God as Father and Mother – Part I

This is the first of a new series inspired again largely by Pope John Paul I, but also by my interest in the writings of his successors about the vital subject of the imagery we use for God. I hope to finish it by this August for the 32nd anniversary of his election as Pope.

In his 1995 book Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Pope John Paul II wrote an in-depth analysis of the modern approach to God. This passage is especially telling:

Hegel’s paradigm of the master and the servant is more present in people’s consciousness today than is wisdom, whose origin lies in the filial fear of God. The philosophy of arrogance is born of the Hegelian paradigm. The only force capable of effectively counteracting this philosophy is found in the Gospel of Christ, in which the paradigm of master-slave is radically transformed into the paradigm of father-son.
The father-son paradigm is ageless. It is older than human history. The “rays of fatherhood” contained in this formulation belong to the Trinitarian Mystery of God Himself, which shines forth from Him, illuminating man and his history.
This notwithstanding, as we know from Revelation, in human history the “rays of fatherhood” meet a first resistance in the obscure but real fact of original sin. Original sin attempts, then, to abolish fatherhood, destroying its rays which permeate the created world, placing in doubt the truth about God who is Love and leaving man only with a sense of the master-slave relationship. As a result, the Lord appears jealous of His power over the world and over man; and consequently, man feels goaded to do battle against God. No differently than in any epoch of history, the enslaved man is driven to take sides against the master who kept him enslaved. leaving man only with a sense of the master/slave relationship.” (1)

This is a profound statement of the origins of modern humanity’s alienation from God, and the source of so much atheism.

The Pope was not alone in this view. In his book Faith of the Fatherless, Paul Vitz posits that the rejection of the idea of God by many prominent atheists, including Freud, Nietzsche and Jean-Paul Sartre, can be traced to their anger at dead, abusive or emotionally distant fathers. (2)

On the other hand, trying to fill in the gap, we have the pop culture feminist view of God as the “goddess within,” the life-affirming, fun loving earth mother Gaia. One of the most prominent examples of this is the idea of the “Sacred Feminine,” popularized by Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code, which counters the teaching of the Church with a sex goddess (I wrote about this here). Not all goddess worship is this silly. But it is often very tied to the rejection of the father. Comments I have heard from those who believe in a goddess indicate that they fundamentally reject the idea of God as an authority figure. A goddess, they reason is non-judgmental, and doesn’t have all the “rules” of the patriarchal male God. Here are more signs of a dysfunctional relationship with the father, as well as the Father.

This trend toward “feminization” of God baffles and upsets many Catholics. Of course, it is hurtful to see God the Father as understood in Scripture and Church tradition rejected by so many people. Not surprisingly, these Catholics particularly resist the idea of God as Mother when people try to bring it into the Church.

Once, maybe four or five years ago, we had a guest speaker come to our Secular Franciscan fraternity meeting in the Bronx. He wanted to give a talk about spirituality, but hardly got beyond the first paragraph where he encouraged us to think of God as mother. He met with fierce resistance to this idea from the membership of our fraternity – which, by the way is 100% female, most of them older women. I, who was the youngest in the group, was the only one not opposed, but I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. The women in the group said to the speaker: “God is our Father; this is traditional, why are you changing it?”

People very frequently say to me when subject comes up: “Replacing God as Father with God as Mother feminizes the Church, and it’s already too feminized!” Or “It doesn’t help the spirituality of men in the church to replace God the Father with God the Mother. Men no longer have a real sense of masculinity because of this.” Or “Jesus told us how to speak of God as our Father, and that’s that. We don’t need any more than that.”

Yet our last three Popes have thought differently.

It all began in September 1978, when John Paul I startled a great many people during his very short papacy by proclaiming, “God is a father, but even more a mother.” (3) Yet this memorable remark doesn’t begin to exhaust what he had to say on this subject both before and after he became Pope. John Paul II continued this trend by speaking about God as mother in his encyclicals and letters, in his audience talks, and even in his lovely proclamation of the Our Father. In turn, his successor, Benedict XVI, has used some of the same imagery, and introduced theological clarifications to it.

