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Male discourse about God in the liturgy and its effects on women

Male discourse about God in the liturgy and its effects on women

by Ida RAMING (bibliography)

from Lumen Vitae, Revue Internationale de Catéchèse et de Pastorale 55 (1999) pp. 47 - 57

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 Lumen Vitae.

Catholic women participating in a celebration of worship and listening to linguistic images used in the liturgy are going to gain the impression that the divine sphere is reserved to an exclusively masculine God, that women have no part to play at all and never appear there. Prayer to God, to the Lord and to God the Father run like a red cord through official liturgy and even through the texts for celebrating the Eucharist, where often only the epithets change: "Omnipotent Father", "Merciful Father", "Holy Father". This way of addressing God culminates finally in the prayer "Our Father". Many sacred songs also use the same language: along with "God, Lord" and "King", there is "the Father who is in heaven". Here is one example from many others: "We consecrate to you, Father, the fruits of the earth, bread and wine…as brothers of Christ, let us enter into the sacrifice with him!"

Mary the mother of Jesus is of course a role model for women. Prayers and hymns addressed to the mother of God are of fairly limited significance in the course of the liturgical year, however. Moreover Mary is not a representative of the divine transcendence, but as a human being, she is found down with her created sisters with respect to God.

In a cult such as this, dominated by masculine names and images of God, can women develop even an embryonic awareness of their resemblance to God, as given to them in Genesis 1: 27 ("God created man in his own image; in his image he created him. Male and female he created them")? How is it possible, under such circumstances, for women to develop a sense of dignity as separate, independent human beings, since in this religious context they do not have the experience of being consecrated and recognised as human beings created in the image of God, but on the contrary, are led to question themselves at the deepest level of their being?

One objection that we may raise however is that God lives in "inaccessible light" (1 Tm 6:16). God is invisible, transcendent, outside our representational universe and therefore also indescribable; all the names and images borrowed from our representational universe cannot adequately express the mystery that is God. In some sense they are only "noise and smoke". The way in which we talk about God could be of no importance.

It’s not just about using masculine nouns, however! On the contrary, these male images and names for God are reflections of the very structure and organisation of the Church. Only men, as ordained priests, may preside at the celebration of the Eucharist. They act in persona Christi, as representatives of Christ in the holy celebrations. They alone (as priests and bishops) may assume ecclesiastical responsibility, together with the mandate for ecclesiastical management (cf. cc. 129; 274 §1 CIC).

There is therefore an indissoluble link between a male representation of God, articulated in the corresponding names and images, and the structure of the Church itself, characterised by the male hierarchy. The exclusion of women from the priesthood, anchored in law (c. 1024 CIC), has up to now been motivated mainly by the fact that women, because of their sex, cannot represent "the man" Jesus, the "betrothed" and "Lord of the Church", "the image of the Eternal father" (2). They are considered to be "unordainable".

By this argument, however, women are in practice being denied their resemblance to God. The "masculinity" of God and Jesus thus becomes an ideology that the patriarchal structure of the Church does not just support, but declares to be "the will of God" (3). The negative effects on women’s sense of their own self-worth are clearly evident: the "religion of the Father" oppressive to women only because of their sex, subjects them from childhood to representational images "which may awake in them feelings of invalidity, inferiority and even of negativity. This explains why many women have such low expectations of themselves, never reach full maturity and do not even try to…" (4). As regards the Church and women within the Church, the effects of the "religion of the eternal Father" may be described in the following terms: it "is at the root, not just of the marginalisation of women in the Church, but of a whole series of negative effects: […] the scorn for pluralism and the fear of dialogue and confrontation; the paternalism in the pastoral field and centralism in the management of the Church…" (5)

The sociocultural background to the male image of God and the reinterpretation by Jesus of the name Father applied to God.

