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Against Inclusive Language

Obscuring Gender

The Bible contains many references to people. Some of these references involve the use of nouns, such as: sons, daughters, children, brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, men, women, people. Other references to people use pronouns, such as: he, she, they. Some nouns and pronouns specify a gender (sons, daughters), but others do not specify a gender (children, people). An inclusive language approach to the Bible obscures the gender of the noun or pronoun in the translation text, so that the reader will not know the gender indicated in the source text. This practice of using inclusive language is prohibited by the Vatican Norms for the Translation Biblical Texts for Use in the Liturgy ( It is also prohibited by common sense.

A Disingenuous Approach

Translating the ancient Bible texts into modern English is a complex and difficult task. Verbs can vary greatly in meaning, depending on the context. Idiomatic expressions are sometimes found in the source language, but not in the translation language; these can be difficult to translate accurately. In Latin, word order, grammar, and sentence structure are very different from English. Yes, translators face many linguistic dilemmas. But translating nouns is not one of them. Nouns are the easiest words to translate. The range of possible meanings for a noun varies much less than for any other type of word or phrase.

For example, the word 'leo' in Latin means 'lion.' The word 'lećna' is feminine and is translated as 'lioness.' The meaning is clear from the Latin source text, and the translation language (in this case, English) has a corresponding word with the same meaning. No translator would consider changing or obscuring the gender of such words. And, in another example, no translator would translate a single word meaning 'table' as 'table and chairs,' even given the explanation that the presence of the chairs is implied by the fact that people use chairs to sit at a table. No translator, regardless of his religious, social, or political views, would do so.

Nevertheless, when a word being translated refers to male human persons, suddenly the rules change. Given a word that clearly means 'sons' or 'brothers,' many translators will change the wording to 'children' or 'brothers and sisters.' Any comparable translation choice referring to inanimate objects or to animals, would be universally rejected, scorned, and ridiculed. But widespread social and cultural influences regarding gender and roles in society have had an effect on the translation of Sacred Scripture, so as to attempt to obscure the very meaning of the words of the Bible. Many translators have yielded to these pressures and made otherwise indefensible translation choices which obscure the gender indicated by the source text. In other cases, the translators acted prudently, but an editorial committee made unwise changes to the text, after translation and before publication.

There is no good reason to translate a word that clearly means 'sons' with the word 'children' or 'people.' No translator would make such a change in any other context (other than references to male human persons). Translators constantly talk and write about accuracy and fidelity to the source text. But then when a word refers to men, not to women, all their talk goes out the window. They immediately think up numerous excuses for translating the text in such a way as to deliberately conceal the fact that the source text word or phrase refers to men.

Failure To Preserve Levels of Meaning

The document “Norms for the Translation of Biblical Texts for Use in the Liturgy” were presented to the U.S. Bishops in the spring of 1997 by then Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (who is now Pope Benedict XVI). These Norms reject the inclusive language approach to Bible translation. “Translation should strive to preserve the connotations as well as the denotations of words or expressions in the original and thus not preclude possible layers of meaning.”

Denotation refers to what the words say and connotation refers to what the words mean. The denotation of a word or phrase often contains multiple connotations or levels of meaning. For example, the frequent phrase meaning 'sons of Israel' has numerous levels of meaning. On one level, the sons of Israel are the people of Israel, including men, women, and children. This level of meaning is expressed by the translation of the phrase meaning 'sons of Israel' into the English phrase 'people of Israel' or 'children of Israel.' However, there are other important levels of meaning that are ignored or even deliberately rejected by the refusal to maintain male references in translation.

Another level of meaning found in the phrase 'sons of Israel' is that, within the history of Israel, it was ordained by God through Providence and Grace that the people of Israel be led by men. The phrase 'sons of Israel' refers to all the Israelites by referring to their male leaders. But this understanding, that God chose men to be the leaders of the people of Israel, is abhorrent to modern secular society, and so this level of meaning has been removed from the text by translating 'sons' as 'children' or 'people.' This approach is a rejection of the teaching of Scripture that men were intended by God to be the leaders of the ancient people of God.

