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Inclusive Language for Naming God:

Challenge for the Church

Ruth M. Kolpack
Degrees from other Institutions
Bachelor of Arts - University of Wisconsin
Master of Science - University of Wisconsin

undertaken in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Divinity Degree at St. Francis Seminary, 2003

St. Francis, Wisconsin


Comprehensive Examination Topic



Paper 1: Scripture Perspective

Describing God by the Use of Female Imagery:

A Contribution of Second Isaiah

Paper 2: Systematic Theology Perspective

Theological and Anthropological Implications

God Language

Paper 3: Moral Theology Perspective

Catholic Social Teaching

on the Dignity of Women and,
Religious Evil: Women as ―Image of God‖?

Author‟s note: This Comprehensive Examination originally consisted of three individual papers. On March
16, 2009, it has been compiled as one paper, resulting in new pagination and footnote numbering from the
original layout.

St. Francis Seminary

Describing God by the Use of Female Imagery:

A Contribution of Second Isaiah

Comprehensive Exam

Ruth Kolpack
January 29, 2003

Holy Mystery, I know just calling you “mother”

instead of only “father”
is much more than a word change.
It is a world change.1
Calling you She Who Is instead of He Who Is
changes everything.
Whatever name or symbol we use for you “functions”
and puts everything we have known in a new light,
rearranges all our world‟s furniture
and spins new imaginings in our minds.
Help us discard the limitations of our inherited God-talk
so that we can look at you with a new innocence,
Awesome, Amazing, Bewildering Divinity,
Source of us all.
Guide us in our search for you.2

The work of feminists in all areas of life has put us on a trajectory that forces us to think

differently, to do research differently, to act differently. And so we have medical research that

looks specifically at women‟s health and we are beginning to recognize the contributions of women

throughout history in both the soft and the hard sciences.

Why are we now first recognizing the specificity of women in these areas? In the past, men

set the standards. Women were subsumed under men and so were lost, in a sense. Using the

imagery of Second Isaiah, they were in exile. Now, at the end of the 20 th century and the beginning

of the 21st, we can hear the words of this prophet speaking God‟s words once again: “For a long

time I have held my peace, I have kept still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman

in travail, I will gasp and pant.” (Isa 42:14b) The rise of feminist voices for the sake of women

who have been lost in a patriarchal world can be compared to God‟s crying out for the freedom of

the Israelites held captive in Babylonia.

Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (New York:
Crossroad, 1992) 36, quoted in William Cleary, Prayers to She Who Is, (New York: Crossroad, 1995) 19.
William Cleary, Prayers to She Who Is (New York: Crossroad, 1995) 19.

The silence can be no more. It is time for a world change. As God went into action to free

the Israelites from their captivity, God is acting now to free women from their captivity – more

specifically, for purposes here, to free God language from the captivity of patriarchy.

No language is adequate for naming God or for describing how God functions in our lives.

We can only use metaphors based on what we know about God and yet all the metaphors we can

employ will not exhaust the description of God. When we limit the metaphors used for God, we

make the metaphors our idols. God language has the power to affect personal and social lives

because it is the focal point of religious systems. How God is named influences behavior.3 For this

reason, it is important that both female and male images be used to name God.

Second Isaiah has several passages that use the specific image of mother. In fact, it is the

only place in the Old Testament where God is explicitly compared to a mother.4 As a mother

would comfort a child, in Second Isaiah God comforts the exiled people of Israel, assuring them

that they were known before their birth. It was God that gave birth to them as a nation and now

God assures them, as a mother would assure a distressed child, that the One who gave them life will

bring them home safely. The images of Second Isaiah tell the story of a mother and child,

beginning when the child is carried in the womb and moving through the gestation period, birth,

breast feeding, time of development, and future generations. What do these images of a relationship

between a mother and child tell us about God and our relationship with God?

Carried in the womb: The God of all creation is now in the act of creating new life for the

exiled Israelites. Second Isaiah is emphatic in order to make the point that God has been active in

Johnson, 36.
Mayer I. Gruber, “The Motherhood of God in Second Isaiah,” Revue Biblique 90 (1983): 351.
This rarity causes me to wonder if, perhaps, Second Isaiah is a woman – anonymous to protect the integrity of
God‟s message.

their lives, even in the prenatal state, before they were called to be the chosen people. 5 Now to

emphasize the assurance that God will help again, the prophet describes God‟s intimate relationship

to Israel three times: “whom I have chosen!” “ . . . who made you,” “who formed you . . . .” (Isa

44:1-2) The image of the child formed in the womb speaks of a closeness unsurpassed in any other


Second Isaiah goes on to describe the fruit of the womb – the hope that will come from what

now seems hopeless – not just for this generation but for all generations to come. The prophet dares

to imagine a second creation.6 The hopelessness portrayed as “thirsty land” and “dry ground” in

verse 3 of chapter 44, sprouts with new life “like grass amid waters, like willows by flowing

streams” in verse 4. Generations to follow will testify that they were formed and created by God

and so belong to God as indicated in verse 5 when the prophet expresses four times how the people

in future generations will identify themselves as the ones formed by God: “I am the LORD‟s,”

“will call himself by the name of Jacob,” “will write on his hand, „The LORD‟s‟,” and “surname

himself by the name of Israel.” Future generations will know how God has once again helped

Israel, Jeshurun, God‟s beloved child.7

The gestation period: “ For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept still and

restrained myself; . . .” (Isa 42:14) For a pregnant woman, nine months seems to be a long time

to wait as the baby grows in the silence of the womb. Having to wait for the fruit of the womb to

be visible is much like the time Israel spent in exile before the prophet spoke to them with the

Edward J. Young, The Book of Isaiah: Volume III—Chapters 40 through 66 (Grand Rapids: William B.
Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1972) 166.
Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66 (Louisville: John Knox, 1995) 83.
John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40-66 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998) 165.

assurance that God would intervene. During this time of waiting many thought that God had

abandoned them.

There are scriptural texts in Second Isaiah that suggest God‟s abandonment such as: “The

LORD has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.”(Isa 49:14) and “For a brief moment I forsook

you, . . . for a moment I hid my face from you, . . . ”(Isa 54:7) Theologians have struggled to

understand how to reconcile verses such as these to our belief in God‟s faithfulness. Walter

Brueggemann addresses the question of God‟s abandoning absence, not for the purpose of

interpretive theory only but mainly for pastoral reasons. He proposes that the texts be viewed as a

past pertinent to the present, that is to say, not to deny unsettling dimensions of one‟s own life. The

unsettling dimension of a faithful God abandoning us, when faced as a reality, gives us permission

to acknowledge and move through what is unsettling in our personal lives. 8 For the Israelites, the

unsettling dimension of enslavement in Egypt in their past can overlay their current exile to help

them remember that God will not remain silent forever but will act on their behalf. It is in

remembering how God was faithful in the past that leads the Israelites to be so bold as to ask God to

“awake, put on strength . . . awake, as in the days of old.” (Isa 51:9) It is the past, the days of old,

when God made it possible for the Israelites to cross through the Reed Sea on dry land, that is

pertinent to the present condition of the Israelites. Remembrance of the past gives them hope that

God‟s silence will come to an end and “the ransomed . . . shall return . . . with singing.” (Isa 51:11)

Birth: God‟s silence comes to an end. The gestation period has ended. Birth is beginning

as God “cries out like a woman in travail.”(Isa 42:14) God‟s silence was only for a time and now

Walter Brueggemann, “Texts That Linger, Not Yet Overcome,” in Shall Not the Judge of All the Earth Do
What Is Right?, edited by David Penchansky and Paul L. Redditt (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2000) 40.

the time has come. God shrieks as a travailing woman shrieks in pain.9 The image of the pangs

of a woman giving birth has been applied before to those suffering pain and fear but never before

has it been applied to Yahweh.10 Yahweh, as a woman giving birth, cries out, gasps and pants. The

warrior in the preceding verse, cries out and shouts aloud. Both of these images are used to

underscore God‟s power, no longer as images of fear and pain but now to reveal the awesome

effects of God‟s action.11 To show the certainty of what God will do, the prophet uses a series of “I

will” statements in verses 15 and 16: “I will lay waste . . . and dry up . . . ,” “I will turn . . . ,” “I

will lead . . . ,” “I will guide . . . ,” “I will turn . . . .” For even greater assurance, as if these are not

enough, in verse 17 God says: “These are the things I will do and I will not forsake them.” 12

Nothing can obstruct God‟s absolute power over creation. The time of waiting is ended and

something new is being born. “Never before in recorded history had any people returned to their

homeland from an Assyrian or a Babylonian exile.”13 God acts with unrestrained power.

