The Catholic Biblical
Association of

The Bishops, the Bible and Liturgical Language

by Richard J. Clifford, S.J.

First published in America, May 27, 1995, pp. 12-16

Copyright Richard J. Clifford, 1995

Permission given to download, print, distribute.

In 1991 the Roman Catholic bishops of the United States approved for liturgical use the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible (NRSV) and the revised psalter of the New American Bible (NAB). Both use inclusive language for human beings. The bishops then forwarded them to Rome for approval. Little did they realize that this would set in motion a vigorous campaign to discredit their decision. In 1994 the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith withdrew the approval given to the translations by the Congregation for Divine Worship in 1992 on the grounds that some of the inclusive language was incompatible with Roman Catholic theological tradition. The bishops have appealed the decision and the case is now pending.

Here is a sample of the objections. 1) Mother Angelica, chair of the board of Eternal Word Television Network, commented in a recent telecast on the Our Father, "See--our dear Lord put first things first in this marvelous prayer. I must honor God as my personal Father--that is why inclusive language is so satanic. Inclusive language is satanic! Only Satan wants to destroy the name of Father and Son and man [sic]."

2) The Rev. Joseph Fessio, an American Jesuit and the editor of Catholic World Report, on the basis of the NAB psalter translation of the original singular in Ps. 1:1 by an inclusive plural ("Happy those [rather than the man] who do not follow the counsel of the wicked") concluded that the Christological reference in the psalm had been obscured and charged that "it is now the U.S. bishops themselves, through their official organ the C.C.D., who are depriving their flock of the Christ of the Psalms" (Catholic World Report, February 1994, p. 64).

3) Another American Jesuit, Father Paul Mankowski, a graduate student in Semitic Languages at Harvard University and instructor at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, is cited by Inside the Vatican (January 1995, p. 47) as believing that the only precedents for such sweeping language alterations are political, like the insistence on the unisex word "citizen" in the French Revolution, "comrade" in the Bolshevik revolution, and the dropping of Lei in favor of Voi for personal address under Mussolini. The same publication regards Father Mankowski as "one of the key Roman players in this unfolding drama."

I will argue in support of the American bishops and against the objections just cited: 1) Mother Angelica fails to make a key distinction between vertical and horizontal inclusive language; 2) the patristic interpretation of Psalm 1 does not support Father Fessio's criticism of the bishops; 3) Father Mankowski's making inclusive language a purely political issue runs counter to important evidence that it is primarily a cultural and linguistic issue. Before demonstrating these assertions, however, I must provide background on two points: 1) the changing ideal of Bible translation in our century; 2) certain ambiguities in the English language that are acutely felt today. The discussion has implications beyond biblical translations, for the campaign against the NRSV and NAB is part of a larger one against inclusive language in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and in the work of the International Committee on English in the Liturgy (ICEL).


The Changing Ideal of Biblical Translation.
Literalistic translation of the Bible, exemplified by St. Jerome's Vulgate in the late fourth century and the Reformers' vernacular bibles, is no longer the only ideal. James Moffatt in the 1920's and E. J. Goodspeed in the 1930's broke decisively with Bible English; people give "their right hands in friendship" instead of "the right hand of fellowship" (Gal. 2:9) and are urged to "clothe themselves with the new self" rather than "with the new man" (Eph. 4:24). English translations since then have ranged widely, from literalistic (in which Hebrew and Greek idiom dominate) to free (in which English idiom dominates). With the new translations has come critical theory that is both linguistic and communicative. According to the new theories, translators are to strive for functional (or dynamic) equivalents and must be extremely sensitive to nuances in the receptor language. Eugene Nida, translation consultant for the American bible Society, gives two examples of inexactness in common biblical terms in English: "to justify" connotes "to make something questionable appear right" rather than "to put in a right relationship to God"; "grace" is a pleasing appearance, a girl's name, or a period of time before one pays a bill rather than kindness or goodness. Another example is man in American English, which ordinarily means an adult male human being. In short, accuracy in modern Bible translation has come to mean awareness of how a biblical word or phrase is communicated in the receptor language.

Ambiguities in the English language.
The two chief English-language problems affecting inclusive language are the ambiguous meaning of man and grammatical concord in the pronoun system. Here I draw from Dennis Baron, Grammar and Gender (Yale Univ. Press, 1986) and the Oxford English Dictionary (OED, 1908). Man in all the Germanic languages has the two-fold meaning "human being" and "adult male human being," a situation creating the potential for ambiguity. All the Germanic languages except English transferred the original generic sense of man to a new word, e.g., Mensch in German and Dutch, thereby freeing man in these languages to mean "adult male human being." There is no doubt that man was a gender-neutral noun in early stages of English, but some disagreement exists whether the meaning of man in Modern English, which never developed a derived generic, has been in any way restricted to minimize ambiguous reference. The OED claims that man in the sense of "human being" had become obsolete by the nineteenth century except in specified contexts such as indefinite or abstract use without the definite article.

