The Pope and the Bible

November 18, 1994|By GARRY WILLS

CHICAGO — Chicago. -- Pope John Paul II has ordered Roman Catholic bishops in America to stop using a translation of the Bible they authorized, on the grounds that it is too ''gender-neutral,'' changing ''men'' to ''humanity.''

In general, I think the pope has the better argument when it comes to freeing the Bible from gender bias. Admittedly that bias exists, and was bound to exist in the periods and for the people to whom God, in the eyes of believers like me, made a revelation.

It is true, on the other hand, that God is no more male than female, because he is neither. He is, as the theologians like to say, ''all-other altogether'' (''totaliter aliter''). St. Augustine put it even more sweepingly: ''If it is God, you do not understand it. If you understand it, it is not God.''

Nonetheless, God did try to make a revelation understandable in languages of certain cultures. Theology can and should transcend the cultural limits built into any historical document, even a document of revelation. But that comes from reflection on the text. It should not alter the text. Salvation, says St. Paul, did not come only to Jews; but that would not justify people's trying to rewrite scripture so that Jesus was not a Jew.

When I was teaching classics, I would have marked as erroneous any paper that translated ''autos'' or ''ille'' as ''she'' or as ''he/she.'' This is simply a matter of fidelity to the original language, no matter what one thinks of the issues being discussed in that language.

Yet the Catholic bishops are themselves conservative. They did not approve any radical departures in the translation now used in the liturgy. The changes in the version the bishops authorized did not try to gender-neutralize references to God as ''he'' or even to God as ''the father.'' The translation involved took only minor liberties, like that changing ''men'' to ''humanity'' -- not exactly a mistranslation since that was the force of ''men'' even in the original.

The pope's action, overruling the bishops abruptly and without consultation, shows his hostility to even the mildest expression of feminism. What he did will cause expense and inconvenience, since the new translation was already printed for use in the liturgy.

What is worse, the pope shows in his own writing a great insensitivity to the gender bias that is understandable in historical texts but not in things composed today. It takes a tin ear to women's concerns for the pope to write, as he does in his best-selling new book: ''Not only abortion but also contraception are ultimately bound up with the truth about man.'' Or, when speaking of God, to write: ''The father-son paradigm is ageless. It is older than human history.'' That means it exists in the divine realm even before creation of man -- a point on which St. Augustine could have corrected the pope.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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