For us men?

The Christological portion of the Nicene Creed, in Latin, contains the phrase et homo factus est. Both both the 1970 and the 2011 missals translated this phrase as and became man. In this post I argue that this is a poor translation.

The reason for translating homo as “man” rather than “human” comes from a Vatican document. The argument is that, in Latin, homo can mean both an individual human being, and the entire human race. Theologically, this works beautifully (in Latin) to describe the Incarnation, because it carries with it the connotation that Jesus not only became an individual human being, but took on the human condition and (in substitutionary atonement theory) the sins of the entire human race. So poetically this is an excellent text, in Latin.

The argument continues that, in [some dialects of] English, “man”, also, can mean both an individual human being, and the entire human race. “Human”, however, cannot carry both meanings. Thus, to retain the dual meaning carried by the Latin text, the English word “man” should be used.

I respect the argument that is made, and agree that it is valid insofar as it goes. The problem I have is that this theological consideration of the text is considered to outweigh the anthropological and pastoral problems with this translation. (Well, strictly speaking, the document in question does not acknowledge those problems, so I’m not sure it actually was considered to “outweigh” them or whether they were simply not weighed at all.)

The anthropological problem has to do with how human language shapes thought. In 21st century America, the primary definition of the word “man” is “male human being”. “Generic human being” is at best a secondary definition. Furthermore, there is experimental evidence indicating that people think of a male human being, not a generic human being, when supposedly-generic masculine language is used. (Thus on a purely technical level, the selected translation is, it seems to me, plainly flawed, because it chose an ambiguous English word when an unambiguous word was available.)

This is especially true in a church like the Roman Catholic church, where “man” often explicitly does mean “not woman”. One of the conditions for ordination is that you must be “a baptized man”. Christ came “for us men and for our salvation”, and “baptized men can be priests”. “Men” either means “human beings” or “male human beings”, depending on the context. Therefore, as a Catholic woman, it is not possible for me to assume that the supposedly-generic “man”, “men”, “he” always includes me: I have been explicitly, repeatedly, and vehemently instructed that it does not.

The pastoral problem is that, in a world and a church plagued by the sin of sexism, it is uncompassionate to prize a poetically apt expression of doctrine over the pastoral issue that many women will not be able to identify either with “us men” or with Christ when they pray this section of the creed. The whole point of this section, as written in the original Latin and Greek, is to emphasize that for people like me, Christ became someone like me. If the language doesn’t facilitate that identification for all Catholics, then the language is poorly translating the text.

Likewise, in a world and a church plagued by sexism, there is the potential of misleading English speakers who only know the English, and don’t know the Latin or Greek, into the mistaken belief that the theology expressed in the Nicene-Constantinople Creed emphasizes the maleness of Christ. It does not. The church fathers, had they wished to do so, could have written (vir, andros) rather than (homo, anthropos). Indeed, there was a controversy in the early church about whether Christ took on (assumed) the whole of human nature, including the nature of women, and it was definitively settled in the affirmative, because “that which is not assumed is not redeemed.”

It’s crucial to the sense of the Creed that Christ became human, not male. Translating the word as “man” potentially, and I believe _usually_, gives a mistaken impression of the underlying theology.

I did learn something new about this section of the Creed concerning the earlier phrase, “for us men” at the parish presentation introducing the 2011 missal. The way many, many Catholics have actually recited this phrase is “For us (pause), and for our salvation”, so as to avoid the exclusive language without messing with the rhythm. As far as I know, this was a spontaneous adaptation that arose all over the country. The proposed translation submitted to Rome used this language. It was rejected, and the word “men” reinserted, on the grounds that the “for us” phrase and the “and became” phrase needed to use the same language, to underscore the parallel.

That argument resonated strongly with me. Now I recite “For us humans… and became human.”

This post was originally a comment in response to a question on my 2011 post Incoming Missal.

This entry was posted in Catholic, Feminist theology and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to For us men?

  1. Andrew says:

    I think I’ve mentioned this before, but here’s another example where confusing “man” with “human” proves important:

    ‘If Eowyn and the Witch-King had been pedants like the herb-master of Minas Tirith, the dialogue might have gone more like this:

    “You fool, no living man may harm me.”

    “_Distinguo_, Sir, I am not _vir_ but _femina._ Prepare to die.”

    “Excuse me, your Westron is so imprecise. I did not mean _vir_, I meant _homo_.”

    “Ah, point taken! In that case, permit me to point out that Meriadoc, who is not _homo_ but _dimidiulus,_ a Halfling, has just introduced an Arnorian blade into your knee.” ‘


  2. Andrew says:

    And as I should have said first, I appreciate your analysis and your corrected translation (“For us humans… and became human”).

    I wonder if the parallel would be maintained adequately by “For us … and became one of us.”

  3. I definitely agree with you. I have been attending Episcopal parishes since 2017 and some parishes do use “human” instead of “man”,; I like it.

    More interesting, at least one parish dropped the filoque from the Nicene Creed. The book Walk In Love documents that more and more Episcopalians believe that the filoque should not be included in the creed. I haven’t heard a reason for it, but it does make sense from an Episcopalian perspective.

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