Another level of meaning found in the phrase 'sons of Israel' is that the Church today is the new Israel, and we Christians are the 'sons of Israel.' Though the Church is comprised of men, women, and children, led by the Spirit of God, we are certainly led by the ordained men of the Church. The Church is led by the ordained men who are Bishops, led by the Bishop who is also the Pope. The Pope is assisted by Bishops who are Cardinals; the Bishops are assisted by ordained men who are Priests. The Church is correctly referred to, even today, as the 'sons of Israel,' because we are led by ordained men who are the spiritual descendants of the ancient Patriarchs. The inclusive language approach is a rejection of the teaching of the Bible that the Church today is intended by God to be led by men, and that God has chosen men to be the leaders of the Church, the family, and society.

And there may be additional levels of meaning in the phrase 'sons of Israel' beyond my comprehension. For no single translator, nor any group of translators, understands every meaning and level of meaning found in written Divine Revelation. Even if the Biblical understanding of every Christian on earth were combined, it would not reach to more than a small fraction of all the meanings found in Sacred Scripture. If a translator or group of translators were to translate only the meanings that they understood, most of the meaning in the Bible would be lost in translation. Therefore, every translator must translate primarily what the text says, and only secondarily what the text means. The inclusive language approach to translation rejects what the text says, because some levels of meaning of that text are contrary to the teachings of modern secular society, in favor of one level of meaning that is acceptable.

The word meaning 'brothers' is used by the Apostle Saint Paul, for example, in the letter to the Romans. In this letter, Paul was writing to the ordained men who were leaders of the Christian community at Rome. He was also indirectly addressing all Christians at Rome (many of whom were illiterate or barely literate) by way of addressing their leaders.

In another level of meaning, Sacred Scripture is certainly addressing everyone through Paul's letters. However, the translation of a word clearly meaning 'brothers' as 'brothers and sisters' ignores the historical level of meaning that men led the church at Rome in the early Church, and it deliberately rejects the level of meaning wherein God has ordained that men be the leaders of the Church today, based in Rome.

Inaccurate and Contradictory Translations

In another example, the text of Hosea 1:10 uses both a word meaning 'people' and a word meaning 'sons.' Yet some versions, following the principles of inclusive language, disingenuously translate both words as 'people.'

Vulgate: “Et erit numerus filiorum Israel quasi arena maris, quć sine mensura est, et non numerabitur. Et erit in loco ubi dicetur eis: Non populus meus vos: dicetur eis: Filii Dei viventis.”

CPDV: “And the number of the sons of Israel will be like the sand of the sea, which is without measure and cannot be numbered. And in the place where it will be said to them, 'You are not my people,' this will happen: it will be said to them, 'You are the sons of the living God.' ”

RSV: “Yet the number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which can be neither measured nor numbered; and in the place where it was said to them, 'You are not my people,' it shall be said to them, 'Sons of the living God.' ”

NRSV: “Yet the number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which can be neither measured nor numbered; and in the place where it was said to them, 'You are not my people', it shall be said to them, 'Children of the living God.' ”

JB (numbered as 2:1): “And the number of the sons of Israel will be like the sand on the seashore, which cannot be measured or counted. In the place where they were told, 'You are no people of mine', they will be called, 'The sons of the living God'.”

The Jerusalem Bible translation gets it right in this verse: the word meaning 'sons' is translated as 'sons,' and the word meaning 'people' is translated as 'people.'

But in the RSV and NRSV, the phrase 'sons of Israel' becomes 'people of Israel.' This translation error not only removes the gender indicated in the source text, it also changes the meaning from the connotation of 'male children' to a non-familial connotation of 'people.' And the errors increase from the RSV to the NRSV. At least the RSV has 'Sons of the living God,' but the NRSV removes even this male reference, making it say 'Children' instead. Also, note the incongruities of within the RSV and NRSV translations. The first 'sons' is translated as 'people' in both. But the second time that same word is used within the same verse, it is translated differently: as 'sons' in the RSV and as 'children' in the NRSV. If the translators or editors assert that the word actually means 'people,' then why do they translate the same word differently in the same verse? This type of deliberately inaccurate translation is a serious offense against the Word of God.

