'Brotherly' Love in Today's Church

Almost 40 years ago, Joan Chittister wrote an article for America magazine calling for inclusive language in the church and listing the positive effects such a change would have for the church itself and for the development of women. Yes, that’s 40 years ago and little has changed. The following is an edited version of that article.

First appeared in America magazine March 19, 1977 Reprinted as pamphlet by America Press, Inc. 1977

‘Brotherly’ Love in Today’s Church
by Joan Chittister

The Roman Catholic Church has a language problem.

Unless the present language pattern of the church changes, women cannot ever possibly become equal in it, or be identified as the true face of the church, let alone become ordained to anything but an institutionalized recognition of their second-class status in the system.

It is my contention that the use of sexist language in the church contributes to the continuance of a negative attitude toward women; affects the psychological development of women themselves; divides the church; limits its resources and perpetuates injustice.

The Eskimos, anthropologists tell us, have 18 different words in their language for “snow.” Americans have at least that many for “car.” Whatever is important to a group, in other words, is always reflected in its language. In the language of the church, women do not exist at all. God comes to save “men,” the texts say. We are all “sons” of God. We pray for the absent ‘brethren” and celebrate our “brotherhood” in Christ with ‘‘fraternal” joy. In the Mass prayers for the Sundays of Advent, as they appear in a missalette chosen at random, the church refers to the congregation in some male form 28 times. That count does not include a review of the Scripture passage of Psalms. The hymns, to be sung also by women presumably, make an additional 20 references. Clearly, equality is not at issue here, nor is the face of the church a picture of all its members.

Negates Value
Language shapes thought and attitudes. Theorists have questioned for years whether thought follows language or language follows thought, but oppressed people regularly point out the effect of terminology on acceptance and social rights. In the 1960's, leaders of the American Negro movement fought to eliminate “Negro” and the subservience the term implied, in favor of the concept that “black is beautiful.” Today, feminists want to be called women rather than “the girls” or “the little wives.” But to be called nothing at all, never even to be referred to directly at that ultimate moment of human community and dignity, the Mass, is even more devastating.

This failure of the church to address women as women is effectively to make them nonpersons who need not to be dealt with. And if not at the Mass or, in the case of women religious whose breviaries are written and published by men, at the time of community prayer, then why would anyone feel it a natural thing to deal with them in the diocese or the parish or the Sacred Congregation?

The failure to name women in the same way in which men are identified in sacrament, liturgy and prayer simply overlooks half the Christian assembly. To pray in the assembly, it is necessary to be what you are not, or to be nothing at all. The most popular defense of the present practice is that the sexist terms “men,” “brothers,” and “sons” are simply generic, and that the issue is unimportant. In that case, two questions have to be asked: 1) Who decided which terms were generic? 2) Since it is not important, why not try it the other way for a while, since women are a majority of the population, anyway? Let’s pray, for example, that God came to save all women, that we are all daughters of God and that the church should be a model of sisterly love. The change should be easy if it is really not important.

Affects Development
Clearly, the consistent use of male vocabulary blurs the development of the female selfimage in the Christian community. One of the factors that shape the human personality and self-image is the response to self that persons receive from others. By comparing ourselves to meaningful persons in our lives, we learn about ourselves. We come to define ourselves as too tall or a little short, as valuable or rejected, as intelligent or inadequate, by the way that others respond to our presence. It is this social “looking glass’ that tells us who we are. Not to notice persons, not to reflect on their presence at all, is to communicate that they are unimportant, ineffective objects who are socially second-class. Women either do not exist at all in the hymns and texts of church liturgy, or they are pictured as frail, weak and passive.

It is hard to make the case, then, that their presence on a few committees here and there is actually important to the Christian community. The question of who makes up the church becomes a serious but subtle one. Women get included in its identity, but only generically, not as separate, dynamic contributors to its mission. Their importance becomes secondary. Who can read an ecclesial document or participate in Christian liturgy and really believe that women bring equal gifts to the building of the kingdom? What is worse, women themselves cannot possibly get that message clearly. Consequently, their life in the church remains that of the weaker sex, the secondary role, the helpmate, the unimportant nonmember.

Limits Resources
As long as women continue to go unmentioned and uncalled, their presence as a responsible resource will also go unnoticed. Not only will the present generation lack a sense of women’s place in the church, but future generations as well will likely find the intrusion of women into the theological and administrative arenas of the church awkward and suspect, despite all theory to the contrary.

A great effort is being made to alter the vocabulary of children’s textbooks so that girls and boys are identified separately. Until the church does the same, it is unlikely that the next generation of male adults will be any more comfortable in sharing the mission of the church with women than the present one. Unless recognized as strong, contributing, independent persons, women will continue to remain passive.

