeed, proudly, laid out, in this book, among other places, for anyone who is interested in discovering how we got to where we are in English-speaking lands, liturgically speaking.

The fact that ICEL has adopted inclusive language is adverted to by a number of the contributors to the volume. Always, when this subject is alluded to, it is simply taken for granted that there no longer could be any liturgy in English in our society which did not employ inclusive language. This assumption is never seriously argued or demonstrated. It has simply become part of the conventional wisdom in these circles. ICEL quite naturally adopted it, one of the authors notes, because of what he calls "the androcentric character of English usage as a reflection of the androcentric nature of society in which women have been treated less equally as a rule".

The tale of how ICEL came to adopt inclusive language is recounted by a man who describes himself as "a participant in the work of ICEL on inclusive language from 1977 to 1987". He is

Dr. J. Frank Henderson

, identified in a biographical note as an active liturgist who has been chairman of Canada’s National Council for the Liturgy and editor of the

National Bulletin on Liturgy

north of the border. During his tenure with ICEL, he has been a member both of the organization’s Advisory Board and of that Board’s subcommittees on translations and on "discriminatory language".

Dr. Henderson’s general orientation on issues can perhaps best be summarized by the following sentence: "The Holy Spirit has been rediscovered in Western theology,and it is now appreciated that our tradition has applied both feminine gender and feminine images to the Spirit".

Whose tradition, one might well ask? "Applied" by whom? "Appreciated" by whom? How — one might equally well wonder — can "feminine gender and feminine images" be predicated of the Spirit that "came upon" Mary (Lk 1:35) in order that she might conceive?

It is most disconcerting that such a basic misunderstanding of the Christian revelation could be held by a "liturgical expert" who is an integral part of the team placed in charge of the translation of the official texts of the Church’s worship. It is true that Dr. Henderson wrote this particular sentence concerning the supposed "feminine gender and feminine images" that could be applied to the Holy Spirit years before the Holy See expressly excluded precisely such ideas in one of its Norms for translation. Nevertheless, it is still disturbing — and it shows why the Norms were necessary.

ICEL and Inclusive Language

The chapter contributed by Dr. Henderson to Shaping English Liturgy, entitled "ICEL and Inclusive Language," informs us that "ICEL has consciously and intentionally implemented principles of inclusive language since l975". This was a full decade before the American bishops, for example, attempted to institute the use of "inclusive language" officially (


, recommendations in various drafts of their pastoral letter on "women’s concerns"). During this time, ICEL was able to institutionalize the use of inclusive language in its liturgical translations, not only in the face of continuing skepticism or even opposition of some of the English speaking bishops’ conferences.

In fact, ICEL’s success in promoting inclusive language provides a classic example of how an entrenched, permanent bureaucracy, even a relatively small one, can implement its agenda, regardless of the actions or intentions of its supposed leaders — in the case of the ICEL, precisely the national bishops’ conferences of English-speaking countries, whose approval is required for the texts ICEL produces.

There is really not very much mystery about how bureaucracies do this: they stay focused on their objectives. Bureaucrats are careful never to lose sight of their ultimate agenda even in the face of setbacks, which usually turn out to be temporary. When the governing boards or entities with oversight over the bureaucracy in question vote down a particular initiative, the bureaucrats simply switch to another related initiative, meanwhile holding their first in readiness to be re-introduced at a more auspicious moment. Once inclusive language was adopted as a principal ICEL agenda item, it became just a matter of tactics, timing, and persistence before all the various bishops’ conferences would invariably end up acceding to what ICEL wanted.

Thus, for years, according to Henderson’s own account, the ICEL staff promoted isolated changes to ICEL’s original translations in order to make them more "inclusive". These piecemeal changes were often opposed, not only by the English-speaking bishops’ conferences, but even by the ICEL’s own Episcopal Board and Advisory Committee. The staff people just kept on trying anyway, as Henderson’s narrative shows. This persistence eventually succeeded in convincing just about everybody in ecclesiastical circles that "inclusive language" in English-language liturgy is necessary.

