I have just returned from a week-long Institute with Sister Joan Chittister at her Benedictine monastery in Erie, Pennsylvania. Sister Joan has been a Benedictine sister for more than sixty years. In that time she has earned a Master's degree in theology from the University of Notre Dame and a Ph.D. in speech communication from Penn State University, in addition to authoring fifty books and more than 700 articles for the Catholic press. She has been prioress of the Benedictine Sisters for twelve years, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, and now serves as co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women, an international network of spiritual and community leaders from around the globe who hope to bring a spiritual perspective to conflict resolution fueled by pressing economic and ecological crises across the world. And yet, she has not been invited to speak in a Catholic church for 35 years because she is an advocate for women's ordination and the use of inclusive language in our prayers and liturgy.
When I walked into the Benedictine chapel to join the sisters for prayer each morning and each evening in the monastery chapel, I was given a prayer book entitled That God May Be Glorified, authored by the Benedictine sisters with the intent of only using inclusive language to pray. There are no male pronouns in the book, no mention of brotherly love, nor would you find the word Lord. The Our Father is translated by those who are in the chapel as Holy One, or Our God, or Our Father and Mother; I heard many terms of endearment for our Creator, each expressing an individual's personal relationship with God.
The Benedictines, and millions of other people around the world, believe that the consistent use of sexist language in our church perpetuates a negative attitude toward women; negatively impacts female development, divides the church, limits its resources and perpetuates injustice.
The Eskimos have 18 different words in their language for snow and there are at least 8 ways to say pig in Spanish. A lot of information is reflected in the language used by a specific population to describe what is and isn't important in that culture. In the language of our 21st century church, exclusive language often ignores the reality that at least half of its members are female, many who would prefer not to say, "for us men and our salvation," when reciting the Nicene Creed. Using "for us and our salvation," would be a perfect example of inclusive language that could easily replace outdated and gender specific nouns and pronouns used in our liturgies.
Did God save all men, or all human beings? Because Jesus was a man, maleness has become normative for certain rights, roles and language in our church. This lack of linguistic and theological clarity around the Incarnation has too often resulted in the exclusion of women in the leadership of our church. Paradoxically, Jesus chose women to be his friends, his followers, and the first to proclaim the Good News of the Resurrection. Jesus embraced humanity as a man, but the theological point is that he became human, not that he became male. All of us are called by grace to the same relationship with God that Jesus shared, regardless of our gender.
In Sunday's gospel (July 28, 2019: Luke 11:1-13), Jesus teaches his disciples to pray by addressing God as Father, which would have met the norms of first century Israel, but centuries of research conducted in the fields of psychology, sociology, language and communication since then has revealed that for many reasons, envisioning our Creator as male might not work well for everyone. It is most often, with the exception of certain species of pipefish and seahorses, the female who brings new life into the world and is more closely associated with unconditional love and nurturing. Each of us develops a unique and intimate relationship with our God formed in a certain culture at a specific time in history and with a wide variety of experiences in family, school and society at large. Could those who pray benefit from using language that reflects who they are and who they believe God to be? Studies say yes.
Openness to transformation is fundamental to a life of faith. Could the journey of our church be paralleled to our inner journeys toward conversion and wholeness? Feeling out of step with the Catholicism that has consecrated billions of lives may be a reason why there are more "former" Catholics than "practicing" Catholics in the 21st century.
We live in a dualistic culture, as Jesus did, where the healthy integration of the masculine and the feminine sometimes escapes us. The gospels reflect the fact that Jesus actively sought to change the dynamics between men and women of his day so that all would feel less alienated from one other and from the formation of healthy communities that reflect the truth of our humanity. Can we do the same?
Pat McDonough is a school psychologist who has worked in Catholic education on Long Island for 35 years as a Director of Faith Formation in several parishes as well as a professor of theology and psychology on both the high school and college levels. In addition to her column, Family Faith, which ran in the Catholic Press for twelve years, Pat has been a contributing author to The New York Times, Newsday, Our Family Magazine, The National Catholic Reporter, The Catholic Digest and The American Catholic.
The author challenges us: The gospels reflect the fact that Jesus actively sought to change the dynamics between men and women of his day so that all would feel less alienated from one other and from the formation of healthy communities that reflect the truth of our humanity. Can we do the same? How would you answer her question?
If you do so, how has praying in more inclusive language affected your prayer? If you do not do so as yet, try doing so in the ways the author describes. Let us know the impact it has on your prayer.
Please share your reflections with us here.
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Monks in Our Midst: writings by monks from the 3rd to the 21st centuries.