Inclusive Language and the Liturgy

I belong to a relatively liberal congregation. For instance, the former pastor often applied St. Paul’s admonition about “freedom from the law” to Vatican “laws,” and asked for and received an exemption from the 2002 reemphasis by our bishop on kneeling after the Sanctus; and the present pastor, before the last election, mentioned in a homily that he was a member of both Voice of the Faithful and Call to Action so that there would be no doubt about where he stands theologically or politically. Therefore, I am not surprised when in the liturgy instead of “may the Lord receive . . . for the praise and glory of His name, . . . His Church” the congregation always substitutes “God’s name” and “God’s Church,” and before the Preface uses a similar substitution to avoid saying “It is right to give Him thanks and praise.” Nor am I particularly surprised when the pastor ends the Eucharistic Prayer substituting “Through the Lord, with the Lord, in the Lord,” instead of “Through Him, with Him . . . .”

I was shocked, however, on Good Shepherd Sunday when “The Lord Is My Shepherd” was sung, and I heard “she” all the way through the hymn — “She makes me lie down in green meadows,” “she leads me . . .,” etc. After Mass, I was motivated to have my hearing checked, but started by checking Google. I discovered that there is a Bobby McFerrin Good Shepherd song like this, which is a favorite of feminists and neo-pagans, and ends with “Glory be to our Mother and Daughter and to the Holy of Holies. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end.”

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But, aside from such extremes, I find elements of this attempt to keep all usage of ‘he” or “him” with regard to God down to a minimum in the other parishes in my area as well, where the congregations still kneel after the Sanctus. I recently subscribed to Magnificat, and thus have been able to follow the Scriptural readings at weekday Masses. The priest will often change the pronouns “he” or “him” in the readings, as if the congregation will think the reading only referred to males. Recent examples include the March 4 reading from Jeremiah where “Cursed is the man who . . .” is changed to ” Cursed is one who . . .” and “He is like a tree . . .” to “Such a person is like a tree . . . .” And on March 10, in the reading from Deuteronomy Moses’ reference to “the God of your fathers . . .” is changed to “the God of your ancestors . . .” and in Moses’ question, “what great nation is there that has gods so close to it as the Lord, our God, is to us whenever we call upon him?” the last part, “whenever we call upon him?” is omitted.

In my 1999 book, Politically Incorrect Dialogues, I have a chapter on “Inclusive Language,” which brings out the tremendous advantages the English language offers to committed inclusivists, in contrast to an inflected language. In German, for instance, all nouns have to be masculine, feminine, or neuter. It is impossible to refer to teachers, athletes, artists, politicians, etc. without designating their gender; and relative pronouns like “who” have to have the same gender as the nouns they refer to. It would be an extraordinary challenge for someone to be a strict “inclusivist” in German. Both “God” and “Lord” are grammatically masculine. So if a German priest tries to avoid saying “him” or “he” in the liturgy, the use of “God” or “Lord” would still be ineluctably masculine, besides sounding awkward (making one think, haven’t you heard of pronouns?). Even the Holy Spirit, der heilige Geist, is grammatically masculine; but this, of course, is not a theological statement about maleness. Once in European travels I saw a statue of the Holy Spirit as a woman. But a German who connected the Holy Spirit with feminine qualities would not feel it necessary to refer to Geist as die instead of der.

As an author who tries to keep abreast of topics he writes on, I read numerous books, and have noticed something that many other readers may be getting used to: Sometimes an entire book of 200-plus pages will use only “she” to express common gender; and sometimes an author will use “he” throughout one chapter for common gender, and then, in the interests of balance, use “she” in the following chapter, alternating like this throughout the book. In an earlier version of my 2008 Philosophy of Human Nature, my editor insisted not only that I use “she” for common gender through the book, but objected to my reference to God as “He”; his suggestion was that I either add a note explaining that my religious beliefs require me to refer to God as a “he,” or else use “He or She” or “S/he.” I asked for and received a release from contract from the publisher, and began to solicit other publishers.

Back to first principles: Gender is not sex. One can be fully committed to women’s rights, equal pay for equal work, etc., and still use “he” in English for common gender to refer to some person in general, as our Anglophone predecessors have done for hundreds of years. Priests who are worried about offending some adamant feminist in the liturgy by using the masculine pronoun for God the Father or Son might do well to fantasize what their problems might be if they were using a language where every noun, including God, is unavoidably already gendered.


  • Howard Kainz

    Howard Kainz is professor emeritus at Marquette University. He is the author of several books, including Natural Law: an Introduction and Reexamination (2004), The Philosophy of Human Nature (2008), and The Existence of God and the Faith-Instinct (2010).

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