Yet the idea of God as mother as taught by the most recent popes has penetrated very little into the mind or life of the Church. Many people continue to identify this feminine and maternal imagery for God with dissent in the Church, or at least with something suspiciously trendy, completely unaware that it is papal teaching.

But why have recent popes spoken about God this way?

It is true that we are almost a fatherless society. We are rapidly becoming a national of single mothers, with hardly a father in sight. Perpetual male adolescence is celebrated as the norm, and the responsibility of fatherhood is something people hardly expect anymore. Many people have no relationship with their fathers. In the past, literally or emotionally fatherless Catholics have often turned to priests as father figures. And yet this relationship has so often been betrayed because of the clerical sex abuse scandal.

Yet this emotional distance isn’t connected with just one parent. Radical feminism, and the prevalence of abortion has wounded many women precisely in their maternal instinct.

Some radical feminist pro-abortion women with whom I have had discussions have shown an amazing disgust for motherhood; they are unable to see pregnancy and childbirth, particularly of an unlooked-for child, as anything but “rape for nine months,” “slavery of the uterus,” and “forced motherhood.” Becoming pregnant makes you no more than a “breeder” or “incubator,” and Christianity, by its praise for motherhood, perpetuates this “dehumanizing” view of women. Some of these feminists have even denied that women have a biological maternal instinct, because this “naturalizes” the idea of women as mother – which is an contradiction of their ideal of woman as a career-driven, independent person; above all, motherhood is a slap in the face to the dream of being able to have sexual pleasure any time they like without unpleasant consequences like children.

What is most frightening of all is that women with this deficient maternal sense sometimes do end up becoming mothers. I feel certain their children must suffer for it. Other women who have had and regretted abortions have also admitted great difficulty in parenting when they do have “wanted” children because of their unresolved guilty feelings. So yes, motherhood in our society is in as much trouble as fatherhood is.

Some who have had both parents who were distant have found they were unable to relate to God as Father or Mary as Mother. One recent commenter on an internet post said:

I think there is definitely a correlation. In my own case, my father was rather distant (spent his energies in various get-rich-quick schemes) and my mother is an alcoholic. I became an atheist, quietly (they never knew) in my teens.
I’m now back Home, but I have a hard time with God as Father — oh, not intellectually (I’m solid there) but in terms of any emotional attachment — the heart just isn’t involved. Nor do I have any idea how to regard Mary as my Mother — again, I accept the concept intellectually, but there simply is no attachment. I have no idea how to change this at all — I just trust that God will forgive me my lack of love, as I truly do want to love Him and His Mother. I just don’t know how. (4)

This suggests that negative reactions to emotionally abusive or absent mothers also influence us spiritually.

But — presuming we can actually form an attachment to a spiritual mother- don’t Catholics have a sufficient mother figure in Mary? Why do we need to speak of God as mother?

Mary is a wonderful spiritual mother to us. Yet Mary is not God nor any part of God. In fact Catholics know that it is blasphemous to call Mary God. So she is not a divine mother; a divine mother is different.

If Mary really were sufficient as a spiritual mother, we wouldn’t expect to see John Paul II put forward the maternal image of God as he did. For it is just about impossible to imagine a more ardent or devoted lover of Mary than he was!

It’s well known that Karol Wojtyla lost his mother at a very early age. Soon afterward he asked the Blessed Virgin to become his mother. He put Totus Tuus (All Yours) on his episcopal coat of arms out of devotion to her. After the assassination attempt against him in 1981, he credited her with deflecting the deadly bullet from his heart. We can find a similar robust devotion to Mary in the other two Popes I have mentioned. So we can’t say that it was a lack of devotion to the motherhood of Mary that led them to speak of God as mother. Evidently, sometimes only a divine Mother will do.

Still, many have as much difficulty with the idea of God as Mother as they do with God as Father. Given that our sense of the motherhood as well as fatherhood of God may need healing, I hope we can learn something of what divine motherhood is like and how it differs from the neo-pagan conception of Gaia and the Sacred Feminine.

So I plan to make “God as Father and mother” the subject of my next few posts. We will learn something of what John Paul I, John Paul II and Benedict XVI have thought on this subject.

