Dec 31, 2007


Online Edition – Vol. III, No. 9: December 1997/January 1998


By Mary Beth Bonacci

I read the other day that a Roper poll shows that a vast majority of American Catholics don’t really care about "inclusive language". Since the Roper people never asked for my opinion in this particular poll (they never do, for some reason) I thought I’d add my two cents here.

Apparently, many of the people polled cared so little about inclusive language that they weren’t even sure what it was, and had to be told the definition before they could answer the question. I’ll do likewise.

"Inclusive language" is the effort to replace words like "man" and "mankind" with more gender-neutral terms like "human" and "humankind", etc. There are two types of inclusive language in liturgy, horizontal (referring to people) and vertical (referring to God).

In this case, I am voting firmly with the majority. On the most basic level, I have always found such efforts to be awkward, unattractive, and very condescending. I’m not stupid. I know that the term "mankind" refers to men and women. I know that the song "I Will Raise Him Up" isn’t saying that only males will enter the kingdom of Heaven. True story: A friend of mine was in a liturgy meeting where this topic was being argued. One nun said that the term "man" didn’t include her. A priest said, "Sister, if I told you there was a man-eating tiger outside, would you feel safe?"

So why do we go through all of these contortions?

Of course, there are arguments which go much deeper than my personal reactions. There are theological factors to consider. This is especially true where "vertical" inclusive language is concerned. There are people who avoid the use of the personal pronoun "He" in reference to God. It becomes very awkward as they try to just say "God" over and over. ("Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands, for the praise and glory of God’s name, for our good and the good of all God’s Church.") So silly and so unnecessary.

Of course God is not a "guy". God is God. He has no gender and no body. But God has revealed Himself to us, so that we could understand Him in human terms. And that revelation has always been as Father, as "He". Christ (who did and does have a body — a male one) came to reveal the Father to us. And He referred to God as Father. Never Mother.

Never "He/She". The anthropomorphic image Christ gave us of God is that of a Father-figure.

Now what do we know that Christ didn’t?

Why should we try to improve on Christ? Has anyone else "seen" the Father? Why on earth would we try to change His revelations just to cater to our own insecurities? God wants us to see Him as Father.

Fine with me.

There are also theological problems with so-called "horizontal" inclusive language. We can subtly change the meaning of the text. With inspired writings like Scripture, that’s dangerous business. The Old Testament, for instance, prefigures Christ. When the psalmist says "Happy the man who walks in the way of the Lord" he’s speaking on two levels. He speaks of all of us.

But he also is writing about Christ.

When we say "happy is the man or the woman" we’re losing that. Also, when we replace the term "sons" with "children", we get into trouble. They don’t mean the same thing. A "child" is primarily defined as the opposite of an "adult" — a small person. A son is primarily an heir, offspring. I heard this done recently. The reading was Galatians 4: "So through God you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then an heir." The reader changed it to "…you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then an heir."

It sounds like we’re heirs because we’re small people. But the primary problem is that, earlier in the chapter, Paul says "…the heir, as long as he is a child, is no better than a slave … until the date set by his father." He uses the term "child" (small person) very specifically to describe what we were before Christ. We can’t then replace the word "son" with "child" to describe what we are afterward. It makes the whole passage meaningless. When Scripture does use the term "child", it does so for a very specific purpose. "Sons", on the other hand, refers to our status as offspring and heirs of God Himself,whether we are adults or children, male or female.

It would be nice if there were another English word for it, but there isn’t.

Let’s not go borrowing terms that don’t quite fit just to make ourselves feel better.

Mary Beth Bonacci is a syndicated columnist, and author of two books. This essay, originally a column in the diocesan press, is reprinted with permission.



Mary Beth Bonacci