Breast-feeding: One can sense a feeling of abandonment in Isaiah 49:14 when Israel says,

“The LORD has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.” The change in wording from

“the LORD” to “my Lord” emphasizes the feeling that it is not only a transcendent God who is not

present but also a very personal God, a parent God, who has forgotten them. As difficult as it

would be for any caring mother to hear an accusation of abandonment from a child, so it is with

God. Moved with maternal feelings, God responds to the accusation using the strongest image of

personal attachment – a mother breastfeeding her child.14 How likely is it that a mother with a

Young, 128-129.
John L McKenzie, Second Isaiah (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1968) 44.
Katheryn Pfisterer Darr, “Like Warrior, like Woman: Destruction and Deliverance in Isaiah 42:10-17,” in
Catholic Biblical Quarterly 49 (1987): 564.
R. N. Whybray, Isaiah 40-66 (London: Oliphants, 1975) 79.
Oswalt, 123.
Ibid., 305.

child dependent on her for food would forget her nursing child? As impossible as this seems, it

does happen. But God does not forget! Verse 15 is to show that as strong as a mother‟s attachment

is for her nursing baby, God‟s attachment to Israel is even stronger. God will not forget Israel. This

is shown in parallel phrases:

“Even these” “may forget”

“yet I” “will not forget”

This is a passionate declaration, “an unprecedented affirmation of the depth and constancy of God‟s

love for his people.”15

Time of Development: In human growth, it is not uncommon for children to have some

rebellious years. During these times, parents try their best to help their children realize the

possible consequences that could result from the choices they are making – choices that parents

know could be harmful. Throughout these difficult years, parents stand by them with unconditional


Isaiah 46:1-13 demonstrates Israel‟s rebellious years and God‟s continued faithfulness to

them during this time. The situation is serious – Israel is worshipping the Babylonian gods (Isa

46:5-7) and refusing to accept God‟s plan of calling Cyrus to lead them out of exile (Isa 45:9-11).

These verses are full of emotions and intensity, much like one may find in a home where there is

unrest because of rebellious behavior. As a loving mother would not give up on a rebellious child,

Israel is reminded that Yahweh was with them before they were born as a nation, brought them to

birth and will carry them throughout life, even to old age.(Isa 46:3) Similar imagery is in Isaiah

49:1 as God says to the people who have strayed away: “Listen to me, O coastlands, and hearken,

you peoples from afar.” Now that the prophet has their attention, he goes on to

Whybray, 143.

demonstrate God‟s intimate relationship with them by again using maternal images for God‟s action

– “called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named me,” (Isa 49:1) The birthing

and naming images were used by the prophet in an effort to help them realize God‟s intimate

connection with them and that it is this God and this God alone who not only can save them but

wants to save them like caring parents would want to save their children from the consequences of

poor choices.

Second Isaiah uses an abundance of poetic techniques to show emphatically God‟s

faithfulness to the Israelites in spite of their behavior. The following critical analysis of the poetic

construction of Isaiah 46:1-13 was done by Chris Franke.16

To emphasize to the Israelites that it is God who brought them to birth and it is God
who cares for them from birth to old age, the poet uses grammatical parallels in
verses 3 and 4:
“borne by me from your birth” (3c) “to your old age I am He” (4a)
“carried from the womb” (3d) “to gray hairs I will carry you” (4b)

In verses 4 and 11, the poet shows what God has done and will continue to do. The
massing together of verbs helps to add emphasis to the totality of God‟s involvement
with them.
Verse 4: “I will carry you, I have made you and I will bear;
I will carry and will save.”
Verse 11: “I have spoken and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed,
and I will do it.”
Nine verbs are used to show all that God has done and will continue to do for the

In verses 8a and 9a, the poet uses four imperatives in order to make his point to the
Israelites that they just need to remember everything that God has done for them in
the past to realize God‟s continued faithfulness during this difficult time:
“remember” “consider” “recall” and “remember”

He follows this with two parallel lines in verse 9b to remind them that there is no
other God who will always be faithful to them :
“I am God” “no other” “I am God” “none like me”

Chris Franke, Isaiah 46, 47 and 48: A New Literary-Critical Reading (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1994)

Then to demonstrate the timelessness of God‟s activity, he uses three participles in

verse 10 and 11a to show God‟s action in the past that continues to the present and
for all time: “declaring from the beginning . . . things not yet done”
“saying . . . I will accomplish all my purpose”
“calling . . . from the east . . . the man of my counsel”

Even though the Israelites are worshipping the idols of pagans, God assures them of
deliverance. The poet uses two parallel lines in verse 13, again for emphasis on what
God is planning to do for them:
“my deliverance” “not far off”
“my salvation” “will not tarry”

As a mother remains faithful to a rebellious child and continues to show unconditional love

to this child, so even more will Yahweh, who has given birth to this nation, remain faithful to them

throughout all of their history. Unlike a parent who eventually becomes dependent on a child, we,

God‟s sons and daughters, never outgrow our dependence on God.

Future Generations: The rebellious years are in the past. As a faithful mother, God‟s

unconditional love has made it possible not only for the Israelites to return to their homeland but

for new life to continue to be borne from God‟s womb. The poetry of Isaiah 49:19-21 continues

the story. Two parallel verses (Isa 49:19a, 19b), both beginning with the word “surely,” quickly

reveal the contrast between the Israelites‟ barren lives now and the promise of God‟s fruitfulness

in the future. To describe the barrenness of the present condition, the poet says three times:

“your waste,” “your desolate places,” “your devastated land.”(19a) And then to demonstrate the

result of God‟s promise of deliverance and the birth of future generations too numerous to be

contained, the poet says: “the land . . . will be too narrow for your inhabitants,”(19b) “the place is

too narrow for me, make room for me.”(20b) As the Israelites hear this, they are reminded of

God‟s promise to their ancestor Abraham who, in his old age, was promised to be “the father of a

multitude of nations.”(Gen 17:5) This promise takes on new meaning for the Israelites now as they

are told in their time of barrenness that their children will be so numerous that they will have to

“make room.”(Isa 49:20) The poet uses the following structure in verse 21 to emphasize the

bewilderment of the Israelites in this regard:

A who has borne me these?

B bereaved and barren
B‟ exiled and put away
A‟ who has brought up these?

The questions asking “who” is responsible for this are soon answered when the prophet

announces a message from God: “I will lift up my hand to the nations and raise my signal to the

peoples.”(Isa 49:22) Not only will the Israelites return to their homeland, but the prophet relates

from God that the same people who enslaved them will carry them home, certainly a contrast to

being held captive:17 “ . . . they shall bring your sons in their bosom, and your daughters shall be

carried on their shoulders.”(Isa 49:22) Not only that but the kings and queens of these nations will

be caring for them: “Kings will be your foster fathers, and their queens your nursing mothers.”(Isa

49:23) This is pure grace for the Israelites. There can be no other explanation for such an

abundant outpouring of love – unconditional love – on the Israelites. Those who had forgotten the

one and only God while they were in exile now experience the fullness of a parent‟s love as God

gathers the children scattered in distant nations and brings them home safely.

The divine womb continues to bear fruit even beyond these nations returning God‟s sons

and daughters to their native land. God commissions the Israelites to be a light to these very

nations who had held them captive so that “my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”(Isa

49:6b) God went beyond all measures to show the tenderness of a mother‟s heart to the Israelites

so that they might know the one and only God and then, in response, make God known to the end of

the earth.18

McKenzie, 113.
Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66 (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1969) 221.


So, is mother a suitable image for God? For Second Isaiah, it certainly seems to be. John

Schmitt in, “The Motherhood of God and Zion as Mother,” concludes his article by saying: “Zion

as mother appears so frequently in Isa 40-66 that this image should be taken as the inspiration for

the depiction of God as mother.”19

What was Second Isaiah‟s motivation for the frequent use of feminine images for both Zion

and for God? Was it simply technical, as suggested by Gruber, to balance the insensitivity of other

prophets?20 Certainly the series of maternal images in Second Isaiah stands out as phenomenal in

comparison to the more numerous patriarchal images of God in the Old Testament. Quoting Isaiah

45:10: “Woe to him who says to a father, „What are you begetting?‟ or to a woman, „With what are

you in travail?‟” Gruber makes the point that this verse explicitly reveals that God is neither

specifically male nor specifically female, something implied throughout the Hebrew scriptures. 21 If

this is the case, using maternal images for God is just as appropriate as using male images.

The maternal images used by Second Isaiah provide an image of God that cannot be

expressed in any other way. A father will never be impregnated, carry a child in a womb, give birth

or breast-feed a child. These actions provide us with images of intimacy and closeness different

from that generated by male images and so gives new insight into our relationship with God.

Second Isaiah did something that no one else has done in the Old Testament. He brought us into the

intimacy of God through the use of maternal images.

John J. Schmitt, “The Motherhood of God and Zion as Mother,” Revue Biblique 92 (1985): 557-569.
Gruber, 351-359.

Works Cited

Brueggemann, Walter. “Texts That Linger, Not Yet Overcome,” in Shall Not the Judge of All the
Earth Do What Is Right?. Edited by David Penchansky and Paul L. Redditt. Winona
Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2000. 21-41.

