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Marie-Therese is definitely not a 'son' of the Church! by Marie-Therese van Lunen Chenu

Marie-Thérèse is definitely not a ‘son’ of the Church!

by Marie-Thérèse van Lunen Chénu

From Jésus, ‘Les Cahiers du libre avenir, no 95’, Dec 1997, pp. 38-41.

translated for www.womenpriests.org from the French by Joanna Waller

(see credits), and published on the Internet with permission of the author and the editor of Les Cahiers.

Female and feminist viewpoint on the World Youth Days (Journées Mondiales de Jeunesses)

Note: The World Youth Days were celebrated in Paris in the summer of 1997. Pope John Paul II addressed the convention.

The media has the tremendous power to demonstrate contrasts. It was therefore perhaps a surprise to any outside spectators who happened upon the World Youth Days on television or who came cold, at home, to some sections from the homilies. First of all, the visual contrast was so clear, even though it may not have been grasped immediately, with so many other things to surprise, stir, or even excite the viewer. Among all the boys, it was hardly worth noticing the presence on one side of the barriers of all these young girls, full of energy, calm, confident in the contribution and services they provide, these enthusiastic young women, students or professionals.

Soon, however, their presence began to make itself felt: they seem attractive, independent, modern, dressed in short skirts, jumping into the fountains with the boys to bathe, sleeping on the ground alongside them, sitting on their shoulders to take photos. Some of them stood out even more, by exhibiting unexpected behaviour, breaking with protocol and thus picked out by the press: Marie-Victoire, the Mauritian girl who took the pope’s arm to guide him towards the Trocadero pavement, the young mother who crossed the forbidden zone with her baby who she absolutely had to present to him, and this very young girl, whom the media took to their hearts; she went forward, took the pope’s hand, held it between her own and gazed at him intently for a long time.

What a contrast there is between these independent spirits and, opposite, on the other side of the barriers the stiff figure of the Church: the platform-load of bedecked cardinals, mitre-wearing bishops, the long procession of priests in chasubles, the deacons, acolytes and choristers, all, without exception, members of the hierarchy and of the male sex.

It is astonishing that no-one has noted this contrast among the other phenomena, the language, rites and symbols which have already contributed so much to this catholic-religious gender construction. Revalidated at the World Youth Days by powerful and in many ways very successful media coverage, it has until now met hardly any resistance or criticism.


Close, detailed study of the text of the homilies leads to the inescapable conclusion that their language is also very revealing. Obviously no-one would expect the pope to use inclusive language as consistently as do some feminists, carefully using masculine and feminine forms, which it must be admitted is very difficult when speaking French as the Pope was. Is it necessary however to go to the opposite extreme?

  • Generic terms are not neutral

Young people, my friends, Christians are very rarely given feminine pronouns in the Pope’s text in French, while these are used in a few situations, particularly at the beginning of a speech, to acknowledge the presence of women in the audience. How can a woman feel anything but ignored, with the recurrent, not to say absolute use of male pronouns such as "tous", "chacun" and "ceux" ("all", "each" and "those") in the following: Each man freely accepts membership of the gift of faith…passes on to all those around him…; Dear young people, dear friends, First of all I greet you all, Yes my young friends, for each of you.. (eve of Longchamp).

Careful study of the solemn and meaningful homily given at Longchamp on the Sunday morning, without including all the various greetings and thanks offered to the various cardinals and other representatives, nor the gospel quotes and examples (none of which uses the feminine form of speech anyway) – there are 27 nouns or pronouns whose form in French is firmly masculine (even though some may be considered generic), such as: our brothers, all, all those among you, fishermen, each one of us, man, etc. Only 6 words, sometimes epicene, may be considered generic as long as they are not assumed to be masculine by the use of the adjective or pronoun, namely: human being (repeated), the human person, dear young people, humanity, members of the Church, disciples, witnesses. Finally there are only four explicitly feminine references: the maternal breast, the Virgin Mary…., a mother the Church and, this isolated opening: gives you brothers and sisters to love in order "to be one in Christ". This last example does however give rise to some restrictions, since in another text even more resolutely expressed in masculine forms – the interview given to La Croix (20-08) – sisters, named twice, are also third party recipients rather than being addressed directly: young people…when meeting their brothers and sisters of other faiths; …that they place at the service of their brothers and sisters.

  • Is the pope speaking to women?