Baron summarizes the lexical evidence. "Lacking a comprehensive frequency study, we cannot assess with any accuracy just what the present state of the use of man may be. Since many people sought an alternative like people or human being long before general man became a feminist issue, it might not be too hazardous to agree with the OED that for most of us it has been some time since there was a pair of men in paradise. Despite pronouncements to the contrary, the range of generic man seems to be shrinking, even within the literary/proverbial registers where it is most likely to occur. And in ordinary language its range is even more limited, as speakers continue to avoid generic man in favor of person..., human, individual, indefinite you, even guy and fellow" (p. 150).

The second linguistic problem arises from the fact, first noticed by Robert Lowth in 1762, that grammatical concord in English is not, as in many other languages, between adjectives and nouns but in the pronoun system, specifically in the third person singular, which must agree with the noun for which it stands. In theory, pronoun agreement could be handled four ways in English:
1. Everyone loves their mother.
2. Everyone loves his or her mother.
3. Everyone loves her mother.
4. Everyone loves his mother.
Of the above possibilities, No. 2 is awkward, No. 3 excludes men, and Nos. 1 and 4 compete. No. 1 preserves gender concord but not number concord, and No. 4 preserves number concord but not gender concord. He therefore is not always accurate as the common pronoun, for it does not always preserve gender concord. For this reason, some distinguished English writers, among them Joseph Addison, Jane Austen, Henry Fielding, Lord Chesterfield, John Ruskin and Sir Walter Scott, have resolved the problem of gender concord by singular they. The practice is defended by OED (1908!) as sometimes necessary. Though professional writers have been dissatisfied with the ambiguity of he, most people made do with the unresolved ambivalence until the 1970's when the feminist movement made inclusive language a general issue. These historically unresolved ambiguities in the language explain why native speakers may alternate between inclusive and non-inclusive language. The fact does not indicate inclusive language is simply political but merely that speakers tend to be as exact as the situation requires, and situations vary.


1. One must distinguish between horizontal and vertical inclusive language.
Mother Angelica need not fear the loss of the title "Father" for God, since the bishops' Criteria for the Evaluation of Inclusive Language Translations of Scriptural Texts Proposed for Liturgical Use distinguishes between language referring to the People of God, Israel, and the Christian community (No. 14), as "horizontal," and language naming God, the persons of the Trinity and the church (No. 25), as "vertical." Different criteria apply to the two categories.
References to people in biblical translations must be as inclusive as a good translation permits, e.g., 1 Pt. 2:4 RSV "[Christ] rejected by men" becomes in NRSV, "rejected by mortals." Greek anthrūpois means here "human beings = men and women"; "men" communicates inexactly. Some biblical kinship terms, e.g., brothers, sons, forefathers, must be carefully translated when they refer to men and women. Hebrew a means "brother" and "blood relation," "companion," "fellow member of the tribe," "one from the same country" (the second group may refer to women). Hebrew būn has several meanings besides male offspring, including "member of a class" as in "sons of Israel" = Israelites (male and female). "Forefathers" is inaccurate for ab“t when the word refers, as it often does, to female as well as male ancestors. To justify horizontal translation, the bishops invoke the principle of respect for the equal baptismal dignity of men and women in the liturgical assembly. Women as well as men are equally members of God's people and should hear themselves addressed in the assembly.

Empirical research on language supports the bishops' principle. Mary Crawford and Roger Chaffin summarize some of it: "...`generic' masculine language is ambiguous and is interpreted differently by men and women. When both men and women read the word he, a male interpretation (the default value) initially predominates. But if women are not to exclude themselves from what they read, they must do additional mental processing to transform the initial literal interpretation into one that includes them. Thus, they suppress male imagery associated with he and avoid its generic use (and the necessity for the transformation process) when writing." ("The Reader's Construction of Meaning: Cognitive Research on Gender and Comprehension," in Gender and Reading [eds. E. A. Flynn and P. P. Schweikart: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1986] 16). In short, men and women hear the same words differently ad process them differently.

For vertical inclusive language, language referring to God, the bishops take a different tack. They recognize that Israel, unlike its neighbors, did not attribute gender to God (Hos. 11:10). Introducing feminine references to God in Bible translations for the sake of equality, e.g., "father-mother" for "father," runs the risk of attributing gender to God and undoing the biblical portrait of God. It goes without saying that preachers and theologians should develop the feminine imagery of God's actions, e.g., Hos. 11:4; Is. 42:14; 49:15; Mt. 23:37, and the role of personified Wisdom in Proverbs 8, Sirach 24, and in the New Testament image of Christ.