Franke, Chris. Isaiah 46, 47 and 48: A New Literary-Critical Reading. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns,

Gruber, Mayer I. “The Motherhood of God in Second Isaiah,” in Revue Biblique 90 (1983). 351-

Hanson, Paul D. Isaiah 40-66. Louisville: John Knox, 1995.

Johnson, Elizabeth A. She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse. New
York: Crossroad, 1992.

________. “World Change,” in Prayers to She Who Is. William Cleary. New York: Crossroad,
1995. 13-26.

McKenzie, John L. Second Isaiah. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1968.

Oswalt, John N. The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40-66. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998.

Pfisterer Darr, Katheryn. “Like Warrior, like Woman: Destruction and Deliverance in Isaiah
42:10-17,” in Catholic Biblical Quarterly 49 (1987). 560-571.

Schmitt, John J. “The Motherhood of God and Zion as Mother,” in Revue Biblique 92 (1985). 557-

Westermann, Claus. Isaiah 40-66. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1969.

Whybray, R. N. Isaiah 40-66. London: Oliphants, 1975.

Young, Edward J. The Book of Isaiah: Volume III—Chapters 40 through 66. Grand Rapids:
William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1972.

St. Francis Seminary

Theological and Anthropological Implications

God Language

Ruth M. Kolpack

Comprehensive Exam
February 24, 2003

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen


In our Catholic tradition, we begin and end each Eucharistic liturgy with this Trinitarian

formula. The Eucharist, central to our Catholic faith, is a subtle form of inculturation into the

Mystery of God. The very celebration that invites us into communion with God and one another is

adulterated with exclusive language. The patriarchal influence in the liturgical prayers of the Mass

already is substantiated in the Introductory Rite: “Father” is used five times, “Son,” two times,

“Lord,” five times, “almighty,” three times, and “King” and “Most High,” each once. What is

this language telling us about God and about ourselves?

The language of the Mass, only partially illustrated in the Introductory Rite, reveals the

concept of God developed by medieval and early modern theology called classical theism. The

language of classical theism has formed our thoughts about God as a God removed from human

history and unaffected by human suffering – a God who has power over “his” people and demands

loyalty from them.22 Anthropologist and linguist, Edward Sapir, in 1928 described the power of

language to shape perception. He said:

Language is a guide to “social reality.” . . . The “real world” is to a large extent

unconsciously [my emphasis] built up on the language habits of the group. . . . We see and
hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our
community predispose certain choices of interpretation. 23

The language of the Mass is used here as an example of just one way in which language shapes

what we consider to be reality, in this case, the reality of who God is.

Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (New York: The
Crossroad Publishing Company, 1999) 19.
Edward Sapir, Culture, Language, and Personality, David G. Mandelbaum, ed. (Berkeley and Los Angeles:
University of California Press, 1966) 68-69, cited in Casey Miller and Kate Smith, Words and Women (Garden City,
New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1976) 138.


Characteristics of Patriarchy

The word “patriarchy” comes from the Greek words patēr, patros meaning father and archē

meaning ruler.24 Literally, it means that the father is the ruler. Socially, it means that men are the

rulers. If men are the rulers, it follows that women are the ruled. Patriarchy, consequently,

contributes to a dualistic and hierarchical structuring of society which results in the separation of

females and males and the superiority of males over females. This is reflected in the language we

use to speak about God. Patriarchy conceives the symbol of God in predominantly male terms, a

major factor in sex-role socialization.25 Masculine language for God socializes people to accept

male dominance.26

The effect of this dualistic, hierarchical structuring is evident in a pattern of patriarchal

anthropology from ancient to modern times as evidenced by the following quotes from Augustine,

Aquinas, Luther and Barth. Augustine said: “ . . . the woman alone, . . . she is not the image of

God, . . . the male alone, he is the image of God.” 27 Aquinas accepted Aristotle‟s definition of

woman as being a “misbegotten male” and so declared woman inferior in body and mind as well

Johnson, 23.
Ibid., 34.
Ruth C. Duck, Gender and the Name of God (New York: The Pilgrim Press, 1991) 41.
There is evidence of an increased use of masculine terms for God, particularly the use of “Father,” especially
in North America. J. Frank Henderson, a member of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) has
done a statistical study of the use of “Father” in major liturgical books throughout history. His study reveals a marked
increase in the use of paternal imagery, particularly in the collects. The 1570 Roman missal (in Latin) addressed
“pater” only four times. The 1970 edition in Latin addressed God as Father 22 times while the same edition translated
into English by ICEL had 555 collects that addressed God as Father.
J. Frank Henderson, Work in progress on the use of paternal imagery in Christian workshop, Unpublished computer
printout, 82 pages, 1988, 44-45, cited by Duck, 79.
St. Augustine, De Trinitate 7.7.10, cited by Rosemary Radford Ruether, Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a
Feminist Theology (Boston: Beacon Press, 1983) 95. There is no indication as to what translation/edition Ruether was
using but the citation is incorrect. The correct reference is De Trinitate 12.3.10.

as morally. Woman‟s only value was in procreation. Aquinas considered the superiority of males

to females as part of the natural order created by God. 28 Luther professed that woman had original

equality but lost it through the Fall and became inferior as her punishment.29 Karl Barth declared

that man is over woman according to the divinely ordained order of creation.30 As long as there are

attitudes such as these that maintain the inferiority of females, there will be no chance that female

images will be acceptable language for God. Calling God “she” would bring us face to face with

our own sexism.31

Language of Classical and Post-Classical Theism

The language of classical theism has predisposed Christians to speak and think of God in

patriarchal terms. As early Christians struggled to reconcile their monotheistic religion with the

emerging belief that Jesus is God and the post-resurrection presence of the Spirit, they gradually

developed a doctrine of the Trinity. In the classic form of this doctrine, a hierarchical structure

emerged. The unoriginate Father, the principle and source of the whole deity, generates a Son. 32

The Son is begotten from the substance of the Father and so is equal to the Father but the

terminology suggests subordination as one compares this divine relationship with the life

experience of human beings where a father is superior to his child. The hierarchical structure in the

Trinity is brought to light by the description of the procession of persons: the Father begets

the Son and, either alone (Eastern tradition) or with the Son (Western tradition), breathes forth

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I.92.1 (New York: Benziger Brothers, Inc., 1947), cited by Ruether,
Martin Luther, Lectures on Genesis, Gen. 2:18, in Luther’s Works, vol. 1, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (St. Louis:
Concordia Publishing House, 1958) 115, cited by Ruether, 97.
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. 3, sec. 4 (Edinburgh: Clark, 1975) 158-172, cited by Ruether, 98.
Paul R. Smith, Is It Okay to Call God “Mother:” Considering the Feminine Face of God (Peabody,
Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1993) 206-207.
Johnson, 194.

the Spirit.33 In any case, the Father is at the head of the pyramid, in spite of insistence on

equality of divinity, which contributes to patriarchal connotations for God. Even in prayers and

hymns and ordinary speech, the sequence of words for the three persons of the Trinity follows the

same hierarchical pattern of Father, Son and Spirit.34 Again, in reference to Mass prayers, the Sign

of the Cross, the Gloria, the Creed and the Blessing follow this hierarchical sequence. Without

doing an exhaustive search of hymns, the sequence consistently maintains a hierarchical structure of

Father, Son and Spirit.

The hierarchical pattern is found also in the postclassical categories developed more

recently. The following summary is based upon Elizabeth Johnson‟s analysis. Karl Barth uses the

terms the Revealer, the Revelation, and the Revealedness to describe the Trinitarian relationship.

Karl Rahner describes the three persons in the same sequence: “the unoriginate source of all . . .

self-expressing and spoken out into history . . . uniting in love given and received by us.” Jürgen

Moltmann describes the Trinity as a community in the story of salvation for the world, whereby,

according to Johnson, “the Father hands over his Son, who in obedience undergoes the cross; . . .

their mutual grief releases the Spirit.” For Latin American liberation theologian, Leonardo Boff,

who also supports the social model of the Trinity, “the true God exists as a mystery of

communion of Father, Son, and Spirit.”35 The hierarchical structure maintained by these

Jürgen Moltmann, TheTrinity and the Kingdom, trans. Margaret Kohl (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981)
89, 126, cited by Johnson, 195. According to Johnson, Moltmann has determined several orders of proceeding based on
the scriptural witness: a pre-resurrection sequence of Father-Spirit-Son, a post-resurrection sequence of Father-Son-
Spirit and a sequence of Spirit-Son-Father indicating the action of the Spirit for an eschatological transformation of
Johnson, 206-208. In her analysis, Johnson refers to: Karl Barth, “God‟s Three-in-Oneness” in Church Dogmatics,
vol. 1, pt. 1, The Doctrine of the Word of God, trans. G. T. Thomson (Edinburgh: Clark, 1936, rep. 1963)
402; Karl Rahner, The Trinity, trans. Joseph Donceel (New York: Herder & Herder, 1979) 109; Jürgen Moltmann, The
Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology, trans. R. A. Wilson and John
Bowden (New York: Harper & Row, 1973) 207; Leonardo Boff, Trinity and Society, trans. Paul Burns (Maryknoll, N.Y.:
Orbis, 1988) 9.

theologians indicates the firm grip that patriarchy has on our attempts to define God in more

inclusive ways.

