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Vatican agreement 'moderately' inclusive

Special Report Writer

When the National Conference of Catholic Bishops meets in June, its members will be asked to approve at long last the first volume of a new lectionary for the Mass that uses a "moderate degree of horizontal inclusive language."

"Horizontal inclusive language" refers to the use of gender neutral terms (for example, people rather than men) when discussing human beings. ("Vertical language" refers to God.)

The revision, whose principles were agreed upon in Rome in February, is said to represent a compromise between U.S. bishops and the Vatican.

The resulting text will be far less inclusive than originally sought by U.S. bishops and presumably will be viewed as a setback by some women in the church who have strongly urged greater use of inclusive language. The terms of the recent agreement with the Vatican supersede the criteria for inclusive language established by U.S. bishops in 1990.

For five years the Vatican has withheld approval of a text submitted by the bishops in 1992.

In mid-March, the administrative committee of the bishop's conference unanimously recommended acceptance of the compromise. The Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Congregation for Divine Worship have given assurances that they will endorse the translation if the bishops accept it.

From a variety of sources, NCR has learned that the new principles adopted in February call for a lectionary text that is far less inclusive than preferred by the bishops. The lectionary is the book containing the scriptural readings for Mass.

For example, the principles state as a general rule that the plural form of a noun or pronoun may not be substituted for a singular form in the interests of inclusivity.

Thus, in the Book of Ecclesiastes 2:22, the New American Bible (NAB) text, "For what profit comes to a man from ... toil and anxiety?" cannot be rendered, "For what profit comes to a people from ... toil and anxiety?" as the U.S. bishops had originally requested.

Nor, according to the principles, may a third person reference be changed to a second person reference for the sake of inclusivity. Hence, it appears that the words "Let no one delude himself" in St. Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians may not be changed to "Let none of you deceive yourselves" as the bishops requested.

There are countless instances of such tense and gender changes in the inclusively revised NAB text sent to Rome in 1992, but they reportedly ran afoul of general translation guidelines established by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Those guidelines have not been made public.

It is also believed that no changes whatsoever will be allowed in the Book of Psalms, so that the lectionary must remain faithful to the non-inclusive New American Bible translation of 1970.

In addition, since allowable instances of inclusivity are restricted to "horizontal" language, all "vertical" references -- those to God and Christ -- must be maintained in unambiguously male form. On the other hand, it was agreed that the Greek words anthropos and adelphos as well as the Hebrew word h'adam may be translated in an inclusive sense.

Anthropos and adelphos are quite common words in the New Testament. Sr. Dianne Bergant, a professor of Biblical studies at Chicago Theological Union, explained that anthropos literally means human being and has no specifically male connotation, while adelphos literally means "brother," though often used by Paul in contexts that include both sexes.

Bergant said the two appear (in singular or plural form) some 80 times in the gospels and have hitherto been generally translated as man or men. The two words are found some 50 times in the Acts of the Apostles, she noted, and are also common in St. Paul's epistles when referring to all human beings.

The Hebrew h'adam, which may now be translated inclusively, appears more than 600 times in the Old Testament, she said, and was commonly rendered as man.

Under the principles, where the NAB translates the Book of Wisdom 2:23 as "For God formed man [anthropos] to be imperishable," it will apparently be permissible to substitute a more generic phrase, such as "For God formed humans ..."

Similarly, where the NAB Gospel of Mark, 8:36, quotes Jesus saying, "For what does it profit a man [anthropos] to gain the whole world ... ?", the new lectionary may use a term such as human being or person.

The word aner, which literally means a male person, must be translated as man, according to the agreement with the Vatican, but it appears rarely -- only about nine times in the gospels -- according to Bergant.

Using the principles of the agreement, the Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy is making changes in the text originally sent to Rome and is expected to send copies of the revised first volume of the lectionary to all the bishops before the June meeting.

Fr. James Moroney, the committee's executive director, would neither confirm nor deny NCR's information about grammatical and verbal restrictions, but acknowledged that the committee is hard at work making agreed-upon changes in the proposed lectionary.

"We're never going to satisfy everybody on this," Moroney said. "There are very divergent views on both what is appropriate and what is the state of the English language today. We have a variety of tools to achieve inclusivity, but that doesn't mean we ought to use every one."

Catalyst for the apparent resolution of the impasse between the bishops and the Vatican was an unprecedented trip to Rome last December by the seven active American cardinals. At the time, Boston Cardinal Bernard Law said, "We were unanimous in our recognition for the need for horizontal inclusive language where it does not do violence to the sacred text or to the faith of the church."

Vatican officials then agreed to set up a "working group," consisting of representatives from the bishops' conference and from the congregations on worship and the faith, to implement principles for the lectionary.

