What’s the big deal about gender-inclusive language?

In the most recent issue of my diocesan newspaper, a question referring to God’s gender caught my eye. Father Mike, a local priest, answered the question, “Why do you refer to God as “he”? Are you implying that God is male? Doesn’t this support a patriarchal worldview?”

Father Mike’s response got off to an OK start — he affirmed the Catechism’s teaching that ‘God is pure spirit in which there is no place for the difference between the sexes,’ and went on to say that the Church considers using identification with a male God to oppress women as a grave evil. Then, he insisted that because God is a “who” instead of an “it,” we must use pronouns that affirm God’s personhood. And we use the pronoun “he” because Jesus told us to think of God as “our father.” Father Mike’s final say? “Apparently, he wants to be called ‘father.'”

The easy dismissal of the complexities of the issue pained me. Where is the discussion about the fact that subtleties in meaning can easily be lost in translation? For example, the English language — and many other languages — are incredibly limited in that there is no pronoun to describe a person who is neither female nor male, or both female and male, and yet these people exist in the physical and not just the spiritual realm. Where is the suggestion that, even though most translations of the Bible use “he” as the default pronoun, a translation of God as “she” would be equally accuratein light of what’s been lain out in the Catechism? At the very least, I would have appreciated an affirmation that referring to God as She in conversation outside of strict Biblical reading is perfectly acceptable for Catholics.

Instead, Father Mike never took that step of aligning God with the word “She.” Instead, he shrugged the question off — perhaps because of the prevailing belief in our culture that the use of “he” as the default pronoun doesn’t really “matter” because “everyone knows male pronouns can be used to refer to all humans.” In actuality, this means that it “doesn’t really matter” to most of the culture when women are invisible. And we can become so used to our invisibility that we can begin to believe in it ourselves, despite the fact that this goes against what we believe as Catholics about the dignity and worthiness of every human being.

When I was a child, I marked up all my CCD books with inclusive language. As an adult, I replace “he” with “God” in most of the congregational responses throughout the Mass, and I drop “men” out of “for us men and for our salvation” when I say the Creed. As an editor for a feminist organization, I know the power that words have to shape reality, and I try to be careful to choose my words accordingly to create a more just reality.

But it wasn’t until I attended Reverend Regina Nicolosi’s Mass three years ago that I experienced truly inclusive language — not just dropping the ‘he,’ but hearing the ‘she.’ And this time I couldn’t say the Creed or sing the hymns because I was crying. Despite my quiet resistance to the default male pronoun, I never realized how I’d numbed myself to the pain of being invisible until, for one hour, that feeling was gone, for one hour I felt both fully woman and fully Catholic, and that both parts of me were sacred.

Although I haven’t had the opportunity to attend another Mass said by a woman priest, I have occasionally had the fortune of attending other Masses with gender inclusive language. And every time I encounter it, I can’t keep from crying tears of joy. And isn’t that what encountering God is all about? Being overwhelmed with the Joy of being part of the Creator’s family, perfect in God’s image, just the way S/He intended you to be? That’s a realization that’s worth fighting for.

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About Lacey Louwagie

I'm a feminist, a writer, an editor, and a seeker. I co-edited "Hungering and Thirsting for Justice: Real-Life Stories by Young Adult Catholics" (ACTA 2012) and authored "Where I First Met God" in "Unruly Catholic Women Writers II" (SUNY Press 2013). You can learn more about me at www.laceylouwagie.com.

14 thoughts on “What’s the big deal about gender-inclusive language?

  1. What an amazing experience, one that I’m not surprised to hear was delivered by Regina who is a really wonderful woman, so loving. How interesting to think of, after fighting for many years for inclusive language, you were so touched by an all female representation. I think we need a balance, alternate between he and she.

    I wonder if it has ever been so significant to males to hear God referred to as a He. Do males ever feel this sense of connection to one’s sacredness when they hear God referred to as He?

    Of course I can’t remember the name of the Jesuit I heard talking about this, but he said he saw inclusive language as simply being a matter of accuracy. And why wouldnt we want to be most accurate? sort of reasoning.

