August 26, 2013

Sitting in front of a Feminist at Mass

At daily Mass today, I found myself seated in front of a feminist. Ordinarily, it's hard to tell whether any particular person, male or female, is a feminist or not. Feminists typically don't act very different, they just hold views about personal dignity and rights. However, these views about dignity and rights seem to come into play at Mass, where the feminist behind me telegraphed her views on dignity and rights by means of how she said the Mass prayers. I'll give two short examples of what I mean. The first comes from the Psalm response for today:

As written in the Lectionary: "God takes delight in His people."

As the feminist behind me said it: "God takes delight in the people."

Example two comes from the oratio super oblationes:

As written in the Sacramentary: "May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands, for the praise and glory of His name, for our good and the good of all His holy Church."

As she said it: "May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands, for the praise and glory of God's name, for our good and the good of all God's holy Church."

As you can see, there are some notable differences: specifically, the removal of any masculine pronouns. Now, you guys may or may not have heard my opinions on what the Mass is, as articulated in prior postings. I'm probably kind of weird in how I think about it, so I'll briefly talk about it again. The Mass is the Catholic (and, thus, fulfilled and perfect) version of the ancient cultic sacrifices to the gods. Just like they drew circles and sacrificed animals, we say prayers and break bread. As a result, it seems to me that there is a significant importance in specifically what words, gestures, and attitudes we have. Just like substituting a triangle for the sacred circle would mean, and accomplish, something else; just so substituting different words in the Mass mean something else, and might not have the same effect. Canon Law agrees with this: if you don't use the right kinds of bread or wine, or if you say the Mass in an unapproved language, the consecration might not be valid. If the materials used or the language spoken can invalidate the Mass, then it seems to me that we need to be very, very careful about our language. This is an effect of Catholic sacramental theology: because the sacraments are physical signs which bring about the grace they signify, changing the words to signify something else might have the unwanted effect of also changing the grace supplied. The Church has been guaranteed, by Christ through the Holy Spirit, that if we do the words and gestures right, He will provide His grace, and thus we can attain salvation. If we're lucky and God is feeling merciful, He might still supply the grace even if we don't hold our end of the bargain. However, that's not a bet I want to take when my soul's eternal reward or damnation is on the line.

Let me take a moment, before I jump into an analysis of those particular changes in wording cited above, to express my empathy with the feminist movement. Women are, and always have been, just as much "people" as men. Women share, in completeness, the same dignity from God as men do. This should be represented in every part of our society, from words to actions, so that the human person, as God created it, is honored. God delights in His people, and so should we, according to His views of people, and not ours.

However, when it comes to the Mass, finding or using "inclusive" language is not only difficult, but potentially detrimental, for the reasons outlined above. First, although "he" and "she" are gendered terms nowadays, they were not so back in the days when the Church prayed in Latin. In fact, the concept of "gender" as "the quality of being male or female" is predated by the concept of "gender" as "class of nouns and pronouns distinguished by different inflections," sometimes even "regardless of any connection with sex," according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Thus, in the original Latin text for the Mass, to say "ei" instead of "eae" or "ea" was a grammatical distinction, and not a declaration that God had to be male, or else. This reflects common practice in languages where nouns and pronouns have gender: it's not that tables and ships are arbitrarily declared female, while swords and pencils are male; rather, these words were pronounced that way, and then grouped according to endings, which also happened to correspond with the endings on respectively feminine and masculine names and words. This is obvious if you think about it: no one went around deciding whether oranges, tables, and fences were male or female. That doesn't make any sense, and neither does thinking about God as either masculine or feminine. He doesn't reproduce, and as a result cannot have reproductive organs by which to be male or female. Thus, when we use male pronouns to talk about God, it is because of two things: in the original languages in which He revealed Himself to us, He used words which happened to be masculine (He also used feminine ones, but predominantly he used masculine terms). When these words were then translated to other languages like English, where "he" vs. "she" has increasingly become a point of contention, the masculine was preserved in order to avoid too much of a change of meaning. "She" would imply a heck of a lot theologically, "it" doesn't make sense for a personal God, "they" doesn't make sense for a singular God... and "he" sounds exclusive. So, we go with the way "eum" is always translated, "he," in the hope that people understand that this does not mean that God is male (which, again, would be nonsensical). This is an inadequate explanation of why "he" was chosen by the ICEL when they translated the Mass into English, but I hope that it at least makes it a bit more transparent. I'm just a lowly grad student trying to make sense of what the Church came up with, not a prophet or a liturgical scholar.