Doubtless he is, but it is well-hidden, with one happy exception in Evry cathedral: Dear brothers in the episcopate, dear brothers and sisters. Otherwise, the masculine form prevails in his French (distinguished representatives (représentants) of other Christian families). The omission was all the more noticeable when it took place before so many female conference members of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, on the occasion of the beatification of Frédéric Ozanam, representatives (ibid.) of the great spiritual family, heirs of the spirit of Monsieur Vincent. There were a few exceptions. Some were mandatory, so to speak: religious sisters when religious were mentioned, and civil dignitaries, meaning men and women. Others appeared in welcoming statements, but very rarely indeed, with a speedy restoration of the masculine gender: in Evry cathedral, brothers and sisters were mentioned three times (but: if you enter into dialogue with your brothers…) and in the Way of the Cross message on the Friday, with all those, men and women, who…have given their lives for their brothers. This fine ending to the homily for Ozanam’s beatification: Let the Christ call each one by his or her name, so that he or she may say: this is my path!

  • Are women not participants or examples?

Only the Virgin Mary, Saint Teresa mistress of spiritual wisdom (in the allocution declaring her to be a Doctor of the Church) and during the beatification of Ozanam, though with no examples given, the daughter of charity, sister Rosalie Rendu, who led Ozanam and his companions to the poor in the Mouffetard district.

Otherwise, I found no example of the faith of women followers of Jesus. Nothing placing women as subjects, as believers. Not even a mention of the parable of the lost coin, or the lighted lamp… There were only sons of Israel, apostles and disciples. Nicodemus, the good Samaritan, Simon of Cyrene, the rich young man and the man who found a pearl in his field.

It is not difficult to understand that the multitude of masculine forms of address, examples and terms reinforce the effect of the almost total absence of feminine references, forms of address and terms, resulting in an overwhelming sexist corpus. It is useful to remember that the term sexism, given official recognition in UN conferences, has the prime meaning of discrimination based on sex, conscious or unconscious, deliberate or not. Its second meaning is that of prejudice: the idea of inferiority or superiority of one sex or the other or a stereotypical role for men and women. (1)

  • Inexplicable omission. Serious deficiency.

In the homily given at Longchamp, the pope states that the chosen of God include all people on earth. In Jesus Christ, God chose the whole of humanity. He has revealed the universality of election by redemption. In Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free man. All are one. The terms are not given in quotes, but the reference is to Gal 3:28. As everyone knows, this wonderful declaration, at the heart of the Christian faith condemns all discrimination based on race, class or sex. The reference, used by Vatican II, and quoted many times since, is widely known nowadays and its omission here is all the more surprising. Why has the religious press not highlighted this?

To my knowledge, there has only been one short letter in le Monde of 10/9, from André Tunc, commenting thus:

Why remove the reference "neither male nor female"? Because this was not this issue? Slavery is even less so. Is it not because Saint Paul’s magisterial vision condemns the very discrimination which the Church today practises against women as regards their access to ministry?

The whole of the catechesis offered at the World Youth Days seems to be marred by another serious and sad deficiency which also arises from an impasse over the feminine: the pope, probably duly warned, unusually did not mention anything to do with sexual morality, which is normally a frequent topic on his travels. While he spoke often of dialogue between cultures and peoples, there was nothing about human sexuality. Where were the welcome reflections of John Paul on the radical equality of the two sexes? When recalling that man is the image of God, was this not the most positive opportunity to call young people to the wonder of self-respect, precisely that it is the human being in its man/woman face to face encounter which is the image of God? I find it upsetting that for lack of any admonitions about abortion, the pill or homosexuality, the pope could find nothing important to say to the young people of today, girls and boys assembled to listen to him, about the rich blessings and the demands of their sexuality.

  • Brothers, sons of God, sons of the Church....

The effect caused by the use of mock-generic terms is made even worse when the term brothers is used, and the sisters are forgotten:

  • You are to be the true builders of the Church, if you take the Good News to all nations, if you enter into dialogue with your brothers of other origins and cultures… (Evry cathedral);
  • love shared in the joy of a reconciled heart and brothers found again (Friday’s Way of the Cross);
  • responsibilities of men and of believers…. Decisions you will have to take for the good of your brothers; rejoin Christ by discovering him in your brothers (speech, not given, on the washing of the feet, 21-8).

It is a fact that some have difficulty in admitting, but there are more and more women who dare to say that they are offended or scandalised by having to fight against the use of identifying language which indicates if not their exclusion, then at least their lesser importance, an inferiority made all the more tangible by the ban in place on women fulfilling certain ministries and functions within the Church.

