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.