For us and for our salvation : inclusive language

Inclusive language

I have been ducking writing this blog because I know it’s an issue which creates heat and not much light. But with the All Saints psalm coming up, that feels cowardly, so I’m going to try and explain why I think the Church has got this wrong.

Unlike some people whom I respect, I do follow the official line on non-inclusive language as given when I am writing tunes for the Psalms and Gospel Acclamations.  For the website to be reliable and useful, I have to follow exactly the words as given in the relevant Missal.  I do not change things, or leave words out; but I do wince quite often.  If I am reading at my church, I check with the parish priest whether he is happy for me to add ‘and sisters’ to the exhortations made to ‘brothers’.  Mostly it’s not a problem, although a couple of years ago one priest said to me that there were far more important things to be concerned with in the readings.

Why does it matter?

And of course he was right.  The substance is what matters.  What he didn’t understand though, and what I think the authorities in the Church have equally failed to grasp, is that if you deliberately exclude what is usually the majority of the congregation, this is a stumbling block for many of them, and they can’t engage with the substance because they feel as if they have been told that it is not meant for them.

Women as a small minority in the past

When I went to university, women were a relatively small minority.  I remember being addressed, at lectures and seminars, as ‘gentlemen’.  One didn’t react.  Politer and more aware (maybe less myopic) lecturers gradually became the majority, though it took some time.  When I was doing postgrad research my supervisor consulted me about what to do with a new (female) student who burst into tears whenever criticised.  I suggested sending her to a female don, which completely nonplussed my supervisor, as the college he belonged to, though it had female undergraduates, did not have any women on the teaching staff.

This isn’t me; but maybe this is what I should have done

That’s a while ago now, and thank goodness the situation has improved.  But the issue of inclusive language (or rather of non-inclusive language) is still a painful one for (most) women Catholics.  Even more damagingly, a wholly male hierarchy does not even notice that half the body of Christ is being excluded, because the language actively misrepresents the reality.

Awareness of language, inclusive or not

I am very language-aware, I always have been.  It’s like having an acute sense of smell, something you are born with.  Because of writing music to go with a fixed set of words, I think I have probably become even more sensitised.  I look up pronunciation on-line to check whether the US ‘toward’ is one or two syllables (it’s one, and there’s a man who spends seventeen minutes explaining it). I understand how the UK psalm can have ‘power’ or ‘heaven’ on one note, but you need two for the US – and I’m still trying to find out which side of the fence Canada and Australia come down on.  I have to arrange the melody so that ‘tormented’ is stressed on the first syllable for the US and Philippines, but on the second syllable for UK, Ireland and OZ.  (The same is true for ‘frustrated’, but luckily that’s not a word that comes up in the psalms, only in Saint Paul’s Letters.)  I look at the words really carefully, and work on them for some time.  It is an enormous privilege to be able to do this, and I love it; but shoddy translation makes me cross.

It’s not Latin’s fault

I’m lucky enough to be also comfortable with Latin.  I grew up with it, partly because our parish was a very old-fashioned one, so even after Mass in the vernacular had been introduced, we were still having a lot of it in Latin.  I studied it at school.  I can sing chant, I can do Credo III and Salve Regina without book.  I’m not trying to boast or show off here, just explain where I’m coming from.  Crucially, I know that ‘homines’ is not the Latin for ‘men’.  It means ‘people’.  In French, it’s the difference between ‘les hommes’ and ‘les gens’.  So ‘for us men and our salvation’ , to go back to my headline example, is simply wrong.  You might well not want to use the word ‘people’ because it has two syllables, and disturbs the rhythm.   You could just leave it out.  This should offend no-one.  It includes all of us.  Because there is time for a tiny break after it, it actually helps to make you think about what you are saying.  ‘For us men’ is quite deliberately excluding.   And in Latin it would be ‘propter nos viros’.

The Church isn’t even consistent on this.  If ‘men’ means ‘men and women’, why do the advertisements for vocations to the priesthood always invite ‘men’?   Any woman aspirant would be rebuffed at a very early stage and told it did not mean ‘and women’ at all.  ‘Man’ is slightly more tricky, because we don’t have (unlike Czech, Serbian and no doubt some other languages) a genderless noun for a human being except for ‘person’, which has a special weight of its own.  ‘Homo’ and ‘vir’ both translate as ‘man’.  I am a ‘homo’ but I am not a ‘vir’.   For those who get agitated about in persona Christi, Jesus was made man: ‘homo factus est’.  He happens to be a ‘vir’.  I have no problem with that.  We are both ‘homines’.  As the hymn City of God says, ‘we are sons of the morning, we are daughters of day’, a very fine example of inclusive translation (Cf. ‘You are all sons of light and sons of the day’, 1 Thess 5.5).