  2. I’ll admit that, as a lover of language in general, I struggle with the question of inclusive language. I do as a rule drop the “men” from the recitation of the Creed; it’s unnecessary in my opinion. And I usually use “God” instead of any personal pronouns, even though sometimes it feels a little clumsy on the tongue. Especially in singing old hymns, where substituting that long O sound for the quick, clipped “his” seems to throw off the rhythm. But these are minor annoyances and don’t, in the end, have any real effect on my faith.

    Now, I can’t say that using masculine pronouns in reference to God has ever given me the kind of overwhelming spiritual experience described here. But I have to admit, I feel uncomfortable whenever I hear the feminine pronoun used. I think it’s because I’m so used to the masculine pronoun being the “default”, which we (okay, I) understand as being genderless when applied to God, and I feel like the feminine pronouns impose a specific gender.

    Which is, I imagine, how some women feel when they hear the masculine pronoun used. I’ll admit, I’ve never thought of it as an issue of balance. Something to think about.

  3. Thanks for the wonderful post! I offered the following story awhile back (the first week of the blog), and it fits your post as well, so I’ll retell it. Having worked with survivors of domestic/interpersonal violence, sexual abuse, and prostitutes who have been horribly abused by men, many of them by their fathers, I have a huge problem with the Church’s confinement of God to Father and Son. When I once explained to a group of women who had been sexually abused the history of the image “Ruah” and Spirit Sophia from Genesis to Acts, one woman, in tears, announced to the group that I had given God back to her because she could not relate to a father god no matter how loving he was because that was a metaphor she could not move past.

    Language is SO important. Not just gender inclusive, but removing discrimination (often racial or ethnic) as well. Though we don’t hear this in the formal words of liturgy (at least I don’t think…I simply haven’t memorized the lectionary and sacramentary), our society, homilies and other Church/parish related endeavors often use language that subtly demeans other groups:
    “I don’t want to gyp you” refers to the stereotype of gypsies/Roma as thieves
    “the issue is/isn’t black and white”–that is bad or good
    “They’ve black listed her” or “his name is now blackened” both assumes that ‘black’ is bad
    “He got picked up by the paddy wagon” refers to the stereotype that the Irish were drunkereds
    And not to forget the horrible use of “gay” and “retarded” as synonymous with stupid, slow, perverted, or dumb.

    As a church and as a society, we really need to take seriously what we say. If even one person is demeaned by the language we use, or made to not feel wholly human made in the image of God, it is not appropriate for us to communally use it when we pray or live out the Gospel.

    Side note-I MUST get to a WomenPriest liturgy one of these days. So many of the posters have talked about the moving experiences they’ve had, and I need to support the WomenPriests as well. I’ve been blessed the past 6 years to be in places where gender inclusive language was the norm (save for the reference of the Spirit as He in the creed), but when I move to St. Louis in August, perhaps that is where I can start looking for a new parish.

  4. Thanks so much for the good discussion. I realize I might have been unclear in my original post about Reverand Regina’s inclusive speech; the Mass did in fact use both female and male pronouns to refer to God, as well as female, male, and gender neutral metaphors (Mother/Father/Creator/Protector). I agree with you, Lauren, that balance, not just reversal, is what’s needed, as both feminine and masculine qualities are divine.

    Josh, I agree with you that the “men” in the creed is unnecessary and that’s one of the reasons I drop it as well; I don’t usually change the lyrics in the hymns so I admire that you do even though it doesn’t feel like a big issue to you. I think that one of the reasons that the male pronoun in reference to God doesn’t result in such a moving experience is because it’s so easy to take for granted; and because most of us are used to hearing God as He, it can feel awkward, uncomfortable, or cumbersome to change the pronoun. I often use He when talking about God in conversation, sometimes because I don’t want to weigh the conversation down with a debate about why I used She, but mostly just because my language has been trained so well. However, I find that when I’m engaging in more personal communication with God — writing, or praying — it’s usually a female presence that I feel, and I often use the feminine pronoun when writing about God. Sometimes though, the masculine pronoun just feels “right” and I’ll use that, too. There’s no doubt in my mind that God is in fact female and male and more.