Social scientists repeatedly document the fact that because their self-esteem is low, women consistently give themselves and their own needs little priority. The gifts and vision and contributions that can be made by this part of the church are therefore dependent on the self-image it nourishes in its female members. But to look at them and not to call them by name is hardly to build their self-image. As a result, half the resources of the church fail to be highlighted, fail to be fully tapped. For all the men who believe that men are supposed to bear the ultimate responsibility for the other half of the human race, there are just as many women who assume it their natural lot to be disregarded or inferior or deprived. Unless women come into the language as valid and valuable members of the church, the situation can only continue. This perpetuation of differences in human status and roles will ultimately weaken the church as the secular society that surrounds it becomes more and more conscious of the equal dignity of the sexes and less and less tolerant of different valuations.

Divides the Church
The point is that sexist language divides the church against itself. Some men may not be conscious and some women may not care, but the fact remains that, in the language patterns of the church, women as women do not exist. Cultures reflect in their language those things that affect their environment and have meaning in their lives. This is as true of the church as it is of any other institution.

If the church is indeed participative, if the church is actually communal, then church women as well as church men must have a responsibility and an investment in its future. If all of us are the church, then let us say who we are–the women and men; the sons and daughters; the persons of this Christian community; so a baptized girl is as important and valued a member as a baptized boy. If not, then it is theologically imperative to rethink the whole concept of female baptism. Apparently, it differs from male baptism. How? Why? Someone has to ask the first questions. Someone has to demand the real answers. Someone has to question the assumptions. Who made them, and why?

From the point of view of structures, the fact that women are not addressed independently or directly in church documents and rites divides the people of God in a way so deft that the discussion of the nature and place of women in the church and society is skewed from the outset. Until both groups are included equally in the language pattern itself, then the inclusion of women on boards, tribunals, congregations, theology faculties and pastoral ministries will remain a struggle and an oddity, a concept that is new or “experimental” and therefore suspect. Both groups have to be linked naturally in a basic perceptual framework before real equality can be achieved in administrative, economic and social structures. Otherwise, such positions of responsibility continue to be concessions rather than rights.

What is being proposed here is that a universal language be adopted for use in church documents, rites, liturgies and hymnals rather than the generic terms that derive from male definitions and refer to all persons at once. To speak of “humankind” or “personhood” is surely just as easy as referring only to “mankind” or “manhood.” In other places, it may be more loving and so much more appropriate to say directly that “we ask your blessing, Lord, on all women and men here and everywhere,” or to sing that Jesus came for “them” instead of just for “men.” No suggestion that male vocabulary or imagery be replaced by female language is even implied. To call God “she,” it can be argued, is also sexist. To substitute one kind of chauvinism for the other is simply injustice under another guise.

What is proposed here is that men and women together approach the altar as equal persons. To pray with a group of men who are unaware that they completely disregard the presence of women in the life of the church is disappointing. To pray with a group of women who are equally oblivious to that omission is to experience in the worst way the effect of the system on the self-image and ego strength of individuals who are consistently over-looked. To be willing to fill the role of nonperson, not even to notice that it has been assumed, is certainly a prime example of the devastating effect of language on self-consciousness, or feelings of self-worth and on the appreciation of one’s own personal gifts.

Women religious, insofar as they have made a commitment to justice, have a special obligation to be models of justice, equality and presence for other women. At least in the convents of the world, women ought to be able to pray with their own identity.

But more important is the position taken by the official church itself. The printing of hymns with sexist vocabulary can be stopped immediately. The use of prose that is actually indicative of only half the church can be stopped immediately. There is no theological obstacle to the simple suggestion that male terminology be eliminated in favor of universalism or equivalence in address. If we are really serious about the role and value of women in the church, then changing the language of the church is an action that is tangible, achievable and without philosophical uncertainty. Bishops can change it; priest celebrants and preachers can change it; women can change it themselves for the sake of the growth of the church and the dignity of other women; publishing houses can change it easily.

The psychological and social overtones of this simple gesture are manifold. Women themselves will grow in self-esteem. Men will become conscious of women’s strong and special presence and be freed of false responsibility. The church will become a model of justice in this area to all women of the world everywhere who are owned or exploited or oppressed.

What is important at this time is not that old books or classic texts of scriptural revelation be altered, but that this church now–talking to this church now–talk to all of us so that all persons are dignified and included in the church’s understanding of itself. Either women do exist in this church, or they do not. The language of the church is clear and simple evidence of its answer to the implied question.