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"My Sisters and Brothers . . . "

Monday, January 25, 2010 1:00 PM Comments (22)

My parish has been having visiting priests recently, and two of them have had the unfortunate habit of addressing the congregation by saying, “My sisters and brothers . . . “

To my mind, this is just sad.

It comes off something like a parent being overly chummy with the young ‘uns by trying (and failing) to use the latest teen-lingo and sounding out of touch instead.

Let’s talk about the alternatives.

1) “Brethren” – This has been the standard way of addressing mix-gender religious congregations in English for the last several million years.

It sounds formal, but natural—which is what you want. Something elevated in tone in keeping with the religious nature of the gathering, but not something that’s going to pop out to the listener as an unnatural or forced expression, which would cause the listener to pop out of the worship experience and start thinking about how you are using language rather than what you are using language to say.

While “brethren” did originally mean “brothers” (not like that’s a bad thing), the term is no longer in colloquial use and people don’t parse it to mean “brothers.” They know without having to stop to think about it that everybody is included.

2) “Brothers” – This is the contemporary equivalent of “brethren.” It sounds less formal, but the term is more likely to be taken as exclusive of women. In some Christian churches they use this word without any problem, but in the contemporary Catholic parish there is likely to be enough political correctness to make an alternative desirable.

3) “My brothers and sisters” – This is the common alternative that gets used. It even gets used by the pope. Given the gender-sensitivities that exist these days, I can deal with this one, although it’s a shame that people have given up so quickly on the virtually ideal term “brethren.”

The one place I absolutely hate “my brothers and sisters,” though, is in Scripture readings. I’m sorry, but Greek had a way to say “sisters,” and St. Paul could have effortlessly written his epistles saying “adelphoi kai adelphai” if he wanted to. To translate “adelphoi” as “brothers and sisters” is inaccurate. Further, it allows political correctness to intrude upon and “correct” the word of God.

Any of these, though, are preferable to “my sisters and brothers.”

Why?

Because communities use conventional modes of expression for a reason: They let people to focus on meaning rather than having to pause to ponder the mode of expression. Further, using the community’s norms of speech signals an acceptance of the community’s values and beliefs.

To take phrase like “brothers and sisters” and deliberately invert it signals a rejection, on some level, of the community’s traditional way of handling gender issues.

No doubt priests who do this are trying to show sensitivity and inclusiveness to women, but what they actually do tickle the ears of certain people (of both genders) while sending an “I reject your values” message to everybody else (of both genders).

They also force worshippers to pop out of the worship experience and focus on the words being used rather than the message being conveyed. And they needlessly intrude gender politics on the act of worship.

That’s just sad.

Filed under gender, language, liturgy, political correctness

About Jimmy Akin

Jimmy Akin
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Jimmy was born in Texas, grew up nominally Protestant, but at age 20 experienced a profound conversion to Christ. Planning on becoming a Protestant pastor or seminary professor, he started an intensive study of the Bible. But the more he immersed himself in Scripture the more he found to support the Catholic faith. Eventually, he entered the Catholic Church. His conversion story, "A Triumph and a Tragedy," is published in Surprised by Truth. Besides being an author, Jimmy is a Senior Apologist at Catholic Answers, a contributing editor to This Rock magazine, and a weekly guest on "Catholic Answers Live."