For a time supporters of inclusivity hoped these principles would reflect the bishops' own principles, approved in 1990: "The Word of God proclaimed to all nations is by nature inclusive, that is, addressed to all people, men and women. Consequently, every effort should be made to render the language of biblical translations as inclusively as a faithful translation of the text permits. ... When a biblical translation is meant for liturgical proclamation, it must also take into account those principles that apply to the public communication of biblical meaning.

"Inclusive language is one of those principles. ... Although certain uses of he, his and him once were generic and included both men and women, in contemporary American usage these terms are often perceived to refer only to males. Their use has become ambiguous and is increasingly seen to exclude women.

"Therefore, these terms should not be used when the reference is meant to be generic." Hopes dimmed, however, when it was learned that the conference would be represented in this working group by three archbishops, William Levada of San Francisco, Justin Rigali of St. Louis and Jerome Hanus of Dubuque, Iowa -- none of whom had demonstrated any enthusiasm for inclusivity in the past.

There was also concern that few members of the working group, chaired by former Denver Archbishop J. Francis Stafford, had any special training or expertise in biblical language or liturgical worship.

The working group met in Rome in late January and early February, and the three U.S. bishops reported a successful outcome for the use of "moderate, horizontal" inclusivity. Archbishop Hanus, chairman of the Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy, briefed the bishops' conference's 50-member administrative committee on the outcome at a meeting in Washington in mid-March. The administrative committee endorsed the terms of the agreement. The discussion was confidential, and Hanus did not return NCR phone calls concerning the meetings in Rome or the agreement that was reached.

Perhaps anticipating the outcome, Erie, Pa., Bishop Donald Trautman, former liturgy committee chairman, delivered a ringing defense of inclusivity during a speech in Houston in late February. He noted that even a new Protestant translation of the Bible recommended by Billy Graham and produced by highly conservative scholars makes broad use of gender inclusive language.

Said Trautman, "It will be a sad day for Catholic biblical scholarship and even a sadder day for the pastoral life of the church in the United States if the new lectionary does not incorporate the principles of gender-inclusive language. If biblical scholars from the fundamentalist tradition, who clearly revere the literal interpretation of the Bible, employ gender inclusive language and Roman Catholics are denied that opportunity, there is not just a liturgical problem, there is an ecclesiological problem of great magnitude."

Trautman declined to comment to NCR on the agreement of the working group in Rome or the likelihood of its full endorsement at the bishops' conference meeting in June.

Inclusive language has been an issue of discussion and sometimes protracted debate at conference meetings for more than six years, and many bishops are weary of the issue.

It seems probable, then, that the proposed lectionary revision will be approved and become the official scripture text for Masses in the United States for years to come. The current version of the lectionary has been in place for 27 years.

Translation's trans-Atlantic trail

The development of an English lectionary using inclusive language has followed a long and winding path across the Atlantic -- from Washington to Rome and back again -- countless times through the 1990s.

  • November 1990: The National Conference of Catholic Bishops approves its "Criteria for the Evaluation of Inclusive Language Translations of Scriptural Texts Proposed for Liturgical Use." It calls for biblical translations that are as inclusive as a "faithful translation" permits.
  • November 1991: The bishops' conference endorses for liturgical use a newly developed lectionary for Sunday and feast day Masses using inclusive language. Also approved is an inclusive revision of the Psalter. Both are sent to Rome for confirmation.
  • May 1992: The Vatican confirms that the inclusive Psalter has been accepted but has no word on the lectionary.
  • June 1992: The bishop's conference approves an inclusive weekday lectionary and passes that also on to Rome.
  • June 1994: The Vatican Congregation for the Sacraments revokes the two-year-old approbation of the Psalter, later acknowledging that the revocation actually came from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. No further word on the lectionaries.
  • November 1994: The bishops' conference accepts the decision on the Psalter and proposes a meeting with Vatican officials to clarify reasons for the revocation and to learn the status of the lectionaries. Baltimore Cardinal William Keeler, conference president, says the American church needs a text "in the English currently used in our country."
  • January 1995: A delegation of U.S. bishops has a "productive" meeting in Rome with Vatican officials and scripture scholars but has nothing substantive to report.
  • July 1995: The Vatican issues new norms for biblical translations but does not make them public.
  • July 1996: A specially appointed Vatican commission meets to discuss "observations" regarding the proposed U.S. lectionary. Neither the names of commission members nor the nature of the "observations" are revealed.
  • December 1996: The seven active U.S. cardinals go to Rome and urge Vatican officials to conclude the process for confirmation of the now five-year-old inclusive language lectionaries.
  • February 1997: Three U.S. archbishops meet in Rome with Vatican officials and announce agreement in principle on a revision of the revised lectionaries sent to Rome in 1991 and 1992. Specifics of the new variation, using a "moderate degree of horizontal inclusive language," are currently being worked out by the bishops' Committee on the Liturgy, and the bishops will be asked to approve the first volume of this lectionary in June.

National Catholic Reporter, May 9, 1997