Deletion of Entire Words and Phrases

A clear example is found in the Book of Baruch (Baruch 2:35), where the text uses a word meaning 'people' followed by a phrase meaning 'the sons of Israel.' Translating the phrase meaning 'sons of Israel' by the common substitution 'people of Israel' would result in the untenable phrasing: 'my people, the people of Israel.' Thus, many versions drop the phrase 'sons of' entirely. Thus it is clear that some consider male references in the Bible to be so abhorrent that they are willing to remove certain words and phrases entirely from Scripture. It is as if they do not believe that these are God's words at all.

Vulgate: “Et statuam illis testamentum alterum sempiternum, ut sim illis in Deum, et ipsi erunt mihi in populum: et non movebo amplius populum meum, filios Israel a terra, quam dedi illis.”

CPDV: “And I will establish for them a new and everlasting covenant, so that I will be their God and they will be my people. And I will no longer move my people, the sons of Israel, out of the land which I have given them.”

RSV and NRSV: “I will make an everlasting covenant with them to be their God and they shall be my people; and I will never again remove my people Israel from the land which I have given them.”

NAB: “And I will establish for them, as an eternal covenant, that I will be their God, and they shall be my people; and I will not again remove my people Israel from the land I gave them.”

JB: “And I will make an everlasting covenant with them; I will be their God and they shall be my people. And I will never again drive my people Israel out of the land that I have given them.”

In this case, the reason that words are deleted from the translation of the source text is that words of the Bible referring to men are deemed offensive due to the influence of modern secular society. God is Truth. All the truths of the Bible come from God, including those that offend modern sensibilities. Whoever deliberately deletes truth from Sacred Scripture will be severely punished by God.

References That Are Not Gender Specific

The Bible does use words such as 'people,' 'children,' and the phrase 'sons and daughters.' Not every reference is a gender-specific or male-only reference. For example, Wisdom 9:7 reads:

Vulgate: “Tu elegisti me regem populo tuo, et iudicem filiorum tuorum et filiarum:”
CPDV: “You have chosen me to be a king of your people, and a judge of your sons and daughters.”
RSV: “Thou hast chosen me to be king of thy people and to be judge over thy sons and daughters.”
JB: “You yourself have chosen me to be a king over your people, to be judge of your sons and daughters.”

Notice that we have a non-gender specific plural word meaning 'people,' as well as a pairing of two gender-specific words meaning 'sons and daughters.' Clearly, the word meaning 'sons' cannot be translated as 'children' or 'people,' for this would result in the phrase 'your people and daughters,' or 'your children and daughters.' It is very clear to any translator that the one word means 'sons' and the other word means 'daughters.' But when 'sons' occurs alone, it is neutered, often by being replaced with the word 'people.' And since there is already a word that clearly means 'people,' no translator can validly claim that 'sons' should be rendered as 'people.'

The word meaning 'sons' is often translated as 'children.' But there is already a different word that means 'children,' which inclusive language version also translate as 'children.' For example Wisdom 12:7 uses the word children:

Vulgate: “ut dignam perciperent peregrinationem puerorum Dei, quć tibi omnium charior est terra.”
CPDV: “so that they might worthily secure the sojourn of the children of God, in the land which is most beloved by you.”
NAB: “that the land that is dearest of all to you might receive a worthy colony of God's children.”
JB: “so that this land, dearer to you than any other, might receive a colony of God's children worthy of it.”

These translations all correctly translate a word meaning 'children' with the word 'children.' So then, how can they also claim that a word meaning 'sons' (which they themselves translate as 'sons' in some verses) should be translated as 'children'? This inconsistent and inaccurate translation of gender-related words is not due to the truths found in the source text, but due to the external influence of modern society.

Female References Left Intact

Although very many male references are neutered or dropped from the translation, many female references are left intact. These translations are called gender-neutral or inclusive, but in truth they are not neutral to gender, and they are only 'inclusive' when the reference is to males. Female references are left as gender-specific and non-inclusive.

