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Online Edition - Vol. III, No. 6: September 1997

Grinding Old Axes: Women's Ordination and Inclusive Language
Theologians, Liturgists Occupy Common Ground of Dissent

by Staff

Two recent meetings -- of the Catholic Theological Society of America and the Notre Dame Center for Pastoral Liturgy -- provided further evidence of the strong link between so-called "inclusive language" and the ordination of women to the Catholic priesthood. Major addresses at both meetings also made it clear that theology and liturgy are inseparable, and that the dispute over liturgical language is, fundamentally, theological.

The CTSA, which has long dissented from official Church teaching on a variety of subjects, issued a statement at their June meeting challenging the authority of the Holy See's pronouncements on the ordination of women-specifically the 1995 response of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to a dubium regarding the papal letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, in which Pope John Paul II reaffirmed that the Church's perennial teaching on the matter is essential to the Catholic faith. The CDF response reaffirmed that it is the teaching of the Church that she has no authority whatsoever to ordain women to the priesthood, and stated that this doctrine requires "definitive assent" by all Catholics.

"There are serious doubts regarding the nature of the authority of this teaching and its grounds in tradition", the theologians' statement said. Although some members of the CTSA repudiated it, in particular, Father Matthew Lamb, of Boston University, who called the report "flawed and tendentious", the report passed by large majority.

Several bishops, including Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, Bishop James McHugh of Camden, and Bishop John Myers of Peoria, strongly criticized the CTSA report for its theological deficiencies in columns in their diocesan newspapers.

But Mobile Archbishop Oscar Lipscomb, leader of the "Common Ground Initiative", in his address to the CTSA, said that "the difference is that today the divisions [among Catholics] are identified not with religious orders, but with organizations: the 'heretics' of CTSA vis-a-vis the ultramontanist Fellowship of Catholic Scholars." (The FCS is an association of Catholic academics and intellectual leaders committed to upholding Church teachings.) The "Common Ground Initiative", launched by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin last year, claimed its goal was to heal divisions in the Church by fostering peaceful dialogue among various groups on controversial issues. Archbishop Lipscomb's CTSA address was published in Origins, June 19.

Sister Mary Explains It All

Feminist theologian Sister Mary Collins, OSB, in her keynote address to the CTSA, said that a "priest-centered theology of the eucharist is defective and inadequate". Use of the metaphor of "sacrifice" to describe the Mass suggests that the priest's action is "cultlike", she said. Sister Mary teaches at Catholic University of America, and is a long-time member of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL), the body which translates liturgical texts for all English-speaking countries-most recently a revised Sacramentary, prayers used for Mass.

"The very possibility of a magisterial teaching about eucharistic sacrifice that sees no necessary relationship between the ecclesial and the eucharistic body of Christ exposes the inadequacy of the controlling metaphor [sacrifice]," according to Sister Mary.

She told the CTSA that during a time "when biblical scholars and the magisterium are deadlocked over the doctrinal implications of referring to God with inclusive gendered language", she is encouraged that "liturgical assemblies" are learning to press the limits of the Catholic tradition. They are "publicly negotiating relational images of God in their eucharistic liturgy, unaware that their shepherds were deadlocked over how to protect their faith", she said. She told the assembled theologians that she "listens like an uncertain prophet listening for a still, small voice" when she goes to church every Sunday, and finds that "Catholic people know more than theologians and the magisterium can yet express conceptually, more than the official rites of the church are able to offer them for their worship".

"Liturgical Illiterates" Alarm Bishop

Even though Sister Mary Collins says she believes that the "assembly of working people, middle class and poor" know more about worship than bishops and experts, Erie Bishop Donald Trautman, in his June 19 address to the annual conference of the Notre Dame Center for Pastoral Liturgy, complained that it is "biased and liturgically illiterate" people who are criticizing liturgical reformers and opposing inclusive language revisions of liturgical texts.

"We do not need to reform the reform", Bishop Trautman told the liturgists. "There is a dismantling of the renewal taking place before our very eyes", he warned, and urged the liturgists to "take the high ground" in opposing critics of the progressive "revitalized reform" he favors. He said that "inclusive language" has become the focal point for judging continued progress or retrenchment.