As Henderson describes it, the first step in this process was taken in August, 1975, when the ICEL Advisory Committee was persuaded to make an organizational commitment to the use of inclusive language. This commitment was couched in the following words:

The Advisory Committee recognized the necessity in all future translations and revisions to avoid words which ignore the place of women in the Christian community altogether or which seem to relegate women to a secondary role.

Shifting the Paradigms

The language employed here is indicative of ICEL’s basic working assumptions: standard English "ignores the place of women", presumably if women are not specifically mentioned; or "seems to relegate" women to a secondary role, regardless of the genius of the language in question, or of the intention of those who use it. Principles based on this assumption miss the essential point that standard generic English usage, as it has been universally used and understood by speakers of English for approximately the last one thousand years, in certain well-understood contexts already


women — and children too for that matter. Standard English does not "relegate" anyone to any place, except in the minds of aggrieved feminists and those influenced by them.

All that is necessary to verify that the generic use of the word "man" (and related pronouns and cognates) is still valid in English speech and writing, and, indeed, could not intelligibly not be valid, is to look up "man" in any standard dictionary of the English language. Even after decades of relentless feminist pressure, all English dictionaries without exception still list "human being" as one of the meanings of "man". It is not true, as feminists claim, that the word "man" is generally understood as referring only to males.

Dr. Henderson avers that ICEL’s 1975 statement of commitment to the use of "inclusive language" became "the benchmark of all further ICEL work on liturgical texts". He remarks that neither the origins of the 1975 statement, nor the discussions which surrounded the adoption of this "benchmark" by the ICEL Administrative Committee, have been preserved for the record. He adds, significantly: "It is of interest that this commitment to the use of inclusive language preceded precise definition of the issue, extensive study of principles, analysis of texts, or formulation of possible courses of action".

In other words, the ICEL experts adopted "inclusive language" essentially because they wanted to. Apparently, they did not see any need of definition, study, analysis, or other work which would justify their opinions. They knew what they wanted; feminist ideology alone provided the rationale. Study and analysis came later — and predictably reached the desired conclusion that "inclusive language" in the liturgy was necessary and proper.

That this ICEL commitment to inclusive language was based on feminist ideology alone, and not on any real and verifiable changes in English usage, is indicated by subsequent ICEL statements Henderson quotes, statements made in connection with ICEL’s study of the question after the fact.

Tactic of Intimidation

In a policy adopted by the ICEL’s Advisory Committee [AC] in November, 1977, for example, the notion that the normal use of standard English entails discrimination against certain segments of the population is simply asserted. ICEL evidently assumes what it should have been obliged to prove. Justifying its "inclusivist" policy, the statement says that "the AC considers the issues of sexist, racial, and anti-Semitic discrimination to be of particular urgency".

Now in our contemporary "politically correct" atmosphere, the loaded term "sexist", like its companion term "racist", is almost always deliberately intended to intimidate and to elicit, if not actual guilt, then at the very least nervousness about possible accusations of guilt for acquiescence in today’s sins of racism or "sexism". Use of these charged terms almost always secures immediate immunity from criticism for those who use them to describe others, because nearly everyone today is fearful of being charged with possible "discrimination".

How an organization established to translate liturgical texts from Latin into English became involved with racial or sexual discrimination may seem puzzling; but the fact that the ICEL did get involved, and adopts concepts such as "sexism", clearly indicates that ICEL basically accepts the the coinage of feminist ideology, a radical ideology of the political left which grew out of the radical counter-cultural movement of the 1960s.

It has been claimed that "inclusive language" must be enforced as a simple matter of justice for women. But the idea of "inclusive language" is a highly artificial construct which has been consistently and systematically promoted by an organized ideological movement for the past thirty years. Feminism has proved to be very strong in secular society, of course, where no Gospel truths stand in the way of its adoption.

How feminism can be thought compatible with a Church that appeals to the Gospel, however, is one of those contemporary mysteries that has not yet found a satisfactory explanation. Ideological feminism consciously reduces human relationships to power relationships; the feminists in the Church make no bones about wanting the "power" which they believe bishops and the priests unfairly possess; yet it often seems to be the bishops and the priests who seem least critical of the hostility that is nevertheless directed squarely towards them and their functions in the Church.