Modern exegesis has shed light on the origin of the male names and images for God. The faith communities of the Old and New Testaments developed in a patriarchal culture. "This situation necessarily affected not only the religious language of the future Jewish and Christian communities, but also the structures of their political and social lives. In the patriarchal social order, the man exercised all the authority within the family. He owned the woman (or women) as wife, mother, etc. He was free, they were not. Children belonged to the father not the mother. Wife (or wives) and children were obliged to obey and serve him. The pyramidal structure of families, society, political and religious institutions, culminated in the supreme heavenly authority of God, the Father of all." (6). In the light of this sociocultural reality which pervades the Old Testament, it necessarily followed that the Hebrew believers gave God male names, such as lord, shepherd, king, etc.

Conversely, it is surprising to note that, in the Old Testament, there is a marked hesitation to call God Father (7), although this name for God (or the gods) was fairly widespread in the Ancient Near East (8). This must be attributed to the fact that the concept of God as Father is understood, in a biblical sense, to be entirely transsexual, and therefore has no connection with procreation. "Unlike pagan myths about the genealogy of the gods, the paternity of God in the biblical sense bears no relation to begetting […] God is called Father in relation to an act of election, itself inseparable from his intervention in history on behalf of his people. God is the Father of Israel. He is not the father of humanity" (9). According to Claude Geffré, this connection of the paternity of God to a historical act (the liberation from slavery in Egypt) marked a significant modification to the concept of Father. The absolutely transsexual concept of divine fatherhood "demands that we do not endow this symbol with exclusively male traits" (10).

The restraint still observed in the Hebrew Bible on the subject of God’s Fatherhood is entirely abandoned in the New Testament. The name of "Father" given to God occurs frequently here (11). The invocation formula in Jesus’ own prayer is "Father" (cf. Mt. 11:25 ff, par Lk. 23:45 et al.) or "Abba" (father dear, Dad: Mk. 14:36). As in the Old Testament, this masculine term used for Father in the New Testament is a reminder of the underlying patriarchal structure persisting from ancient Israel. The illustration is made directly in some of Jesus’ parables: the Prodigal Son, or the Merciful Father (Lk 15: 11-31), for example, describes a "family" consisting only of a father and two sons. There is no mention of the mother, who must have given birth to the sons. In Jewish society at the time of Jesus, only sons could inherit. Thus Jesus’ message relating to God’s mercy may be illustrated by the behaviour of the father in the parable towards his "prodigal" son and heir, without involving any female character at all.

Rightly, exegetical research brings in "the close relationship between Jesus’ insistence on the paternity of God and the proclamation of the coming of the kingdom of God" (cf. the petitions in the Our Father). "Jesus is not announcing any God other than that of the Covenant" (12). "God gave him the task of transmitting and fulfilling salvation in word and deed with the reign of God. He entrusts him with representing his love to humanity. Jesus responds to God in the world in a unique way, standing up before all people" (13), as it is said in Mt 11:27, "All things have been committed to me by my Father. No-one knows the Son except the Father, and no-one knows the father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him."

According to this statement, what joins Jesus to God, whom he calls his Father, is "the bond of a unique relationship" (14). He is the Word made flesh and the image of the invisible God (cf. Jn 1:14; Col 1:15). The words given to Jesus by John, "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father" (Jn 14:9), proclaims that, in the words and deeds of Jesus, in his suffering and death, the "Father" reveals himself. "The foolishness of the language of the cross (cf. 1 Cor 1:18) is the last word on the Father of Jesus", that is the usual representation of God the Father, of his omnipotence, his incapability of suffering and his reign which incorporates everything, is superseded. In and by Jesus God is reinterpreted: "At the moment when Jesus (on the cross) rejects the presence of an idealised father and experiences instead his silence and absence, at that moment, it is God himself who is manifesting his solidarity with the suffering and death of humanity…". To a certain extent, God abandons his prerogatives (omnipotence, kingship) "to withdraw from his position of strength into the humanity of the crucified one" (15). The last words of Jesus on the cross ("My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?") may be interpreted as "God’s renunciation of himself" (16).

