What you don’t realize is that you contribute to sex abuse every time you say Mass. How? By reciting typical liturgical God-talk.
I realize your predicament. Because of the Vatican thought police, you’re not free to use truly enlightening language, but you wouldn’t have to stick in a “Lord” or “Father” at every turn. These nouns make some of us want to scream. And those who don’t mind? The less they mind, the more they’re harmed.
Steadily, incessantly, the dominant-male language drips into minds, insidiously planting inequality and domination as the primary frame of human relationship, of all relationships—humans with each other, with Divine Source, with animals, with the earth.
You think “Father” is a nice image? Then why not mix it with “Mother”? You see. It’s the exclusiveness. The male dominance. The inequality.
A good replacement word might be “Spirit” but you’d want to stick a “Holy” in front of it and then many would think of a particular deity in the sky. Do you get it? Can you see what this thousands-of-years-old bias does to our minds?
Pronouns are worse than the nouns. Being the least explicit, they’re the most difficult to challenge. Invisible to our awareness, pronouns effectively fetter our thoughts. One theologian trying to correct the mistaken perception tripped over it instead when he wrote,
God is not male; He is a spirit."HeHimHis" condition us to feel male power as natural, normal, proper, and right, while female power is unnatural, abnormal, improper, and wrong. We have all—men and women—suffered deep psychological damage from language that limits the unfathomable Mystery of the universe.
How deeply the grooves of our minds have been cut shows in discourse about God-talk. Theologians declare that God is beyond male or female but then nullify their point by referring to God as "He." One person wrote,
We would never think of questioning that God was the Father and could never conceive of God as Mother. Christ named God the Father; if we believe Christ, we cannot compromise.A theology student argued,
Our faith would not be the same faith if we believed in a Goddess rather than a God.He got that right. Unfortunately. Correctly he stated that sometimes our tradition depicted God "so masculine that we are all feminine in relation to him." Can you not see the harm?
I fear priests suffer greater ignorance on this subject than lay people. You’ve become inured to the deadly language. Educate yourselves. There are any number of feminist theologians who can help you.
Now cut it out! I saw you flinch at the word “feminist.” It underwent the same denigrating campaign as the word “Goddess.”
Poke around on the Web at sites like Women Waking the World or Voices of the Sacred Feminine or in the Index on this blogsite. You won’t be educated if you don’t move out of the narrow trench dug by Vatican strictures. And if you don’t move out of it, you are no spiritual leader.
FOLLOW–UP TO SERMON (November 30)
Now I opened it. I unleashed a Pandora’s box of heretofore unsaid realities, and I’m forced to go on with it. I’m sorry. I’m sorry it hurts. But, oh, the unacknowledged hurt and harm done by our Church!
My hard words in the previous post accuse priests, but we all participate in it. I’m guilty too. It’s easier to just sleepily go along instead of resisting the implicit insults to women and girls, the constant barrage in Christian language of male dominating over female, male superior commanding female inferior.
When I entered the School of Theology almost 25 years ago, I was hit by the blast of sexist language. Coming from the secular world, I was blown over by it—there’s nothing like it in the rest of life, although religion only magnifies the maleness, domination, and competition that structure our entire society.
Just as startling was the contrast of the devastating words with the gentle men drinking in and proclaiming them, perfectly oblivious to their underlying message. The verbal insults to women coming from sweet, polite and affirming males was surreal. I have to say I felt safe and irritated at the same time. I said I was a feminist and they accepted it, but what I didn’t admit was my exceedingly vulnerable state—severely insecure from events in my life at that time. I was incapable of standing up to the conflict gracefully. Still am.
“He,” “man,” “He,” “man” blanketing everything! All Christian theology drips oppressive He-man ideology to a ridiculous degree. When a holy woman in Christian history makes a contribution, it goes down in church history as “man” having said or done it.
I can understand the reason for some of it—it’s the German connection. The Holy Roman Empire had a prominent place in Christian history and consequently put German theology and spirituality at the center of Christian language. And it was German Lutherans who pioneered historical-critical research on the Bible, which brought awareness to Christian scholarship of the myth at the center of our tradition. This places German writings at the center of scripture study. In German, “the man” is der Mann, but the German man means “one.” It is a separate word entirely and does not refer exclusively to males. This distinction wasn’t kept in translation.
The German language genders every noun, and this adds to the imbalance. Gott comes out more exclusively male in German because it is preceded by the masculine article der and not the feminine die.
Our tradition actually forbids respect and reverence for female images of the Divine. If we look at it honestly, we can’t escape it. Every reference to Divinity is kept strictly masculine—by Vatican decree. We are commanded by Rome to ignore what we know and to identify the highest value of all existence as exclusively male. Male bias rules so pervasively our theology and manner of speech that we don’t know how to cut it out. Frankly, I don’t know how to do it, how to preserve my integrity as an aware, adult Christian woman.