    Becky — I read your original comment about the woman who couldn’t relate to the father metaphor for God, and it really stuck with me. I also think it was worth repeating here. I agree with you about how pervasive harmful language is — so much so that we often don’t think twice about it, as in the example of black and white. I noticed today that while my boss was giving a presentation, she said that a situation wouldn’t be all “hellish” or “heavenly” but that we’d have to find some middle ground in between — the word choice seemed strange for a work setting, but your comments make me realize that she was probably trying to avoid the “black and white” dichotomy. Along with “gay” and “retarded,” I’ve also trained myself not to use “lame” as a synonym for boring, stupid, etc., after realizing it’s essentially a slur against people with disabilities. Unfortunately, I think slurs are so common in our language that I probably still use a lot of them without realizing it — but that’s why conversations like this are so important.

  5. Lacey; actually, most of the hymnals we use now do use “God” where the original hymn used “He” or “His”. So I usually just sing what’s on the page!

    A side note, only marginally related to the topic at hand: I attended a college that was affiliated with the Episcopal Church (it had been an Episcopal seminary before it went secular) and I noticed in one of their hymnals an odd example of a change from inclusive original Catholic lyric to non-inclusive lyric, for no good reason so far as I could tell.

    In the old “Prayer of St. Francis” hymn … the one that begins, “Make me a channel of your peace…” the original version goes “It is … in giving of ourselves that we recieve”. This altered version said, “… in giving to all men that we recieve”. Why? Aside from less inclusive and it doesn’t have the musical flow of the original, and it makes for questionable theology (so if we give to ALL men, we recieve … but if we miss one, we get nothing?)

  6. Becky, I’m right with you on the importance of language! And it’s even trickier when we’re talking about God, who is so far beyond anything our language could ever express. We have to use metaphor and figurative language — as Jesus did! — and risk giving the wrong impression of who God is. (I have to say, I do like the bit about God being a “Who”, not an “It”.)

    We need better pronouns.

  7. Becky, thank you for the examples you gave. I had never thought of the word ‘gyp’ and its origins, probably because I wouldnt have spelled it that way if I were trying to write it. But that makes total sense, and I appreciate the info very much. I have not gotten very good at this but I know someone with a mental illness who gets a little annoyed when people use the term ‘crazy’.

    Now, I know many people are probably thinking, yuck, political correctness crap. But I think its worth every effort. You may not mean any harm by it, but how would the person you’re referring to know that? They’re so used to being marginalized that its not hard to think it was happening again.

  8. I agree that language gets especially tricky when dealing with God, and yes, we do need better pronouns! I thought I remembered reading once that the pronoun for God in the Greek was actually a gender neutral pronoun that included personhood, but I couldn’t find the exact information before writing this post and didn’t want to spread false information. Does anyone know anything more about this? There IS a movement to create a gender neutral word in the English language — I’ve heard Hu and Hir as gender neutral pronouns and thought about bringing that into this post, but they haven’t really caught on and I think a lot of people just aren’t ready to make that leap with the language. But language is always evolving, and maybe someday we will be able to get closer to speaking the truth.

    Lauren, I’d never thought of “crazy” as being a slur toward mental illness. That’s another one I’ll try to decrease instances of in my vocabulary.

  9. I haven’t heard about the Greek pronoun for God (so when you find it, do share!), but I have a transgender, male to female, pre-op friend who has asked us to use the German pronoun Sie (the “S” is pronounces as a “Z,” so it sounds like Zee) when referring to or about Sie. In German, Sie, when capitalized, is a gender neutral pronoun used in the formal. I don’t know how widespread the Sie use is in the transgender/transexual community, but it seems applicable in our English since we don’t have or no longer use (old or middle English may have) an equivalent word. I suppose we could also use the Spanish Usted (my Spanish is pretty rusty, so perhaps this doesn’t work like it does in German. Please correct me if I’m wrong!).

    Now that you have me thinking about other languages (at least the two besides English I’m more acquainted with), it strikes me as somewhat liberating that in English we do predominately use the formal “God.” In German, certainly the word “Gott” is used, but more often when I was living, praying, and studying in Austria, people referred to God as “das Herr” or “Herr Gott.” Herr basically means “Mister,” but is used more as a full noun in German than just as a prefix i.e. people often say “Herr Doktor.” In Spanish, I remember hearing God often referred to simply as “Senior,” which is of course masculine. I really don’t know if I have a point with these pondering other than I’m very glad that language can and does evolve.

    Now, if we don’t draw fire for proposing to model a pronoun for God after the preferred neutral use within the transgender/transexual community, we’re not being monitored by our “orthodox” friends very well!