This image of God suffering for love of humanity does not just eliminate the normal representation of God, in his omnipotence and kingship, but also wipes out the ideal image of man, the stamp of patriarchy, and the authority he holds over women. Jesus, and thus God, through his life and death, refutes completely the lordship of man, all male arrogance, since he expects his disciples, no matter what their sex, to demonstrate humble service of neighbour, this being the pattern of behaviour preferred by God (cf. Mk. 10:42-45 and par; Jn 13:1-20).

This extremely close relationship between Father and Son, witnessed to by Jesus many times, demonstrates the life of God himself which, through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the sending of the Spirit, is expressed in the doctrine of the blessed Trinity. Metaphors borrowed from sexuality are used to describe the relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit: it involves "procreation" by and from God. The description of the relationship between Father and Son as procreation arises essentially from the ancient theory of procreation, according to which man begets life from his "seed", while the woman is only the "receptacle", providing the shapeless "material" for the new life (17).

In the light of this theory of procreation, finally demonstrated as incorrect with the discovery of the female ovum (in the mid-19th century), since it ignored the genetic contribution of the woman in the formation of a new life, there is only Father and Son, when speaking of God. In this regard, the patriarchal theory of procreation, whose repercussions in the Bible are obvious, must be seen as one of the roots of the male image of God, alongside the social dominance of the man in the ancient world (18). It should be noted, however, that it is only possible to describe the trinitarian relationship between "Father" and "Son" using images and metaphors from the female domain, since this image of the "birth from God" is by far the best way of visualising the emanation of the "Son" or "Logos" from God. Even in the Bible, expressions from female sexual language are unhesitatingly transposed onto the "male" God (19). The prologue to John’s gospel expresses this particularly clearly: "No-one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is at the Father’s side (or: who is in the bosom of the Father) has made him known" (Jn 1:18).

While the doctrine of the Trinity was being developed, these biblical seeds began to germinate. The council of Toledo (675 A.D) declared: "the Son is begotten or born (genitus vel natus) not from nothing, nor from any substance, but from the maternal womb of the Father (de utero Patris), that is, from his being" (20). As the examples quoted here show, the image of mother used for God is fundamentally a more evocative and more suitable metaphor.

Jürgen Moltmann (21) notes that the Christian doctrine on the Trinity represents "a first step towards overcoming male language in the concept of God."… A father who both begets and gives birth to his son is not a uniquely male father. He is a maternal father. He can no longer be defined as having only male sex, but must be as if bi- or transsexual. "The intention of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity would be to "produce a community of women and men without dominance or favouritism". Referring to Gal 3: 28 f. ("in Christ, there is neither male nor female…") Moltmann stresses: "only a society freed from sexism and class division can become a truly representative image of God in three persons".

Failure to realise the implications in practice

Until now, there has been no attempt to look at the consequences of this new understanding. The official liturgy, as ever, uses exclusively male discourse when speaking of God ("Father"), although in the meantime, the socio-cultural position has changed significantly from that pertaining in ancient Israel.

Opposing this obvious "sign of the times", the institutional Church also maintains the structural subordination of women in its institutional legislation (exclusion of women from the responsibilities relating to ordination, cf. c.1024 CIC) and the exclusively male language relating to God.

In the light of this clearly mistaken course of development, a reminder of the Old Testament’s ban on images is needed. In the version given in the book of Deuteronomy, it is formulated thus: "You saw no form of any kind the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman….!" (Dt. 4: 15-19).

This ban on images is not directed only at visible, physical representations of the Lord (or other gods). "It is rather a permanent invitation to transcendence, an invitation not to take possession of the divinity" (22); since the Lord cannot be reduced to an image or a name.

"To whom, then, will you compare God? What image will you compare him to?…To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?" says the Holy One (Is. 40: 18 and 25). The ban on images, taken in its historical context, "does not relate only to visual images, but also to verbal images which are given an absolute value", and therefore also to the concept of Father used for God. The Hebrew Bible is particularly notable for its concern "to relativise the various models and expressions used to describe the divine and God…" (23).

