How a longstanding suspicion of inclusive language is killing the Church’s message
Last week’s “Letter from Rome” reported that an Italian bishop had rather casually let slip at a press conference some days earlier that Pope Francis was about to publish a new encyclical on human fraternity.
Just hours after the “Letter” went online, the bishop’s forecast was confirmed.
The Franciscan Friars in Assisi announced that the pope was not only issuing a new encyclical called Fratelli tutti, but he was coming to their idyllic hilltop town on October 3rd to celebrate Mass privately at St. Francis’ tomb and then sign the document.
It seemed odd (and still does) that the pope chose October 3rd instead of the saint’s October 4th feast day to visit Assisi. And what a short visit it is to be.
Francis is scheduled to arrive, presumably by helicopter, just before 3 pm. There are only sketchy details right now, but it appears that he will go directly to the friary known as the “Sacro Convento” and then proceed to the crypt of the adjoining Basilica of St. Francis to celebrate Mass.
Oh, brother! What about the rest of the human race?
According to the Holy See Press Office, which also clarified that the encyclical is on “fraternity and social friendship”, the pope will return to Rome immediately afterwards.
There has been no announcement pertaining to when the document, in its various translations, will actually be made available to the public. But it is understood that Francis would like that to take place in a more ceremonious, high profile way the next day – Feast of St. Francis.
However, the launch could be less a bang and more of a shot in the foot if the translators of the text don’t get their act in order and quickly. As of now, Vatican Media is reporting that the English version of the encyclical is titled, “All Brothers.”
This understandably caused uproar among those who are sensitive to gender inclusive language. And if the title sticks it will serve only to further alienate women (and men) who see this obstinate refusal to acknowledge that language develops as yet more proof that the Church is being run by those who also refuse to disavow themselves of misogyny and paternalism.
This should not be that difficult to fix
This can be easily remedied. Call the encyclical Fratelli e sorelle tutti, right from the start. “Brothers and sisters all” or “We are all brothers and sisters”, makes more sense anyway.
We’ve heard the explanation that the papal documents traditionally are named by the first words in the text, usually in Latin. For example, Evangelii gaudium is rendered “The Joy of the Gospel”.
And we’ve heard that Fratelli tutti is directly from a 13th century text by St. Francis, so it cannot be altered.
Nonsense. If the pope or his advisors really believe that, then they should choose another text or just give it another title.
Don’t be afraid to change
In Evangelii gaudium, Francis actually calls for this sort of departure from longstanding customs when they hinder the message the Church is trying to convey.
In her ongoing discernment, the Church can also come to see that certain customs not directly connected to the heart of the Gospel, even some which have deep historical roots, are no longer properly understood and appreciated. Some of these customs may be beautiful, but they no longer serve as means of communicating the Gospel. We should not be afraid to re-examine them (EG, 43).
In any case, “fratelli” means “brothers”. As in many languages, including English, it originally was understood to include both brothers and sisters. But that is no longer the case.
And even as the Vatican first condemned the use of inclusive language in Church documents back in the early 1990s, the pope had stopped long before that from addressing groups with the customary “Cari fratelli” and was using the more sensible, “Cari fratelli e sorelle“.
You can credit (or blame) Pope John Paul II for that, as you wish.
Being sensible and sensitive
Up until his election to the papacy, the popes routinely addressed crowds (of Catholics, at least) as “Figli” – “sons”. Obviously, at the time it was still accepted that this included women, too. But times change. And so does language.
When Karol Wojtyla appeared on the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica immediately after becoming Bishop of Rome on Oct. 16, 1978, he addressed the massive crowd in the square below as “Carissimi fratelli e sorelle” – “Dearest brothers and sisters”.
That was 42 years ago. And the popes have used this commonsense form of address ever since.
Inclusive language is, admittedly, more of an issue in the English-speaking world than it is in Latin language cultures. But even in France and Italy, for example, sensitivity towards its usage is growing.
A misguided zeal to defend orthodoxy against radical feminists
It is discouraging that Pope Francis still does not seem to appreciate just how unnecessary and unhelpful using masculine language is in the year 2020.
But, then again, he’s an elderly priest from Latin America, from a generation and culture where this was never an issue.
Nonetheless he’s the one who says in Evangelii gaudium:
I dream of a “missionary option”, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation (EG, 27).
And then further along he writes:
There are times when the faithful, in listening to completely orthodox language, take away something alien to the authentic Gospel of Jesus Christ, because that language is alien to their own way of speaking to and understanding one another (EG, 41).
Don’t kid yourself, the culture warriors, clericalists and social conservatives in the Church who refuse to use inclusive language do so purposely as part of their misguided zeal to defend orthodoxy.
In their paranoia, they see inclusive language as some sort conspiracy by radical feminists and sympathetic homosexuals to overthrow the Church.
There’s nothing of the sort going on here. The fact is that we no longer speak like we did in the 13th century. It’s as simple as that.
If the title of an encyclical is going to distract people from its central message or reinforce negative attitudes about the Church, there’s only one thing to do – change the blessed thing!
That would be at least one example of how to “apply the guidelines found in [Evangelii gaudium] generously and courageously, without inhibitions or fear” (EG, 33).