Gender Inclusive language

The issue of inclusive language arises because of a change taking place in the English language.    Only a few years ago it was commonly considered that women as well as men were included when we referred to ourselves as "sons", "brothers", "men" and "he".   Even the earliest English translation of the Second Vatican Council documents still used that language.  But language changes, and we are increasingly aware that women no longer feel included by these words.   

This matters, because the ways we speak and relate to one another need to reflect our Christian faith.   And so when changing language begins to conceal the equal dignity of all persons or their equal belonging, this does need to be addressed.

It is not a matter of changing the meaning of scriptural or liturgical texts.    It is a matter of being faithful to them:   when the text intends to include both women and men, then the translation should clearly do the same.  

This is important especially in the liturgy, for the liturgy is meant to be the prayer of the whole assembly and each of its members.   Each person needs to feel included and able to pray its prayers.  

The prayer of the Church is always the prayer of some actual community assembled here and now.   It is not sufficient that a formula handed down from some other time or region should be translated verbatim, even if accurately, for liturgical use.   The formula must become the genuine prayer of the congregation, and in it each of its members should be able to find and express himself or herself.   (Instruction of the Congregation for Divine Worship, Rome 1969, n.20).

What we communicate through faithful translations is our Christian faith, which is enshrined in the scriptures and the Catholic tradition.    Responsibility for ensuring that translations faithfully preserve and communicate that tradition belongs especially to the bishops of the Church.   That is why translations of the scriptures for liturgical use and translations of liturgical books have to be approved.   (A revision of the Missal is nearly complete and will be made available after it has been approved by the NZ Bishops and confirmed by the Holy See.)   

There are also responsibilities that belong to those who minister in the celebration of the liturgy.   This includes priests, readers, musicians and liturgy committees.   We encourage all these people to become aware of this vital issue of inclusive language. There is much they can already do to ensure that texts and translations are used that respect the requirements of inclusiveness.   Accordingly:

1. Scripture

The NZ bishops have approved several translations of the scriptures for use in the liturgy that respect inclusiveness.   These include

New Revised Standard Version

New Jerusalem Bible

New American Bible (with revised NT)

New English Bible

Good News Bible

Inclusive Grail Psalter

Contemporary English Version

ICEL Psalter

Where the scriptures themselves reflect gender bias and cultural assumptions on the part of their authors, these cannot be changed in the translations, for translations must be faithful to the original text.   It is up to homilists and catechists to correct these cultural features  by speaking inclusively when referring to these texts.  


2. Addressing the People in the Liturgy

It is  a matter of courtesy to speak inclusively when addressing a congregation of women and men.


3. Intercessory Prayers - Prayers of the Faithful - Devotional Prayers, etc

The principle here is simply to use language that enables both sexes to feel included when both are intended. 

However, the use of gender-neutral language is not a suitable substitute for language which acknowledges, respects and celebrates sexual differentiation.   A balanced mixture of gender-neutral language, female gender language and male gender language is preferable. 

It is also helpful to know that in the case of pronouns it is grammatically acceptable, after using a singular noun which intends both sexes (e.g. "person"), to use the third person plural for the pronoun ("they"). 


4. Hymns

Hymns are a form of poetry, and some poetic licence can be used in order to avoid non-inclusive language.   However, this must be done in ways that respect doctrinal integrity, our Catholic heritage, the music and poetry of hymns, and, where appropriate, copyright.    Given the need to respect all these, there should be some room for tolerance of language which was originally intended to be inclusive even if it isn't today.   Generally, however, music which has regard for gender-inclusiveness should be preferred.


5. Talking to or about God

The only language we have for speaking about God is language based on our human experience in which persons are either male or female.   But the natural tendency to attribute gender - and other human qualities - to God is derived from the limitations of human understanding and cultural circumstances.  Everything we mean by male and female derives from God in whose image we are made.


Given this understanding, it is acceptable, and also consistent with the scriptures, to use both male and female imagery for depicting God's dispositions towards ourselves.

The words we use to name the three persons of the holy Trinity are related to the original revelation that God is three distinct persons.  The distinction itself is revealed not in the language of gender, but in the language of sending:   the one who sends is necessarily distinct from the one who is sent.   Jesus speaks of being sent by his Father, and speaks of the Holy Spirit being sent by himself and the Father.

This real distinction of persons is not implied by names that describe activities which belong to all three persons in common, such as creator, saviour and sanctifier.  Consequently, these names cannot substitute for names which indicate the different persons of the Trinity.  

The terms we use (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) are not intended to attribute gender to God;   they are the terms Jesus used when speaking of the different divine persons and we do the same in faithfulness to historic revelation.

With this assurance in mind, it should be easier to positively accept and enter into Jesus' teaching that God can be called our "father".   We deepen this appreciation through interiorising Jesus' own ways of thinking about God, and so discover the wonderful intimacy and the profound assurance that Jesus himself felt in relation to God and wanted to share with us.  Entering into his own ways of thinking gives us a freedom to speak about God as he did - both the ease with which he called God his father, and the ease with which he used female imagery for illustrating God's dispositions towards us.   Women mystics especially, have kept alive the Church's tradition of using female imagery for God.  

This "putting on the mind of Christ" will also lead us to think of each other in the ways that Jesus did and to find the language that flows from deep respect for one another, and which enables us to include all.   

It is in this spirit that we encourage all who are concerned with liturgy, catechesis and religious education, writing for Catholic newspapers and communications to respect and promote the requirements of inclusiveness and sound doctrine.  


 + P J Cullinane, Bishop of Palmerston North,

 President, NZ Catholic Bishops’ Conference


+ D G Browne, Bishop of Hamilton


+ J A Dew, Auxiliary Bishop of Wellington


+ Cardinal Thomas Williams, Archbishop of Wellington


+ P J Dunn, Bishop of Auckland


+ L A Boyle, Bishop of Dunedin


+ J J Cunneen, Bishop of  Christchurch


+ M T Mariu SM, Auxiliary Bishop of Hamilton


+ O J Dolan, Coadjutor Bishop of Palmerston North


Note: this statement was first published in April, 1997