If the official liturgy of the Church continues to use the exclusively male representation of God, and therefore also the name of Father for God, the sacred nature and absolute transcendence of God, which fundamentally affirm Judaeo-Christian tradition, will be forgotten (24). Moreover, this exclusively male image of God implies that the resemblance of woman to God, according to the promise by which women and men will be equal before God, in Christ, as "children of God" (Gal 3:27 f) is ignored and devalued.

It is especially true that for adult women who are freed within themselves from the dominance of men this rendering of male concepts of God as absolute and sacred poses ever greater problems. The use of a language and metaphor system that also includes the feminine for God is long overdue. For this reason, therefore, the unique statement made by the pope John-Paul 1: "God is our Father; what is more, he is also a mother for us!" was felt as a sign of hope – it flashed around the whole world like a spark on a powder trail.

Even in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament, there are many signs (25) of a language and metaphor system of this type, in accordance with the "signs of the times" (John XXIII), but these signs could and should be developed in order truly to recognise the resemblance of woman with God. According to Raurell, it is a "legitimate requirement of feminist theology that the religious experience of women should be expressed independently of images and symbols – subordinate to masculine language. This is an all-embracing theology" (26). Without a "revolutionary transformation" of human speech about God, which also involves "a reappropriation of feminine semantics for the divinity" (27), the message of Revelation cannot in the present times be passed on properly, that is, in a way which is understandable and acceptable to human beings – in other words, exclusively male language must be replaced by human language which integrates both sexes and is aimed at the resemblance of the woman and the man with God. The truth is, that simply modifying liturgical language – without at the same time fundamentally reforming the subordinate position of women in the Church – would only be a sham (28).

This change in theology and in the liturgy, inspired by the personal dignity of woman and her likeness to God, does not in any way mean a change in the faith of the Judaeo-Christian tradition in one God. Rather a liturgical language which is equitable as regards woman and the human "integrator" shows the way towards overcoming the abusive use, still prevalent, which takes the sacred name of God as an ideological basis and as a justification for discrimination against women in the Church (cf. c. 1024 CIC), and thus dishonours that name. This opportunity for the liberation of women opened up with the help of the liturgical language and metaphor system also enables deeper, broader access into the inexpressible mystery of God, since "the truth of the mystery of God and of the liberation of humanity are closely linked" (29).


1. Ida RAMING, doctor in theology, born in 1932, has studied philosophy, pedagogy, theology and German philology at Münster and Friburg-en-Brisgau; her theology doctorate was entitled On the exclusion of women from the ministry in the Church. A critical study of chap. 968, §1, of the Code of Canon Law (1970); Publications in the area of historical-theological research on women, especially on the subject of the position and recognition of women in the Roman Catholic Church. Address: Überwasserstr., 8, D-48268 Greven.

2. Cf. Declaration of the Congregation of the Faith on the admission of women to the ministerial priesthood (Inter insigniores), 15 October 1976, DC, 1977, n°1714, pp. 158-164; Apostolic letter of John Paul II Mulieris Dignitatem, 1988, DC, 1988, n° 1972, pp. 1063-1088; Critical discussion of this subject in I. RAMING, Frauenbewegung und Kirche. Bilanz eines 25järhigen Kampfes für Gleichberechtigung und Befreiung der Frau seit dem 2. Vatikanischen Konzil, Weinheim, 2nd ed. 1991; see also I. RAMING, Der Auschluss der Frau vom priesterlichen Amt. Gottgewollte Tradition oder Diskriminierung?, Cologne-Vienna, 1973.