2) Patristic and Ecclesiastic Usage Should Not Ordinarily Determine Translation.
Father Fessio's citation of Psalm 1 shows clearly why patristic usage should not determine biblical translation. A Christological explanation (requiring the singular "Happy the man" in v. 1) is not the majority patristic interpretation; the Fathers are all over the lot on their interpretation. One can reasonably argue that the translation man here obscures the psalm's universal applicability. For some Old Testament passages, the bishops urge special care in translating "so that the Christological meaning is not lost" (including the Servant Songs of Isaiah 42 and 53, Psalms 2 and 110 and the Son of Man passage in Daniel 7), but the list is short.

What should determine translation is the literal sense of Scripture itself. The literal sense is "that which has been expressed directly by the inspired human authors. Since it is the fruit of inspiration, this sense is also intended by God. One arrives at this sense by means of a careful analysis of the text, within its literary and historical concerns" (The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, II.B.1, a 1993 document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission; so also Catechism of the Catholic Church No. 116). The literal sense is thus the basis of patristic and traditional interpretation, not the other way round. Patristic tradition is extremely important; but it belongs in the notes, not in the translation.

Opponents of inclusive translations often invoke the ancient axiom lex orandi lex credendi, "the law of praying is the law of faith," to impose a translation on the basis of ecclesiastical tradition. Ironically, they use the axiom in a way diametrically opposite to the intention of its coiner, Prosper of Aquitaine (d. ca. 463). The full and accurate form is ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi, "that the law of praying determine the law of believing." As liturgists like Paul De Clerck point out (Studia Liturgica 24 [1994] 178-200), Prosper argued from the command (lex) implied in 1 Tim. 2:1 ("I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions and thanksgivings be offered for everyone") as an argument against the semi- Pelagians: Scripture says that everyone stands in total need of God's grace. In short, Scripture determines church usage-- not the other way round.

3. Inclusive Translation is Primarily a Cultural and Linguistic, Rather Than a Political Phenomenon.
The best evidence against Father Mankowski's reductionism has already been presented under "Background" above, the changed ideal of English Bible translation and the history of the language. To say the issue is purely political is to imply that all the publishers, editors, and station managers who have developed inclusive language guidelines are dupes in a scheme to impose on a quarter of a billion people the dialect of a radical feminist cadre! Inclusive language is part of North American culture. In Canada, where the NRSV has been the lectionary text for over two years, the bishops' liturgy committee received a mere half-dozen letters of inquiry prior to the outbreak of controversy last fall. The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church regards translation as an aspect of inculturation: "The passage from one language to another necessarily involves a change of cultural context; concepts are not identical and symbols have a different meaning, for they come up against other traditions of thought and other ways of life" (IV.B).


Church life in the United States has been affected by the dispute over language more profoundly than might appear at first sight. First, on the practical level, there are no lectionaries left in print (apart from a loose-leaf version). In the three-year delay of approval, publishers' stocks have been exhausted. Further, there is no approved inclusive psalter, though women's congregations have long sought one. The revised NAB psalter fits the bill but is held up in Rome. Unofficial inclusive editions are increasingly being used, but they have not been done in accord with the bishops' carefully developed Criteria. Second, many Roman Catholic women, especially those in full-time ministry in a priest-short church, are asking what is being communicated to them, first by the non-inclusive translation of the Catechism in 1994 and now by the withdrawal of an inclusive lectionary. Thirdly, the legitimate authority of the U.S. bishops to decide on translations for the liturgy has been called into question. The committees of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops dealing with language in the liturgy are largely staffed by bishops with terminal degrees in biblical studies and long experience in teaching. Bishops celebrate the liturgy in diverse settings and are well able to gauge the effectiveness of biblical texts to communicate to American congregations. Why, people ask, is their judgment on liturgical translations not accepted?

If the arguments presented in this article have any validity, there are no good reasons why the U.S. bishops' approval of the NRSV and NAB for liturgical use should not be immediately ratified in Rome. The Catholic Church in the United States needs both versions of the Bible.

Readers of AMERICA will ask, given the identity of some opponents of inclusive translation, where the Society of Jesus stands on the question of women in the church and inclusive translation. The answer is clear. The Jesuits' 34th General Congregation, made up of delegates from all over the world, promulgated in March 1995 a document titled "Jesuits and the Situation of Women in Church and Civil Society." Echoing the call of John Paul II "to make the essential equality of women a lived reality," the Congregation specified ways in which Jesuits might respond. Two are relevant for our topic: "a pedagogy that does not drive a further wedge between men and women" and "use of appropriately inclusive language in speech and official documents."

Richard J. Clifford, S.J., has taught Old Testament at Weston Jesuit School of Theology for over twenty-five years. He is a former editor of The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, past president of The Catholic Biblical Association, a translator of The New American Bible, and a participant in the January 1995 consultation in Rome on inclusive language.