The Dumbbell Feminese Dialect

July-August 1999

Fr. James P. Moroney of the Secretariat for the Liturgy of the National Council of Catholic Bishops had an “in depth” article in the May 16-22 National Catholic Register telling readers that the purpose of the revised Lectionary is to achieve “maximum possible fidelity to the sacred Scriptures,” not to bend to the pressures exerted by “inclusive” language — namely, feminist language. But Moroney shoots himself in the foot, for the example he uses to illustrate his point refutes his own contention: The new Lectionary has changed “brothers” to “brothers and sisters” when, in a Scripture reading, a mixed group of males and females is being greeted. Curiously, Moroney admits that the Greek word in question, adelphoi, “literally means brothers,” not brothers and sisters, and that adelphoi is nonetheless used in Scripture when addressing both men and women. So this change is not “maximum possible fidelity” to Scripture at all. The scriptural writers have been corrected — politically corrected.

So why the change? Moroney acknowledges that addressing a group of male and females as “brothers” was commonly done in the recent past, but he claims that nowadays it would be “hard to imagine” someone saying that. He doesn’t tell us why. But we all know it’s because of the pressure exerted by “inclusive” language. Now, “maximum possible fidelity” is a Vatican norm in translation, and “brothers and sisters” did somehow get past the Vatican (yes, even Vatican watchdogs sleep on the job from time to time). But it would be nice if Moroney had chosen a better example, and it would be nicer still if we could truly be assured that our translations are not cave-ins to cultural pressure. If “brothers” is deemed a bit jarring these days, can’t we find something less obviously p.c. than “brothers and sisters,” and something less clunky? If we wish to be truly idiomatic, we should consider using “ladies and gentlemen” or just “folks.” Or, better, let’s forget attempts at being idiomatic, and go with something solid. Let’s go with something that’s literal (“maximum possible fidelity”) and truly eloquent. The obvious choice is “brethren,” used in the Catholic Edition of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible. And it has a bonus for the faint of heart who agonize over cultural sensitivities, for it has a slightly archaic and wonderfully poetic resonance that just happens to take the edge off the prosaic “brothers.” Goodness, there’s a venerable Protestant denomination called the Church of the Brethren, and no one supposes it’s a male-only church. Heck, we Catholics still refer to “sister parishes in the diocese,” and no one would imagine that those parishes are for females only.

But if our Lectionary writers find “brethren” just too elegant for us bumpkin Catholics in the pews, let’s go back to “brothers.” Under the dispensation of the old Lectionary, when the lector (no, it’s not “lector or lectress”) began by reading “brothers,” he was addressing both men and women, and everyone knew that. We never did see a lady, presuming to be excluded, storm out in protest. Had one done so, we would have recommended, as tactfully as possible, that she call the nearest night school and enroll in a course in remedial English.

St. Francis preached to the animals (and anyone would know we aren’t referring here to men, who happen to be “animals”), and let’s imagine St. Francis preached to a flock of ducks, both male ducks (“drakes”) and female ducks (“ducks”). He would, had he spoken English, have addressed them, “Ducks….” Would the drakes in the flock have felt excluded? Would they have misunderstood? Would they have demanded that he say, “Drakes and ducks…”? Ducks may be stupid, but they’re not that stupid. And women certainly aren’t stupid, even if Lectionary writers sometimes treat them that way.


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New Oxford Notes: July-August 1999

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