A Question of Language

I don’t think it appropriate for a Catholic to comment on the debate about bishops within the Church of England, but @ellenloudon and @fibrefairy reminded me on Twitter this morning of something that irritates me profoundly: the use of ‘woman’ as an adjective. A woman is always a person, never a mere adjective. Use as an adjective is as demeaning in my book as calling a mature adult woman a ‘girl’. I’m not very keen on the use of ‘male’ or ‘female’ as nouns, either, unless we are talking about animals. Used as adjectives, no problem; though I often wonder why we need to make the distinction in the first place. Is it really so strange for a woman to be a lawyer or surgeon, for example?

Rocco Palmo has an interesting report of an interview with Lucetta Scaraffia, head of the new ‘women’s section’ of L’Osservatore Romano, in which she argues that, had the Church been more open to women in positions of authority in the Church, we might not have had so many of the scandals that have burst upon us in recent years. I have to say I agree with her in many ways. Perhaps the language used about women is an area we might all reflect on, because for a woman to be able to exercise authority β€” in whatever sphere, not just the Church β€” there is need for respect; and our use of language is indicative of the respect we have, or don’t have. This isn’t a question of political correctness, which tends very often to be anything but correct, but of simple justice, reverence and, dare I say it, accuracy.


18 thoughts on “A Question of Language”

  1. Many thanks for this reflection. I worked for a number of years in the field of administrative justice (investigating complaints from citizens about public services) and can strongly testify to the importance of respectful and accurate language. The words used by those in authority about those affected by the exercise of that authority can say a great deal about how a person is viewed. If we truly value someone, we will be mindful of how we talk to and about them. And if we truly believed that that person was nothing less than the image of the Most High God…

  2. This is a really helpful reflection on an important issue. Things do move on – gradually – there is a better use of language in relation to disability, for instance, although there’s still a long way to go. In the C of E, there used to be a peculiarly patronising phrase ‘Lady Vicar’ – that has mostly gone, thank goodness – so maybe ‘woman bishop’ will go the same way. Incidently, I think a good rule of thumb is to take out the word ‘woman’ (or ‘child’, or ‘pensioner’ .. ) from a phrase and substitute the word ‘black’ – if it then sounds painfully racist, it is probably a bad idea.

    • Yes, substituting the word ‘black’ can pull us up short but only, alas, if we are sensitive to the way in which black people have been mistreated. One of the things I find disturbing is the way in which the Far Right in Europe is making a come-back, and with it many of the racist attitudes one hoped had gone for ever.

  3. Sorry, I’m off to teach a course. I just have time to say that, while I have no knowledge of the controversy you refer to, I do appreciate your post.

  4. In my experience woman can be quite as awful as men, or as good, and I wonder about the statement that more women in positions of authority in the Church would averted some of the scandals that we have borne. It is perhaps true but not necessarily. In my view it is human to err and sin is not more in one than the other.

    • Thank you, Margaret. My own view is that Lucetta Scaraffia does make a valid point, that paedophilia in the Church has been predominantly a ‘male’ sin, and that the fudging of attempts to deal with it reflects a concern with power rather than truth that might have been less to the fore if women were in positions of authority (and by extension, responsibility). However, that’s a long way from saying that women are better than men, which doesn’t appear to be her view β€” and certainly isn’t mine. As regards Vatican financial scandals, I would definitely come down on her side: my own experience (admittedly long ago and in a purely secular sphere) was that women challenged the morality of a certain course of action more often than men did. Possibly my being a nun might explain my having a slightly sceptical attitude towards the way in which clerical authority is sometimes exercised, but I can truthfully say, some of my best friends are priests! πŸ™‚

  5. The worst example of dismissive language I have come across in the (Anglican) church is ‘clergy wife’, which was used to mean a woman who was married to a priest. I hope this language has not transferred with the married priests who have changed denomination recently.

    • I don’t think I’ve ever heard that expression in the Catholic Church: the more usual term is ‘deacon’s wife’ or ‘priest’s wife’ or, best of all, ‘This is X, she’s a Y and is married to Fr Z.’

    • In Judaism, the Rabbi’s wife has her own title, “Rebbetzin”, and is considered somewhat of a co-worker with her husband, not just his wife. A friend of mine, the wife of an Anglican priest, identifies with “Clergy Wife”, stating she is as married to his calling as she is to him, and knew it full well as she walked down the aisle on her wedding day to the hymn “The Church’s One Foundation”.

      • I’ve probably said this before, but my mother was once President of a distinguished trade body and she and my father were regularly announced at official functions as ‘The President and Mr Wybourne’. Also, when my mother was MD of one company, she had a male secretary. Invariably, those who didn’t know would greet him first . . . Happy days!

        • I am the vicar and my husband is quite happy to be “vicar’s husband.” He has a very defined lay ministry in our church and consulted quite as often as I am!


  6. This is much like describing a person as “an asthmatic”, as though the illness is the totality of the person. How about the term “housewife” to label a woman who, if she was paid for her work, would be given a professional title? Does a retired male engineer become a “househusband”? How about “retiree”? – conjures up images of hard of hearing, feeble minded and vision challenged, walking with a cane, doesn’t it? I especially appreciate John McLuckie’s reflection that we are all created in the image of the Most High God, something we would do well to keep in mind when labeling and compartmentalizing others.

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