In 1995 Liturgy Training Publications, a Chicago publisher of aids to Catholic worship, issued The Psalter: A faithful and inclusive rendering from the Hebrew into English poetry, intended primarily for communal song and recitation. The subtitle continues: This translation is offered for study and for comment by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy.
The “International Commission” (ICEL) involved scholars in Hebrew and English poetry. For thirty years the group worked to produce a translation of the psalms that would be understandable, poetic, and usable in common recitation or song. The psalter was approved by the U.S. bishops, with an “Imprimatur” by William Cardinal Keeler, President of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
I found the translation wonderful. I immediately began to use it to begin my classes in sociology at Quincy University. I developed ways of using it in my private prayer. Our friar community at the University bought copies and we used it in our common recitation of the “liturgy of the hours” (the “divine office” or “breviary”).
Then, sometime after 2000, some commission in Rome decreed that official approval of the translation must be withdrawn. I do not recall that any explanation was provided for the withdrawal. The move was part of the replacement of the previous membership on ICEL by a newer group, a group more intent on turning back what it perceived as abuses and distortions brought about after the Second Vatican Council. Sadly, the U.S. bishops’ conference did not challenge the change, and the ICEL edition of the psalms disappeared from Catholic bookstore shelves.
It seems that one objection to the translation was its use of inclusive language in most of the psalms. Inclusive language is language that balances masculine and feminine references. What some people call “horizontal” inclusive language uses “brothers and sisters” instead of just “brothers,” or “men and women” instead of just “men.” “Vertical” inclusive language is more controversial, and attempts to refer to God without masculine terms. This requires some changing of grammatical structure, for example, some changing of third person (He [God] did such and such) with second person language (You, God, did such and such). In English, the second person is gender neutral.
There was some objection to the vertical inclusivity in the ICEL psalter even before its publication, and the publishers were required to include non-inclusive language in some passages. Fr. Gilbert Ostdiek, a friar from my province who spent his life trying to make worship more prayerful and meaningful, and who was involved with ICEL most of those years, offered to give me a list of the psalms where the translators had been forced to change their original version.
Inclusive language attempts to take into account the sensitivities of many people, especially women, who feel excluded when masculine language is used in prayer. I presume that the defense of the masculine language is that “this is what the original text says, and we should not change the original text.” I agree with that opinion, but only when it involves translation of biblical texts without reference to their use in prayer. Biblical language is often sexist, because the cultures which produced the texts were sexist. We should not gloss over that fact. If we change “official” translations to gloss it over, we produce an unrealistically high opinion of the origins of the texts.
Catholic tradition has always maintained that some Scripture cannot be accepted by Christians today, because our understanding of God’s relation to us has developed. The most visible example is Christian rejection of animal sacrifices.
But when it comes to prayer in common with others, and Catholicism has always prized prayer in common, our language needs to be sensitive to the reactions of everyone in the group praying together. I think we need to follow St. Paul’s example. In I Corinthians 8:7 ff, Paul is discussing whether Christians can eat meat sacrificed to idols. His discussion goes like this: we know that idols do not exist, and that meat sacrificed to an idol is no different from any other meat. Christians can eat such meat in good conscience. But if I have a brother (or sister) who thinks I am honoring the idol by eating such meat, then I should not eat it, because the well-being of my brother or sister is more important than my freedom to eat the meat. In fact, he says, I will never eat meat again if that is what it takes to preserve the spiritual life of my sister or brother.
I look at inclusive language that way. I know that God has no gender, and that when I refer to God as “he,” I understand that God is not masculine. But if my sister has trouble praying when I refer to God that way, I will never pray to God again with masculine language, if that is what it takes to help my sister to pray with me to our God.