How God Language Contributes to Our Understanding of God

Language names and interprets our experience of God. Terms for God such as Lord,

Master, Almighty Father, King, the Holy One, all suggest transcendence and power. Other

language used to express who God is – shepherd, servant who washes feet, woman who searches for

lost coin, father who welcomes back – connotes a more personal relationship.36 There is a

significant difference between the transcendent and more immanent terms for God. All the

transcendent terms are titles of dominance and power, reflecting a hierarchical model for God. The

more immanent terms describe relationships of a more personal and intimate nature, and include

both genders.

What message is being conveyed by our predominant use of titles portraying power and

dominance for God? How does this support patriarchy in society? How does our nearly exclusive

language for God limit God? Heresies of Arianism and Docetism have been condemned in the past

for neglecting to recognize respectively the fullness of God in Jesus or the full humanity of Jesus –

both distortions of who God is in totality. Would it be appropriate also to say that exclusively

masculine references to God are heretical because they do not express the totality of God‟s


A product of male-dominated culture, the church has viewed females as less than males.
Concepts of God have been polluted by this prejudice, resulting in a god who is less than
God. God has been created in the image of masculine human beings. 38

James E. Griffiss, Naming the Mystery: How Our Words Shape Prayer and Belief (Cambridge,
Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1990) 149-150.
Jann Aldredge-Clanton, In Whose Image? God and Gender (New York: The Crossroad Publishing
Company, 2000) 74.
Ibid., 65.

How God Language Contributes to Our Understanding of Human Beings

The language used for God affects males and females differently because of the dominance

of male images used for God, especially for public prayer. The implied masculinity of God

contributes to the patriarchal notion of the superiority of the male. It also contributes to an attitude

of diminished self-worth for women. “If the supreme power of the universe is called „He,‟ how can

women believe they have as much worth as men.”39 Whether intentional or not, the consistent use

of masculine language for God in public prayer strips women of their full human value. Masculine

God language sends the message to women that men deserve greater respect. This is evident even

in the process of naming newborns. A boy may be named after his father but a girl is rarely named

after her mother. In addition, some female names are derivatives of male names, further

diminishing the importance of a female‟s worth.40

Nearly the reverse is true for how men are affected by masculine language for God. They

have internalized the message that males are superior and, as a result, will respond to life situations

from an internal locus of control.41 Men are the authority figures in the workplace and in the home.

As God is man‟s superior Other, man assumes a position of superiority over women, children and

nature. It is the hierarchy of a patriarchal God played out in humanity. 42


“In worship, the traditional doxology pictures God as an all-male one-parent family with a

Ibid., 76-77.
Miller and Smith, 5.
Brian Wren, What Language Shall I Borrow? God-Talk in Worship: A Male Response to Feminist Theology
(New York: Crossroads, 1989) 29.
Sallie McFague, Metaphorical Theology: Models of God in Religious Language (Philadelphia: Fortress,
1982) 148.

whoosh of vapor.”43 This rather humorous depiction of the Trinity indicates the hierarchical

and exclusive nature of masculine language for the first two persons of the Trinity and the lack of

personhood for the third person. It is difficult to comprehend this configuration as signifying a

relationship of co-equals. Though in theory we say the three persons of the Trinity are equal, the

traditional Father, Son and Spirit language does not support this theory.

Theological Problems of Non-Inclusive God Language

The problem with non-inclusive masculine God language being the dominant language of

our public prayer is that the language has been taken literally. The terms Father and Son are

misunderstood to describe the male essence of God rather than recognized as metaphors attempting

to name something of the incomprehensibility of God. The maleness of God becomes an icon, a

graven image, a misrepresentation of an infinite God. 44 The exclusive use of male language for

God is idolized as if it is the only way to speak of God. It has become our “golden calf” in public

prayer. “Idolizing of the male as representative of the divine” must be denounced as decreed

through our biblical heritage.45 The dominant use of masculine language for God denies God‟s

ineffability. “Absolutizing any particular expression as adequate to divine reality is tantamount to a

diminishment of God.”46

Theological Implications of Non-Inclusive God Language

Non-inclusive God language implies a distortion of God‟s image. God cannot exclude. God

cannot be less than whole and naming God with exclusive language that eliminates women‟s

experience from expressing who God is limits God. This God represents a patriarchal God

Wren, 200.
Johnson, 40.
Ruether, 23.
Elizabeth A. Johnson, “The Incomprehensibility of God and the Image of God Male and Female,”
Theological Studies 45 (1984): 454.

because the male experience is elevated over the female experience. Brian Wren has done a

“Portrait of a Patriarchal God.”47 It is an apt portrayal of the implications for a God named with

non-inclusive masculine language.

In Wren‟s portrayal, God has the whole world in “his” hands because he is the authority

figure and is in control of the entire universe. All of creation passively submits to the Almighty

God who provides protection in exchange for obedience or punishment in exchange for

disobedience. The transcendent otherness maintains a distance in his relationship with creation

which shrouds his supremacy with mystery and protects him from the vulnerable position of

closeness. The Son and Spirit are in relationship with the Father but the Father is at the topmost

position of the triangle.48

This image of God is, of necessity, a distortion because of the limitation of the language

coupled with literalness and exclusiveness in naming God. A more inclusive language would

broaden the images of God and yet never exhaust the boundless possibilities. Non-inclusive

language implies a God limited in nature (to just one gender), a God who excludes and

discriminates against a significant segment of “his” own creation. This is not an equitable

representation of God.


Problems and Implications for Women

Feelings of inferiority can be established early in a female‟s life and a contributing factor is

that God, the most venerated of Persons, is named as a “He.” This is evidenced by the story of a

young couple who tried to protect their baby daughter from internalizing the patriarchal message

Wren, 56.
Wren, 56-58

of society that women are less valued than men. These parents were conscious of the power of

language to affect women‟s self-esteem and so tried to raise their daughter in a non-sexist home.

Finding a non-sexist church in the South was difficult so they had to settle for what seemed to be

the best option. They brought up the issue of sexist language in the liturgy but were told it was a

peripheral issue. Consequently, their daughter heard only male references for God. This had

already had an impact on her by the age of three. Having a talk about God with her daughter, Mom

referred to God as “She.” Mom was corrected by her daughter and told that God is a “He.” Mom

tried to tell her daughter that God is also a “She.” The daughter persisted: “No, that‟s not right.

God is He. God is a word for boys.” 49

This story reveals the powerful impact language has on inculturating children to the norms

of society. A continuous fare of masculine references for God eventually results in a statement like

this: “It would be nice if God were referred to as „She‟ or „Mother,‟ but since those terms do not

elicit the same amount of respect, I doubt if the church would ever use them.”50 Living in a

patriarchal society which equates maleness with God, this woman had internalized the message of

female inferiority, one of the most harmful effects of masculine God language. Such language

affirms males and negates females. Some limited research has been conducted to uncover the

effects of masculine God-language. The findings reveal feelings of inferiority among women,


self-criticism, guilt or social impotence, asking for little, submitting to the wishes and
demands of others and avoiding conflict. They seek and maintain subordinate roles in
relationships, . . . easily accept domination, are uncomfortable with uncertainty and
complexities. They give up and withdraw in the midst of frustration and adversity.

Aldredge-Clanton, 85.
Ibid., 84.

Reluctant to commit themselves to any definite course of action, they tend to delay or avoid
action, especially action involving risks. 51

Judeo-Christian churches are complicit in what amounts to acts of violence against females. The

above description is evidence of a subtle violence through socialization. Under patriarchy, there are

also more explicit acts of violence committed against women – assault, mutilation, murder,

infanticide, rape, and neglect as well as discrimination built into social structures and legal codes.

“The pervasive evil of patriarchy is given legitimacy by the idea of a primarily male or masculine


Problems and Implications for Men

Violent acts perpetrated by males against females are evidence that patriarchy influences the

socialization of males also. Comments such as: “You run like a girl” or “You laugh like a girl” can

be heard from even young male or female children. These comments are hurled at boys as

putdowns. If anyone said to a girl that she runs like a boy, it would be considered a compliment.

“The worst insult to a man in any macho culture is to imply that he is like a woman.” 53 With this

attitude, how would males respond to female images for God?

