Splitting the Faithful: Inclusive Language Is Wrong Biblically, Pastorally, and Doctrinally

It is asserted by many, including the official International Commission on English in the Liturgy, that the Church’s English lectionary and liturgical prayers should be reformulated so that human beings would be addressed and referred to in gender-inclusive terms. The motivation for this change is pastoral; it reflects the opinion of some people that traditional forms of English are unjust and offensive to women. But the validity of this opinion and the pastoral value of such a change are questionable, and such a revision of the Church’s prayer and Scriptures involves many serious difficulties. It conflicts with the duty of the Church to hand on what she has received, it threatens to fragment the unity of the prayer of the universal Church, it deprives Church belief of some necessary linguistic resources, and it violates the organic structure of the English language. The following considerations against introducing gender-inclusive language in worship raise questions not only concerning the decisions of the American bishops to change the language of the liturgy and lectionary, but also concerning the more general movements that support the use of gender-inclusive language elsewhere.

The proposed new lectionary involves a radical departure from translations of the Scriptures in the past. Translations hitherto have striven to reproduce the official biblical texts, not to change them. In the present case, it is proposed that the Scriptures be systematically modified in view of a current mode of thinking. The words of Scripture are going to be changed (“improved”) because of convictions about language and gender that have arisen among certain groups in the past decade or so. In the history of the Church, has there ever been any other attempt to rewrite Scripture in such a comprehensive and deliberate way? Such an action should not be done without precedent. It has to be justified and arguments for it have to be given.

Do the bishops even have the authority to change the words of Scripture in this way? Whether they do is questionable; one might argue that they do not. It is their obligation to hand on undistorted what they have received. The bishops are successors of the Apostles, not successors of the Evangelists. No one knows what the Evangelists would have written if they were alive now; all we do know is what they did in fact write. The faithful have a right to hear the word of God as it was written, not as it has been systematically and deliberately interpreted by people who have a certain ideological point of view.

The inclusive language lectionary will use the very words of Scripture as an instrument to promote a certain ideology, a point of view that is by no means agreed upon by everyone. The impression will be given that Scripture authorizes the ideology supporting such language. Should the words of Scripture be exploited in this utilitarian way?

The proposed new lectionary must be seen against the historical development of the changes in the liturgy that have taken place since the Second Vatican Council. So far, we have had one major change, the change into the new rite and the vernacular that was authorized by Pope Paul VI. We should not underestimate the magnitude even of that change; it was a major shift in the liturgy of the Church, and it was done in a very short span of time. There was not the gradual, incremental kind of development that had been the case in previous liturgical changes.

Now, what we are faced with in the new lectionary and in the changes proposed for the liturgical prayers is a “second wave,” so to speak, following upon the changes carried out by Pope Paul VI. The way this “second wave” is carried out will have a very important effect on future developments; it will “interpret” the changes under Pope Paul VI and will determine how further changes will take place in the future. If this “second wave” radically reinterprets the words of Scripture and the prayers in the liturgy, it will very likely be taken as legitimating far more radical changes in the future, not only in America but in other countries as well. On the other hand, if at this point the Church resists such a radical change, it will show that in the future the American bishops and the bishops of other countries will have to stay close to the words of Scripture and to the common liturgy of the universal Church.

It is likely, I think, that if the proposed inclusive-language changes of the lectionary and liturgy are permitted, we will see the following stages in the development of the modern liturgy:

Stage 1: The Latin, traditional liturgy is changed under Pope Paul VI into a vernacular liturgy visibly different from the liturgy that preceded it. But the extent of this change is still ambiguous. Even though the priest now faces the people and new Eucharistic prayers, derived from earlier Eucharistic prayers, are introduced, the basic structure of the Mass remains intact. This situation has prevailed for the past 25 years or so, which is not a long time in the history of the Church.