I think it’s important to stress that I am not striving to “replace God the Father with God the Mother” as some good Catholics fear – and some feminists are actually trying to do. I want to explore the maternal images of God that exist in the Bible that have come to be an important though unacknowledged part of the papal Magisterium and how they can affect our spiritual lives.

So next time I will start with the teaching of John Paul I.


(1) John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, paperback ed., (New York: Knopf, 1995, 2003), pp. 225-26.

(2) Paul C. Vitz, Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism; Dallas: Spence Publishing Co, 2009).

(3) Angelus address, September 10, 1978; L’Osservatore Romano [Italian ed], 11-12 September 1978.

(4) Comment by “J” on Mark Shea’s blog Catholic and enjoying It on December 6, 2009.


God as Father and Mother – Part I — 6 Comments

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful post.

    Luciani’s use of the imagery of God as mother was indicative perhaps of his inner life and the contemplative aspect of his prayer.

    One’s awareness of God’s attributes is mediated by our human experience, which for many of us yet today remains rooted in the nuclear family. It will be interesting to see if and how this changes as the structure of family continues to change (erode?).

    Luciani’s empathy for and closeness to his mother, balanced by his relationship with his father to whom he promised to not forget the poor should he be ordained, perhaps were the foundation of his natural and spontaneous description of God as mother as well as father. It may also indicate something about his personality and psychological profile.

    Underlying this, of course, is the truth that God made us in his image and likeness. God’s femininity and masculinity is reflected in his human creatures. Yet he experiences no limitation one can attribute to gender, which we humans experience.

    I look forward to your next posts, especially regarding how JPII and Benedict XVI have spoken on this topic.

  2. Hi Bob,

    Yes, you’re right about the maternal image of God being tied to contemplation. It’s also tied to his thought about trust in God and humility. I am planning in my next post to go into Luciani’s spirituality as a source for his thought on God as mother, and also the family dynamics you mention. I think they are all important.

    I was really planning to finish my post about it this weekend if I could, but got sidetracked by another piece – a post on the latest trash by the NYT on Pope Benedict. In fact, I just posted that one.

  3. Thank you for bringing this subject of God as both father and mother into the limelight. Mother Theresa liked John Paul’s evaluation so much that she started preaching this analogy as well. We Christians realize that God’s love for mankind is all-encompassing and beyond the depth of human comprehension that, indeed, He is both mother and father to us as He fully comprehends the nature of humanity. His Son, Jesus Christ, is the only member of the Blessed Trinity to possess 100% divinity and 100%humanity. a remarkable gift to mankind made evident through the power of the Holy Spirit. The very humble and loving man, Papa Luciani was gifted with the in-depth understanding of the magnificence of God’s love for us all.

  4. I once read that Pope John Paul I gave a talk on the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The account said that he said in the talk that nowadays it would be the Mother rather than the Father that would be included in the parable. It said this remark by the pope was censored when it came to publication. It said that the pope later simply made the same remark in a venue where publication of his point could not be censored. Do you or does anyone else have documentation for this account? I greatly appreciate your consideration of any way you could help me regarding this matter. Lori, perhaps you could even email me an answer besides posting an answer from yourself and/or others.

  5. Hi Richard,

    No, that story is completely false (so are all the stories about the Vatican censoring Pope John Paul I). I have read all of John Paul I’s writings and speeches as Pope in the original Italian and I also have and have transcribed the audio recordings of his talks, so I speak from experience.

    John Paul I never gave a talk on the Prodigal son while Pope. He did, however, on at least three separate occasions, speak about God as mother, and was certainly not censored. In fact, if you go to part II of this series (above), you’ll see that his remarks were not only recorded, but commented on extensively in the press at the time.

    What you may be thinking of is that on September 8, 1999, his successor, John Paul II gave a talk on the Prodigal son where he commented that the father in the story combined the traits of a father and a mother. But this is certainly not censored either! In fact, it’s up at the Vatican web site in various languages. Pope Benedict XVI has said some similar things. I’m going to be including these things in my future posts in this series, so please keeping watching for them.

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