Words matter

Words matter

Since I am currently being ripped to shreds on certain websites for daring to suggest that the process used in producing the new English translation of the Roman Missal was faulty, I may as well go for broke and tackle the issue of “inclusive language”.

That phrase really gets some people worked up, but why this is so is a puzzle. Promoting the use of inclusive language is not a radical feminist plot aimed at emasculating men and turning God into a female; it is not about tampering with the words that Jesus said – Jesus did not speak in English, or even Latin, but in the contemporary language of his day.

Inclusive language in the broadest sense means using words that affirm the equality and dignity of all people regardless of race, gender, beliefs, ability or age. In the context of liturgy, it is about concern for language that includes women and men in those situations where the message refers to or is directed to both genders.

Inclusive language is used in the media, academia and widely throughout the world. If the Church is to be true to the call of Vatican II to read and respond to the “signs of the times”, it must listen to what the world is saying about the need for appropriate language.

Only in church are females referred to as “men”, “brothers”, “sons”, etc. If this makes women feel uncomfortable and excluded, do we teach women that language is used differently here from everywhere else or make concerted efforts to use the contemporary vernacular? Is the Church an exclusive club where insiders need to know the codes or are we a community of outreach? Shouldn’t every effort be made to ensure our liturgical texts are an obstacle to no one?

At a talk I gave about language in the liturgy some years ago, I asked “all the men present” to take a yellow card as they were passed along the rows. As soon as one of the participants (a male) claimed that the word “men” refers to both men and women, I asked those with a yellow card to hold it up. Not one female held up a card!

The fact that non-inclusive language does not concern some people does not mean that it is unimportant to others. Accusing people of being “politically correct” or “radical feminists” when they raise the issue is lazy and unjust.

It was not only “radical feminists” who found the first reading at Mass recently to be exclusive, grating and distracting: “When the upright man renounces his integrity to commit sin and dies because of this, he dies because of the evil that he himself has committed”, and so it went on.

Even if we are stuckwith the Jerusalem Bible lectionary for the present, there is no excuse for a parish continuing to sing the outdated version of I am the Bread of Life with its “He who comes to me shall not hunger” and “I will raise him up”.

What is the problem with using nouns and pronouns relating to people that include all people, especially when the majority of those present are not “men”, “brothers”, “he” or “him” but “women”, “sisters”, “she” and “her”?

What are some people so frightened of?


Elizabeth Harrington