Are We God’s “Sons and Daughters”?

When contemporary clergy preach about our relationship to the Father in Christ, they will refer to Christians, almost without exception, as “God’s sons and daughters.” The new document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Placuit Deo, falls in line:

The Christian faith has illustrated, throughout its centuries-long history, by means of multiple figures, this salvific work of the Son incarnate. It has done so without ever separating the healing dimension of salvation, by which Christ redeems us from sin, from the elevating dimension, by which he makes us sons and daughters of God, participants in his divine nature (cf. 2 Pt 1:4).

You might be thinking: What could be wrong with this? Isn’t is true that we are God’s children? Yes, that is true—and thanks be to God for such a wondrous gift. The problem consists in the almost obligatory introduction of the female-gendered “daughters” rather than saying simply “sons” or “children” or “offspring.” After explaining why this is a theological problem, I will come around to the revised (2011) ICEL translation of the Roman Missal and the dissonance it presents in the lex orandi.

When speaking of our relationship to Christ the Lord and to Holy Mother Church as the Bridegroom and Bride, one could find room for speaking of their sons and daughters, taking Christ metaphorically as the father of the family and the Church as His fruitful wife. But when speaking of the Father and our insertion into the Father-Son relationship, there are only “sons in the Son,” filii in Filio, which, indeed, is the way the New Testament consistently speaks:

All who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. … For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren. (Rom 8:14-15, 29)

In Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. (Gal 3:26)

But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So through God you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then an heir. (Gal 4:4-7)

He destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace which he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. (Eph 1:5-6)

It was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering. (Heb 2:10)

He who conquers shall have this heritage, and I will be his God and he shall be my son. (Rev 21:7)

In contrast with dozens of New Testament passages that speak of “sons” in the manner of these examples, there is only one text in the NT that speaks of God’s “sons and daughters” (2 Cor 6:18). Here, St. Paul seems to be paraphrasing a passage from Isaiah that uses metaphorical speech pertaining to the order of creation (cf. Is 43:6-7; Jer 31:9). More typically, the Old Testament places a singular emphasis on sonship, preparing the way for Christ by speaking of Israel as God’s firstborn son (cf. Ex 4:22) and of the Davidic king and Messiah as God’s son (e.g., Ps 2:7, “I will tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to me, ‘You are my son, today have I begotten you’”). All of this reaches a climax in the two “filial epiphanies” of the Gospels:

And when Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him; and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” (Mat 3:16-17; cf. Mk 1:11; Lk 3:22)

He was still speaking, when lo, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” (Mat 17:5; cf. Mk 9:7, 2 Pet 1:17)

The baptism of Jesus in the Jordan is, to use the language of St. Thomas Aquinas, the efficient and exemplar cause of our own baptism: it both makes us beloved “sons in the Son,” and is the model of our sonship. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we are made to participate in Christ’s natural sonship, being made like unto Him, as He is like unto the Father. This is what our adoption consists in, as St. Paul so carefully and frequently teaches. The transfiguration, too, shows us, in our Head, what we, the members, are to become in our resurrection, provided we are united to Christ in a death like His.

For their part, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church unanimously follow Scripture’s preferred way of speaking of “sons in the Son,” a rule we see observed with utter consistency throughout the ages, in the great monastic and Scholastic authors, and in all the great modern theologians and spiritual authors, such as Newman, Mersch, Marmion, Scheeben, Journet, and Ratzinger.[1]

But why is this consistency and clarity of sonship language so important?

Our fundamental filial relationship with God is not in any way conditioned by our sex. We are Christians not inasmuch as we are men or women, but inasmuch as we are human persons made unto the image and likeness of God, and therefore redeemable and saveable. We participate in the sonship of the natural Son of God, in whom there is no natural Daughter, even as we participate in the bridal nature of the Church, who is a She, not a He.

In comparison with Christ, we are all brides; in comparison with the Father, we are all sons. Yes, the images clash and refuse to meld—in the order of nature, one cannot be simultaneously a son and a bride—because we are dealing not with natural realities but with a supernatural mystery of divinization so profound that no single way of speaking can fully express it. And yet, the precise images we use, and the language by which we convey them, do matter: they cannot be arbitrarily switched around, for we are dealing with definite truths, not with vague mythic metaphors.