“God-She” works, but “Lord-She” does not. Besides being uncompromising in its masculinity, it legitimizes domination. “Father” is easy to deal with. Just add “Mother” in equal portions. Easy. But who does it? I understand the fear of right-wing thought police who knock down our brightest and most courageous—Roger Haight and Peter Phan among others.
Can we work through the fear? If we really want to help victims of all kinds, we will engage in what should be the abiding work of Catholic theology and practice—how to render our religious tradition in gender equal terms. I get so tired of incomprehension, of ignoring, of going along with what we're used to because it's easier. Waking up is hard, brutal sometimes.
Thanks for your support, dear friends who have written in response . . . .
RESPONSES TO SERMON (December 3)
From an anonymous male:
I think the points you bring up are legitimate. The male references do not offend me but I have witnessed some of the more sexist members of my gender use the language used in church and the bible to prop up their sexist view points, which I find repugnant.From Maxine Moe, whom I've quoted in this blog before:
It’s been a long time but I remember my dad quoting something from scripture about how the man is the head of the household and his references to how only males were allowed to run mass (Catholic) and how women played subservient roles in the church because that is how God wanted it. My dad has since dropped those types of comments with me because he knows I don't appreciate it. I'm sure he still holds those views but he doesn't share them with me.
One Sunday morning back in the 90's I stayed home instead of going to church. At that time, and throughout all previous years, I attended services every Sunday. This particular Sunday I was so totally overwhelmed with all the duties expected of working women: You handle your job better than most men, and take care of the housework, laundry, shopping, cooking/baking, make plans for weekends and plan every celebration (additional food preparation), do the bookkeeping and handle schedules for the whole family, all the while raising children and providing whatever they need throughout their infant, toddler, elementary, jr./sr. high school AND handling what they need help with even in the college years. During the ‘90s I had kids in elementary, jr. & sr. high school and college.Well said, Maxine.
The attitudes that dictate that all of the above is "women's work" is worth much discussion on its own - but that is another story. Or, part of this same story.
On that particular Sunday I did listen to the service on the radio. I remember dusting off a surface and hearing the pastor read that day's scripture which began: "Christ and his disciples were walking." I took the dust cloth and threw it as hard as I could to the floor.
"Christ and his disciples were walking." The immediate picture that played in my mind was Christ and a few MEN were walking. It sickened me how we totally fold into the views given us and how destructive those views can be. Without thinking, I pictured men only.
Words portray an image, the image reflects your thoughts, your thoughts direct your actions. Most certainly, a person's thoughts and actions do matter! The image that is portrayed is of absolute importance!
Now, think of what we have been taught regarding feminine images of the divine. To say that this does not have a negative effect on each and every person, each and every hour of our lives, is pure ignorance.
Why I don't make the sign of the cross (December 6)
My “Sermon to Catholic priests” brought in a lot of email response, some of which I will continue to post. Laura wrote,
“[A psychology professor at the College of St. Benedict 25 years ago] couldn't see what all the fuss was about with he/she, thought it was a waste of time changing the language. I told him I was raising three young daughters (at the time) and I wanted their gender to be represented in their school books and the books we read at night so that they would know not only boys mattered.This last point begs for more discussion. What is the connection between sex abuse of all types and liturgical language? Why do I say priests “contribute to sex abuse every time you say Mass”? Because God-talk saturated with “Lord,” “Father,” and “He” endorses domination and exclusion. Because its systematic exclusion of feminine images endorses POWER OVER others. Because it serves to perpetuate Deformed Catholic power.
I use s/he instead of using he/she. . . .
Anything that denigrates women adds to the pervasive attitude in society that women are underlings. . . . The language was part of a more pervasive problem, the invisibility and underclassness of women, almost like they weren't considered to be human except to serve and bear children. I think the language was a symptom and not the cause, and it is archaic to still use it when the world is trying to move on.
It is too bad the church has that much power. Churches take spirituality and pervert it in order to control people.
But then, sexual abuse in the church is not limited to women.
Because a map of reality that imagines certain male individuals superior to females and lesser males is wrong. Morally wrong and also a misreading of Trinitarian theology. This is why I do not make the sign of the cross if the priest intones, “In the name of the Father and of the Son . . .” The Holy Source of all spiritual and physical reality is not 3 guys in the sky.
Patricia Fresen, a Roman Catholic woman bishop and Doctor of Theology, illuminates the parallels between sexism and racism and by extension all oppressive systems:
Both racism and sexism give all power and privilege to one group of people to the exclusion of the other group. Both racism and sexism are horrendous systems of injustice. Once one becomes aware of the injustice . . . one cannot go back. We learnt, in the apartheid years, that sometimes the best or even the only possible way to change an unjust law is to break it.Priests aware of the injustice clean up their God-talk, and I hope soon we’ll see more resistance from male priests to sexist injustice commanded by Rome. One good way is to attend Roman Catholic Womenpriest (RCWP) liturgies.