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BY Peter Feuerherd
A ROPER POLL conducted for The Catholic World Report magazine has cheered tradition-minded Catholics opposed to inclusive language in the liturgy and in the Church's sacramental readings.
The poll—which also surveyed American Catholics on a wide array of other issues—noted that 73 percent of lay Catholics were unfamiliar with the term “inclusive language,” a phrase linked to attempts by some liturgists and scholars to provide gender-neutral language in the Church's liturgical readings.
A solid majority—69 percent, according to Roper—have no problems with the use of “mankind” in describing both men and women. The numbers are about the same for men and women.
In a survey that in general offered little for tradition-minded Catholics to cheer—strong majorities, for example, backed the use of artificial birth control and ordination of women as priests— Catholic World Report focused on the inclusive language portion of the poll to prove a point often made by opponents of inclusive language.
The magazine, which is published by San Francisco-based Ignatius Press, argues that inclusive language is the pet project of an academic and liturgical elite bent on sacrificing the traditional uses of English in the Scriptures on the altar of politically correct feminism. The poll was released just a few months after the U.S. cardinals met in Rome to discuss liturgical translations and while a March meeting of a U.S. bishops' liturgical commission discussed the issue.
While the argument has been largely unnoticed by the average American Catholic in the pew, the inclusive language issue has sent opponents and advocates scurrying for advantage in what has become an often bitter behind-the-scenes battle, complete with rhetoric including challenges to orthodoxy and complaints about insensitivity to women.
“what conceivable reason could there be for undertaking radical surgery on liturgical texts, when most Catholics apparently find the existing texts preferable to the inclusive-language alternatives?" Philip Lawler, editor of Catholic World Report, wrote in his commentary on the Roper poll in his magazine's March issue.
Lawler pointed out that wide majorities of Catholics, according to the Roper poll, rejected proposed changes in Scripture that were changed to inclusive language terminology. For example, 66 percent of those polled preferred that the Gospel of Matthew text read: “And he said to them, ‘come after me and I will make you fishers of men,‘” the traditional version, over “Jesus said to them, come after me, and I will make you fish for people,” a version favored by some inclusive language proponents.
Another majority preferred the Genesis reading, “God created man in his own image” over “God created humankind in his image.”
Catholic World Report and Lawler himself have long campaigned against inclusive language in the liturgy. Inclusive language advocates have already successfully argued for changes in the Church lectionary for English-speaking Canada. The focus, however, has centered on the United States, which has the largest number of English-speaking Catholics in the world. So far, the Vatican has resisted attempts at language changes, including by blocking approval of biblical translations and lectionaries.
Lawler, writing on the worldwide web page for Mother Angelica's Eternal Word Television Network, argued that> “inclusive language does violence to traditional English prose, in order to serve the (mostly political) purpose of feminism.” He urged Catholics to write Rome and the U.S. bishops to oppose changes in liturgical language promoted by what he described as “powerful forces” within the U.S. Church bureaucracy.
Many American liturgists have landed on the pro-inclusive language side of the debate, but others welcomed the Roper poll's findings.
Msgr. M. Francis Mannion, rector of the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City and president of the Society for Catholic Liturgy said that the poll results “are consistent with my own experience as pastor,” adding, “on matters like this, a chasm exists between the average Catholic and those in academic life for whom inclusive language is a burning issue.”
Msgr. Mannion said that liturgical language that incorporates phrases such as “men and women” and “brothers and sisters” is appropriate—but inclusive language that refers to God is not, he argued, a distinction that many liturgists supportive of inclusive language agree with.
The significance of the Roper poll, he argued, is that it is the first effort to discover “what the average Catholic thinks on liturgical matters. The direction of ongoing liturgical reform are being driven primarily by professional liturgists— not by clergy or lay people. This is a very serious problem.”
He noted that the indication of widespread dissent from Church teachings illustrated in the Roper poll provides clues about the lack of interest in inclusive language. “I suspect that those who take an independent line on moral matters also chafe at being told how they must say their prayers or address God.”
But the value of inclusive language does not rely on widespread public support for changes, argued Father Edward Hislop, chairman of the board of the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions and pastor of St. Mary's Church in Helena, Mont. “public opinion polls in our country tend to be a measure of truth. But, as Catholics, we don't judge truth by public opinion polls,” he said.
Still, he said, “I am not willing to concede that people are bothered by inclusive language,” noting that inclusive language translations have yet to be approved for widespread use in American parishes. “It's not fair to say that, because they have not experienced them.”
According to Father Hislop, inclusive language is not only politically correct, it is, in many cases, historically and biblically correct. He noted that the use of inclusive language can “put us in touch with the original text of the Scriptures,” that were written for all believers, male and female. He said that careful biblical scholarship will be needed to ascertain the true meaning of Scripture. In some cases, he said, what has become traditionally known as a reference to “men” because of the limitations of traditional English usage may have a wider meaning in the original Greek and Hebrew writings.
The use of inclusive language, he said, also allows for the Church's liturgy to speak in the idiom of contemporary Americans. “It's an issue of the language being accessible, so that what is heard can be truly heard [in the Mass],” said Father Hislop, who argued that words such as “mankind,” to modern American English speakers, refers to just one gender.
“why shouldn't it be inclusive?" he asked, noting that in his experience as a pastor, the issue is a concern to Catholics, particularly in churches where liturgy is viewed as a call to conversion and in places where the congregation listens carefully to the words read at Mass.
Bishop Emil Wcela, auxiliary of Rockville Centre, N.Y., and member of the board of the Catholic Biblical Association, quoted in The Long Island Catholic, has argued that there are “two dialects” in America when it comes to the use of the word “man.” The question for the Church, he said, “Is which of the dialects will we use?"
While using gender-neutral language in reference to Jesus would be wrong, Bishop Wcela has argued that scriptural references to people should be gender-neutral. “It is better to use the dialect that includes everyone,” he said.
The argument is not expected to end. Further polls and studies can be expected, as well as more letter-writing campaigns to the U.S. bishops and the Vatican. What impact it will have on the faith lives of that portion of mankind—or humankind—that worships in English has yet to be determined.
Peter Feuerherd is based in New York.