Inclusive Language

The common practice of English historically has been to use male nouns and pronouns (man, mankind, he) when referring collectively to human beings, regardless of sex. In recent decades some feminists have claimed that this is offensive to them, as it represents a "patriarchal worldview" in which men are superior to women. Through their media influence they have effectively ended such use in publishing, academia, television and movies, as well as in common speech. Within the Church, through the well-oiled machinery of dissent, the rejection of such "non-inclusive" language has been applied to the use of male terms in connection with God. 

Whether in the secular arena or in the Church, almost no resistance has been offered to this forced development of language, and few are even aware of what is at stake, seeing it only as a matter of fairness to women. Thankfully, the Holy See has resisted the tide and clearly drawn the lines between what is an acceptable use of inclusive language and what is unacceptable. Acceptable use would include those collective expressions for human beings which today a speaker or author would be expected to use, such as "ladies and gentleman" or "brothers and sisters". It is unlikely that any one would use "brothers" or "brethren" for a mixed audience today. Thus, there is nothing wrong in principle to this kind of horizontal inclusive language.

What is unacceptable to the Magisterium, however, is the use of inclusive language in collective terms for human beings which have an anthropological significance, or, in terms for God or Christ (vertical inclusive language). The collective term man, for example, is both a philosophically and theologically appropriate term for the human race. Just as there is a certain precedence within the Trinity, by which the Father is God, the Son is God by generation and the Holy Spirit is God by spiration, Sacred Scripture reveals that an image of this Trinity of equal Persons in God is reflected in the creation of woman from man. Adam (which means man) is a man, Eve is a man (since she shares his nature), and each of their descendants is a man. This expresses equality, NOT inequality, as feminists claim. Whatever injustices men have perpetrated on women through the millennia, Adam's sin is the cause, not God and His wise created design.

So, human nature is called man or mankind, and each human person is a man, just as the divine nature is called God and all Three Persons are God. (The sexual distinction is expressed as male and female, though man and woman also does so. Even these contain implicitly the evidence of the origins of woman from man in the economy of creation.)

The problem with vertical inclusive language with respect to Christ is similar. Destined to be the New Adam Christ is prophetically anticipated in certain Hebrew texts which play on the word adam as both the name for the human race and the name of the first member of that race. A good example, which can be a test of a text to see if it has objectionable inclusive language, is Psalm 1. It should read "Happy the man who follows not the counsel of the wicked" (or similar). Inclusive language versions will replace "man" with "one" or "mortal" or some variation. The Holy See has rejected this as contradicting the messianic references to Christ implicit in the text, where man refers not only to David the author of the psalm, but back to Adam (the man) and forward to Christ (Son of David and Son of Man).

Finally, the use of vertical inclusive language for God is likewise unacceptable. No one should understand that God is male or female. He is not. God is pure spirit, whereas masculinity and femininity are the properties of animal bodies. In man these bodies are united to a soul, and thus we can also speak of spiritual characteristic of men and women - a way of loving others, for example, that is characteristic of women, versus men, and vice versa. Such spiritual characteristics, whether of men or women, must be rooted in some way in God, who is the source of all good. Thus, in the Old Testament the love of God for his people is sometimes referred to as a "womb-love" (rahamim), a clear reference to the love of a mother for her child. Similarly, Jesus in the New Testament speaks of wanting to take His People under His wings like a mother hen. Thus, Scripture shows us, and the Church teaches, that all that is good in man and woman, save the purely material sexual distinctions proper to bodies, comes from the Author of all that is good. 

However, is this a warrant to speak of God as Father and Mother, and to avoid the use of male terms with respect to God (Father, Son, Him, He etc.)? While it is certainly just to speak of what is motherly or feminine in God, in the sense described above, it is nonetheless certain that God has revealed Himself in a certain way and that we must first respect His sovereign decision, and second try to understand it. One of the difficulties is that as the debate has gone forward, it has become clear that many Catholic feminists do not respect the Word of God, but see it the word of men re-enforcing an unjust patriarchal order. Since this overthrows Divine Revelation's authority, and many dogmas of the faith with it, it cannot and should not be dialogued with or accommodated in any way. Certainly, the Holy See has taken that stance. Unfortunately, many others who do not intend such a vast rejection of Tradition have been duped into believing in the bias of translations and the influence of patriarchy on the transmission of Revelation in the Church, and so need a good explanation of the reasons for the usages of Scripture and Tradition.

