I wonder if anyone is offended by the use of the word "man" in our masthead quote above–anyone, that is, who is a more or less sympathetic reader of this blog. When I decided to use that line from Centesimus Annus I wanted to be sure I had it right, so I went looking for it on the web. (Yes, there is a paper copy of the encyclical somewhere in the house, but finding it could be a lengthy effort.) I found two versions of it: the one I used, and one which went something like "At the heart of every culture lies the attitude a person takes…"
Clearly this second version is an attempt to de-gender the sentence. Sometimes that can be done without damage, but in this case the result is simply wrong, in addition to sounding clumsy. The sentence is obviously referring to a collective attitude, not "a person’s," and the change makes something close to nonsense of the Pope’s words. The translators might more effectively have used "humanity" in place of "man," but such abstractions never sound quite as solid and real as the words they’re meant to replace.
I may be setting myself up to be blasted here, but I’ve always had trouble believing that linguistic artifacts such as the use of "man" are really so important as all that. I’m willing to concede that the existence of the term is a result of male dominance, but is it really so difficult for adults to accept the language as it is in a case like this, where everyone knows the term includes both men and women and the alternatives are so clumsy?
I have the sense that this problem, in spite of its emphasis by intellectuals, is fading as a concern in society at large, and in the Church. I thought about this recently when I ran across a book by a group of prominent theologians which was published immediately after the release of the Catechism, in 1990 or so. I think I’ll leave the names of the theologians out of this; suffice to say that of those I recognized all are well-known progressives.
Several of the writers objected vehemently to the collective "man" and other "sexist" locutions, and I was struck by their magisterial tone. I think the word "unacceptable" was used more than once, sometimes preceded by "simply." It’s often been observed that theologians have tended in recent decades to see themselves as a parallel or even superior magisterium, and that tendency was very much on display here. The whole tone of most of the writers was that of a professor evaluating the work of a less-than-impressive student, pointing out where the student seemed more or less on the right track, where he needed correction, and where he needed to dump what he had done and start over. (Yes, I know, I’m using the male default again.)
Well, everybody has heard such criticisms of progressive (or whatever you want to call them) theologians often enough, and there’s no need to go over that ground again. What really strikes me now, though, is how dated they seem. There hangs about them an air of unheeded bluster. Fifteen years later, I have the sense that voices like these are much less listened to than they once were, that they are becoming period pieces. I hope so.
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