As I was getting ready to put this long-overdue fourth installment together, I heard that one of the professors at my alma mater, Fordham University, was having a “warning” put on her book by the USCCB. Her name is Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, and the book is The Quest for the Living God. One of the subjects of the book that has drawn fire from many is her favoring the use of feminine language for God – certainly a staple of feminist theology. I haven’t yet read this book, but I have read one of her early articles dealing with this subject from 1984, which offers some of the same ideas. I will have more about it later. But it does make very clear the renewed timeliness of John Paul I’s message and raises the question: how far is it really possible for a Christian to use feminine or maternal imagery for God?
Many people recall that John Paul I made a memorable remark about God as mother during his short weeks as Pope. Few however would be able to remember it correctly or place it exactly. It’s often dragged out as a sound bite, without any context, to point out either how a) theologically ignorant he was (Cornwell) or b) how shockingly radical he was (Yallop).
Most people don’t know that he actually spoke about the subject in three separate talks. Let’s look at each of these instances, and then try to put everything in context.
In his first general Wednesday audience on September 6, which was about our relation with God, our neighbor and ourselves, John Paul I said:
Before God, the right position is that of Abraham, who said: “I am only dust and ashes before you, Oh Lord!” (Gen. 18:27) Right. We must feel little before God. When I say, “Lord, I believe,” I am not ashamed to feel like a child before its mama; we believe in our mamas, I believe in the Lord, in what he has revealed to me. (1)
In this audience, the Pope stressed the theme of trust in God, as he had as a bishop. This same audience also introduces a theme he would develop later on, that of a mother caring for a sick child –in dialogue with James Bono, an altar boy from Malta, the Pope asked him if he had been sick and had his mother cared for him as a child. The emphasis here was on caring for our parents in old age, but it certainly introduces the atmosphere of his later words.
The newspapers did not seem to notice this theme. Then, on Sunday September 10, 1978, during the Sunday Angelus came the words that were to create a furor. Everyone, of course, took the words out of context; even the occasion is very little remembered now. The Pope was actually asking for prayers for the Camp David summit, the meetings between Carter, Sadat and Begin that were at that moment trying to bring peace to the Middle East. In fact, the talk John Paul I gave that day, in addition to the reason for which it was widely remembered, is also a little masterpiece of inter-religious dialogue. He began:
I was very favorably impressed by the fact that the three presidents wanted to publicly express their hope in the Lord through prayer. President Sadat’s brothers in religion have a saying that goes like this: “There is a black night, and in the night a black rock, and on the rock a little ant; but God sees it and does not forget it.”
President Carter, who is a fervent Christian, reads in the Gospel: “Knock and it will be opened to you, ask and it will be given to you. . . Not a hair will fall from your head without your Father in Heaven knowing about it.” (cf. Lk. 11:9, 12:7).
And Prime Minister Begin recalls that the Jewish people once went through some difficult moments and turned to the Lord to complain, saying: “You have abandoned us, you have forgotten us!” “No!” He answered through the prophet Isaiah, “Can a mother forget her own child? But even if she were to forget, God will never forget his people.” (cf. Is. 49:14 15).
And we who are here, we also have the same feelings: we are the object of God’s undying love. We know: God always has his eye on us, even when it seems to us that it is night. God is a Papa, even more a mother, who does not want to harm us, but only wants to do good to us, to everyone. Little children, when they happen to be sick, have one more claim to be loved by their mothers, and so do we: if we happen to be sick with wickedness, if we have gone astray, then we have one more claim to be loved by the Lord. (2)
The subject of the address was not theology as such or the question of whether God should be seen as a male or female, but rather God’s mercy as it is expressed in the three major world religions. It seems to be not so much an act of theology as a cry from the heart. Of course he knew all the theology. But instead he approached it in a very simple way and allowed the imagery to do its work without calling attention to it or explaining it.