I will admit, to qualify my proposition, that the repeated use of brother or son, and the absence of sister and daughter, do not mean exclusion for me, but imposes at the very least a painful separation. The deepest and most radical point in the matter of women’s liberation is actually that we should be able from here on our own individual identity, proudly and joyfully, restored, without having to cower or hide behind a masculine identity and become dissipated or lost beneath the male image.

Language, symbol, liturgy, a sacred and metaphysical construction of gender

The power of symbols and the sacred importance given to them by the liturgy in their organisation and repetition can never be stated often enough. An operating symbol justifies the situation that has produced it. It restates it, spontaneously, superbly brings it back into being again. As for language, before ever it expresses thought it gives it structure. Thus it is a fundamental right for every human being that he or she is recognised – and therefore named – in his or her own personal and individual identity, in terms of sex, race and culture. I am astonished that those who have seen so often in the Bible how important the naming process is are astonished that women finally are experiencing the need and the desire themselves to be explicitly named. Realistically, I think that there is only one way of convincing a sceptical brother: call him "my sister" (1), begging him to try honestly, every morning, to address himself in the feminine form. Scrupulously, he could even extend the experiment, until he could say to himself: “I thought I was an honest bishop or priest, generous in my vocation, but here I am, as woman, and I must understand from now on that I no longer have this vocation forbidden to my sex”.

This wonderful statement of Vatican II should be frequently recalled, though the Church seems to neglect it without reflection:

  • It is deeply to be deplored that these basic personal rights are not yet being respected everywhere, as is the case with women who are denied the chance freely to choose a husband, or a state of life…”Gaudium et Spes 29.2. …
  • children should be able to follow their vocation, including a religious vocation, and choose their state of life”…(ibid. 52.1).

Oblivious youth?

A whole bundle of explanations will doubtless be required for understanding why a female, even a feminist, point of view saw so little daylight at the World Youth Days.

As is known, most of the young people were brought to Paris in existing catechised and organised groups, thus already polarised into a tradition whose chauvinist character is normally forgotten. These boys and girls will rather be celebrating the successful innovations implemented. The example of the chasubles is significant: the traditional rite has been rehabilitated with a new covering and an unusual media-friendly label certain in number and effects. The Pope’s language is also expressed differently, less conventional, affectionate and confident in tone, and coming from a brave old man of such stature and conviction that it cannot fail to give traditional catechesis a certain force.

For the majority it is likely, judging from objective surveys taken of young people’s faith, that the effects of emotion and enthusiasm will have outweighed the substance of the message. More than ever, the latter came as a complete package. Communicative, visual, sensory, emotional, critical judgement played no part in it, either for young people attracted to the Church and its catechesis, nor even more for the others.

Although French sensitivity is not sharpened by the remnants of a self-centred symbolism and language accepted as correct in themselves by tradition, it is possible to be persuaded that its media promotion operates in two ways. In the short term, it may successfully within a homogenous grouping, justify and renew the prevalence of the masculine. In the longer term, however, and for an increasing number of people, media coverage acknowledges a greater and greater shift between the symbolic, ritualistic and linguistic forms of former times and those established in present-day social realities and value systems, which contribute to making androcentrism not just outmoded but prohibited. As will be clear, it is not a superficial argument about words and forms but a search for meaning and a debate about significance. Who would dare to judge that the proclamation of the Gospel could be disdained or disregarded in this way, leaving the Church fixed in the masculine language and images of the past, trailing along behind society?

Should she not be the first to understand the direction of the current search to establish the originality of each of the sexes, on a firm basis of equality? The first to rejoice in the enrichment of the semantic codes by means of which we try to talk about our community of men and women, brothers and sisters, thus bearing better witness to this human being. Image of God, man and woman he made them.


(1) Convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination towards women, art. 1 and 2 – During a visit to Rome, a friend of mine, leader of a Catholic women’s movement in Switzerland, tried to convince the bishop chairing the Council of the Laity that it was important to name women explicitly. He disapproved, mocked and rebuked her, and her demands were in vain. Disappointed, she then closed the discussion herself, bidding him "farewell to my sister!" He was so struck by this that he passed on his experience to the other bishops: "You’ll never guess what happened to me!.."

Read also: Kari Elisabeth Børresen, Religion Confronting Women’s Human Rights: The Case of Roman Catholism, Ch.24 in Facilitating Freedom of Religion or Belief, ed. Tore Lindholm e.a., Derk Book, the Hague, 2001.

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