English Declared a "Failure" for Women

Still other similar statements quoted by Dr. Henderson continue to assume what still needs to be shown, namely, that mere language usage actually does "discriminate". A 1980 ICEL Advisory Committee statement, for example, speaks of "the failure of much liturgical and theological language adequately to recognize the presence of women". This "failure", the statement declares, "seems effectively to exclude them from full and integral participation in the life of the Church".

If this claim were true, then it would seem that women have not "participated" in the life of the Church for a couple of millennia now — presumably until modern radical feminism came along in our day to demand their "full participation". This will no doubt come as a very great surprise to a huge number of Catholic women today — surely the vast majority of them, in fact — just as it would have been as great a surprise to any previous generation of Catholic women, including especially the canonized saints among them.

Such are the assumptions which feminist ideology brings to discussions of the Church’s liturgy and worship. We might have imagined that merely to state such ideology-driven propositions would have sufficed to effect their instant refutation and rejection by the Church. However, in today’s world so much under the sway of feminist ideology, at least for the moment, such statements actually pass muster in policy documents of the Catholic Church’s English-translation agency and form the basis of the "inclusive-language" policy ICEL has been following since 1975 and is still trying to follow.

ICEL’s "Guidelines"

In his account Dr. Henderson describes how ICEL steadily continued to promote "inclusive language" even though a survey of the English-speaking bishops’ conferences conducted by ICEL in 1976 revealed that there were no complaints about standard English generic usage in the liturgy — except a for a few in the United States and Canada. The ICEL staffers refused to be discouraged even when several pro-"inclusive-language" papers commissioned by the organization in 1977, in order to "educate" (Henderson’s word) the ICEL Advisory Committee, were actually rejected by that committee. Not to worry: He writes, "By


the Advisory Committee and

going beyond

what it as a body was able to agree with at the time, its members were helped to progress further in this area" (emphasis added).

The ICEL staff were apparently quite adept at "going beyond" what their Episcopal Board or Advisory Committee was "able to agree with at the time". Dr. Henderson comments about other recommendations that were rejected, and at one point he writes that "the subcommittee’s recommendations were never adopted explicitly, but only


through acceptance of the final subcommittee report. "However", he adds, "they have been extensively implemented

in practice

(emphasis added).

What were intended by ICEL to be definitive "Guidelines for Non-Discriminatory Language in Liturgy" drafted in l978 were not approved as an official ICEL statement at first. But then, after discussion and revision, these Guidelines were approved for "circulation", accompanied by an introduction and questions, as what Dr. Henderson calls "a tentative or interim document".

In the peculiar world of liturgical translations, however, "interim documents" approved only for "circulation" apparently have a way of becoming permanent. In this case, what emerged in 1980 was an ICEL "Green Book" (draft) containing an introduction, the full texts for all Eucharistic prayers then approved re-translated by ICEL using inclusive language, a Statement of Principles, and a bibliography. The original "tentative" and "interim" Guidelines evidently became the Statement of Principles in this Green Book.1

However "tentative" all this was originally supposed to be, the "inclusive language" Eucharistic prayers in this Green Book have apparently not been approved by Rome to this day. It nevertheless appears that the Statement of Principles in question, now entitled "The Problem of Exclusive Language with Regard to Women", has governed everything the ICEL has done since 1980.

This Statement of Principles is quite definite in rejecting out-of-hand what continues in the English-speaking world to be standard usage. "It is no longer acceptable to use this type of language in liturgical texts", the Statement declares flatly. It says a number of other things about the absolute need for inclusive language in the liturgy in English today, and even goes so far as to hold that such passages from sacred Scripture as found in Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3, which preach "subjection of wives to husbands" "

may have to be deleted from liturgical use

" (emphasis added).

We cannot but wonder how ICEL, an entity set up to


liturgical texts, reached the point where it could presume to


texts of Scripture from the official worship of the Church.2

Dr. Henderson’s account, published in 1990, does not describe ICEL’s most recent projects, such as revision of the Order of Marriage or other works in progress.