Bishop Trautman, who was chairman of the Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy from 1993 to 1996, received the Pastoral Liturgy conference's 1997 Michael Mathis Award for his leadership in promoting "inclusive language" revisions to the Sacramentary and the Lectionary, the prayers and Scripture readings for Mass. (Father Mathis was a liturgist active in the 1940s and '50s.) The proposed Sacramentary was revised by ICEL, and the text is expected to be submitted to the Holy See for required approval soon. The revised Lectionary, originally submitted by the US bishops to the Holy See in 1992, required extensive corrections because of its original translators' commitment to incorporate "inclusive language".

Bishop Trautman insisted that "addressing women using male language denies women their own identity", repeating his own lecture given last February in Houston. "When women are not named specifically, they are excluded from full participation, and this diminishes the church." He said that opponents of "inclusive language" have persuaded many church leaders and people in the pews that its use in Catholic liturgy is a "sinister feminist plot" to advance the ordination of women.

The bishop, who is also a biblical scholar, did not say how he became persuaded that standard English is "male language", or why he has come to believe that normal use of English denigrates women. He did not make it clear, either, whether he thinks advancing the ordination of women is "sinister", or if he only meant to deny that there is a connection between the drive to neuter the language of Catholic worship and the feminist view of the priesthood.

"Exorcise the Demon Patriarchy"

But Sister Mary Collins is among those several influential feminist liturgists and theologians who have openly and repeatedly charged that the Catholic Church is an oppressive, patriarchal hierarchy, epitomized by the male priesthood, which, like liturgical language, must be radically reformed in order to achieve justice for women.

"Feminist scholarship in the United States has recently put the English language under scrutiny", she says in her 1987 book, Worship-Renewal to Practice. "Such questioning has exposed the androcentric character of the language", and she believes this has both made the general public aware of the male bias of English, and as a result, has caused rapid change in the language. She cites the work of feminist linguists who claim that "man" was deliberately created as a false generic by men who were "self-appointed arbiters without any qualification for the work" [p. 200].

A strongly feminist ideological bias informs her discussion of the deficiencies of Catholic worship. Sister Mary finds feminist liturgies "profoundly significant" for the needed liturgical transformation. In the chapter on "Liturgical Methodology" she describes what she means.

"Feminist groups devise women's liturgies which exorcise the demon patriarchy; they remythologize the accounts of their creation in the image of a divine matriarch; they 'handle' feminine images of the divine and celebrate feminine mediations of grace. Women have been writing new liturgical scripts -- composing prayers, chants, litanies, blessings -- and assigning the ritual roles. Sometimes they give males only bit parts or say solemnly derogatory things about patriarchs to humiliate them ritually. Sometimes they write men out altogether. Ridiculous? To what purpose? The single male student in my 1973 course on Women and Religion, a prospective Baptist minister, even then recognized the purpose. 'For the first time in my life, I know what it is to be treated condescendingly.' The point is that professional liturgiologists need to find ways to study the process of renewal as symbolic transformation of the data of Christian experience. " [Pp. 85, 86]

Priesthood: Symptom of a "defective belief system"

Sister Mary urges liturgists who recognize the "incompleteness and distortions of Christian faith embodied in our churches and expressed in our rites" to "establish effective communication with the church's bishops and other pastoral leaders" in order to persuade them to correct the "distortions". [p 89]

Among the chief "distortions" is the male priesthood: "The Church's restriction of women's participation in the mission and ministry of Christ seems to point to the meaning that Christianity believes 'maleness' itself has intrinsic soteriological significance. "

Changing the language of worship, Sister Mary believes, will help to effect change in the defective Catholic "belief system". "Verbal literalism is characteristic of every fundamentalism", she says. If there is any remaining doubt about the link between the feminist demand for use of "inclusive language" with the demand for ordination of women, Sister Mary spells it out clearly:

"Once a new horizon has opened up within the church concerning the androcentric character of Christian religious language, whether 'horizontal' or 'vertical,' those who reflect on such questions in good faith are likely to perceive as ideological, a manifestation of bad faith, magisterial efforts to set certain critical questions off limits." [p. 211]

Obviously, the CTSA agrees. But the Vatican, having found it necessary to intervene repeatedly in the controversy over translation and to reaffirm Church teaching on ordination, equally obviously, does not.

Dialogue can reveal, but cannot resolve these diametrically opposing views.

***

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