  10. Wow! I don’t know where to begin.

    Should we deny that Jesus was a man for the sake of an emotional reaction. Maybe we can imagine that too. Or maybe we can infer that Jesus was a homosexual or asexual and therefore people with homosexual or transgender tendencies can feel better about themselves.

    Why would we deny how God Himself references Himself? If we can speculate away from God’s Holy Word than why stick with the virgin birth? Why believe that Jesus was and is God? Why believe in what Paul, Peter, John, Matthew, Mark and Luke wrote at all if we’re going to speculate every jot and tittle until it means nothing; which is exactly what continues to happen. Most of you say that language is so important. Than how about taking it for what it says. It’s not like the Bible hasn’t been the most scrutinized book in the world or anything. The theologians over the last 2000 years who have translated the Bible were just a bunch of bumbling idiots who didn’t really understand language the way the group here apparently does.

    Are Catholic children today staying in the church with this kind of confusion or are they leaving the church for something else; maybe something else a little more solid? Can you imagine; The Body of Christ not being solid? Not possible.

    If what you’re saying is making the Body of Christ more solid than you are probably on the right track. If what you’re saying is making the Body of Christ confused, you are certainly not on the right track.

  11. I have to agree with mrissman — God has both referenced Himself and been referenced using masculine pronouns. Moreover, we don’t cross ourselves saying “In the name of the parent”, but rather “in the name of the Father,” referencing the identity of God as our Father. Of course, as a theology student, I am aware that God contains within Himself the fullness of both genders — male and female, as we are, are two genders created to, in union with one another, express the fullness of God’s nature.

    As for removing the word “men” from the Creed, the priest at my home parish has an unfortunate habit of doing that, as well. We do not have the authority to, for whatever reason, alter the words of the Church’s creed — she has used the Nicene creed for generations, after the careful guidance of the Council of Nicaea.

    Which brings me to another aspect of the referencing of God with male pronouns. The Church, conversely, is typically referred to with female pronouns — the Church herself is the great bride, and Christ Himself is the bridegroom. This nuptial imagery is used very consistently in scripture, especially in Old Testament literature in which God describes Israel as His lover.

    What I’m stabbing at here, in all of these somewhat disjointed points, is that to stress over “inclusive language” is to focus on something miniscule compared to the greater truths of God’s nature. Yes, it’s important to include people — but this is not achieved by shuffling around the language of our faith until it appeases everyone.

  12. I know a woman at St. Kate’s who refers to God using ze and hir. :) I grew up in a congregation that used “God” always rather than any gendered pronouns, and I have tried, in my own writing, to duplicate that. After all, I don’t think God is a He or a She, and defies all gender categories entirely. (Although I would love to hear a Mass where the priest uses ‘she’.)

  13. Inclusion is not about appeasing. It’s about the body of Christ being whole.

    Do we worship God or do we worship the Church? Is it one in the same? I don’t think so, not that I don’t think the Church is of God or anything, but what’s the deal here?

  14. cfxdrummer: If you consider religious language to be something “miniscule,” I’m not sure why you’re so offended by the discussion. Comparatively speaking, yes, words are miniscule compared to the vastness that is God. But as humans, words are some of the only tools we have — to communicate with one another, and to communicate with God. The reason God uses metaphor is only to help us better understand His nature; the metaphor will never encompass His nature. But some of us have experiences that make the metaphor traumatic, such as in Becky’s story about the woman who couldn’t connect to God because she had an abusive father and couldn’t get past the metaphor. The point is, metaphors only work if the experience someone has with that metaphor is akin to the True nature of God. If your understanding of a Father is someone who abuses, neglects, or otherwise mistreats you, how does that represent God? But if what the Father metaphor really encompasses is God’s unconditional love and authority, I think greater good is done in using a metaphor that reflects the nature of God, vs. the specific word used in the Bible. (And there ARE places in the Bible when God uses a mother metaphor when referring to Himself: As one whom his mother comforts, so I (God) will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.
    Isaiah 66:13)

    As for the Church as female argument, I’m afraid that one doesn’t hold much sway over me. Male writers have consistently referred to continents, countries, ships, cars, what-have-you, using female pronouns. To me it takes the personhood out of the feminine, rather than truly putting the feminine into the Church.

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