For example, Micah 1:13 and 4:8 both refer to the daughter of Zion. The RSV, NRSV, and the JB all translate the word meaning 'daughter' with the word 'daughter.' Considered by itself, there is no reason to object to such an accurate translation. But it violates the rules that are used in these same versions when male references are encountered. The phrase 'child of Zion' would at least be consistent with the stated principles used in the translation of other passages of the Bible. But, then again, it would be just as inaccurate and offensive as those other mistranslations.

Thus, male references, such as 'sons,' are altered to read as 'children' or 'people,' but female references are unaltered. Such inconsistent translation decisions, which violate their own stated principles, are utterly absurd. Even the flimsy philosophy of gender inclusiveness cannot explain why male references are neutered, to remove any indication of gender, but female references go unaltered.

The true reason that male references are targeted for neutering or removal is that social and cultural pressures from an unwise and sinful world demand the alteration of the Bible to conform to modern sensibilities. Male references offend, but female references do not offend. A male-only group tends to offend modern society, but a female-only group does not. Maleness itself is treated by society as if it were a vice, whereas femaleness is treated as if it were a virtue. And this sinful attitude has had its effect on the translation of the Sacred Bible.

Increase in Inclusive Language Over Time

The errors of gender inclusive translation have increased as time has passed. Romans 1:13 reads:

RSV: “I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I often planned to come to you, though I was prevented until now, that I might harvest some fruit among you, too, as among the rest of the Gentiles.”

The footnote to the word 'brothers' claims that 'brothers' is an idiomatic expression referring to all Paul's 'kin in Christ,' including women. My response is that the word 'brothers' is a commonly-used noun, and no reader or author in his right mind would consider it to be an idiomatic expression. This claim is clearly false, disingenuous, and absurd.

But the later NRSV goes even further, by adding words that are not called for by the source text.

NRSV: “I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as I have among the rest of the Gentiles.”
(The NRSV revises the RSV text from 'brothers' to 'brothers and sisters.' The footnote in the NRSV states that the Greek text reads 'brothers.')

There is no rational explanation as to why, if the source text reads 'brothers,' the translation would be a three word phrase, 'brothers and sisters.' In this case, the footnote actually corrects the inaccurate translation by noting that the source text contains only the word for 'brothers.'

Now the word 'sisters,' and other words referring to women, are not entirely absent from the Bible. Therefore, one cannot claim that the author intended to refer to both brothers and sisters, for he could easily have used the word for sisters. An honest translation translates the word referring to brothers as 'brothers.' It is dishonest, indefensible, and sinful for any translator or committee in charge of a translation to insist on adding words to a translation that are not called for by any source text.

The Bible itself, in one of its very last verses, prohibits adding, subtracting, or, by inference, changing any of the meanings or truths contained within the Book of Revelation, and, by inference, the entire Bible.

“I warn every one who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if any one adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if any one takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.” (Revelation 22:18-19, RSV).

Reasons for Rejecting the Inclusive Approach

There are several strong reasons for leaving male references intact in Sacred Scripture.

a) Translators must translate what the text says.

Translators cannot merely translate what the translator understands the text to mean. If translators only translate their own understanding of the meaning, then the infallible Word of God becomes the fallible words of the translator's limited understanding. Would any reader really prefer the words of the translator over the Word of God?

When the text has a word that clearly means 'brothers,' the translation should be a single word that means 'brothers.' When the text has a phrase that means 'sons of Israel,' the translation should be a phrase that means 'sons of Israel.' When the text says 'daughters,' the translation should be 'daughters.' When the text says 'sons and daughters,' then the translation should be 'sons and daughters.' And so on.

How anyone ever arrived at any other approach to the translation of nouns referring to people is inexplicable.

b) Many male references to persons in the Old and New Testaments have a level of meaning whereby they refer symbolically or figuratively to Christ and to the Church.

The expression 'sons of Israel' refers symbolically to the Church, which is the new Israel. We Christians are, at best, a reflection of the person and life of Christ, being made in His image and striving to live by his teaching, example, and grace. Therefore, we are all like Christ and are all 'sons of Israel.' Even the women and children among us are like Christ and are, in that sense, 'sons of God.'

