Benedict XVI corrects John Paul I

That’s JPI, folks, not JPII. It is easy, sometimes, to forget that there ever was a John Paul the First, given that in his 33 days as pope, he left us diddlysquat in regards to magisterial teaching (and no, a nice smile doesn’t qualify as magisterium). One of the few things he did say–at his weekday Audience on September 10, 1978 (which means it officially belongs to his magisterium)–was: “E’ papà; più ancora è madre”. Translation? As literally as I can make it out, it is: “(God) is Father, still more (God) is Mother”.

There is, of course, some truth to this. But it has also caused great confusion. It has been left to our beloved Papa Benny to set the record straight–unfortunately, in a forum that he himself has declared does not belong to his magisterium. What the heck. It still sets the record straight, and gives us the proper parameters within which to understand Papa Johnny Paulo’s magisterially authoritative declaration…

One last question remains: Is God also mother? The bible does compare God’s love with the love of a mother… [Here follow several examples, including the used of “the Hebrew word rahamim“] Although this use of language derived from man’s bodiliness inscribes motherly love into the image of God, it is nonetheless also true that God is never named or addressed as mother, either in the Old or in the New Testament. “Mother” in the Bible is an image but not a title for god. Why not? We can only tentatively seek to understand. Of course, God is neither a man nor a woman, but simply God, the Creator of man and woman. The mother-deities that completely surrounded the people of Israel and the New Testament Church create a picture of the relation between God and theworld that is completely opposed to the biblical image of God…

But even if we cannot provide any absolutely compelling arguments, the prayer language of the bible remains normative for us, in which, as we have seen, while there are some fine images of maternal love, “mother” is not used as a title or a form of address for God. We make our petitions in the way that Jesus, with Holy Scripture in the background, taught us to pray, and not as we happen to think or want. Only thus do we pray properly.

(Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, on the Our Father p. 139-140).

What are we to make of that in the light of JPI’s magisterial teaching? Only that JPI was talking in terms of appropriate images for God, not appropriate titles or terms of address for prayer. Despite his assertion that God is appropriately imaged as “mother” at least if not more than God is imaged as “father”, John Paul I did not teach that we should address God as “Mother” in prayer or liturgical rites.

Thus, while it remains valid for us to use “mother” images for God in our prayers and hymnody, it is never appropriate nor valid for us to use “Mother” as a title or form of address to God.

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7 Responses to Benedict XVI corrects John Paul I

  1. Christine says:

    Thus, while it remains valid for us to use “mother” images for God in our prayers and hymnody, it is never appropriate nor valid for us to use “Mother” as a title or form of address to God.

    One of my favorite Gospel images is that of the mother hen gathering her chicks under her wings as Jesus grieved over Jerusalem. The tenderness of the Lord speaks deeply to the heart.

    But then, we have the ladies of Ebenezer Lutheran Church in San Francisco; they really are confused!

  2. John Weidner says:

    Ouch! I drive by them frequently. “Goddess Rosary Wednesday 6PM.”

  3. Christine says:

    6PM, hm? Good that they do it after dinner (theoretically). Some poor soul walking in unawares might get a bad case of indigestion.

    The ELCA and ECUSA — busy ordaining “bishopesses”, female pastors, communing interdenominationally, and basically opting out of their Reformation roots.

    What amazes me is how quickly it happened. The last ELCA congregation I was a member of was a mere 12 years ago. At that time Luther’s Large and Small Catechisms and even the Confessions still played a pretty solid part in adult and youth catechesis (I’ll never forget how impressed my pastor was that I owned a copy of The Conservative Reformation and Its Theology by Charles Porterfield Krauth). Then the ELCA established full communion with several other Protestant bodies and it all began to change.

    Ebenezer is the logical fruit and there’s more to come (I cringe when I see the subject matter of my sister’s ELCA adult education class).

    Heh, I still remember when I lived in Idaho as a kid my mom tried to enroll me in an LCMS school. Now mind you, she was Prussian-born and Lutheran to the nth degree but she was so incensed by the inquisition that the Pastor put her through as to whether we were “properly Lutheran” enough she grabbed me and left in disgust.

    Ergo, my Lutheran upbringing was formed in several denominational Lutheran bodies (of which there are a staggering number these days) although location played a part since I had lived on three continents by the time I was ten. Ah, my days in the Church of the Unaltered Augsburg Confession.

  4. Schütz says:

    I think it is worth blogging on that lot separately.

  5. Peregrinus says:

    I don’t disagree with either you or Pope Benedict, David, but I think the neat disctinction between “images” of God and “titles” for God needs more thought, and it may not be quite so neat.

