To the attention of His Excellency, Most Reverend Peter J. Jugis, Bishop of Charlotte, North Carolina:
On Trinity Sunday, May 22, 2005, The Faith Connection, a bulletin insert produced by RCLweb.com and regularly used by our church in the Diocese of Charlotte, NC, carried the title: "Why Is it Okay to Call God 'Mother'?" The article states that "a number of Catholic feminist theologians have written in recent years about the negative consequences for the Catholic faith of a narrow reliance on exclusively male imagery to name the Divinity." The article then goes on to give the impression that the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) and Church teaching support revisioning God as "Mother." This impression, however, is simply mistaken. The idea that Scripture or Church teaching could be made to support such a view is simply not true.
While it is true--as everyone from the early Church Fathers to the contemporary Catechism of the Catholic Church (for online edition, click here) attests--that God's inner nature is humanly incomprehensible, that He transcends human gender, and that His tenderness and compassion may be expressed in feminine imagery (CCC 239), it is not true that the Church Fathers or the Catechism ever suggest that we may call Him "Mother." No Church Father says this. No catechism of the Church, past or present, says this.
There's a radical difference between saying (1) God is like a mother (which the Bible and Catechism say in a couple of places) and (2) God is a mother (which the Bible and Catechism, for good reason, never say). While it's true that God in Himself transcends gender as well as every human conception, both Scripture and Catholic tradition have always insisted that He is masculine in relation to us (the Church). While God may be like a mother in His mercy and compassion, He is not merely like a father: He is a Father. While the Holy Spirit may be like a feminine spirit in His mysterious movements, that is not what He is: How else could He have served as the Spouse of the Virgin Mary, who begot the Son of God by impregnating her? And while many feminists would like to revision the Incarnation in feminine terms--oh, rue the day!--He became incarnate as a man, the Son of God.
It is true that God is Spirit and transcends gender, but if He were not masculine in relation to us, Jesus would have "two mommies," as in a "same-sex marriage." Furthermore, one could hardly make sense of the nuptial imagery of Christ as the Church's Bridegroom, a truth at the heart of the Church's Eucharistic theology (see, e.g., The Theology of the Body according to John Paul II). But it is not true that Jesus has "two mommies." His only mother is the Blessed Mother Mary. His paternity is divine, not human. As the Creed says, "He was conceived of the Holy Spirit, [and] born of the Virgin, Mary ...." And we, the Church, are the Mystical Bride of Christ, our Divine Lover and Lord.
The gender revisionism of Catholic feminism (which is part of a wider movement of secular post-modern feminism and relativism) plays right into the hands of a dissident agenda that promotes not only the ordination of women, but also a revisioning of "God" as Gaia (the pagan mother-earth goddess), a divine womb from which creatures are born. Canaan and the whole ancient world were rife with polytheistic religions, priestesses, and feminine deities, implying that the gods were immanent, not transcendent--part of the world, not a creator outside of the world. Israel alone had a God who was understood in masculine terms, underscoring His transcendence, the fact that He is a Creator-God who creates outside of Himself (not from within a feminine womb), is active (not receptive), initiates a covenantal relationship with His people and gives them His law. (A good resource on these issues, for starters, is Peter Kreeft's essay, "Gender and the Will of God," as well as Matthew Berke's First Things essay, "God and Gender in Judaism.")
This revisionist agenda is what has animated the tampering with the Lectionary in some parishes over the last decades, where masculine pronouns have been regularly feminized or neutered with the nonsensical result that a verse like John 3:16 might read like this: "For God so loved God's world that God gave God's only child ...." This, of course, is pure Gnosticism (the view that we get at a true understanding of God only by getting "behind" the language of Scripture, which ought to be dismissed as culturally relative). These tendencies have been the cause of widespread confusion in Catholic parishes, further eroding the already thin respect for the authority of God's Revelation among modern Catholics.
But I have some larger concerns here as well. As the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, declared at the outset of his pontificate, we are in the middle of a war against a "dictatorship of relativism" today, in which the very heart of the Gospel is being threatened with eviscerating revisionism. More than ever, those in Christ's little flocks need the clear voice of faithful shepherds. There is confusion in the world, and when this confusion finds its way into parishes, the bewildered sheep tend to stray from the pasture and drop off the cliffs.