Essentially he was asking: what reasons do we have for our “hope in the Lord”? How do we know God will answer our prayers? The answer comes from the many centuries of experience people of different faiths have had of God, which includes three basic ideas: divine omnipotence, divine providence and divine compassion or mercy.
The idea of Divine Omnipotence is not difficult to understand: God can do all things, and as a corollary, sees and knows all things; he knows everything about each one of us. Divine Providence is usually defined as God’s ongoing activity of keeping the universe going and in order, and working to bring all things to the end for which they are created. He also provides and cares for all His creatures. In the popular sense, God is a good “provider,” one who sees and knows our needs and fulfills them. In other words, a good father. Mercy is God’s love in its aspect of forgiveness but also of loving compassion coming to the aid of our misery. In fact, the Fathers of the Church had a wonderful allegory seeing all of salvation history in the parable of the Good Samaritan, where the Samaritan is Christ himself becoming incarnate to aid wounded humanity on our journey toward heaven. (3)
God’s omnipotence and His Providence are closely tied together. It is here that the Pope turns first, with Islam. Islam does not have any concept of God as Father, much less as mother. Yet the story of the ant — which is not in the Qur’an, but does occur in many later Muslim writings, has been used in various ways to express Allah’s omniscience, power and providence. Some Sufi mystics made use of it in describing the “most beautiful names of God,” a common subject in Muslim theology and devotion. However, as far as I am able to tell from the few Sufi texts I’ve studied, the aim of the story is usually to stress God’s omnipotence or omniscience rather than his care for creatures (4). But other Muslim writers do address the theme of providence, even quite beautifully. One was the Sunni theologian, Ibn al-Qayyim, (1292-1350) who wrote:
Allah (may he be glorified and exalted) sees all that is visible, even the walk of a black ant across a solid rock in the darkest night. The unseen is visible to Him, and secrets are known to Him. Whosoever is in the heavens and on earth begs [his needs] of Him. (5)
This is clearly compatible with the words of Christ, who says “even the hairs on your head are numbered,” “Ask and you will receive, knock and it will be opened to you,” though the Muslim text lacks the real immediacy and tenderness of the words of Jesus. John Paul I included both aspects, omnipotence and providence in his version (the exact source isn’t known); he says that God sees even the ant, and at the same time “does not forget it.” It also ties in with the passage he later cites from Isaiah, where God does not forget His people.
The continuation of the passage from Luke, a part that John Paul didn’t cite, makes the idea of God as a provident father even clearer: “What father among you would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish? Or hand him a scorpion when he asks for an egg? If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the holy Spirit to those who ask him?” (vv 11-13).
Turning now to the Old Testament, John Paul I explained how Israel went through bad times during the exile. It might have seemed like God was being cruel, but it is here in his meditation on this theme and the hope for restoration that Isaiah came to the Old Testament’s most sublime conception of God’s love for Israel; it is in fact, one of the major themes of the book.
In addition to Isaiah’s original point that God’s love is undying and not subject to change or forgetting, like a mother’s undying love for her child, John Paul I makes the point that we can count on God’s love even more when – and because – we are sinners than when we are good, because mothers love their children even more when they are sick. It gives us an additional “claim” on our mother’s affection. We can confindently expect it to be this way! The same vivid image based on one of the central points of his own experience, returns again. (6)
The Pope now subtly brings the distinct but compatible ideas of the three different faiths together: “God always has his eye on us, even when it seems to us that it is night. God is a Papa, even more a mother, who does not want to harm us, but only wants to do good to us, to everyone.”
But in saying that God is “more” a mother than a Father, didn’t John Paul I go against Christian tradition? Wasn’t the final revelation by Jesus that God is “Father”? The Italian words più ancora certainly seem to express that idea. But more of a mother in what sense?
In saying God is father, John Paul I used the Italian word Papà, which is the equivalent of Abba, the tender word used for God the Father by Jesus. From there he goes on to say “still more a mother” – that is, God loves us in a still more tender way as mother. That is, God is not “more of a mother” or “more female than male” in any absolute sense, but in the sense of compassion. The Pope evidently felt that this mercy and compassion are best expressed in the idea of maternal love.