The message implied by the Judeo-Christian church is that God is more like a man than a

woman. Art work consistently supports this notion. Men can reverse this message to mean that

man is more like God than woman and, in doing so, they assume a God-complex that pushes them

into superhuman activity such as taking major responsibility for all segments of society as well as

Ibid., 86-87. Aldredge-Clanton describes her research on pages ix, 125-130: A research sample of 174 men
and women responded to the “Religious Opinion Survey,” consisting of 20 multiple choice questions and three essay
questions. Dr. Anne Morton helped in choosing the instrument for the psychological research as well as interpreting the
results. Dr. Roger Kirk and graduate students from the Behavioral Statistics Department of Baylor University did the
statistical analyses. Appendix A of Aldredge-Clanton‟s book includes the survey and a description of what various
questions determined about the subjects. Appendix B has the statistical analysis of t tests.
Smith, 162.
Smith, 208.

their homes. Women‟s acceptance of subordinate roles and submission to male authority

compounds the expectations placed on males. To the extent that they can live up to these

expectations, they may fall into a God complex. When they fail, they can feel incompetent and

even impotent.54

Brian Wren names still more insidious acts committed by men attributed to their elevated

status in society. He asserts that all men benefit from rape because it makes them feel that they

are needed for protecting women and because it keeps women in a subordinate position. 55

Closely related to the rape issue is sexual harassment. He addresses the issue of male “toughness” –

pushing industry to produce for the sake of financial return with no concern for the effect it has

on the environment or the workers and with no sense of social responsibility toward the least

among us.56 He writes of political toughness when U.S. leaders “flex their muscles” so they do

not appear weak or unpatriotic. He tells about Lyndon Johnson‟s fears of being judged as

“insufficiently manly for the job” and sexist statements he made to secure his manliness. 57 He

reviews the manliness issue with other politicians as well. He relates the use of sexual and

birthing terms as common threads throughout the process of the development of the atomic and

hydrogen bombs; there was even a congratulatory telegram sent in 1942 to the Chicago physicists

for the new discovery, reading: “Congratulations to the parents. Can hardly wait to see the new


Ibid., 93.
Wren, 42.
Ibid., 44-45.
Ibid., 46-47.
Ibid., 48-51.

Is it possible that the use of conception and birthing images for the development of such

deadly discoveries as the atomic and hydrogen bombs might reflect an unconscious patriarchal

desire to give birth? There is

an emerging consensus among a variety of feminist scholars in anthropology, history, and

philosophy, as well as theology, that [patriarchy] arose as a compensation for men‟s
physiological inability to give birth. In early societies, giving birth connoted a divine power,
especially when the male role in procreation was not yet known.” 59

It seems to be a contradiction that the beauty of bringing forth new life might have contributed to

the inception of patriarchy which diminishes the humanity of both males and females. How can the

process be reversed?


“Divinized” by Non-Inclusive God Language

There are at least three presumptions that, it might be argued, are “divinized” – given sacred

status or legitimation – by non-inclusive God language: 1) male as the norm; 2) male as the essence

of God; 3) sacredness of maleness.

Androcentrism is a complex of ideas and attitudes based on the presumption that the male is

the norm for defining what a human being is. An androcentric bias has been reflected in the past by

the scientific community in routinely doing research on males and generalizing the results to apply

to females as well. In a similar way, the use of male language has evolved into the norm for

naming God. Just as the needs of females cannot be adequately met when scientific results are

generalized from males to females, neither does non-inclusive language do justice to the full

humanity of women. Greater value is placed on men‟s lives and their experiences while the

Karen Bloomquist. “„Let God Be God‟: The Theological Necessity of Depatriarchalizing God,” in Our Naming of
God: Problems and Prospects of God-Talk Today, ed. Carl E. Braaten (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989), 52.

experiences of women are overlooked. A set of norms for naming God has been set in place that

gives a false sense of superiority to men and, in so doing, devalues women. 60

Another result of non-inclusive language for God is that this language is perceived as

describing the very essence of God. 61 The male terms for God have been taken to mean literally

that God is a male. And if God is male then it is logical that only a male can represent God. 62

When only a male can represent God, half of the population is excluded.

The third presumption, closely linked with the first two, is that of an elevated status of

males. Maleness is the common denominator in defining humanity and the essence of God.

“Whenever a segment of reality is used as a symbol for God, the realm of reality from which it is

taken is elevated into the realm of the holy, becoming „theonomous.‟”63 The terms father, son,

prince, king, lord – all designations for males – when used to name God, raise the male population

into the realm of the sacred.

Evoked by Inclusive Language

The ideas, images, values and attitudes evoked by inclusive language have significance on

both the individual and universal levels. On the individual level, inclusive language promotes

respect for the uniqueness of each person and allows each to contribute to the “eschatological

dream of a new heaven and a new earth” according to her or his own gifts.64 Uniqueness refers

not only to individual giftedness but to the vast diversity present on earth and beyond. Inclusive

language for God respects the fullness of all humanity and the sacredness of all of creation.

Johnson, She Who Is, 22.
Ibid., 33.
Ibid., 26.
Ibid., 37.
Ibid., 32.

When the fullness of all humanity is respected, the equality of females and males created in God‟s

image is acknowledged and, as equals, all can represent God. 65

On a universal level, inclusive language evokes a sense of mutuality perhaps best described

as “God and world coinher[ing] in mutual if asymmetrical reciprocity.” 66 One of the terms

Elizabeth Johnson uses to describe this relationship of reciprocity is “panentheism” – “God in the

world and the world in God while each remains radically distinct.”67 Mutuality and reciprocity are

terms that can be used to describe a relationship of genuine friendship where the best interest of the

other is always considered and the uniqueness of the other is respected.


Theological Implications of Inclusive God Language

Inclusive God language restores our understanding of the Trinity to that of a love

relationship of coequals where the love is so bountiful that it cannot be contained within the

Godhead and so spills over into all of creation, redeeming the entire cosmos. Wren uses the

terminology of Mutual Friend, Beloved and Lover to describe a Trinity where all persons are

distinct yet equal.68 Each title could be used for any one of the persons without diminishing the

nature of that person. The coequality of the Trinity is the personification of the peace and justice

for which we hope – where each person is treated with dignity and respect and has sufficient

means to provide for basic needs for oneself and one‟s family.

Ibid., 55.
Ibid., 236.
Ibid., 231.
Wren, 214.

God‟s love is so abundant that God chooses to give each person freedom to make her or his

own choices, knowing the possible costs but promising to walk the journey with us. 69 A God who

journeys with us comes by many names because of the limitless experiences of life, yet no name

suffices to reveal the incomprehensible essence of God. 70 God could be called Potter for crafting

each element of the universe with its own uniqueness. God could be called Birther for bringing life

where there was none. God could be called Lover because of showing gentleness where there is

anger, tenderness where there is hurt, nurturance where there is slowness. God could be called

Healer for mending the rifts of life. God could be called Friend for being there in the good times as

well as the bad times – for never giving up on us. God could be called You or Me for entrusting us

to be partners in the recreation of all that shows weariness. Our Trinitarian God is relational,

demonstrating the possibility of unity in the midst of a vast array of diversity.

Anthropological Implications of Inclusive God Language

Inclusive God language has implications for women and men. Women‟s life experiences

would be honored as would the life experiences of all people. In this way, the dignity of women

created in the fullness of God‟s image would be restored. All the damaging effects of patriarchy

would begin to heal in women – low self esteem, lack of confidence, poor self worth, feelings of

inferiority – to name some. Men too would begin to heal when they could be true to their own

nature and not have to be the superhuman – when they would be free to express emotions, to be

vulnerable. Inclusive language for God could contribute to the healing of humanity, and to

reclaiming neglected dimensions of the imago dei.71

Ibid., 153.
Johnson, “The Incomprehensibility of God,” 444.
Ruether, 113.


It was only as recently as the late 1960s that the word “sexism” entered our language. 72

Before then women, by and large, accepted the myth of male dominance as the created order and

accepted masculine God language as our inherited tradition. But, in the last few decades, people in

various disciplines, including theology, have begun to uncover the harmful affects of patriarchy on

all levels. These theologians are challenging the church to recognize the damage

that has already been done and to have the courage to experiment with new ways of naming our

experience of God for the sake of all God‟s people.

Because God is the creator, redeemer, lover of the world, God‟s own honor is at stake in
human happiness. Wherever human beings are violated, diminished, or have their life
drained away, God‟s glory is dimmed and dishonored. Wherever human beings are
quickened to fuller and richer life, God‟s glory is enhanced. 73

Miller and Smith, 141.
Johnson, She Who Is, 14.

Works Cited

Aldredge-Clanton, Jann. In Whose Image? God and Gender. rev. ed. New York: Crossroad,

Bloomquist, Karen. “„Let God Be God‟: The Theological Necessity of Depatriarchalizing God.”
In Our Naming of God: Problems and Prospects of God-Talk Today. ed. Carl E. Braaten,
45-60. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989.

Duck, Ruth. Gender and the Name of God. New York: The Pilgrim Press, 1991.

Griffis, James E. Naming the Mystery: How Our Words Shape Prayer and Belief. Cambridge,
Mass.: Cowley Publications, 1990.