While there is still a great deal of confusion over such matters, it must be admitted that the source of most of these confusing influences in our parishes today lies in the legacy of an older generation of priests who were products of the cultural revolution of the 1960s. The sixties and seventies spawned a time of radical destabilization and confusion among many Catholics, who were exposed to the influences of the secular counter culture as well as the influence of liberal mainline Protestantism, and their acids of skeptical relativism. Many of these earlier priests, like a considerable number still, have granted quarter to dissenters by indulging regular tinkering with the Lectionary, substituting gender-neutral language in the Creed, encouraging proponents of female ordination to bide their time until a more "open-minded" pope comes along, thereby promoting false expectations and fundamental misunderstandings of the Church (see my post on Why liberal "Catholic" media can't understand the Church). So also with their legacy of parish subscriptions to periodicals such as National Catholic Reporter, Commonweal, America, and US Catholic (see my critique: What I Learned from U.S. Catholic Magazine: Discerning Editorial Bias). So also with other parish materials and even bulletin inserts like The Faith Connection. Priests often like to be viewed as reasonable, "moderate" men. Unfortunately, this sometimes leads them to talk misleadingly about striking a "balance" between "conservatism" (their label for official Church teaching) and "liberalism" (their label for dissent and heresy). It is a tempting posture for priests and bishops who want to avoid alienating the liberal "faction" within their parishes (see my essay on Extremism and Toleration: Striking the Right Balance), though honest reflection shows it to be as disingenuous as it is seductive.
It is noteworthy that none of the Apostles entertained such compromising notions of "reasonableness" or "moderation." The Apostle John in his First Epistle, when confronting the earliest dissenters in the Church, who were Gnostics who denied the Incarnation and believed God was "above" taking corporeal human form, granted them no quarter but condemned them as "deceivers" and "antichrists" (I Jn 2:18-28). When Paul confronted the revisionism of the Judaizers, he declared them anathema and partisans of "an alien gospel," saying, "If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed" (Gal. 1:9, passim).
It is significant that Christ called us sheep. Sheep are stupid. A flock of sheep couldn't survive for a day without a good shepherd. When a parishioner reads a bulletin insert that says it's okay to call God "Mother," he's likely to think this is what the Church is teaching today. He's likely to think that the benighted commentators of TIME, NEWSWEEK and CNN are right when they portray the Church as a reactionary, outmoded patriarchal religion.
How to respond? First, I think last Sunday's bulletin insert clearly calls for an immediate statement from the pulpit stating that the bulletin insert egregiously misrepresented Church teaching and that the insert will be pulled from all future bulletins. (This is hardly an isolated case. An earlier insert from The Faith Connection, "Who Can Be Saved?" [Jan. 2, 2005] clearly promoted the relativism of a universalistic view according to which all religions offer different but equally acceptable ways of salvation, suggesting that Catholics should no longer think of trying to win converts to the Catholic Faith.)
Second, I would encourage priests and bishops, including my own, to consider pulling dissident periodicals like US Catholic from the parish magazine racks and forming doctrinal committees to review the content of periodicals and other parish faith-formation materials to see if they support or oppose Church teaching, and submit their recommendations to their pastors and bishops. (To humor those progressive Catholics who are so fond of Extraordinary Eucharistic Ministers, these committees might even be called "Extraordinary Congregations of the Holy Inquisition.")
Third, I would encourage both bishops and priests to begin seriously thinking of more effective ways of teaching their parishioners the Catholic Faith. "My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge," warned the Prophet Hosea. Most homilies are woefully insubstantial and often little more than reiterations of benign platitudes and pop psychology. But parishioners don't need donuts and pop tarts from the pulpit. They get too much of that from television as it is. They need what St. Paul calls "solid food" or, more simply, "meat."
St. Augustine, quoting Scripture, opposed the perfectionism of the Donatists by stating that we will always have tares (weeds) and wheat growing together within the Church until the great harvest on Judgment Day. It's one thing to recognize that the Church will always have hypocrites and sinners within the fold until the end of time. It's not for any of us to judge the heart of another individual. But it's another thing altogether to suppose that the Church should passively permit error and confusion to co-exist side-by-side with Church teaching in her parishes. I don't think that's what Augustine or the Good Shepherd meant. May the Holy Spirit fortify our shepherds with wisdom, courage and resolve.