Also, other male references, such as 'the just man' refer not only to any member of mankind, but particularly to Christ, who is the One Just Man above all men. Removing male references obscures the level of meaning wherein the text refers symbolically to Christ.

c) The maleness of Christ is not accidental or irrelevant to His mission for our salvation.

Also, the choice of the male gender to be leaders in the Church, the family, and society is not accidental or arbitrary. God could not have just as well chosen the female gender to be the leaders. God could not have fittingly chosen to become incarnate as a woman or to die for our salvation as a woman.

Maleness is a reflection of God's role as the creator and as leader of all that exists. God created a difference between male and female, so as to represent the difference between Creator and Creation, between Christ who gives salvation and the Church who receives salvation. Maleness is a reflection of God, therefore God is properly referred to with masculine pronouns. Femaleness is a reflection of the Universe that is created by God. Since the Universe was created by, and is a reflection of, the Wisdom of God, the Universe (as well as Wisdom herself) is properly referred to with feminine pronouns.

d) Men are intended by God to be leaders of the Church, the family, and the human race.

The expression 'sons of Israel' refers to the ancient people of God, including men, women, and children, but it also indicates that these were led by men. The expression 'sons of Israel' can also be taken to refer to the Church, which is the new Israel. The Church is referred to by the Bible as the 'sons of Israel' because the Church is intended by God to be led by men: by the Pope, the Bishops, and the Priests.

God designed the family to be led by the husband, assisted by his wife. The husband is the head of the family; the wife is the heart of the family (see Pius XI, Casti Connubii). God designed the Church to be led by a male Pope and male Bishops, assisted by male Priests. God also designed humanity, the human family, to be led by men. The human race is properly called Man or mankind, because it is an extended family of men, women, and children, led by men. God is properly referred to as 'He' because God is the head of the family of all Creation and the head of the family of the human race. Therefore, male references in Sacred Scripture are a reflection of the very order that God built into the Church, the family, and the human race, as well as the whole of Creation. And the man Jesus Christ is the head of all Creation.

When Saint Paul the Apostle wrote the letter to the Romans, he was writing to the male ordained leaders of the Church community at Rome. He was writing to his fellow Bishops and Priests. He was not writing to every male Christian at Rome, nor was he writing to every man, women, and child at Rome. The Church is, always has been, and always will be, led by ordained men. Ordination is not merely the capability to dispense the Sacraments. It is itself a Sacrament that remakes men in the image of Christ, so that they can take a Christ-like role (which otherwise would be beyond their reach) in the Body of Christ. Paul wrote 'brothers' because he was writing to ordained male leaders of the Church at Rome.

Today the interpretation of the Epistles is that they apply to the Church as a whole, even though they were originally addressed to the ordained male leaders of the Christian community at Rome, or were addressed to individuals, such as Titus or Timothy. But the text must still reflect the original meaning and intent, for Sacred Scripture has many levels of meaning.

e) The many levels of meaning in Sacred Scripture are harmed by the inclusive language approach, which deliberately discards plainly stated meaning, as well as meanings that are less readily apparent, in order to conform to the false teachings of a modern secular sinful society.

f) Many male references actually do include females in their meaning, but these are properly left as male references by the example of Christ.

And Jesus said to them, “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage.... and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.” (Luke 20:34, 36).

Now men marry, but women are given in marriage. Therefore, Jesus was referring to women as well as men, when he said 'the sons of this age,' and 'sons of God,' and 'sons of the resurrection.' Here Christ gives us an example whereby male references are used to refer to both men and women.

Christ spoke in this way, not because the society around him required it, but because He Himself wills that groups of men, women, and children be led by men. The use of a male reference to refer to a group than includes both genders indicates the role of men as leaders. For example, 'mankind,' or 'he became man,' or the pronoun 'he' used even when the person referred to is unknown (being possibly male or female).


The Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible is a new translation, currently in progress, which rejects the inclusive language approach in favor of accurately translating the meaning and the gender of the source text. A word that means 'sons' is translated as 'sons,' not as 'children' or 'people.' References to the female gender (e.g. the Book of Wisdom presents wisdom personified as female) are also translated intact.

by Ronald L. Conte Jr.
October 29, 2005

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