Greetings, SBT Readers!
Last week, I looked at the difference a single pronoun could make in Matthew and Luke's accounts of Jesus' teachings on The Beatitudes. In Matthew's Sermon on the Mount, Jesus uses the pronoun "they" to refer to those who are blessed, indicating that these are already the righteous ones (Mt 5:1-12); in contrast, in Luke's Sermon on the Plain, Jesus directly addresses his followers as "you," indicating that it is they who are blessed (Lk 6:2026). I bring this up because pronouns recently created a theological storm when it came to light that an Arizona priest used the incorrect "We baptize you" instead of "I baptize you" in countless baptisms, over several decades. Now, I understand that his intention was most likely to baptize in the name of the community; I also understand that from a theological point of view, it is Christ in the person of the baptizer -- in this case, a priest-- who presides over the sacraments and that "I" is therefore the appropriate pronoun.
What I don't understand is the Diocese of Phoenix's response: Apparently, all Rev. Arango's baptisms were invalid and those he baptized are now obliged to "re-do" all their sacraments, including marriages! Imagine the confusion and complications caused by this mandate!
As an infant, I was baptized in England at a parish in Hampshire. The priest who officiated was later de-frocked for pedophilia but the community was assured that all sacraments were valid, despite the pastor's heinous crimes. The principle of "ex opere operato" ("by the very fact of the action being performed") meant that "the sacrament is not wrought by the righteousness of either the celebrant or the recipient, but by the power of God" (St. Thomas Aquinas, STh III, 68, 8). If such a principle applies to pedophiles, surely it would also apply to priests who use incorrect pronouns? Does a God of love and mercy really care about the difference between "We" and "I" when the planet is facing catastrophes of every kind? And if the intention of the baptized, their parents and godparents, was to
join the Christian community through Rites of Initiation, would Jesus the Good Shepherd cast them out on the basis of a single pronoun? There are more pressing issues in the church today than to speculate how many angels can dance on the head of a pin-- or which pronoun can invalidate the sacramental lives of thousands!
Jesus said to his disciples:
“To you who hear I say,
love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,
bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.
To the person who strikes you on one cheek,
offer the other one as well,
and from the person who takes your cloak,
do not withhold even your tunic.
Give to everyone who asks of you,
and from the one who takes what is yours do not demand it back.
Do to others as you would have them do to you.
For if you love those who love you,
what credit is that to you?
Even sinners love those who love them.
And if you do good to those who do good to you,
what credit is that to you?
Even sinners do the same.
I'm back to pronouns again, this time in terms of The Golden Rule. Jesus' instruction, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" (Lk 6:31) is not unique to Christianity; in fact, it is a universal spiritual principle found in diverse cultures and religions. Whether expressed in the positive, as above, or in the negative --"Don't do to others that which you don't want done to you"-- this concept is foundational to ethics everywhere. If we treat others the way we ourselves wish to be treated and refrain from treating them in ways we would find offensive or painful, then we are unlikely to do harm. To take this one step further, the kindest, most respectful way to treat others is to treat them as they want to be treated -- provided, of course, that they are not self-loathing masochists!
In university settings, this third principle does have to do with pronouns. Traditional undergrads belong to the iGen --the generation after Millennials-- and while gender identity is a concept that emerged in academic discourse in the 1960's, the iGen take this very seriously. As early as elementary school students today are exploring their sexual identity and choosing pronouns to match --and sometimes new names. In institutions of higher learning, many faculty and staff place their chosen pronouns on their digital profiles or after their email signatures
-- He/Him/His or She/Her/Hers or They/Them/Theirs-- as a way of avoiding confusion and of standing in solidarity with students for whom pronouns are deeply significant. For Baby Boomers like myself, keeping up with the new terminology around gender can be a lexical challenge. In 2020, for example, ABC news came up with 58 terms that were then in use as sexual identifiers; these included Cisgender, Gender Fluid, Gender Nonconforming, Intersex, Non-binary, Pangender, Transsexual... As a teacher, I have to face the reality that for iGen students, using personal plural pronouns as the substitute for the name of a single person is fully acceptable; I therefore take time to point out that while notions of sexuality have shifted, formal written language still has to catch up with spoken language. The conventions of written language will change eventually but, until they do, singular nouns still need singular pronouns in professional writing.
To "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" not only means to do no harm but to treat others with love, respect and inclusion, no matter how different they may seem from us in terms of values, attitudes, beliefs and physical appearance. To accept others only if they conform to our way of thinking is both limiting and alienating. As a church, we will only succeed in attracting future generations if we can meet them "where they are," extending kindness rather than offering condemnation, and having the humility to learn from today's youth what it means to be authentic. Ultimately, it is not pronouns that separate us but policies of exclusion.