Johnson, Elizabeth A. She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse. New
York: Crossroad, 1992.

________. “The Incomprehensibility of God and the Image of God Male and Female.”
Theological Studies 45 (1984): 441-65.

McFague, Sallie. Metaphorical Theology: Models of God in Religious Language. Philadelphia:

Fortress, 1982.

Miller, Casey and Kate Smith. Words and Women. Garden City, New York: Anchor
Press/Doubleday, 1976.

Ruether, Rosemary Radford. Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology. Boston: Beacon,

Smith, Paul R. Is It Okay to Call God “Mother”: Considering the Feminine Face of God.
Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1993.

Wren, Brian. What Language Shall I Borrow? God-Talk in Worship: A Male Response to
Feminist Theology. New York: Crossroad, 1989.

St. Francis Seminary

Catholic Social Teaching

on the Dignity of Women
Religious Evil: Women as “Image of God”?

Ruth M. Kolpack

Comprehensive Exam
March 21, 2003


Social institutions, such as religion, are systems of organization for human beings. Every

organization has a set of rules, both implicit and explicit, that influences the behavior of individuals

within that specific institution.74 In addition to a set of rules, there are ideologies, values, customs

and rituals that are particular to the institution, each contributing to its definition. All of these evolve

slowly through a process of decision making – personal decisions made one individual at a time,

each one adding to the compound of decisions already made and laying the foundation for

decisions to be made in the future.

This process of forming and maintaining institutions through decisions made by individuals

raises numerous questions: Who makes the decisions? Do all voices carry the same weight in

making decisions? Are some voices not heard? Who benefits from the decisions made? Are

decisions made with the common good in mind? If a decision results in consequences harmful to

some members, were these consequences caused intentionally?

These questions provide a springboard for considering the possibility of ―religious evil‖ and

how Catholic Social Teaching, intentionally or not, may be complicit in regard to its effects on the

dignity of women and the naming of God.


Is it possible that religion is exempt from the prospect of being evil? Probably not, since

religion is a social institution consisting of imperfect individuals. Its ideologies and belief system

are shaped by the decisions of countless people over long periods of time. Without careful

consideration of historical contexts of decisions made in the past, illusions of truth may penetrate

James Newton Poling, Deliver Us from Evil: Resisting Racial and Gender Oppression
(Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996) 127.

current decisions that consequently could result in harm to some members.75 Evil then occurs.

The “Religious” Justification of Evil”

―Religious evil‖ appears to be an oxymoron. We like to believe that ―religion is the antidote

to evil, and evil is the opposite of religion. . . . On the contrary, evil often has roots in religious

beliefs and practices . . . masked by abstract claims to virtue, love and justice.‖76 For example,

white theologians justified slavery of Africans in the United States as better than being ―savages‖ in

Africa because ―they are, to a considerable extent, civilized, enlightened and christianized.‖ 77

These theologians employed religious beliefs to justify slavery and slave trade. That is ―religious

evil‖ – ―the theology and/or practices of religious groups used to destroy bodies and spirits.‖ 78

Their claim to absolute truth allowed them to participate in this evil and still believe in their personal

salvation through Christ.

Characteristics of Religious Evil

Absolute truth claims (including literalism), exclusivism and blind obedience are some of the

characteristics of ―religious evil‖ manifested in various ways that cause harm to individuals and

groups of people.

Absolute religious claims are rigid and inflexible doctrines or literal translations of

religious texts, accepted as truth because the claims are made by respected and gifted leaders.

Often they are professed by zealous adherents of a particular belief and are likely to lead to

corruption and evil.79 ―When zealous and devout adherents elevate the teachings and beliefs of

their tradition to the level of absolute truth claims, they open a door to the possibility that their

Ibid., 125.
Ibid., 132.
Ibid., 139 citing Kelly Brown Douglas, The Black Christ (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1994) 97.
Poling, xv.
Charles Kimball, When Religion Becomes Evil (New York: HarperCollins, 2002) 41.

religion will become evil.‖80 Anti-abortion zealots are viewed by some as a contemporary example

of people acting on claims of absolute truth – claims that the one and only way to look at abortion

is that it is legalized slaughter of innocents, necessitating taking action against the perpetrators. 81

Other examples of evil manifested by absolute claims of truth are: 1) television evangelists

attacking Islam as a false religion and Allah as a false god;82 2) Bailey Smith, president of the

Southern Baptists in 1980, claiming that God doesn‘t hear the prayers of non-Christians because

they are not made in the name of Jesus and so cannot get through to God;83 3) Muslim extremists

promising paradise for ―martyrs‖ carrying out suicide bombings;84 4) the Catholic hierarchy‘s claim

that only males were chosen by Jesus to be apostles and so only males can be ordained. 85

Exclusivism, another sign of ―religious evil,‖ is common among many Christians, partly due

to literal interpretations of Scripture. For example, this verse from John 3:16, ―For God so loved

the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but

might have eternal life,‖ can lead Christians to believe that non-Christians do not have the promise

of eternal life. When taken literally, it appears to be a definitive statement about how to attain

eternal life. However, interpretation must always be in the context of the community of people and,

therefore, it is likely to change over time.86 When the literal interpretation of Scripture is used to

exclude people, it becomes ―religious evil.‖

Ibid., 44.
Ibid., 45.
Ibid., 49.
Ibid., 50-51.
Ibid., 54.
Paul VI, Response to the Letter of His Grace the Most Reverend Dr. F. D. Coggan, Archbishop of
Canterbury, concerning the Ordination of Women to the Priesthood (30 November 1975): AAS68 (1976), 599
cited in John Paul II Ordinatio Sacerdotalis 1 (May 26, 1994).
Kimball, 69.

Blind obedience becomes a ―religious evil‖ because it requires adherents to forfeit their

intellectual integrity and blindly follow a particular leader, idea or doctrine. 87 Examples of evil from

blind obedience are the mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana, in 1977,88 the sexual license of David

Koresh and the mass deaths of his followers in 1993,89 and the release of deadly nerve gas in

Tokyo subway stations by followers of Asahara Shoko in 1995.90 Intellectual freedom is essential

for authentic religion.


Progression of Catholic Social Teaching

If one would graph the progression of Catholic Social Teaching on the dignity of women, it

could be said that there would be evidence of some growth in recognizing the full dignity of women

from Rerum Novarum in the late 19th century to Gaudium et Spes over 70 years later. The Puebla

document by the Latin American bishops and the document of the North American bishops,

Economic Justice for All, in the late 20th century show probably the greatest openness to

recognizing the needs of women. The Latin American bishops named the victimization of women

in the workplace, the home and the church and the North American bishops addressed the

economic issues faced by women specifically. 91 Since these latter two documents, there appears

to be a decline in advancing the full dignity of women. This is repeatedly evidenced in a dual

anthropology of women. To use the imagery of motherhood that is prevalent in Catholic social

teaching, dual anthropology is like a mother having difficulty giving birth. She is ready to deliver

Kimball, 82-86.
Ibid., 78.
Ibid., 93.
Ibid., 71.
Marvin L. Krier Mich, ―Sexism: Women‘s Voices—Silent No Longer,‖ Catholic Social Teaching and
Movements (Mystic, CT: Twenty-Third Publications, 1998) 356.

but there is something constricting the birthing process. In Catholic social teaching, it appears that

the church is ready to give birth to an acknowledgment of the full dignity of women but something

is constricting the process – namely, the notion that full dignity of women means motherhood,

either physical or spiritual.92

Recognizing Full Dignity of Women

An overview of some church documents will help illustrate this image of the Catholic Church

struggling to give birth to an affirmation of the full dignity of women. In Rerum Novarum, the few

references made to women were simply that they were bound to the home by divine ordinance.

The assumption was that a woman‘s role was in the family not in society.93

Gaudium et Spes, one of the sixteen documents promulgated by the Second Vatican

Council, 1962-1965, brought new hope to women seeking full recognition of equal humanity. The

document is addressed ―to the whole of humanity.‖94 All of humanity is responsible for establishing

the well-being of people. ―Humanity . . . [is] to establish an order . . . which will . . . help individuals

as well as groups to affirm and develop the dignity proper to them.‖ ―Women claim for themselves

an equity with men . . .‖(GS 9). The document goes on to proclaim that ―rights and duties are

universal and inviolable‖(GS 26). Recognizing evil tendencies in the world, the document

condemns all acts that ―violate the integrity of the human person . . . [as] infamies indeed‖(GS 27).

Having established from Genesis 1:26 that all people are made in the image of God and from

Genesis 1:27 that God‘s image includes males and females, the document continues

John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity and Vocation of Women) 21 (Washington, D.C.:
United States Catholic Conference, 1988) 74.
Mich, 348.
GS 2.

to defend the rights of each person by saying that ―every type of discrimination . . . based on sex .

. . is to be overcome and eradicated as contrary to God‘s intent‖(GS 29).

