Wedges have notoriously thin edges. And the Primrose Path to the Everlasting Bonfire looks beguilingly like the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City. So when the Bishop of Rome starts – however inadvertently – to describe the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ as ‘mother’, it is a significant event.
The reference came in an interview given to ‘Credere’, the official magazine of the Year of Mercy. The Holy Father was expounding (with especial reference to the prophet Isaiah) the notion of the chesed of God, sometimes translated eleos or misericordia. (Coverdale coined the term ‘lovingkindness’)
‘Here God’s maternal dimension is seen. Not everyone understands when there is talk of “God’s maternity,” it’s not a popular language – in the good sense of the word – it seems a language that is somewhat chosen. Therefore, I prefer to use <the word> tenderness, proper to a mother, the tenderness of God, tenderness born from the paternal insides [viscere, see below]. God is Father and Mother.’
It is true enough that a rather sentimental spirituality of the Middle Ages (much of it English – Anselm, Mother Julian) dwelt upon the femininity of God. But talk of ‘maternity’ in this way (what was the original Italian?*) is quite another matter. And to name God as ‘Mother’ is surely to step beyond the tradition. Powerful images have a disconcerting way of running away with themselves – which is probably why this one has never been allowed to enter the liturgy. And the ‘maternity’ of God is a very loaded expression – freighted, as it currently is, with frustrated aspirations.
For guidance in such matters we should look not to the theologians (most of whom would not recognize an archetypal image if it punched them in the face), but to the literary critics. C.S.Lewis famously explained, in a gloriously untechnical way, why the language of God as Father most appropriately secures the tension between chesed and sedeq (‘dikaiosynē’ and sometimes misleadingly, ‘justitia’) which is at the heart of the faith:
‘Suppose the reformer stops saying that a good woman may be like God and begins saying that God is like a good woman. Suppose he says that we might just as well pray to “Our Mother which art in heaven” as to “Our Father”. Suppose he suggests that the Incarnation might just as well have taken a female as a male form, and the Second Person of the Trinity be as well called the Daughter as the Son. Suppose, finally, that the mystical marriage were reversed, that the Church were the Bridegroom and Christ the Bride…Now it is surely the case that if all these supposals were ever carried into effect we should be embarked on a different religion’
Pope Francis has gained an unenviable reputation for doctrinal inadvertency. But if it is his intention to put the ‘Maternity’ of God at the heart of the Year of Mercy, we should all look out!
* Qui si vede la dimensione materna di Dio. Non tutti comprendono quando si parla della “maternità di Dio”, non è un linguaggio popolare – nel senso buono della parola – sembra un linguaggio un po’ eletto; perciò preferisco usare la tenerezza, propria di una mamma, la tenerezza di Dio, la tenerezza nasce dalle viscere paterne. Dio è padre e madre»