It is not clear, either, that the 1980 Statement of Principles for "inclusive language" has official status, or that it was ever endorsed as such by any English-speaking bishops’ conference. It would certainly appear to go well beyond what the US bishops did approve in the

Criteria for the Evaluation of Inclusive Language Translations of Scriptural Texts Proposed for Liturgical Use

, adopted in November 1990.

What seems to be clear, though, is that ICEL has consistently followed in its translation work the principles enunciated in this 1980 Statement. Entire liturgical books have thus been translated in this way, approved, and are now in use:



The Order of Funerals

issued in 1985, ICEL’s

The Psalter and Psalms for Morning and Evening Prayer

, published by Liturgy Training Publications (Archdiocese of Chicago) in 1995. Furthermore, the entire revised Roman Missal (Sacramentary), which now awaits approval by the Vatican, appears to have been re-translated following the 1980 principles.

It is far from clear, at present, that ICEL’s "non discriminatory" translation principles have been effectively superseded by the Holy See’s Norms applied to the last revision of the proposed new translation of the Lectionary, or by the principles enunciated in the September 1997 letter of the Congregation for Divine Worship rejecting the ICEL revision of the ordination ritual that had been approved by the us bishops’ Administrative Committee in March 1996. [See "

Vatican Rejects Ordination Ritual



Dec 1997-Jan 1998.] In any case, it is clear that the message has not penetrated to many of those who produce texts for use in the liturgy, as a glance at the lyrics of many hymns and very recent prayerbooks using the ICEL "inclusivized" Psalms and prayers strikingly reveal.

We can hope that most American bishops approved the "inclusivized" liturgical texts more out of resignation than conviction. Although it is by now apparent that Rome will look more carefully and critically at ICEL’s proposals for revised translations than a majority of the American bishops did, it is still a cause for dismay that such strategies as ICEL employed could ever have convinced so many American bishops that "inclusivism" is an "urgent pastoral need" for the Church’s official liturgy and worship.

Reflecting on ICEL’s process of "inclusivizing" the language of liturgy, we very seriously hope for a more reliable means of producing liturgical translations in the English language for the Catholic Church.

Kenneth D. Whitehead is co-author of

Flawed Expectations: The Reception of the Catechism of the Catholic Church



, 1995), which contains a chapter on the original inclusive-language mistranslation of the Catechism.


Editor’s Note:

Sister Kathleen Hughes

mentions ICEL’s 1980 "inclusive language guidelines" in her essay "Original Texts: Beginnings, Present Projects, Guidelines", also in

Shaping English Liturgy

. Her essay includes ICEL’s guidelines for composition of original texts (not translations) for the collects and other prayers, including No. 14:

"The prayers should use inclusive language and avoid the use of language which may discriminate on sexist, racist, clericalist, or anti-Semitic grounds". (pp. 279, 280)

Sister Kathleen, who teaches liturgy at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, served on ICEL’s Advisory Committee from 1980-87, and was chairman of ICEL’s subcommittee on original texts, states that the

ad hoc

subcommittee on discriminatory language developed an inclusive language policy. ICEL’s guidelines on inclusive language may be found in

Eucharistic Prayers,

a study booklet incorporating inclusive language into the nine approved eucharistic prayers and including a statement of ICEL’s inclusive language rationale. The source is

Eucharistic Prayers: For Study and Comment

by the Bishops of the Member and Associate Member Countries of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, Washington: ICEL, 1980, pp. 63-67.


Editor’s Note

: In her essay in

Shaping English Liturgy

, "Some Criteria for the Choice of Scripture Texts in the Roman Lectionary",

Sister Eileen Schuller, OSU,

gives ICEL’s rationale for excluding from the Lectionary Scripture texts feminists find objectionable. She asks, "Are there grounds for omitting such texts which are either misogynist either in and of themselves of liable to be interpreted as such?" In a footnote Sister Eileen states that "Many contemporary unofficial translations of the Lectionary have suggested substituting other passages for those texts that are offensive to many women", and gives examples of "lectionaries" which have used this principle.

Sister Kathleen Hughes (see note 1


) is a co-author of

Silent Voices, Sacred Lives: Women’s Readings for the Liturgical Year,

published by Paulist in 1992.


Kenneth D. Whitehead