Catholic Women/Common Wisdom: Saying It Like It Is

On January 22nd, the thirteenth anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions legalizing abortion will be memorialized by rallies, prayer vigils, and the annual “March for Life” in Washington, D.C. Exactly one lunar month earlier, on December 25th, the nation celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ. But Our Savior didn’t enter human history when He was born. He became materially present at His conception — the Annunciation. The Catholic Church recognizes the presence of Jesus Christ prior to His birth by celebrating the announcement of His coming on March 25th. This feast ex­presses an awareness of the approximately nine months of Christ’s intrauterine life.

Mary travelled to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, with the knowledge that she carried the Messiah. It was the baby Elizabeth carried, John, who first affirmed God’s presence by “leaping” in his mother’s womb. Scripture’s report that the yet-to-be-born John “leapt” for joy because God had arrived is considered little more than a myth by many. But, modern science suggests there is more to this account than mere romantic story telling. Authors T. Verney and J. Kelly, in their book, Secret Life of the Unborn Child write:

We now know that the unborn child is an aware reacting human being who from the sixth month on (and perhaps before) leads an active emotional life. The fetus can, on a primitive level, even learn in utero.

Elizabeth was six months pregnant when she was visited by Mary. Her pre-born child was “an aware reacting human be­ing.”

We are hearing lots these days about the Church not recognizing “women’s experience.” The blame is laid at the feet of the “patriarchy,” “male dominated Church,” etc. I think such claims are silly. We have two great feasts, the An­nunciation and the Visitation, which are uniquely feminine days of worship and thanksgiving. It is curious that the voices we hear raised from “feminist” quarters in the Church do not clamor for more recognition for the experience of Mary and Elizabeth. We do hear them demand the “right” to be priests and claim they are empowered to define legitimate Catholic teaching with regard to whether induced abortion is “sometimes moral.” With all the “assertiveness training” and “consciousness raising” women have gone through dur­ing the past ten years, one would think that somewhere along the line it would have occurred to “feminists” how special Mary’s and Elizabeth’s experiences as women were. It was two women who knew of God’s presence in the world before the angels brought the good tidings to others. That’s a real privilege! “He who is mighty has done great things for me…”

My first New Year’s Resolution is to celebrate the feasts of the Annunciation and the Visitation in a very special way. I am thinking about planning a day of recollection for women to meditate on the meaning of Jesus Christ’s relationship with women in the Scriptures. Women often were told things before others knew of them. Mary and Elizabeth come to mind first, but there was also the woman at Jacob’s well. When she said, “I know that the Messiah is coming (who is called Christ), and when he comes he will tell us all things,” Jesus revealed himself to her when he said, “I who speak with thee am he.” It was Mary Magdalene who first learned of Christ’s resurrec­tion. Both these women served as messengers. The woman at the well brought His message to her town; Mary Magdalene brought the news of His resurrection to the disciples.

By focusing attention on the experience of the women who touched Christ’s life in the Scripture — His special way of relating to them with a trust that was often missing in His rela­tionships with men — Catholic women will help to dispel the foolish claims by some feminists that the “experience” of women is missing in the Church liturgy.

My second New Year’s Resolution is related to the first. Some time ago, after the 1973 Supreme Court’s abortion decisions, I found myself concentrating on the Profession of Faith one Sunday morning. I was startled that day by what I was professing by rote.

For us men and for our salvation

he came down from heaven:

by the power of the Holy Spirit

he was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man.

By the power of the Holy Spirit he was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man? When did the words get changed? Or did they? This language didn’t seem right to me, and I worried about the teaching effect on young people, who say this every Sunday. But I shrugged off the translation, convincing myself that everybody really knew that God was conceived — became incarnate — by the power of the Holy Spirit.

A few months after this unsettling discovery, I was in Ireland during the Christmas season. As we made our profes­sion of faith, I realized it was different than the one we say in the U.S. The congregation was saying something out of sync with what our American group was saying. I opened the Mass booklet and read:

For us men and for our salvation

he came down from heaven:

by the power of the Holy Spirit

he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.

At that point I admit to being distracted from the Mass. I began reciting the Apostles’ Creed to myself.

I believe in one God the Father almighty…

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son,

He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary…

There it was again: He was conceived, not born by the power of the Holy Spirit.

When I returned to the states I mentioned the differing translations to a friend of mine who is active in the pro-life movement. I was rather amazed to hear her tell me that she, too, was disturbed by the American translation. She gave me a Mass booklet from Australia, where she had just vacationed. The Irish and Australian translations were the same. She had been concerned enough by the American translation of the Creed that she wrote to James Cardinal Knox in 1981 about the matter. In her letter, she registered exactly what bothered me — that the U.S. translation of the Nicene Creed could easily lead people to think that the Lord’s life began when he was born, not at His conception. I do not think this nit picking when we live in a country whose highest court has said that legal personhood is not present until birth. It’s hard enough to teach children about the sanctity of human life before birth in our culture without having the Creed they say every Sunday unwittingly underpin what the Supreme Court did by implying God entered our history (became a “person”) at His birth.

Cardinal Knox responded to my friend’s inquiry on June 19, 1981:

I have noted the observations regarding the transla­tion of the Creed used in the United States of America. They should certainly be kept in mind if and when a review of the texts is made. Much of the rest of the English-speaking world seems to have re­tained a more faithful translation of this particular section of the Creed, and I had to seek out a U.S. missal to discover the text in your letter.

It is troubling to listen each Sunday as the congregation recites the words of the U.S. Creed in language that obscures the ex­perience of Mary at the Annunciation. So, for my second New Year’s Resolution I will recite the Creed as Christians do in “much of the rest of the English speaking world.” I will say the words softly so as not to disturb my neighbors, but I will profess the truth — God became incarnate at His conception — not at His birth.

I am not suggesting that there is some sinister plot in­volved with the U.S. translation. It is simple enough to understand that men would focus on Christ’s birth — being born — rather than on His conception, of which only Mary, a woman, had knowledge. So far as I have been able to find out, the translators for the United States liturgy are shrouded in a mist. When I have asked people who was responsible I get answers like, “The Benedictines had something to do with it.” No one ever mentions a name of a person — just the abstract “Benedictines” is offered as an answer to my questions. I wonder if a woman served on the committee that produced the translation this country uses? If so, how could she have ap­proved a translation, which leaves Mary’s acceptance of God’s will for salvation at the Annunciation unrecognized and unstated?

Perhaps some will think my second resolution is “divisive” and separates me from “the community of wor­shippers,” but the words we use to express ourselves in divine worship matter a great deal. Human words are tools we use to communicate God’s truth and divine revelation. Saying it like it is, particularly concerning something as important as our Creed, is an exercise of appropriate “assertiveness” and serves as an indication that “consciousness raising” effects women loyal to what the Church teaches, as well as those who are not.

“He became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.”

“He who is mighty has done great things for me.”


  • Ann O'Donnell

    Ann O'Donnell is a wife, mother, and registered nurse. She is founder of Women for Faith and Family, a St. Louis-based organization formed to support Church teachings on abortion, human sexuality and family life.

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