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The politics of the word Lord

NCR Staff

Though critics sometimes deride a version of the Old Testament Psalms produced by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy as an example of inclusive language run amuck, a poet who worked on the project says one word refutes that objection: Lord.

Amid heated debate during the 1980s and early 1990s, translators opted to retain the word Lord as a reference to God despite its masculine connotations, said Elizabeth-Anne Stewart, a poet and professor of religious studies at Chicago’s DePaul University. She served for eight years on a subcommittee within the international commission that produced the Psalter.

“Lots of people felt we sold out, that we were not inclusive enough,” Stewart said. “They felt our commitment to avoiding gender-specific terms for God was incomplete as long as we retained Lord as a synonym.”

But those responsible for the text felt Lord was too deeply rooted in church tradition, and removing it ran too great a risk of alienating believers, Stewart said.

“It illustrates the care that was taken to be inclusive in the best sense, to be faithful and respectful of the tradition and yet to use language that unlocks the prayerfulness of the Psalms,” Stewart said in a mid-April interview.

The translation Stewart helped produce has long been controversial. When completed in 1993, it was free of masculine references to God other than the word Lord. The U.S. bishops granted an imprimatur in 1995, but not before demanding that some masculine pronouns be reinstated. In 1998, that imprimatur was revoked at the request of the Vatican.

Most recently, Vatican authorities have demanded that the commission take steps to remove the Psalter from circulation, despite the fact that several publishers hold copyright permission to continue to its publication. Though the translation was issued only as a study text, many religious orders of both men and women have incorporated it into their communal prayer (NCR, April 7).

Stewart said she was “shocked” by Vatican criticism of the Psalter, which came in a Jan. 14 letter calling the text “doctrinally flawed” and a “danger to the faith.”

“Thirty years ago, Vatican II issued a mandate to put the liturgy into living language, and scholars and poets and theologians responded,” Stewart said. “Some people spilled the blood of their entire lives over this project at the request of the church. Now to have this work undone by the same church that mandated it -- to me, that is a betrayal.”

“There are so many apologies going on in the church right now. In years to come, this group of scholars and artists will deserve an apology.”

Stewart was drafted to work on the Psalter by the late Passionist Fr. Carroll Stuhlmueller, who taught at the Catholic Theological Union and who served as an adviser for the commission. Working with base translations of the Hebrew originals of Psalms prepared by Biblical scholars, Stewart put them into contemporary poetic language. Her texts, and those of other poets working on other psalms, were studied by linguists and theologians before being recommended for approval by the bishops who govern the commission.

Before Stewart joined the project, the commission decided that it would use inclusive language. It justified the decision on the basis of a 1969 Vatican document on translation, Comme le prévoit, which said that each church member should be able to see himself or herself reflected in the readings at Mass and other liturgies.

Stewart is no stranger to controversy. At the 1999 Parliament of World Religions in South Africa, her session on “Jesus the Holy Fool” attracted protests. A member of the South African parliament introduced a motion to withdraw support for the gathering based on the session.

Stewart said the conflict was based on a misunderstanding. Jesus the Holy Fool is the title of her latest book, which examines the “holy fool” tradition in Christianity. “These are people willing, for the sake of the spirit, to do things the world deems unwise,” she said. The book is published by Sheed & Ward.

National Catholic Reporter, May 5, 2000