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Wanted an authentic Catholic feminism
THE NEWS that the Vatican has now officially moved to declare that ICEL's draft translation of the psalter should be recalled is surely long overdue.
A letter sent to the chairman of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) has — surely correctly — declared that this "inclusive language" text is "doctrinally flawed" and ordered its complete withdrawal.
Anyone familiar with radical feminist liturgical criteria will recognise the techniques that have been applied to these texts, techniques which inevitably result not only in inelegant, even downright ugly, circumlocutions, but — much more seriously — distortions and loss of meaning, sometimes of a serious kind.
First, there is the suppression of the word "man". Generally speaking, this is not theologically a serious matter, though whether it is actually necessary is another question: except for a small number of the ideologically committed, very few women object to its use, and it may be asked whether the avoidance of offence where offence is not meant and should surely not he taken is a defensible exercise. A single example will suffice. The RSV translation of Psalm 1, verse 1 reads Blessed is the man/ who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners. ICEL's feminist version renders this If you would be happy: never walk with the wicked, never stand with sinners.
No particular harm is done here (the RSV is simply more beautiful), except that the dangerous principle is established that ideology justifies mistranslation. Much inure dangerous is feminist tampering with the figurative language used by the Bible about God. The first two verses of Psalm 24 are rendered by the RSV as follows:
The earth is the Lord's and the frllness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein: for he has founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the rivers.
For the most part, the ICEL version suppresses the masculine words "Lord" and "he", thus:
God owns this planet and all its riches.
The earth and every creature belong to God.
God set the land on top of the seas and anchored it in the deep.
What has to bc understood is that behind such tortuous linguistic exercises lies a hidden agenda, in which there is a very clear theological target: the doctrine of the Fatherhood of God. In the words of the feminist theologian Catharina Halkes, "it is hardly possible to call to mind a single feminist theologian ... who does not find the image of the Father-God a challenge and a direct confrontation". That is the challenge implicitly taken up in the ICEL psalter: for, though "Father" for God occurs only rarely in the Old Testament, "Lord" is offensive to feminists in precisely the same way, and removing it (and any other masculine imagery) wherever possible is part of a wider battle. It is a serious battle, and one in which constant vigilance is a matter not of rigotist paranoia but of elementary prudence if we are to remain a Church which takes doctrine seriously. For, though, of course, God is not in any crudely human way male, to know him as "Father" is no mere metaphor, but part of revelation itself; it is what one theologian has called a "definitive symbol". Jesus is described in the gospels as using the word at least 170 times, and except for the cry of dereliction from the cross always uses this form of address and no other. It is the way Jesus approaches God in prayer, and he invites us, too, to approach Him in this way. "Father" is Jesus's name for God: it is a simple fact which has vast doctrinal import.
The masculine imagery used by the Church is thus not simply a matter of faithfulness to biblical usage: it is part of a kind of linguistic support system for a central doctrine of the Christian faith. The Vatican has, belatedly, realised that it is under attack in the English speaking world. Sr Mary Collins, one of the ICEL psalter's principal translators, indicated clearly that it was intended as a step in the direction of a truly feminist psalter. We may count ourselves lucky that on this occasion, an attempted liturgical coup has been foiled.
NONE OF THIS IS to say that there is no place within the Church for authentically Catholic feminist insights. On this page today, Freda Lambert, of the National Board of Catholic Women, quotes the papal nuncio as saying that he hopes that "the coming century will finally be the moment to finish with old anti-feminist prejudices which are neither Christian nor human, but only the fruit of mental distortions and small minds".
The papal nuncio (whose English is not quite perfect) is clearly, here. using the expression "antifeminist" to mean "hostile to women", a sense in which we must all accept and actively support his words. But there are, of course, many feminisms; and it has to be said that some feminisms are seriously lacking in a proper sense of balance.
Freda Lambert quotes Anne Forbes, at the recent launch of a "liturgy resource" entitled Breaking the Silence — devoted to raising awareness of "the impact of violence on women" — as saying that "Christians must condemn all violence". That is, of course, true. But that aim will not be achieved by spreading the assumption that domestic violence is virtually all perpetrated by men against women: in fact, as Simon Caldwell and Bess Twiston Davies demonstrate on page 5, studies have shown that while one in five women experience violence at the hands of their "partners", so will at least one in six men. Other research, indeed, indicates that men are attacked by women even more than women by men. Breaking the Silence reinaitis• firmly silent on violence against men: indeed, it gives the firm impression that it is hostile to the male sex as such, and that it assumes that whatever they say. all men are violent and bent on oppressing women. Thus, a women's "psalm" insists that "Men who do evil are round about me" and that "Their soft voices/ confuse and paralyse/ Speech was softer than butter/ yet lust was in their heart.... Safeguard the integrity of your daughters/ confound the devious schemes of these men".
Most men will find this profoundly objectionable; that hardly matters next to the fact that as a general characterisation of men's attitudes to women it is profoundly in error. To encourage any woman to believe that it is based on the truth is to lead her into believing a dangerous lie. The least that must be said is that in promoting the publication of Breaking the Silence, the National Board of Catholic Women has made a very serious error of judgement indeed.