(Non-)inclusive language in the Psalms

Moving on to the Psalms, the situation becomes clearer, because there, our translations distinguish between ‘man’ (‘What is man, that thou art mindful of him,’ (Ps 8/9) and ‘a man’ or ‘the man’, but a lot of the time, the psalms are so direct that it isn’t a problem: we are using ‘I’ and ‘you’.  When the discussion is between God and the psalmist, we can all use the words of the psalm without any obstacle.  When, however, the psalmist discusses other people in general terms, we do have a problem, as he tends to talk only about ‘the just man’ and ‘the wicked man’.  As soon as the word ‘man’ has an article, definite or indefinite, it seems to be talking to only half the human race and ignoring the other half.

Here’s another one, better than the real thing
But these are the words in the Bible

Some of the translations I set are aware of the problem and try to work around it.  ‘Man’ is a single syllable which can be difficult to replace.  ‘The just one’ (occasional, US) is a bit clumsy, as is the use of ‘their’ for a singular subject (occasional, CAN) to avoid ‘his’ (but probably better than ‘one’s’, unless you are the Queen of England).  The recommended wedding psalms nearly all focus on the joys of the just man, with his wife as an occasional desirable add-on, and this is why I would myself choose a different sort of psalm, one which speaks to both central figures.  (Have a look at my earlier discussion on wedding psalms, if you are interested.) Here is where the psalms’ directness is very helpful : ‘May the Lord give you your heart’s desire’ excludes no-one and is highly appropriate (Pss 19/20 and 36/37).

The Canada translations vary wildly, sometimes trying really hard to be inclusive and sometimes seeming deliberately to avoid doing so.  The UK/Ireland translations, being closest to the original Grail versions, are of their time, as of course are the Psalms.  Now, changing the Grail versions is difficult, because they were ‘Englished’ (and that’s her word) by a genius woman, Philippa Craig, who understood not just her own language but also that the psalms were meant to be sung, so the rhythms are good;  and if you upset them, you must produce something at least as good (this is why a lot of nineteenth-century hymn word revision is poor).  And the psalms are really old; Christianity has been around for two thousand years, but the psalms were already old when it started.  They are the product of their time, their culture, their context…….

So can we change them for the Lectionary?

…….but they are also new for us every time we sing them. So a bit of careful alteration can be justified, I think, and determined non-alteration is wearing on the ear of (some) female listeners.  All Saints always brings this topic to the front of my attention.  The Responses for the All Saints psalm are interesting. US and OZ (sorry, technical term for ‘Australia and New Zealand’) have ‘Lord, this is the people that longs to see your face’, which is OK.  The UK/Ireland version is taken directly from the text: ‘Such are the men who seek your face, O Lord’, which is not good. The Canadian one is inspired: ‘Lord, this is the company of those who seek your face’ – good rhythm, arresting, leaves no-one out, neat allusion both to the Church Militant and the eucharistic community; but then, sadly, subsides into the same verse words as OZ and UK, ‘the man’ and ‘he’. The US has ‘the one’ and ‘he’, but substitutes ‘race’ for ‘men’ in the last verse (which is where the UK Response is from).  I respect the effort, but that’s not a good alternative.  All four Lectionaries do adapt the psalm words quite freely when they choose, including the UK one, so keeping it exact is not a justification for exclusionary language.  I think it is justified to change the words slightly for a psalm that is designed to be sung by the whole congregation, especially in the Response because it is repeated.

I want to walk in Jerusalem just like John
Other writings more problematic

The Psalms are not (usually) the problem at Mass for those of us with sensitive ears, though I reserve the right to point out where alterations could easily have been made (I need a good picture, like my mediaeval Yoda for when the US psalm words are too inverted, but I haven’t found one yet).  So much of the language of the psalms is simple, direct and uses ‘I’ and ‘you’ rather than the third person, which is where the problem usually arises.  We could make better use of adjectives, which are gender-neutral in English : ‘the poor’, ‘the just’ etc.  The bigger problem is paradoxically in the more modern translations of prayers where non-inclusive language has been retained or even put back.  When you see translations of Vatican documents or Papal sermons or prayers in Morning and Evening Prayer (one of the worst offenders) which use the word ‘men’ (or sometimes ‘sons’ or ‘brothers’),  it is rarely necessary.  It could just be ineptitude or shoddy translation, but it often seems to be part of an agenda.

I have been at many Masses where the congregation was almost exclusively female, or even where it was all nuns except me and the priest.  ‘For us and for our salvation’ is a better version of the words, and not just in those situations.  It is what I say.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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Author: Kate Keefe

Kate Keefe writes music for responsorial psalms, gospel acclamations and the Mass for English speaking Catholic congregations all over the world, using the local lectionary for UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the US and the Philippines.

One thought on “For us and for our salvation : inclusive language”

  1. Hi Kate , totally agree. Our parish says “For us all” and it is even on the overheads except when the bishop comes to visit which is a bit craven. And I think if we capitalised the Man in “and was made Man” it would somehow be more acceptable and mean Mankind/homo rather than the vir. Though I usually mutter ” human” at this point. Lalxx

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