3. Cf. Apostolic letter of John Paul II Ordinatio sacerdotalis, 1994, DC 1994, n° 2096, pp. 551-552.

4. F. RAURELL, Der Mythos vom männlichen Gott, Friburg, Basle, Vienna, 1989, p. 13.

5. F. RAURELL, ibid., p. 166.

6. F. RAURELL, ibid., p.34. See also Erhard S. GERSTENBERGER, Jahwe - ein patriarchaler Gott? Traditionelles Gottesbild und feministiche Theologie, Stuttgart, 1988, pp.25 ff.

7. According to F. RAURELL, ibid., p. 50f., God is only called Father fifteen times in the OT, apart from instances where God is compared to an earthly father. Cf. also J. GNILKA, Jesus von Nazareth. Botschaft und Geschichte, Friburg, Basle, Vienna, 1993, p. 265: "In the OT, and in Judaism, it is very rare to address God in prayer by the use of Father."

8. Cf. on this subject H. TELLENBACH (editor), Das Vaterbild in Mythos und Geschichte, Stuttgart, 1976, p. 98.

9. C. GEFFRÉ, "'Father' as a proper name for God", in Concilium n° 163, 1981, pp. 67-77, here p. 69.

10. C. GEFFRÉ, ibid., p. 69.

11. J. GNILKA, op. cit. (see note 7), pp. 205, 264.

12. C. GEFFRÉ, op. cit. (see note 9), p. 265.

13. J. GNILKA, op. cit. (see note 7), p. 265.

14. J. GNILKA, op. cit. (see note 7), pp. 266.

15. C. GEFFRÉ, op. cit. (see note 9), p.77.

16. C. GEFFRÉ, op. cit. (see note 9), ibid. (referring to W. Kasper).

17. In both Old and New Testaments, the masculine theory of procreation is assumed to be fundamental: male "seed" is often mentioned, without the woman having any equivalent contribution of her own to make to the birth of human life. In Wis. 7:1ff, the Old Testament representation of the process of procreation is developed into a theory owing something to Greek influence: "I was formed in flesh within my mother's breast, where for ten months, in her blood, I became whole, through the male seed..". Cf. also on this topic E. LESKY, ‘Die Zeugungs- und Vererbungslehren der Antike und ihr Nachwirken’, in Abhandlungen der Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur (Geistes- u. sozialwissenschlaftliche Klasse), 1950, n° 19, pp. 1227-1425.

18. Cf. S. GERSTENBERGER, op. cit. (see note 6), pp. 21, 23 (with the corresponding biblical quotations given).

19. There are examples of this in both the Old and the New Testament: cf. for example Dt 32:18; Jer 2:27; Is 42:14; 49,15; Jn 1:13f. and Jn 1:17.

20. Quoted by J. MOLTMANN, ‘Le Père maternel’, in Concilium, n° 163, 1981, p. 83.

21. J. MOLTMANN, ibid., p.83.

22. F. RAURELL, op. cit. (see note 4), p. 49.

23. F. RAURELL, op. cit. (see note 4), p. 49 ff.

24. Cf. F. RAURELL, op. cit. (see note 4), p.91.

25. Many examples of this in F. RAURELL, pp. 34-100; also in S. GERSTENBERGER, op. cit. (see note 6); see also the article "Gott/Göttin" in the Wörterbuch der Feministischen Theologie edited by E. GÖSSMAN and others, Gütersloh, 1991, pp. 158-173 (many bibliographical entries).

26. F. RAURELL, op. cit. (see note 4), p.177.

27. F. RAURELL, op. cit. (see note 4), p.178 f.

28. A women's movement inside the Church, which is now spreading throughout the world, is struggling for a reform of the position of women in all areas of Church life. Cf. on this subject Iris MÜLLER and Ida RAMING, Aufbruch aus männlichen "Gottesordnungen", Reformbestrebungen von Frauen in christlichen Kirchen und im Islam, Weinheim, 1998. Also, refer to the specialist library established by Iris Müller in the seminary for religious studies at the Faculty of Catholic theology in the University of Münster (Hüfferstr. 27, D-48149), "Frauen in den Religionen".

29. F. RAURELL, op. cit. (see note 4), p.180.

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