Stage 2: The liturgy and the words of Scripture in the English lectionary are systematically modified because of a set of opinions that are prevalent in the United States. Once this is done with something as sacred as the liturgy and the words of Scripture, a signal is given that other changes that seem urgent and “morally compelling” may also be carried out, whether in the United States or in other countries. Thus we may well in very short order move on to:

Stage 3: Masculine words are no longer used in reference to God; instead of the use of pronouns, the word God is repeated over and over (“God sent God’s Son to redeem God’s people”); the word Father is eliminated because it is patriarchal; the names for the persons of the Holy Trinity are changed to Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. Other changes will probably come, in response to changes “in the way we think” and in the “sensitivities” that we have developed.

The innovations in Stage 3 are not exaggerations; priests and laymen are already doing such things. Worst of all, it will be difficult to defend the traditional form of speaking and praying, because Stage 2 will have legitimated such changes in principle. What defense will the Church have against these further changes? And what other further changes will be made, in liturgical words and practice, in view of new political orders, new economic orders, new familial understandings, the new understanding of human emotions, a new acceptance of local religions, and the like? If the American Church makes such changes, what other changes will other national Churches feel free to make? How will Rome be able to hold together the liturgy of the universal Church?

All of this will happen because of the interpretation that the currently contemplated step, Stage 2, will impart to the changes made in Stage 1. The gates will be opened. Everyone will be “freed” from the constraints of remaining with the established words of Scripture and the liturgy. The “local community” will be able to take its liturgy into its own hands. The ideology for such developments is already in place; it needs only the official go-ahead that it is on the right track, and the inclusive lectionary and liturgy will provide such a signal.

Even the rapidity of the changes trivializes the liturgy. The interval of some 25 years between Stages 1 and 2 is very short. The impression given is that we are forever tinkering with the liturgy and the Scriptures. Ritual and liturgy must be solemn and have a sense of the permanent. The liturgy must present itself as being beyond the manipulation of any individual or group. Only in that way can it truly be a public prayer, and only in that way can attendance at it be required of the faithful. The authority of the liturgy, the authority of Scripture, and the teaching authority of the bishops will all be severely weakened if they become perceived as being in the service of an ideology.

Even Stage 1 led to very serious abuses in the liturgy. Stage 2 is not going to put an end to changes and to demands for further tinkering; it is going to accelerate them. The Church is generating a whirlwind by this action, and since it is true that lex orandi is lex credendi, the trouble will affect the very belief of the Church.

In connection with the lex credendi, there are some uses of the generic word man that are essential to the expression of Christian doctrine and that cannot be provided by other terms. This is especially true for expressions dealing with the mystery of the Incarnation. The proposed new translation of the Creed, for example, renders “et homo factus est” as “and became truly human.” But such a translation is misleading and could be taken in a monophysite sense; it could be taken to mean that the Logos merely assumed the feature or the attribute—the adjectival form—of being human. “Truly human,” as an adjectival phrase, does not convey the same unambiguous sense of substantial assumption that the noun man does. After all, the incarnate Logos also became “truly tall” or “truly hungry,” but He was not hypostatically united with tallness or hunger. They were only accidental to Him, and to say merely that Christ was “truly human” (and not “man”) is to leave open the possibility that His humanity, too, was only accidental. Only the use of the word man conveys unambiguously the doctrine that the Logos assumed a substantial human nature and was hypostatically united with it.

There are many other contexts in theology and philosophy where the use of the noun man is necessary to convey the sense of human nature or the human race. Such a term is necessary not only in dealing with the Incarnation, but also with the mysteries of Redemption and Grace. Man as a name for a nature or a species is different from “men and women” as names for all human beings. It is a sign of a kind of nominalism to prefer the use of “men and women” in place of the term “man” as a name for the human species.

Disowning Past Authors and the Tradition

The acceptance of inclusive language in principle will concede the claim that the traditional form of English has something morally wrong or insensitive about it, that it is somehow unjust to women. But such a position is by no means officially established by the Church. The claim that traditional English is structurally discriminatory has to be proved. It is not obvious that the traditional use of words like man and he in a gender-neutral way is injurious. Such usage continues to be widely accepted. There has been no official Church teaching on this matter. Instead of being argued, the claim about traditional English is simply taken for granted and then acted upon.

