We, She, or It?

Four years after the CDWDS rejected Roman Missal 2 for the stated reason that MR3 was nearly finished, and that it was a lame duck document, additional reasons surfaced in a letter to an unknown president of a bishops’ conference. This fascinating document is available in the archives of the Adoremus Bulletin.

Many things are comment-worthy in this letter, but I think I’d like to tackle them one by one as they suit. One thing that struck me was a rather naive comment about English pronouns, especially as they refer to the Church. Speaking of MR2’s English translation, the CDWDS objection reads:

For the Church, the neuter pronoun “it” is always used, instead of “she”. So designated, the Church can appear to be a mere social aggregate, deprived of much of the mystery that has been emphasized especially in relatively recent teaching by the Magisterium. The pronoun “it” does not seem to refer properly to the reality of the Church, portrayed by Divine Revelation as our Mother and Christ’s Bride.

Modern English has lost almost all sense of gender in nouns. But a student of another language will be quickly introduced to the concept of masculine, feminine, and neuter. Let’s take Latin. Among the first words I learned in that language were first declension feminine nouns. Femina, woman. Puella, girl. That makes sense, I thought: females have female nouns to describe them. However, there were also “things” that the Romans also considered feminine in declension: water (aqua), gate (porta), and forest (silva). Two words kind of blew the gender connection away. In the first month of Latin I, we also learned that though agricola had feminine endings, the farmer was considered a masculine noun. That made sense, I suppose. So when I added an adjective to describe a good farmer, I would write agricola bonus (not bona). And then there was the Latin word for “fatherland,” patria. It seems a bit weird to think of a “fatherland” as something feminine. Why, I wondered, wouldn’t the English word be “motherland”?

German is another language with masculine, feminine, and neuter. When I began to study this language in high school, some things made sense. “The man” was rendered Der Mann. “The woman” was Die Frau. Curious that “the little girl” was Das Mädchen. German little girls were not feminine, but neuter? Turns out when German women get old, they also become neuter.

My German and Latin teachers told us not to consider nouns and pronouns literally. They were language qualities, not literal depictions of sexuality. German knives, forks, and spoons are, respectively, neuter, feminine, and masculine. Go figure.

Perhaps the CDWDS under Cardinal Medina Estévez didn’t figure out some language lessons. Getting back to the Church, in English usage, because the Church is not a female (or male) person, we would not use the pronoun “she,” but rather “it.” It’s just the way the language is. There are a lot of important and profound concepts that don’t quite match up to the simple pronoun “it.” The faith I have in God is an “it.” The love I have for my wife is also “it.” The most profound sacred music composed: it. The life God has given us: it.

Pronouns are shorthand depictions of a reality much, much deeper than a two- or three-letter word. Pronouns do not exist outside of a context. If I wrote a blog post of three words, “It is good,” What would you think? On this web site, it could be a lot of things: a planet, a kiss from my daughter or wife, a meal, a jazz album, a backgammon victory, a night’s sleep. I could write, “she is good,” and perhaps you could narrow it down to my wife, my daughter, or conceivably, my mother, one of my sisters-in-law or nieces, or a colleague, or a student, or a singer.

Perhaps the CDWDS attaches too much significance to the pronouns of English. The trend over the centuries has been more and more to reserve “he” for male persons and perhaps some animals, and “she” for female persons and perhaps some animals, and use “it” more and more for inanimate objects. But the Church is something more than an object without anima, or Spirit. Personally, I think the pronoun “we” fits in many instances.

One might note that in reading the references in the Church’s own documents with regard to the Eucharist, the Sacrament is nearly always referred to as “it.” This happens with both the Precious Blood and the Consecrated Bread. Does this seem improper to a greater degree, that the Real Presence is somehow unsullied by official references by “it,” but somehow the Church’s perception or reality is damaged by being an “it.”

Best of all might be to avoid the use of pronouns as much as possible. English is a rich language, and good writers can produce apt metaphors. Or mine them from Scripture and the writings of the saints. Still, if a pronoun must be used, a nice reverent “we” in hushed tones might produce the intended effect, don’t you think? We are the Church: that has a nice ring to it.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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