Catholics for a Changing Church

Words Matter

by John Crothers

Father - strong - authority - dominant
Mother - gentle - guide - patient

Recently the members of Australia’s Fifth Plenary Council formally committed the Australian Church to “enhancing the role of women in the Church, and to overcoming assumptions, cultures, practices and language that lead to inequality.”

Assumptions, cultures, practices, language – all four are crucial if inequality is to be addressed, but perhaps the most straightforward place to start is with language.

Language not only expresses what we think, it also helps to determine what we think. We can tell what’s important to us and what’s not important by the language we use. Language validates, and invalidates.

At the Plenary Council one of the Australian bishops was being asked about an upcoming motion regarding the Gay and Lesbian community, and in particular, whether the Council should formally use the term “LGBTIQI+” in its reports. In the interview the bishop refused to use the term, instead referring to the LGBTQI+ community as “that group”.

To be fair, the bishop may have felt that his use of the term could have influenced the voting. But that’s exactly the point. If the bishop had used the term, he would have been, at least implicitly, formally recognising the LGBTQI+ community, and in the process, giving permission for other Council members to do the same.       

A similar dynamic applies in the use, or lack of use, of gender inclusive language in the Church’s liturgy. I find it quite extraordinary in this day and age that our bishops continue to insist on terms such as “men” and “sons” in our liturgical prayers when the reference is clearly to both men and women, and sons and daughters.

The bishops argue that terms like “men” and “sons” are generic terms that include everyone. That may have been the case in the past, but certainly not today, at least not in the English-speaking world. It seems to me that it’s more about preserving the maleness of the liturgy and reinforcing a patriarchal Church culture. Once we name women in our prayers, in our creeds, in our translations of Scripture, then we have taken our first step towards gender equality in the Church.

And language about God is just as important.

I was once in a conversation with an Australian bishop and I was saying how I sometimes substitute the term “Mother” for “Father” in the opening prayer at Mass. He was not impressed and told me I shouldn’t do it.

I was struck by his uncompromising position on the matter. He obviously knew that God cannot have gender, and that words like “mother” and “father” are just images we use to help describe God in some intelligible way. But his insistence on the use of male-only terms for God made me wonder whether there was another agenda – a desire to make God at least look male, rather than female. And if God is male, or at least looks male, then men have more in common with God than women do.

It’s easy to see how this perception, wrong though it may be, reinforces the long-standing argument of the Church hierarchy that only men are suited to leadership in the Church.

And the problem relates not just to the use of male-only terms in the liturgy. The whole tone of our liturgical prayers is imbued with a sense of masculinity.

I once did an experiment, substituting the word “Mother” for the word “Father” in a random selection of liturgical prayers. The outcome was most interesting. Phrases that I had accepted without question suddenly started to jar. “Mother almighty” and “All powerful Mother” just didn’t seem right. And it’s not only because the terms are unfamiliar to us. It’s because concepts like “power” and “might” are normally associated with men rather than women. It seems that God has come to be perceived so much in male terms, that feminine images have become confronting, perhaps even heretical.

The sad thing is that, at least in my experience, many of the clergy would be open to more feminine language in the liturgy, but they are so instilled with a male clerical mindset that change is not on their radar. I regularly sit with over a hundred presbyters at clergy conferences, praying the Liturgy of the Hours from a big screen, reciting countless references to “Father”, “brothers” and “sons”, and I know that most of my confreres don’t even see it as an issue. And the fact that no women ever participate in the conferences means that they are never challenged to even think about it. And so, it just goes on and on.   

I do remember one occasion, however, that gave me a sense of hope. I was participating in a five-day clergy retreat and we were in the chapel praying our Evening Prayer before dinner. We had just begun the intercessory prayers and the response included the term “brothers”. The first time we responded one of those gathered said “brothers and sisters”, loud enough for others to hear. With the second response he was joined by a number of other presbyters, and then as the intercessions continued, more and more of them joined in with the “brothers and sisters” response. By the sixth and final response it was almost unanimous.

I looked at these pastors. Many of them were quite elderly. I’d be surprised if any of them had previously used the term “brothers and sisters” when saying their Office, but they were prepared to go with the flow. They didn’t have to.

I found the whole experience quite moving and it reminded me once again of the fundamental goodness of the clergy, even if it is often obscured by the scourge of clericalism.  

Sadly though, these types of stories occur far too infrequently. In any case, it’s not the presbyterate but the bishops who make decisions about language in the liturgy, and there seems to be little desire for change at the episcopal level, at least at the moment.

But I remain optimistic. The movement towards gender equality has taken great strides in recent years all over the world. It is currently expressing itself even in Iran.

The Church cannot isolate itself from the world. Sooner or later the bishops will read the signs of the times and accept women’s full participation in the life of the Church.

But it won’t happen until we first change the language – because words matter.