The “Nature” of Women

One could extrapolate from these Gaudium et Spes quotes that the church now viewed

woman as equal to man in all respects but, in reality, in defining the ―nature‖ of woman the

church is constricting woman‘s freedom. A consistent theme throughout church documents, a

woman‘s domain is in the home and her role is motherhood (see Quadragesimo Anno 71, Pacem

in Terris 19, Mulieris Dignitatem 18, Ordinatio Sacerdotatlis 3).95 John Paul II in Laborem

Exercens (1981), recognized that women worked outside the home but emphasized that the

primary role of women was to be responsible for the family, a statement reiterated a few months

later in Familiaris Consortio.96

Participation of Women in Society

Reflecting an almost schizophrenic attitude, documents also promote the participation in

life outside the home . For example: ― . . . the legitimate social progress of women should not be

underrated on that account‖ (that is, being a mother at home)(GS 52); ―Everyone should

acknowledge and favor the proper and necessary participation of women in cultural life‖(GS 60).

Pope Paul VI in his 1971 document Octogesima Adveniens #13 states, ―We do not have in mind

that false equality which would deny the distinctions laid down by the Creator himself and which

would be no contradiction with woman‘s proper role, which is of such capital importance, at the

heart of the family as well as within society.‖ 97 The church is part of that society and is named as

such in the 1971 synod document, Justice in the World: ―We also urge that women should have

Mich, 349-350.
Ibid., 354.
Ibid., 353.
Author‘s note: Minor editing of original work was done in lines 1 & 2 of the last paragraph for ease of

their own share of responsibility and participation in the community life of society and likewise of

the church.‖98 The 1979 Puebla document of CELAM, while asserting the traditional definition of

woman‘s role as mother and wife, ―goes on to call the church to ‗consider‘ the equality and dignity

of women and to recognize the mission of women in the church and in the world.‖ 99

An Explanation of the Ambiguity

I believe the ambiguity of dual anthropology is found in the magisterial teaching on women

because the bishops are convinced that having a parent home with the children is in the children‘s

best interest. They are equally convinced that, in order for this to happen, the working parent must

have a wage adequate to provide for the needs of the family. These are both noble reasons for

their teaching. The problem arises when they make the assumption that only a woman can take

care of children and only a man can provide an adequate wage for the family. This way of thinking

is an injustice to both men and women and, in itself, negates the full dignity of both.


Pastoral Letter on Women

―Dual anthropology‖ of women means that women are defined as consisting of two

natures. One nature is predetermined and assigns women a vocation proper to that nature. The

other is a nature that allows women to be independent and equal to a person who does not have a

nature that has a ―proper vocation‖ assigned to it. 100 A ―dual anthropology‖ of women is

problematic in that it keeps women in a dependent position, subject to the authority of males, and

not recognized as capable adults. This is evident in the pattern of control during the eight-year

Ibid., 356.
Maria Riley, ―Women‖ in The New Dictionary of Catholic Social Thought, Judith A. Dwyer, ed
(Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazier Press, 1994) 988.

process, undertaken by the Ad Hoc Committee on the Role of Women in Society and the Church,

of attempting to draft a pastoral letter on women for the National Catholic Conference of Bishops.

The process began with listening sessions to hear the experiences of 75,000 women.101 The

voices of these women were reflected in the first draft but removed in subsequent drafts. The

fourth and final draft reflected the voices of the Roman officials and traditional bishops while

alienating many women and progressive bishops.102

Sexism, the very issue addressed in the pastoral letter drafts, influenced the process of

developing this document to the point that the final draft was unacceptable to many women and

progressive bishops.103 The definition of sexism used in the document is: ―an erroneous

conviction that one sex, male or female, is superior to the other in the very order of creation and

by the very nature of things.‖104 When this ―assigned‖ nature of women subjugates them to a

dependent, non-adult position, those ―superior‖ to them are able to overpower them and silence

them. Vatican officials, questioning the process of consultation with women, ―asserted that

bishops are teachers, not learners; truth cannot emerge through consultation.‖ 105 This same

process of consultation was used successfully for two previous documents.106 This raises the

question of why consultation was an issue at this time. One could conclude that it was because

of who was being consulted and the opinions that were voiced.

Was ―religious evil‖ present in this process? Yes, there is ―religious evil‖ here in the fact

that the bishops claimed absolute truth in stating that ―truth‖ lies in them and not in the

Ibid., 358.
Ibid., 363.
Ibid., 368.
Ibid., 365.
Ibid., 364.

experiences of the women consulted. The bishops have used their position as religious leaders to

crush the spirit of the women consulted for this document. They diminished the experiences of

these women as irrelevant and rendered them to their ―proper‖ position as learners, dependent on

those who claim to have the ―truth‖ within them to teach them.

Strengthening the Bonds of Peace

Another example of the problem of ―dual anthropology‖ of women is the bishops‘

document, ―Strengthening the Bonds of Peace,” written to encourage the acceptance of Pope

John Paul II‘s apostolic letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis.107 In this document, the bishops say, ―We

commit ourselves to make sure that our words and actions express our belief in the equality of all

women and men.‖108 But in the decision-making process within a parish, ―the final decision rests

with the pastor.‖ Lay men and women can only ―cooperate‖ in this power (Canon 129).109 Is this

indicative of ―the equality of all women and men‖?

In reference to suffering endured by individuals and groups experiencing racism or sexism,

the bishops suggest that ―sustained dialogue is indispensable‖ and that there must be ―trust

between [the] speaker and the listener.‖110 That was tried by the ad hoc committee that worked

endlessly on drafting a Pastoral Letter on Women. Vatican officials became speakers but not

listeners. The end result was a monologue rather than a dialogue.

Under the heading ―Leadership,‖ the bishops say, ―we commit ourselves to enhancing the

participation of women in every possible aspect of Church life‖ right after affirming the teaching

United States Catholic Conference, Strengthening the Bonds of Peace (A Pastoral Reflection on
Women in Church and Society) (Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 1995) 1.
Ibid., 9.
Ibid., 5.
Ibid., 2.

of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, ―Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone.‖111 The qualifying word

is ―possible,‖ again inviting women into leadership positions in the church but positing limitations.

As a consequence, the hierarchy continues to relegate women to a position of dependency.

Is ―religious evil‖ an issue here? I believe it is present in the form of blind obedience. John

Paul declared Ordinatio Sacerdotalis to be held ―definitively‖ by all the church‘s faithful and the

United States bishops affirmed this by stating that people are to accept the document as given

beyond question.112 When authority figures disallow dialogue or honest questioning regarding a

position taken, but rather ask people to accept it for the sake of unity, something is wrong.

―Authentic religion encourages questions and reflection at all levels.‖113

Ordinatio Sacerdotalis

The ―dual anthropology‖ of women is also present in Pope John Paul II‘s apostolic letter,

Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. John Paul states that ―the presence and role of women . . . remain

absolutely necessary and irreplaceable. . . . They [women] are the holy martyrs, virgins and the

mothers of families who . . . passed on the Church‘s faith and tradition by bringing up their children

in the spirit of the Gospel.‖114 Women are ―necessary and irreplaceable‖ in the church as ―martyrs,

virgins and mothers.‖ On the one hand, John Paul is accepting women‘s role in the church but, on

the other hand, is relegating them to the home to be physical mothers or to religious life to be

spiritual mothers.

Ibid., 3.
Ibid., 1.
Kimball, 89.
John Paul II, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone) 3 (Washington,
D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 1994).

Is there ―religious evil‖ in this document? According to the definition of ―religious evil‖ on

previous pages, there are the evils of absolute truth claims and literalism. Four times in this brief

document, John Paul claims absolute truth: 1) ―in accordance with God‘s plan for his

Church;‖115 2) ―Christ established things in this way;‖ 116 3) ―in accordance with God‘s

eternal plan;‖117 and 4) ―the Church‘s divine constitution.‖ 118 He is defending the church‘s position

on not ordaining women by claiming to continue what Jesus initiated.119

The ―evil‖ of literalism is evident in John Paul‘s insistence that a fundamental reason the

church cannot ordain women is that Christ chose only men. Again, in this short document, he

mentions this three times, the last time saying there were twelve men chosen.120 If this literalism

were followed through in every way, there would be only twelve priests in the church and they

would all be Jewish Middle Eastern men. His literalistic argument, in this case, is very weak and

not convincing to many. Its purpose appears to be to exclude women from ordination.

Implications in Social and Church Life

There are several implications of the ―dual anthropology‖ of women. First, it is an

endorsement of sexism – the erroneous conviction that one sex, by nature, is superior to the other.

Decisions made by members of the supposedly superior gender will carry more public weight.

