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Catholics Await Gender-Neutral Liturgy

BRONX, N.Y. (WOMENSENEWS)–Father George Hill, a Catholic priest, says that when he looks out on women in his congregation, he finds it insulting to tell them to pray for the “peace and unity of mankind.”

Hill is the chaplain at Manhattan College, a Catholic school in the Bronx, N.Y. He has been using gender neutral language in his liturgies for years–using “humans” and “our parent” in place of “men” and “our father.”

He does this translation himself, changing the words as he goes along.

The Scottish Episcopal Church in August allowed its priests to use a text with more gender-neutral terminology.

Priests such as Hill have no such option. They take what they see as the problem of pro-male language into their own hands. They’re not exactly breaking church law, but they’re not part of a trend that the Catholic Church favors either.

During Vatican Council II in the 1960s and 1970s, the Catholic Church was working to reform its traditions. Since then other stirrings have arisen. In 1997, for instance, the Most Rev. Donald W. Trautman, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Erie, Pa., called for gender neutral language in Catholic texts and liturgies, according to the text of one of his lectures on the Web site of the Catholic Bible Association of America.

Other groups, such as Christians for Biblical Equality, with an international Web-based membership, advocate for gender inclusive language and promote books about biblical women.

No Texts for Mass

But that’s not a church-issued text Hill can use to say Mass.

In a recent interview in his office, Hill rested the text on his forearms and stopped at one point to chuckle about how much easier it would make his life to have the gender neutral text in front of him.

“It has got to happen,” he said. “How long it will take is another question.”

In his most recent book, Pope Benedict XVI said that it is not within the Church’s power to ordain women as priests and that God chose men alone for that role.

Sister Patricia Schoelles, president of St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Rochester, N.Y., says liturgy “has a formative influence on us over time.”

She said she and a group of other nuns receive unofficial translations of psalms and prayer books that are gender inclusive. She said the sisters decided to stop singing the hymn “Faith of Our Fathers” when they realized that it had been their mothers who shaped their faith.

Schoelles says the newest translation of the Catholic Church’s Missal actually retreats from some gender-inclusive language. She attributes this to the patriarchal hierarchy of the church–since women are not able to be ordained, they are not present when these decisions are reached.

The Scottish Episcopal Church’s language shift this summer followed a gathering of church lawmakers at which some female priests and other critics objected to the liturgy’s dependence on words such as “mankind,” “he” and “him.” The liturgy had not been updated since 1982.

Outrage Sparked

The decision to allow priests to use an alternative, gender-neutral text sparked outrage in some quarters.

“It is political correctness. It is quite unnecessary,” the Rev. Stuart Hall of the Scottish Prayer Book Society was quoted as saying by the Telegraph, the U.K. daily. “The word man in English–especially among scientists–is inclusive of both sexes. Those who try to minimize references to God as the father and Christ as his son have great difficulties, because the New Testament is shot through with these references.”

Ashley Cross, head of the women and gender studies department and an English professor at Manhattan College, does not agree that “man” can be considered universal.

“Descriptions are prescriptive, whether we want them to be or not,” she said.

When the U.S. Declaration of Independence granted freedom for all men, Cross pointed out, they meant men–and white men–not women. Men owned land and voted, not women. In the same way, the Catholic Church–with its all-male priesthood–can’t be expected to treat gender universally, she said. When its texts say men, that means men.

Cross says the gender-neutral language debate is as old as the debate over the wage gap; despite years of effort, women are still making about 75 cents to every dollar earned by men.

“The language we speak shapes the reality we live in,” she said.

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Mary Kate Boylan is a Women’s eNews intern and communications major with a concentration in journalism at Manhattan College.

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