To go one step further: in our participatory divine sonship, there is not a natural filiation like the one we have to both of our parents. In the natural order, we proceed as male or female from a man-woman couple. Supernaturally, however, we proceed as the Son from the Father; God is Father, not Mother, nor is the Son a Daughter. Hence, when speaking of our relationship to God in Christ, we must not bring in sex or gender (“God’s sons and daughters”), for such language necessarily implies a relationship of natural or physical generation, which is the basis and origin of sexual differentiation.[2]

When we speak of “God’s sons and daughters,” we are speaking metaphorically of creatures in their relation to the Creator. In that way, all human beings, regardless of religion, faith, baptism, are “God’s sons and daughters”—creatures that are like Him in having intellect and free will. But this says nothing about our incorporation into Christ as our Head, our insertion into the mystery of the Blessed Trinity, our taking on the specific likeness of the Son of God so that when the Father looks upon us, He sees His beloved Jesus. Through sanctifying grace, we are made like the Son in his constitutive Sonship.[3] In this analogical (not metaphorical) way of speaking, no one is ever a “daughter” of the Father, because we are not specifically like God’s Daughter. As said above, there is no Daughter in the Trinity, only Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Hence, if we want to talk about this magnificent gift of divinization and filiation, if we want to refer to that which makes us actually Christian, we cannot and must not speak of being “God’s sons and daughters”; we may only speak of being “God’s sons,” or “sons in the Son.” The moment the word “daughter” enters in, what is specifically Christian is evacuated, and is replaced by something generically monotheistic.

By trying to be inclusive, the language of “sons and daughters” actually ends up being exclusive. For all of us are sons, and all of us are brides. The modern linguistic convention distributes these identities, under the influence of an excessively sexualized conception of the human person, as if women cannot have a certain relation to God that men can have (namely, that of sons, like the natural Son Jesus Christ), and as if men cannot have a receptive stance vis-à-vis God the way women can (namely, that of brides, like the Church in whom they exist).

In reality, every Christian enjoys all of these privileges, some of which are best described by strictly masculine language and some by strictly feminine language. The greatest honor of a man or woman is that he or she is re-created in the image of the Son, as a son; and, in an astonishing perfection of our creatureliness, the same man or woman stands to Christ as a chaste virgin to her Lord: “I feel a divine jealousy for you [Christians of Corinth], for I betrothed you to Christ to present you as a pure bride to her one husband” (2 Cor 11:2). It would be just as ridiculous to talk of men and women as “brides and bridegrooms of Christ” as to talk about men and women as “sons and daughters of the Father.”

Given the massive witness of Scripture and Tradition concerning a central dogma of the Faith—our adoptive sonship in Christ through water and the Holy Spirit—it is a matter of no small concern that the revised translation of the Roman Missal adopts the very language that is theologically problematic, in spite of the fact that the Latin by no means demands it. Here are three of many instances:

Almighty ever-living God, whom, taught by the Holy Spirit, we dare to call our Father, bring, we pray, to perfection in our hearts the spirit of adoption as your sons and daughters [adoptionis filiorum], that we may merit to enter into the inheritance which you have promised. (Collect, 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time)

O God, by whom we are redeemed and receive adoption, look graciously upon your beloved sons and daughters [filios dilectionis tuae], that those who believe in Christ may receive true freedom and an everlasting inheritance. (Collect, 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Look, we pray, upon your people’s offerings and pour out on them the power of your Spirit, that they may become the Body and Blood of your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, in whom we, too, are your sons and daughters. (Eucharistic Prayer for Reconciliation I)

Even if the redactors of the translation could plead that they intended no theological assertion but merely wished to avoid giving the impression of excluding women—an inclusive language move, they would say, rather than a doctrinal stance—nevertheless the venerable axiom lex orandi, lex credendi reminds us that the liturgy cannot avoid forming us with its formulas and will teach well or badly depending on the soundness of its formulations. The language of the liturgy shapes our minds, our hearts; it is, without a doubt, the primary source of doctrinal formation for practicing Catholics, especially in an age bereft of substantive catechesis.

It is clear that the revised Roman Missal, taken as a whole, is such a vast improvement over its predecessor that they can hardly be compared in the same breath; and it is no less clear that, as the official text, it must be used and cannot be modified at the whim of the celebrant, whatever imperfections may remain in it.[4]

Still, these facts do nothing to change our responsibility to use language precisely, when we speak in our own words, as servants of the unchanging truth of Divine Revelation. If we want to avoid transmitting over time a distorted doctrine of the Trinity, of our adoptive filial relationship to the Father in and through His only-begotten Son, and of the nature of the Church as “spiritually feminine,” the Bride of Christ and the Mother of the faithful, we would do well to avoid referring, in our preaching and conversations, to “God’s sons and daughters.” Let us speak of God’s “children” (cf. Heb 2:13, 1 Jn 3:1-2), and even, when appropriate for the context, of God’s “offspring” (cf. Acts 17:28-29), and of “brethren [brothers and sisters] in Christ”; but let us take special delight in proclaiming the wondrous truth that all of us who were baptized into Christ have put on Christ (cf. Gal 3:27), and thus, are “sons in the Son,” to each of whom our heavenly Father can truly say: “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.” As for the flawed translation with its implicit theological error, it is the duty of the Church’s hierarchy to correct it as soon as may be.