A direct understanding of God is not accessible to human reason. Spirit cannot be perceived or tested experimentally, and so God must speak in analogies familiar to our experience. In choosing which analogs to use in reference to Himself He chose those most suitable within creation. Unlike the Shamrock of St. Patrick, which has a certain similitude to God, there was and is nothing more suitable for explaining God than the creatures He made in His image and likeness, both as God and as Trinity. Thus, He chose the human race to explain Who He is. Man is both the creature in the visible creation most like God, and the creature most understandable to man.

Image of God in the Nature of Man

The closest likeness to the spiritual nature of God in the visible creation is the human soul. The spiritual nature of the soul gives to man the capacities to reason and to choose, to know and to love. This is why God made Adam governor of Eden and told him to name the other creatures. In giving Adam a wife God made her a helpmate in these tasks, as she too, having the same human nature as Adam (unlike the other animals), is suited to this collaboration. It should be noted that this work is in the first place a spiritual work, knowing  creatures, especially their natures and ends, and willfully directing them to God's purposes. In the creation in which Man lives, however, this cannot be separated from the need for a body. Thus, although the image of God is  primarily said of the soul of human beings, the body of Man has been so designed as to serve the soul and the special place of Man in creation. Unlike God, without a body Man cannot accomplish what has been given to him to do. Thus, both man and woman have been equipped with the primary faculties needed for this work (intellect and will), and with bodies which complement each other in the multitude of different tasks which must be done in life.

Image of God in the Differentiation of the Sexes

God is not a solitary nature but a Communion of Persons. As noted above, the Processions of Persons (Father generating  the Son, and Father and Son spirating the Holy Spirit) is reflected in the order of Man's own creation. "Let us make man in our image and likeness. Male and female he created them"  (Gen. 1:26). God made the representative type Man (Adam) first, and then differentiated Man into two kinds, male and female, by creating Eve. With respect to the likeness of God's divine nature in Man, man and woman are equal. Thus, Adam is the representative type because of his humanity, not his maleness. However, with respect to the order of creating, as a created analogy to the order of procession within the Trinity, there is a first and second. Adam is analogous to the Father in coming first, Eve to the Son in coming second. Within God this is not a sexual distinction, the Eternal Word is not male or female in the divine nature, but God from God. Rather, it is an order of the procession of life and love. The Father gives life and love to the Son, and the Son returns both infinitely and perfectly, which can only be a Divine Person, the Holy Spirit. 

God's taking woman from man emphasizes in the first place, therefore, a fact about God's own interior Life. It then establishes a reality about Man - there is to be an orderly procession of life and love within human nature, as there is in God. This is made possible in human nature by the distinction of the sexes and a complementarity of psychology and body suited to the perpetuation of human love and life in this world. These bodies, male and female, are therefore particularly equipped to pro-create and nurture human life to maturity. The psychology and body of a man enables him to give life and love actively in a manner analogous to the First Person of the Trinity in generating the Son, but also analogous to God's creating the universe outside of the Godhead. On the other hand, the psychology and body of woman allows her to receive, nurture and herself communicate life and love, analogous to the Second Person receptively then actively loving and giving life, as well as the creation receiving life from God and nurturing it within.

So, in giving human nature this created order, an order which in our embodied existence includes a common nature, as well as male and female, God not only stamped us with an image and likeness of His own nature and the Trinitarian Communion, but gave us a means and a language to understand Him. The use of male terms (Father, Son, He, Him etc.) are not statements about the masculinity of God, but ways to understand from our experience of ourselves, imperfect as we are, what are essentially spiritual realities. If God's self-revelation is perverted, then both our understanding of God and ourselves is changed, as well. When God is named Mother (and a name speaks of what is of the essence of a thing), God is turned into an earth goddess of which we are but a part (panentheism). This is, in fact, what New Agers believe, and sadly some Catholics. On the other hand, as Father He is the transcendent Creator. Likewise, if there is no order in creation between man and woman, then the Church's sexual and marital teaching is not valid. Not surprisingly, there is a close connection between the ideological foundations of feminism and those of lesbianism (less so, male homosexuality). Thus, it is both theologically and anthropologically necessary to preserve the use of male terms with respect to God and Christ, as well as in some case of collective nouns referring to the human race.

Answered by Colin B. Donovan, STL



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