Their voices are more likely to be heard and it is more likely that they will benefit by the decisions

made. Second, it perpetuates stereotypical images of males and females – women care for

children, provide for the needs of the home, and are in need of the protection of men. Men make

Ibid., 1.
Ibid., 2.
Ibid., 4.
It could be considered heretical to claim that Jesus initiated exclusivism, something contrary to
the nature of God.
Ibid., 1, 2.

the majority of decisions about/or within important areas of life – politics, education, health, religion,

etc. Men need a good education adequately to support their families. When this scenario

becomes reality, it may contribute to a woman staying in an abusive home. The woman who

repeatedly is given the message that she is to be a good wife and mother may feel she is

responsible for the success or failure of her marriage. As result of her role of wife and mother

providing for needs of the home, she is dependent on her husband for economic support. For

these reasons, she may feel the necessity to remain in an abusive relationship.121 Third, the

implication is that women‘s experiences are not as valuable as men‘s and do not need to be

considered or given equal weight when making important decisions in the public sphere. It is

accepted that women‘s experiences are subsumed in men‘s. This reinforces a dependent,

subservient image for women and contributes to the undervaluing of women.


Progress toward advancing a fuller recognition of the dignity of women can be seen in

some of the church documents and, more recently, in the work of various theologians. How does

this support or even demand a more inclusive theological, liturgical, and pastoral language?

Church Documents

Pius XII was the first to express the notion of equality between men and women in the

eyes of God, even though he qualified it in regard to power and role.122 Especially since the

Second Vatican Council, there has been some positive language regarding women in church

National Conference of Catholic Bishops, When I Call for Help: A Pastoral Response to Domestic
Violence against Women (Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 1995) 3.
Christine E. Gudorf, ―Sexism‖ in The New Dictionary of Catholic Social Thought, Judith A. Dwyer,
ed (Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazier Press, 1994) 878.
Author‘s note: Removed the word ―may‖ in 7 th line from top of page. Was word preceding ―remain.‖

documents, such as language about equality and the participation of women in public life. 123

Increasingly, the documents express women‘s right to employment outside the home and their

right to involvement in cultural, economic, social, and political life. 124 Positive language in the

documents is progress but, as liberation theologians assert, ongoing praxis of the theological

principles professed will assure real progress.125 Action must follow words or credibility is


Other positive efforts by bishops in regard to women are found in documents that focus on

the evil of sexism. In the late 20th century, the United States bishops explicitly named ―sexism‖ a

sin.126 At the same time, the Quebec bishops issued a statement on domestic violence, ―accepting

on behalf of the church partial responsibility for violence against women‖ because of counseling

women not to leave an abusive marriage.127 They also acknowledged the church‘s complicity in

domestic violence through excluding women from leadership positions, recognizing that as

contributing to a patriarchal mentality. 128 Since then, the United States bishops published a

document on domestic violence, condemning violence against women – physical, sexual,

psychological, or verbal – as sinful and a crime.129 They did not go as far as the bishops from

Quebec to acknowledge complicity in the sin through teachings that continue to exclude women

from full participation in society and in the church. They did, however, recognize how sexism

Barbara Hogan, ―Feminism and Catholic Social Thought‖ in The New Dictionary of Catholic Social
Thought, Judith A. Dwyer, ed (Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazier Press, 1994) 396.
Gudorf, 878.
Hogan, 395.
Gudorf, 880.
Ibid., citing Quebec Assembly of Catholic Bishops, Violence en hèritage? Rèflexion sur la
violence conjugale (November 1989).
National Conference of Catholic Bishops, When I Call for Help, 1.

contributes to domestic violence and suggested that catechesis be free of sexual stereotyping and

inclusive language be used in liturgical celebrations, ―as authorized.‖ 130

This qualification, ―as

authorized,‖ once again raises the issue of the importance of supporting statements with actions. It

is the bishops who ―authorize‖ the liturgical texts. Inclusive language in liturgical celebrations is

only possible if they make the changes necessary for it to occur.


Feminist theologians are attempting to put into action some of the positive

language expressed in church documents – particularly, to assure equality and respect for all

people, regardless of gender. One of the tasks necessary to accomplish this is to critique the

sources of sexism, one of which is religion.131 Some of the so-called Christian principles that

feminist theologians challenge are: the inferiority of women to men; the polarities associated with

men and women (i.e. mind/body, reason/emotion, activity/passivity, autonomy/dependency); the

association of women with evil; the expectation that women are to be more virtuous than men; the

exaltation of dependency, suffering and servanthood.132 Christine Gudorf adds to the list gender

complementarity and gender role differentiation. 133

Mary Catherine Hilkert raises theological premises to be challenged: full revelation in

Jesus Christ, the boundaries of canonical scriptures, accountability of church leaders. 134 If the

Ibid., 4-5.
Margaret A. Farley, ―Feminist Ethics‖ in Feminist Ethics and the Catholic Moral Tradition
(Readings in Moral Theology No. 9) ed. Charles E. Curran, Margaret A. Farley, and Richard A McCormick
(Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1996) 6.
Ibid., 9.
Christine E. Gudorf, ―Encountering the Other: The Modern Papacy on Women‖ in Feminist Ethics
and the Catholic Moral Tradition (Readings in Moral Theology No. 9) ed. Charles E. Curran, Margaret A.
Farley, and Richard A McCormick (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1996) 74, 85.
Mary Catherine Hilkert, ―Experience and Tradition–Can the Center Hold?–Revelation‖ in Freeing
Theology: The Essentials of Theology in Feminist Perspective, ed. Catherine Mowry LaCugna (New York:
HarperCollins, 1993) 62.
Author‘s note: Added the word ―to‖ in first line to read: ― . . contributes to domestic violence . . . ―

issues of gender inequality are to be resolved, one must have the courage to look at the

theological premises that form our belief system. I use the word ―courage‖ because it is very

difficult to dismantle what is claimed to be absolute truth.

Regarding the question of full revelation in Jesus Christ, Hilkert and other feminist

theologians ―call attention to the limits of any historical revelation of the unknown God,‖ thus

challenging official church teaching from the Second Vatican Council document Dei Verbum

which states: ―Christ . . . is . . . the fullness of revelation‖ (DV 2). 135

Rather, for a fuller

expression of how God is revealed to humankind, Hilkert says:

If revelation constitutes a relationship of communion with God as mediated through

creation and human history, then it is necessarily an ongoing process that must be
expressed and symbolized anew in every age and culture. Feminists note that not
only time and culture, but also race, gender, and class, among other factors, affect
the symbolic imagination through which experience of God is filtered. The process
of revelation is necessarily ongoing because neither the divine nor the human
mystery can ever be defined, and the relationship between the two remains ongoing
and surprising.136

Because this description of God‘s revelation takes into account the experience of all people

throughout all time, even those deemed invisible and marginalized by society, it seems to be in

conflict with the traditional claim that fullness of revelation comes through Jesus Christ.

Regarding the canonical boundaries of the scriptures, ―feminist biblical scholars and

theologians remind us that the limits of the human expression of Scripture include a patriarchal

bias and an androcentric traditioning process that can fundamentally distort the revelatory good

news of salvation.‖137 Feminist theologians are not rejecting the canon but suggesting that ―the

task of the church [is] to interpret the Word of God in every time and culture.‖ 138 What do later

Ibid., 65.
Ibid., 73.
Ibid., 74.

developments in Christianity (including feminism) have to contribute to our understanding of the the

Word of God?

Regarding accountability of church leaders, Hilkert examines the role of the magisterium in

contrast to sensus fidelium ―in the development and preservation of the authentic tradition of the

church.‖139 How are church doctrine and dogma determined? Whose experience counts?

Vatican II emphasized that the Word of God was entrusted to ―the entire church‖ but feminists are

asking ―how that Word can be heard and proclaimed if the people of God are not listened to or

even consulted?‖140

Support for Inclusive Language

As members of the Body of Christ, we are beginning truly to see with open eyes the variety

of people present in the Body and the variety of gifts that each one brings to promote the full

functioning of the Body. We are beginning to realize that we must listen with open ears to the

stories of each member – the least as much as the greatest – for then the Body has the best

opportunity to experience the revelation of the mystery of God. To the extent that we, the Body of

Christ, see with open eyes and listen with open ears, we are impelled to speak the truth of what we

have seen and heard, and that truth demands inclusive language or it would not be truth.


If we do not see behind the dangers of absolute truth, blind obedience and exclusivism, we

will not recognize the people who are marginalized, invisible and voiceless. If we are unable to

recognize ―religious evil,‖ we will not recognize the necessity of inclusive language for naming God.

Ibid., 75.
Ibid., 76.8

The Second Vatican Council not only opened a window for fresh air in the church but it

opened a door for fresh experiences in the church. Women were invited to study theology and that

was the open door needed for women to bring their experiences to the table. These women and

others are exposing the incongruity between what the church says and what it does, and

challenging it to take the next step to embrace the full dignity of all people. All will then be set free,

including God – no longer bound by the limits of exclusive language.


Works Cited

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________. ―Sexism.‖ In The New Dictionary of Catholic Social Thought, ed. Judith Dwyer, 877-
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