    All our language for and about God, Aquinas assures us, is analogical. This is obviously true for a title like “Father”. God is not my father in the primary and antecedent meaning of the word; someone else is. Calling God “Father” is, therefore, a metaphorical or analogical way of referring to him; it is an image. True, it is an image legitimised and endorsed by the highest possible authority, but it is still an image.

    So what Pope Benedict seems to be saying is that there are some images of God which can properly be used to address him and others which, though useful and valid(?) in themselves, cannot.

    And, while scripture is certainly consistent in this regard, this does challenge us to consider why some images can be used as titles and others cannot.

    Sua Santità suggests one possible factor; the Jews and the Apostolic church avoided this language as a title for God because of the connotations it had for them, surrounded as they were by cultures which worshipped goddesses.

    But this is not completely satisfactory; why would this consideration preclude feminine images being used as [i]titles[/i], but not preclude them otherwise? And, more to the point, is it a concern for us in the same way? Yes, there are still goddess-worshipping pagans, but they are pretty marginal; what challenges us is not the idolatry of goddesses, but idolatries of such as power, wealth, consumption, nation and materialism.

    I think Benedict concedes that what he offers is not an entirely satisfactory answer; he takes his stand ultimately on the fact that “the prayer language of the bible remains normative for us” which, frankly, is hard to argue with. But I think we are called to do more in this regard than simply do as they did in the Bible. The way we speak about God may be entirely analogical, but it profoundly shapes how we understand Him, and how we relate to Him, and I think we are called to reflect upon the biblical language and what it means, rather than simply to imitate it.

  6. Schütz says:

    The essential point, Peregrinus, is the role of revelation in the Christian religion. Yes, there is much about God that we can know by reason (eg. his oneness, his omnipotence), but we cannot know God as he is, or have a personal relationship with him without revelation.

    Images are used to talk about God. Titles are used to talk to God. The importance of the latter is its relationship with prayer. The ancients knew that it was very important to get the name of the deity right in order that one’s prayers be heard.

    A “title” is far more akin to a “name” than an “image”. You could use an image to describe me (as, for instance, Brian did in his postings about me), but I have a name which is distinct from any imagery you may use of me, and it is important to get my name right (as, for instance, Brian did not). I was not offended by his use of imagery, but I was offended by his lack of care to get my name right. This has since been sorted, and in his posting on Catholica he very nicely got the umlauts as well as the spelling correct.

    Anyway, enough about me, and more about God. God also has a name. That is what is significant about the Exodus 3 episode, and also the Christ hymn in Philippians 2. “Jesus” for instance, is not an image, but a name for the Incarnate Second Person of the Holy Trinity, and indeed a name through which we, as Christians, are now able to approach the Divinity in prayer. “Father”, and “The Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” are also, in the Scriptures and in the liturgy, divine names. As such they have been revealed and as such they are normative. In a sense, “Lord” functions as a “name” rather than an image also, as it translates the Tetragrammaton of the Hebrew bible in the Septuagint and in the New Testament. On the other hand, “Christ” is perhaps more strictly a title, and only functions as a name when added to “Jesus” (eg. as in “King” and “King Jesus” respectively).

    We may use many images for God–some more apt than others. But God’s name is revealed and only the revealed Name of God may be used when we call upon him in prayer.

    I will assume you have read my blog about Ebenezer Lutheran Church, where I point out that in fact we need to make a distinction here, as with the question of the ordination of women, between “explanations” (which may be hazy and tentative) and “fundamental reasons” or “norms” which are non-negotiable.

    Finally, with regard to idolatries, the old Mother Goddess idolatry is just as prevelant today as it was in the ancient world and carries all the same problems.

    The danger remains the same. Basically, in the ancient world every God had a Goddess consort. This meant that the primary relationship of the gods was with eachother. The Hebrew religion transformed this by removing the goddess consort and replacing her with the “people of God” who were imaged as the “bride”. Thus the divinity’s primary relationship was transferred to human beings. This paradigm continued and was accented in the Church, which was seen as the “Bride of Christ”.

    This central matrimonial image (and yes, it is an image) is distorted when the divinity is feminised. Ebenezer Lutheran Church stands as an example of what happens when that happens.

  7. Christine says:

    Finally, with regard to idolatries, the old Mother Goddess idolatry is just as prevelant today as it was in the ancient world and carries all the same problems.

    It surely is and has had startling consequences in the re-imaging of gender, marriage, pro-life and other issues. I have a very deep respect for Creation. I love every flower and blade of grass the Good Lord ever made and the song of the birds in the morning never fails to move me.

    But the pantheism of “goddess” religion is entirely antithetical to Revelation.

    Which is not to say that maternal images of God are inappropriate, as David points out so well.

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