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As long as women go unmentioned

Throughout March, Women’s History Month, Vision and Viewpoint will highlight some of Joan Chittister’s most prophetic writings about women’s rights and contemporary feminist spirituality. Some of the best of this writing is found in From the Writings of Joan Chittister: On Women, available on Kindle here.

Through the women’s movement, women have come from being owned to being owners, from being kept to being keepers, from being led to being leaders. But 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.

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. 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.

Clearly, the consistent use of male vocabulary blurs the development of the female self-image 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. 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.

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.

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. 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.

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,” or to sing that Jesus came for “them” instead of just for “men.” 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 point is not that historical documents should be rewritten. Scriptural exegesis, translation and interpretation is a discipline that strives consistently to preserve historical accuracy and maintain relevance and meaning as well. As the understanding of the place of woman grows, these exegeses will take care of themselves. 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.

—from "Brotherly Love in Today’s Church,” written by Joan Chittister, first published in America Magazine March 19, 1977. (The full essay can be read in On Women.)