Should Catholics stop calling God ‘He’, and would it change anything if we did?
U.S. Catholic senior editor Meghan Murphy-Gill explores the possibility of changing pronoun usage for God in a new article that examines the ways that language impacts our perception of the world. While Murphy-Gill’s article doesn’t directly address the way this change would have an impact on LGBTQ members of the church, using correct pronouns is an ongoing issue of importance in many LGBTQ circles. The LGBT Resource Center at the University of Milwaukee notes: “You can’t always know what someone’s pronouns are by looking at them. Asking and correctly using someone’s pronouns is one of the most basic ways to show your respect for their gender identity.” This is particularly true for people who are transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming.
Murphy-Gill questions if the changing the pronouns we use for God could have a positive impact on the attitudes and work of the church. A shift to more inclusive language could also create momentum for more inclusive policies for transgender and gender non-conforming members as well, starting with the respectful use of pronouns.
Murphy-Gill’s article begins with a reminder of the ongoing sexual abuse scandals in the church, as well as the ways that Catholics are responding, noting that “Some are closing the door behind them. Others are standing firmly in place.” For those that stay, Murphy-Gill suggests that one way both clergy and laypeople can begin to reform the church’s patriarchal leadership is by rethinking our language, which she says is “at the root” of these issues. She writes:
“If the church wants to change, we have to stop referring to God in only male pronouns and metaphors. King, lord, he, him, his, father. They are insufficient. Just as female pronouns are insufficient because God is God, ineffable mystery. No single way to talk about God will ever be enough because God is always more.”
Murphy-Gill uses a metaphor drawn from the work of feminist theologian Sister Elizabeth Johnson that describes naming God as similar to ‘swimming,’ where each attempt to understand God is a stroke necessary to keep us afloat, though ultimately no closer to an ending goal. Yet to stop would be to drown, and to oversimplify is to ‘make idols of our metaphors.’ The riskiest current metaphor, she says, happens when the “institutional church veers dangerously close to worshipping power concentrated at the hands of men.”
The article references the ongoing linguistic debate about the ability of language to shape perception, citing a 2017 TEDWomen talk which argues that the word choice can change people’s experience of the world. At the very least, there is indeed a consideration of power in both defining concepts and naming them. (Think also of ‘gay marriage’ versus ‘marriage equality’). Murphy-Gill asks,
“How does Christian language about God guide our reasoning about power, leadership, and gender dynamics? Even if we say God is neither male nor female, to call God ‘him’ guides our internal reasoning. And if God is male, then male is better than female. More powerful.”
Yet Murphy-Gill acknowledges there is “danger in reaching toward female pronouns” as well, noting the “social construct of gender [as] a spectrum.” In particular, she worries that turning towards language such as ‘mother’ and ‘nurturer’ for God reinforces harmful gender stereotypes that place men and women on either end of an artificial binary.
She writes, “Sometimes I wonder if the gender neutral they isn’t the best way to refer to the triune creator, redeemer, and sustainer.” For a God that is at once singular and plural, it seems there would be plenty of theological backing to support a use of Them.
While Murphy-Gill’s article does not directly acknowledge the experiences of people who also use they as the most representative pronoun for their gender identity, it is heartening to read a thoughtful and nuanced exploration of gender language in a leading Catholic publication. Perhaps a shift in pronoun use could not only challenge a default deference to the patriarchy, as Murphy-Gill suggests, but also inspire regular reminders of the many Catholics who live outside the gender binary every day.
In concluding her piece, Murphy-Gill powerfully notes that “the church of Jesus Christ is not the patriarchy. That’s the earthly institution.” As parts of the institution draw further away from the will of the people, particularly on issues surrounding LGBTQ+ equality, that distinction is crucial to remember.
[Editor’s note: Bondings 2.0 strives to respect the gender identity of all individuals, and using pronouns that people prefer is one way of showing respect. In some posts, readers may encounter the pronouns “they,” “them,” “their” to refer to a single person. We do this because either those are the pronouns that the individual uses or because the gender identity of the person is unknown. English does not have a gender-neutral personal pronoun. For those who have not encountered such usage, it may be jarring or confusing to see these words. We hope that you will recognize that our motivation in using these words is respect for the individual.]
—Catherine Buck, New Ways Ministry, January 2, 2019