Admittedly this isn’t entirely clear from his words, but this is a hazard when trying to adapt theological concepts to the simplest language (I would say from many years of translating his works, that Luciani’s way of speaking as Pope was much simpler even than the one he used in Venice, where he was well known for his simple language in his preaching. Perhaps he knew that he had only a little time, and wasn’t going to take a chance on being ignored or not being understood). But in addition, there is more confirmation in some of his other remarks that this was his intended meaning, as I will show below.
An interesting question in regard to “inclusive” language. Did the Pope actually say “she” of God? That is, “she is mother”? Or did he use “he” a the translation has it? Actually he didn’t do either. He used no pronouns at all in the crucial sentence, something that the Italian language, unlike English, happily allowed him to do. (his words e padre, e ancora piu madre can literally be translated as “is father, is even more mother”). Obviously he thought the male pronoun would have been awkward in the situation, and he took a quite natural way to smooth over the incongruity.
The next reference comes in the September 13 general audience on faith, and the same imagery returns. John Paul I said:
This is faith: to respond generously to the Lord. But who is it that says this “yes”? We must be humble and have complete trust in God. My mother said to me when I was growing up: “Oh, when you were little you were very sick once: I had to go from one doctor to another, I had to stay up whole nights: do you believe me?” How could I have said: “Mama, I don’t believe you”? But of course I believe you: I believe in what you tell me, but most of all, I believe in you.” It is like that with faith. It doesn’t mean only believing in the things that God has revealed, but in him, who deserves our faith, who has loved us so much and has done so much for our love.
Faith is not merely belief but personal relationship, a relationship based on trust. This reference is again intensely personal. It is also a type of relation or analogy, not a direct statement that God “is” mother. A little later in the same talk, pointing out that there are both pleasant and difficult aspects to the faith, he said: “It is pleasing to hear that God has such tender love for use, even more tender than a mama has for her children, Isaiah says.” (8) Here is both the attitude of the believer and the responding love of God are put together. And the “even more” returns. God has piu tenerezza ancora than a mother. More tender than a father, and more even than a mother! This use of piu ancora confirms, I think, what I said above about the maternal aspect of God resting in compassion rather than any other quality.
The last remarks of the Pope I want to mention come from his September 20 general audience on hope. They don’t refer directly to the mother theme but are rather another summing up of our reasons for our hope in God:
It is He, the Lord, who kindles this hope in us. It carries us forward in life. Someone will ask: “But how is this possible?” It is possible. It is possible if we cling to three firm convictions. First: God is all powerful. Second: God loves me immensely. Third: God is faithful to His promises. Then once this trust has been kindled in me by Him, the merciful God, I no longer feel alone, or abandoned, or isolated: instead I feel that I am involved in a plan of salvation which, carried out with the help of the Lord, will lead to the joy of heaven.(9)
The Pope most likely based these words on one of the well-known Acts of Hope, just as he explicated the Act of Love in his last audience. One such act goes: “O my God, relying on Your almighty power and infinite mercy and promises, I hope to obtain pardon of my sins, the help of Your grace, and life everlasting, through the merits of Jesus Christ, my Lord. . .” (10)
The omnipotence of God, his undying love, and his faithfulness in continuing to care for us by his Providence like a father committed to caring for his children — all of these I believe, can be related to the themes of that Sunday Angelus. Of those qualities, the maternal idea of God is most connected to that of “infinite mercy” and “immense love.”
But the mother image keeps returning, as he came back again and again to this subject – faith is absolute trust, trust as a child in our mother. Pope John Paul I might even have considered this the major message of his pontificate.
There are a number of differences between his approach and that of the feminist theologians. Some — Elizabeth Johnson among them – seem to be conveying that the male image of God is inadequate and outdated because of its relationship to “patriarchy.” Rather than adding the maternal image of God to the paternal one, they seem to want to replace the paternal one entirely with the maternal one. Pope John Paul I was certainly not of this opinion.
