Is the Holy Spirit Male or Female?

Dear Catholic Exchange:

I have a question regarding the gender of the Holy Spirit. Scott Hahn has written a book called First Comes Love. In it he proposes that the Holy Spirit be referred to in the feminine.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that the Holy Spirit be referred to as a “He” and “Him” (e.g., #683, #687).

Both can't be right, and I am in favor of first trusting the Catechism. I would like to hear your thoughts on this.

I like Scott Hahn and consider him very talented and an excellent speaker and apologist. But he, unlike the Pope, is not protected by the Holy Spirit, when teaching faith and morals.

I would like to see this matter brought up in one of your articles on line at Catholic Exchange. I think this book could do harm to faithful Catholics who might read into it that… Since Our Lady is female and the Holy Spirit is female, then Jesus Christ had two mommies, and this could work right into the hands of those pushing the gay agenda within our Church.

Yours in Christ,

Mark Shepherd

Dear Mr. Shepherd

Though the three Divine Persons are distinct from one another, God is nonetheless one (cf. Catechism, nos. 253-54). Although God “transcends the distinctions between the sexes,” He has revealed Himself as Father (no. 239). Since the Holy Spirit reveals the Father, as well as the Son (masculine) and the Three Persons are one God, the Church also refers to the Holy Spirit as “He.” At no time has the Church referred to the Holy Spirit as “She” when speaking of the person of the Holy Spirit.

Sometimes people will make arguments from scripture that the Holy Spirit should be addressed as “she” based on the fact that some of the descriptions of the Holy Spirit are grammatically feminine in the original Biblical languages. This argument however carries very little weight. Any expert in languages will tell you that grammatical gender has no direct correlation to masculinity or femininity of the thing that the word represents. For instance, the Hebrew word for army is tsavah which is feminine — though the ancient armies were comprised entirely of men. Moreover the Hebrew word for spirit, ruach is feminine but the New Testament Greek equivalent pneuma is neuter. Jesus’ description of the spirit as “paraclete” uses the Greek word parakletos which means advocate or lawyer; this word is masculine. Even if one insists on connecting grammatical gender to personal gender, the evidence simply does not support any conclusion about the “gender” of the Holy Spirit.

There is however scriptural support for identifying the Holy Spirit as “he” based not on the gender of nouns which are fixed by the norms of the language, but rather based on pronouns which vary according to the gender of the noun represented. In at least one case in John 16:13 the demonstrative pronoun referring to the spirit is “he” rather than “she” or “it,” despite the fact that pneuma the referent word in Greek for “spirit” is neuter. This suggests a deliberate choice on the part of the inspired author to use a masculine pronoun to refer to the Holy Spirit. Thus Christians ought not to refer to the Holy Spirit as “she” since this is neither the way the Bible reveals the Spirit nor is it the way the Church speaks of Him.

This does not mean however that the Church wishes to anthropomorphize God by projecting human maleness onto Him. The Church knows that God “is neither man nor woman: He is God” and “God’s parental tenderness can also be expressed by the image of motherhood” (Catechism, no. 239). The Bible in various places uses feminine imagery to refer to the Holy Spirit — imagery that goes a long way back in both Catholic and ancient Jewish tradition. There is much theology in the Jewish tradition with regard to the “breath” of God or the “wisdom” of God cast in feminine, maternal, or bridal terms. The great Shekinah glory cloud who led Israel through the wilderness and who surrounded Solomon’s Temple, was understood by the rabbis in feminine terms. Though God is usually referred to in masculine imagery, Isaiah 42:14 describes the Lord giving birth after much travail. This image may lie behind Jesus’ saying in John 3:5 that we must be born of water and the Spirit. It is probably significant that Jesus uses “born of the Spirit” and “born of God” (John 1:13) rather than “begotten of God,” which would reflect more paternal parentage. This does not take away from Isaiah’s specifically calling God “Father” (Is. 63:16, 64:8) and Jesus echoing this dozens of times in the Gospels. The Holy Spirit inspired the scriptures and therefore respect for the Holy Spirit means respect for His choice of words and images to describe God in all their paradoxical tension.

Dr. Hahn’s book, First Comes Love: Finding You Family in the Church and in the Trinity (Doubleday), raised a stir over whether such images are appropriate for the Holy Spirit. A brief but excellent defense of Dr. Hahn was written by Bishop Fabian W. Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Nebraska. It appeared in the National Catholic Register in the October 13-19, 2003 edition. It is also on the CUF website. As Bishop Bruskewitz points out, feminine imagery does not require a change of pronouns when referring to the Holy Spirit. You might also be interested in a later “review” the bishop gave for the book on in which he suggests moving helpful notes to the main text.

As it happens, the word is that Dr. Hahn will make helpful revisions for the next printing.

For further reference, we have a Faith Fact God or Goddess: Our Heavenly Father Knows Best, which addresses in more detail the problem of arbitrarily assigning feminine titles to God.

United in the Faith,

Pete Brown

Information Specialist

Catholics United for the Faith

827 North Fourth Street

Steubenville, OH 43952

800-MY-FAITH (800-693-2484)

Editor's Note: To submit a faith question to Catholic Exchange, email [email protected]. Please note that all email submitted to Catholic Exchange becomes the property of Catholic Exchange and may be published in this space. Published letters may be edited for length and clarity. Names and cities of letter writers may also be published. Email addresses of viewers will not normally be published.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage