Q: A friend of mine calls the Holy Spirit “her”. I have heard the theory that the Holy Spirit is a feminine manifestation of the divine. Does this conform to Catholic teaching?
A: God transcends gender, that is, the divine is neither masculine nor feminine. However, God is a person, not an “it” and therefore it seems appropriate to refer to, relate to, and imagine God in terms of gender.
But what about each of the people of the Trinity? Can each one be individually considered a man or a woman? God the Son, Jesus, became flesh as a male, biologically, that is, God entered time and space as a man. And although genderless, the Godhead was called by Jesus “abba” (a colloquial term for the father). Jesus taught his disciples to begin their prayer to God using the words “our father”.
Although it is less common to ascribe a gender to the Holy Spirit, Spirit has been viewed by some as feminine, at least in part because of the gender of the word for Spirit. The Greek word for Spirit, “pneuma”, is neutral. The Latin word “spiritus” is masculine. But the Hebrew and Syriac words “ruach” and “rucha” are feminine.
When Jesus revealed the Trinity to us, as in Matthew 28:19 (baptizing “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”) it was only the last person of the Trinity who seemed not to be assigned any genre. Yet Jesus himself spoke of the Holy Spirit in masculine terms when he said to his disciples, “When he cometh, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth” (John 16:13).
Members of the early church frequently used masculine pronouns to describe each of the persons of the Trinity, including the Spirit. Recognizing the theological difficulties, they did not see the Trinity as being made up of two men and a woman or two men and a sterilized person. Most often in early Christian theology, because the Spirit proceeds “from the Father and of the Son,” the Spirit too was considered masculine. Since the members of the Trinity share a common substance, are co-eternal and co-equal, it is difficult to argue for the manifestation of the Spirit in feminine terms if other people are conceived of as men.
Church practice, in its use of language for teaching and worship, follows this understanding. The Catechism teaches that we cannot correctly attribute a gender or genres to the divine, but the text retains the masculine pronouns when speaking of God: “He is neither male nor female; he is God ”(239). But when in our use of language God is to be assigned a gender, the Holy Spirit is referred to in masculine terms.
Although the Holy Spirit is not feminine, that does not mean that we cannot consider both masculine and feminine images of God, especially when we relate to the divine in terms of fatherly and motherly qualities. As the Catechism reports, “The language of faith thus draws on the human experience of parents, who are in a way the first representatives of God for man. This makes it possible to imagine God as “father”, to recognize him as “the origin of everything and transcendent authority” and also to relate to the motherhood of God which emphasizes “the immanence of God, the intimacy between Creator and creature ”(239).
God is neither male nor female, but at the same time we can draw closer to God by relating to God and imagining Him through gender as long as we recognize the limits of our understanding and use of language to describe the divine.
Father Endres is dean of the Western Mount St. May Seminary and the Ohio Athenaeum. Send your question of faith to [email protected]