Why did he choose to speak as he did? I think it’s clear he didn’t do it primarily to speak for or support feminist theology. He never mentioned this even remotely. But given the fact that the first wave of feminist theologians were at this very time, the late 70′s, beginning to question the exclusively male language for God, it may have been providential that he spoke at this time, and that his successors also developed his ideas.
In fact, next time, as we turn to the works of Pope John Paul II, we will see that the maternal idea of God which he received in part from his predecessor, played a part in his Theology of the Body, as well as his development of the idea of Divine Mercy, beginning with the encyclical Dives in Misericordia, written at the beginning of his pontificate, a development that ended with the establishment of Divine Mercy Sunday.
(1) The written text is from Albino Luciani (John Paul I) Opera Omnia (Padua: Edizioni Messaggero, 1989), 9:48. In addition, for the various audiences, I have consulted the recordings made by Vatican Radio: Il Piccolo Catechismo di Giovanni Paolo I and Le Virtù.
(2) Luciani, Opera Omnia 9:55
(3) Luciani, in fact, gave a whole retreat to the priests of Vittorio Veneto on this very subject, cf. Luciani, Il Buon Samaritano (Padua: Edizioni Messaggero, 1980); Pope Benedict XVI discusses this same allegory and gives some of the sources in the first volume of Jesus of Nazareth (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007).
(4) al-Malik (The King): He is the Owner of the universe, of the whole creation – the absolute Ruler. . . . There is an absolute Ruler who sees a black ant crawling on a black rock on the darkest of nights, as well as the most secret thoughts and feelings passing through minds and hearts. Everything that one is and everything that one does is watched and recorded; all will be accounted for on the Day of Last Judgment. (The Most Beautiful Names, compiled by Sheikh Tosun Bayrak al-Jerrahi al-Halveti, from Sufi traditions by Al-Gazzali, Ibn ‘Arabi, Djili, and Abdulkadir Geylani. N.p.:Threshold Books, c1985; available online here.
“[T]here is not an atom that escapes His Knowledge in heaven and earth. Rather, He knows the stamping of the black ant upon the solid rock in the darkest night. He perceives the movement of a particle of dust in mid-air. He knows the secrets and that which is more hidden. (Taken from The Foundations of Islamic Belief by the Sufi Scholar Imam Hujjat al-Islam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali [d. 505/1111]; translated by Shaykh Ahmad Darwish; it is available online here
(5) from the book al-Waabil al-Sayib, available online here. It should be stressed that though the Catholic Church doesn’t believe the Qu’ran or other Muslim writings to be authentic divine revelation, they certainly contain much borrowing from Christian and Jewish writings and a great deal of truth about God that can be known through human reason. It may be that some of the insights in later medieval writings by Muslims like this one came through contacts with Christians, which were actually frequent during the time of the Crusades and afterwards, thought I don’t know enough about the religious history of Islam to say this for certain.
(6) The titolo does not mean that John Paul I was putting forward “Mother” as a title of address for God, as some journalists later claimed. Some even said that in specifying that “Mother” is not a title for God in the first volume of Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict was actually correcting an “error” by his predecessor (See “E Benedetto XVI corregge papa Luciani,” La Nuova di Venezia, April 14, 2007, p. 44). In reality, it ought to be blazingly obvious to anyone who reads John Paul I’s words, whether in Italian or in English, that they had nothing to do with a title of address. Rather, he meant “title” in the sense of a claim or proof of ownership, as when we say we have the “title” to a car or a “title deed.” (It’s really nice to know that English-speaking journalists aren’t the only ones who can be functionally illiterate in their own language).
(7) Luciani, Opera 9:57.
(9) Luciani, Opera 9:62.
(10) I found this prayer in English, but the one in Italian is very similar: “Caro mio Redentore, io, fidato nelle vostre promesse, e perchè voi siete fedele, potente e misericordioso, spero pei meriti della vostra passione il perdono de’ miei peccati. . . “