I'll now attempt to explain how changing the words to be more inclusive changes the meaning of the text, using those two specific examples above, while keeping in mind that, like I said above, changing the meaning might change the effect of the sacrament. Changing "His people" to "the people" in the Psalm takes a possessive and changes it into a definite article. "The people" is some group of people, not special for any reason other than that we're demarcating them. "His people," on the other hand, refers to the tradition within the Old Testament of referring to Israel as those people whom God marked out as His own. For instance, "For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be His people, His treasured possession." (Deut. 7:6) That is a tangible, specific meaning which "the people" does not convey at all. Similarly, "His holy Church" is different from "God's holy Church." In the oratio super oblationes, the title "Lord" is used at the beginning, intentionally. This is the anglicized version of "Dominus," which is the Latin version of the Hebrew "Adonai." "Adonai" is the word that the Israelites said instead of God's proper name, because God's proper name was too holy to use. Ever. "God," on the other hand, is the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of "Deus," which just refers to any deity within whatever religion. Of course, our God is the God of gods, the real, one, true God. But "god" itself, as a term, doesn't necessarily imply that. Rather, His proper title, "Lord," is used at the beginning of the prayer, to make it very clear who we want to accept the gifts. This title is then carried through the rest of the prayer by pronouns, which naturally, in Latin, match the gender (grammatical sense) of the noun to which they refer. "Eius" uses the same set of endings as "Dominus," and so they go together. That's just how Latin works. Introducing a different name for the Lord, such as "God," halfway through the prayer means something, and therefore cannot be done without changing the meaning of the whole prayer. Words are hard, meanings are hard, and meanings have a direct effect on the result of the sacrifice we're offering during the Mass. Replacing words because we want to use other words, for whatever reason, is not good, even if the reason is good, because doing the Mass right is about the most important thing we can do as Catholics.

Once again, my intention here is not, in any way, shape, or form, to belittle or demean the feminist message, or even the feminist who sat behind me. I absolutely agree with upholding and promoting the dignity of all people, women particularly included, and would not want to, in any way, denigrate them. However, I really, really, like the Mass, because my only chance of getting into heaven is my participation in the re-presentation of Christ's salvific sacrifice on the Cross. Therefore, I don't want to jeopardize my chances of making it by changing words to suit my own theological tastes.



Blogger Doug said...

It might be useful perspective for those who feel empowered to revise the prayers of the chuch in such a way, to be reminded that the eastern schism hinged on a very short phrase in a prayer of mass: ("and the son").

August 26, 2013 5:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Just like substituting a triangle for the sacred circle would mean, and accomplish, something else; just so substituting different words in the Mass mean something else, and might not have the same effect. Canon Law agrees with this: if you don't use the right kinds of bread or wine, or if you use the wrong language, the consecration might not be valid."

Canon law agrees with this only in a very precise manner. In no place does the Code of Canon law even suggest that one's participation in the Mass is invalid if the individual changes the language. The examples you've provided, eucharist and other rites, are of an extremely different nature than the rest of the Mass. The truth of the matter is that if such a proscription were necessary, it would have been stated.

It seems to me that your time in Mass may have been better served by focusing on the similarities you have in Christ with those around you, rather than in focusing on others' perceived faults.

August 26, 2013 5:12 PM  
Blogger Nick M. said...

I understand your point about Latin and gendered pronouns. However, the relationship between nouns and pronouns is very different in English. We don't relate masculine pronouns to things that aren't male. I don't refer to a swordfish as a him in English as I would in Latin. So saying "he" instead of "God" means something entirely different than saying "is" in place of "deus". I do think that the issue of people using differing language during Mass is important because it can be distracting, but it seems to me that there's a pretty solid reason why people are doing it... it's an issue of translation and it seems common sense to me to say "God's people" rather than "His people" because it is more appropriate for the point of the prayer.

August 26, 2013 5:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I second Nick's emotion.

August 26, 2013 5:29 PM  
Blogger Ambrose said...

Thanks. That's a good example of how important words are. It's also a challenge to us to take words just as seriously.

That's a harsh charge of hypocrisy, and I don't think I can defend myself in such a limited space. I will say that I tried my best to focus on the sacrifice in front of me despite what, as Nick pointed out, was rather distracting behind me. Whether or not I am guilty of hypocrisy, I think it's important to try to make the Mass as much of a "pure, holy, and unblemished sacrifice" as possible. This means removing all faults, even ones that are small.

In regards to CIC, you're absolutely right. The only point of the Mass in which a change of words makes it invalid is during Consecration. The part I was quoting was can. 928, which refers to the language in which the Liturgy is celebrated. I'll edit the original post to make what I was trying to get at more clear: if only a certain kind of bread and only certain languages are permissible, then we really need to be careful about how we participate at the Mass.

You're right that pronouns in English are way more loaded than pronouns in Latin. This wasn't originally the case back when people spoke both Latin and English, but I guess times change. I don't know that "God's people" is more appropriate, for the reasons I indicated in the original post. If people smarter than me determined it was, and the Church officially changed the liturgical prayers, I'd be happy to comply. But it seems to me that, in the sacrament of our unity, vocal disunity is jarring and against the spirit of the Liturgy. If nothing else, everyone saying what is in the books make vocal unity much easier.

August 26, 2013 8:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you are all focused on the wrong thing. With a world that has forgotten about God and the holy sacrifice of the mass, with dozens of Catholics not even attending Sunday mass we should be applauding attendance at daily mass instead of belittling her. I understand that words are important but when they do not call into question the legitimacy of the mass we should not be splitting hairs. I therefore praise you and the individual behind for fitting God into your daily lives.

August 27, 2013 9:17 AM  

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