Furthermore, the acceptance of inclusive language will cast a shadow of immorality or insensitivity on earlier writers, even on those who wrote only a decade ago. They will be “marked” as unjust or insensitive. Their credibility will be undermined. The changes do not simply accommodate something new, in other words, but forcefully discard the old. This is a systematic way of disowning the past. It is also a way of disconnecting ourselves from those linguistic communities that do not incorporate such a style of writing. Thus, this step isolates the contemporary American community from its past and from the universal Church. It marks a radically new beginning and a fragmentation, at a time when the moral and religious environment is anything but healthy.

What will be done with other translations in the future? Will we have to use inclusive language in future translations of Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, Thomas Aquinas, Teresa of Avila, and other older writers? What precedent will the acceptance of inclusive language set for future theological and religious writing? Will it lead to a prohibition of the use of traditional forms?

The major reason why such problems arise is that the move to inclusive language is not an organic development of the English language. It is an engineered change, a prosthesis, not a gradual, normal development. It is being forced on the language because of an ideology. Such engineered language is problematic for several reasons:

•It is never at rest and keeps changing as the opinions of those who engineer it change. Even in inclusive language we have had many stages: at one time “s/he” was used, then “he and she,” then “she and he,” then the intermittent use of “she” and “he.” The Church’s liturgy will reflect the stage at which it adopts these changes and will be out of date as soon as new developments occur. This will, of course, necessitate still more changes in the liturgy and Scripture and still more tinkering.

•Because they are engineered, the changes do not fit normally and organically into the language. They are clumsy and awkward.

•Furthermore, because the changes are engineered, they draw attention to themselves. They make a point. Language generally, and liturgical language in particular, ought to be transparent; we should be directed by the language to the things and persons we are speaking about and speaking to. But the engineered changes serve as noise or static, they are intrusive, they shout and proclaim a point of view, inserted by certain people between the believer and God, between the believer and the message of faith. No one is responsible for the traditional forms of English, but a definite group and a definite point of view are expressing themselves in the engineered forms. They are imposing their will on others.

•Finally, an assumption behind the use of inclusive language in the liturgy is the belief that English will inevitably and definitively move toward gender-inclusive terms. The liturgy is being used to promote such a movement and to be on its cutting edge. But we cannot predict how such things will turn out; it is quite possible that the use of inclusive language will gradually die out, that the generic use of “man” and “he” will continue. It is quite possible that the traditional form of English will reassert itself. What will the liturgy and lectionary look like then? Ordinary people will not criticize the Church if she simply stays with the traditional language that everyone has been using until now, but it will be extremely embarrassing if the Church takes on the new trend only to find that the trend itself dies out. The change will appear frivolous, and the liturgy will have been demeaned. How could something so sacred as the liturgy and the words of Scripture have been subordinated and attached to what may turn out to be an ephemeral trend? The liturgy is not the place for experimentation in language.

The violence done to English by the device of inclusive language calls to mind the damage done to the tradition of Christian art by the Puritans and by the participants in the French Revolution, who smashed statues and stained-glass windows in a desire to make everything new. In the present case, it is the English language that is being smashed. We are dealing with an iconoclasm of language.

The adoption of inclusive language legitimates and encourages dissent. In a newspaper report about the bishops’ discussion of inclusive language, one of the arguments that was cited in favor of the changes was the claim that many people are in fact already using inclusive language in parishes and are doing a bad job of it, and therefore a better job should be done by the bishops. To argue in such a way is to acquiesce with those who have been acting against the liturgical norms. It will encourage them to go on performing other violations, with the expectation that the official Church will gradually “catch up” to them in these other matters as well. Of course, if the inclusive language is introduced, those who habitually obey the norms will be expected to comply completely with the new usage; those who wish to adhere to the traditional texts and the traditional form of English will be excluded from the liturgical community. But the disobedience of those who acted for the changes before they were approved, and the disobedience of those who promote still further changes, will have been tolerated in principle.

In short, the Church is inviting a serious split among its members in regard to both prayer and practice by introducing inclusive language into its liturgical and Scriptural texts.


  • Robert Sokolowski

    Robert Sokolowski is the Elizabeth Breckenridge Caldwell Professor of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America.

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