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Women are different from men, and the Vatican knows it

A rose is a rose is a rose.

If Gertrude Stein could understand that basic concept -- that a thing is what it is -- then why is it so hard for the Roman Catholic church?

Why do we recite in the creed "for us men and for our salvation" -- is Jesus savior for just half the human race?

Why do we hear Paul address "brothers" when it's clear from the text that the audience was made up of both sexes? Why do we tolerate liturgical songs that refer to women as "men" or "brothers" when a simple translation could make things right? (Often the inclusive translation appears in music texts, but some churches, in a bold affront to many women, use the exclusive translation anyway.)

Why did U.S. cardinals have to travel to Rome in February, spending thousands of dollars of the church's resources, to tell the Vatican what it already knows: A woman is a woman is a woman?

We know the Vatican already knows this because of what the pope has said: that the differences between men and women are so fundamental that women can't be priests. But it's still okay to call them men?

A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but a woman by any other name is likely to raise a stink.

If all of this sounds like a rehashing of old stuff, be aware that according to a recent Roper poll sponsored by Ignatius Press, 73 percent of U.S. Catholics are unfamiliar with the phrase "inclusive language." Further, 52 percent of Catholics believe that Catholic women have no preference regarding the use of "man" or "mankind" in church texts.

Educationally, there is a lot of work to be done.

Fortunately for those who do care and care deeply, some change is on the horizon. In a compromise worked out between U.S. cardinals at their meeting with Vatican officials in February, the first volume of a new lectionary will embrace a moderate degree of horizontal inclusive language (that referring to people rather than to God), allowing, for example, people or men and women in scriptural texts as a translation for certain words now translated as men. It will allow the use of brothers and sisters instead of just brothers in readings where the audience is clearly mixed (NCR, May 9).

U.S. bishops deserve credit for seeking to move ahead on language issues, and U.S. cardinals deserve thanks for traveling to Rome in February to lobby for change.

Unfortunately, the Vatican flashed a yellow light instead of a go, and some of the changes previously approved by U.S. bishops were denied. The bishops will vote in Kansas City in June on the allowable changes in the first volume of a new lectionary for the Mass.

While we wish more progress could be made, those women who view these events as a setback rather than a victory might reflect that the women's movement in the United States is not yet 30 years old -- a tiny infant when viewed in the context of the slowness of church change. Any forward movement in such a short time in the area of language should be regarded as a victory indeed.

About the Roper poll sponsored by Ignatius Press, two observations are in order.

First, the methodology of this study was a bit sneaky. In one part of the survey, respondents were asked to choose between two translations of a given text, one now in use, the other inclusive. It is not surprising that most people chose the non-inclusive wording they are used to hearing when the inclusive language option was structurally awkward or clunky.

People who care about inclusive language aren't stupid. They know that inclusive language doesn't have to be at the expense of graceful language. It shouldn't be. The very fact that inclusive language in the liturgy is such an important issue for many women is a sign that the language -- all of the language -- of the liturgy matters.

Second, if Catholics have been reminded of anything over and over in recent years, it's that the church isn't a democracy, and doctrinal issues aren't determined by polls. While inclusive language is not a doctrinal issue, it's no less important.

Just as the language of central doctrines defines the bottom-line issues of our Christian identity, being called what we are expresses the bottom-line issue of who and what we are.

A rose is a rose. A man is a man. A woman is a woman.

National Catholic Reporter, May 23, 1997