In this connection, I was struck by a beautiful passage from Dom Paul Delatte’s Commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict:

With baptism and faith in Our Lord Jesus Christ, all these distinctions vanish; and in spite of the diversity of our individual circumstances, in spite of the plurality of our natures, we are all one in Our Lord Jesus Christ. The same divine sonship is enjoyed by all, the same blood circulates in all veins, all have the same name, the same spirit, the same nourishment, the same life. This levelling is accomplished, not by the degradation of any, but by the elevation of all to the stature of Our Lord: “unto the measure of the age of the fulness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13).[5]

Perhaps the most sublime expression of this mystery is given to us in the prayer written by St. Elizabeth of the Trinity:

O Consuming Fire, Spirit of Love, descend into my soul and make all in me as an incarnation of the Word, that I may be to Him a super-added humanity wherein He renews His mystery; and You, O Father, bestow Yourself and bend down to Your little creature, seeing in her only Your beloved Son, in whom You are well pleased.[6]

Living in an age characterized by enormous and ever-increasing confusion about nature, personhood, and sexual identity, we need to be attentive to revealed truth and traditional theological language in the way we speak. Dear bishops, priests, and deacons: We love you, we pray for you, and we appreciate the sacrifice of time, prayer, and study you put into your homilies by which you transmit the Gospel to us and strengthen our discipleship. But if you are intending to preach the Good News of our divine sonship in Christ rather than subtly inculcating a monotheistic religion of generic metaphors, please stop saying “God’s sons and daughters.”

This article is a revision of an article that appeared at New Liturgical Movement in 2014.



[1] For two especially good overviews, see Emile Mersch, S.J., “Filii in Filio: The Life Imparted by the Trinity,” in The Theology of the Mystical Body, trans. Cyril Vollert, S.J. (St. Louis: B. Herder, 1951), 325–74, and John Saward, Cradle of Redeeming Love: The Theology of the Christmas Mystery (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2002), 234–81, esp. 267–81.

[2] In other words, it is not relevant to divinization as such whether we are male or female; that, and not some proto-feminist leveling, is the meaning of St. Paul’s famous phrase: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). We are one in Him; He Himself is our unity, our identity, our salvation. God does not offer salvation more to men than to women, or to women more than to men; He offers it to man, the rational animal, as Scripture emphasizes: “And God created man to his own image: to the image of God he created him: male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27).

[3] When I first published these thoughts, a reader attempted to refute me thus: “Men are sons. Women are daughters. Case closed. As for the use of the image of bride and groom, perhaps that is over-stated and over-used these days. There are other metaphors that may be more helpful in most circumstances. And even in relationship to Christ, we are not really a bride, in the sense of an equal partner in marriage. Metaphorical language is great. But its use must ring true. Otherwise, it will just be perceived as silliness. … There is no earthly way we can speak with precision on matters regarding the essence of God. It is precisely because they are so far beyond human comprehension that we need to use artistic language to communicate a better sense of it all. And such language will not always fit.” What is astonishing about this line of argument is that it completely shreds dogmatic theology about the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the elevation of mankind to divine sonship—what church councils and spiritual writers have taught confidently for centuries evaporates into thin air. How many times does one need to repeat that the language of sonship is not metaphorical, but analogical in the strict theological sense? The issue is not about mere poetic comparisons but about a metaphysical assimilation of human beings to Him who is the Son of God in truth.

[4] Of course, one is always free to celebrate the Novus Ordo in Latin, if one wishes to have the Ordinary Form in its most authoritative expression. Every translation limps to some extent—and the limping approaches paralysis in the current context, when artistically and linguistically impoverished translations of liturgical books are the norm rather than the exception.

[5] The Rule of Saint Benedict: A Commentary by the Right Rev. Dom Paul Delatte, trans. Dom Justin McCann, O.S.B. (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2000), 44.

[6] From the prayer “Ô mon Dieu, Trinité que j’adore” (O my God, Trinity whom I adore) of November 21, 1904. There are several translations of this prayer. For the full text with notes, see Elizabeth of the Trinity, The Complete Works, vol. 1, trans. Aletheia Kane, O.C.D. (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1984), 183–91. Why did St. Elizabeth pray that the Father look upon her and see only His beloved Son? There are two possible answers: (1) she was speaking truthfully and correctly, according to divine revelation; (2) she was the product and victim of a patriarchal culture that exalted men and devalued women. I’ll go with (1), because it is what we find in Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium, and far be it from me to think that this triple witness has been in error. Human language does not exhaust divine realities, but there are still right and wrong ways of speaking, as the entire history of doctrine indicates, beginning with the credal formulas and anathemas of the ecumenical councils. Being a son and being a daughter are obviously biologically different, but one must not transfer human biology into the spiritual realm, where we are dealing with a transcendent (and immaterial) Father-Son relationship.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email