To begin with, as eternal pure spirit, God is of course neither male nor female in the human sense. He is simply God, above all human categories of gender.
At the same time, in creating humans male and female in his image and likeness (cf. Gen 1:26), God seems to suggest that in some way maleness and femaleness together reflect the fullness of his divinity. Indeed, God reveals himself as having both fatherly and motherly qualities.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church deals with this sensitive issue in its section on God the Father. As regards God being “Father”, it says: “In Israel, God is called ‘Father’ inasmuch as he is Creator of the world. Even more, God is Father because of the covenant and the gift of the law to Israel, ‘his first-born son.’ God is also called the Father of the king of Israel. Most especially he is ‘the Father of the poor,’ of the orphaned and the widowed, who are under his loving protection.” (CCC 238)
The Catechism goes on to clarify that by calling God “Father”, “the language of faith indicates two main things: that God is the first origin of everything and transcendent authority; and that he is at the same time goodness and loving care for all his children.” (CCC 239)
That is, just as in the generation of new life the father takes the initiative and is in a sense the “first origin” of the child along with the mother, so God as creator is the first origin of everything and can rightly be called “Father”.
At the same time, within the family the father is the figure of authority, even though he has equal dignity with the mother. In this sense too, God, who is “transcendent authority”, can rightly be called “Father”.
And just as the father of a family shows goodness and loving care to his children, God does this in an eminent way and for this reason too is called “Father”.
But God also exhibits maternal qualities. The Catechism says: “God’s parental tenderness can also be expressed by the image of motherhood, which emphasises God’s immanence, the intimacy between Creator and creature.” (CCC 239)
Just as a mother has a beautiful tenderness towards her children, a special intimacy with them, so does God with his children. This is revealed in numerous passages of Scripture.
In the prophecy of Isaiah God speaks to his people: “As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you.” (Is 66:13) And again: “Can a woman forget her suckling child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.” (Is 49:15)
In the book of Psalms, the psalmist speaks of being comforted by God like a child by its mother: “But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a child quieted at its mother’s breast; like a child that is quieted is my soul.” (Ps 131:2)
And Jesus himself uses a motherly image to describe the depth of his love for the people of Jerusalem: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you? How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” (Mt 23:37)
If God is love, as St John writes (1 Jn 4:8), and we are made in his image and likeness, who is more loving than a mother? Likewise, the nurturing and sacrificing acts of mothers reflect the nature of God.
So we can say without hesitation that God, in his fullness of being, has both paternal and maternal characteristics.
Nonetheless, it is not proper to refer to God as “She” or as “Mother”. Throughout the Scriptures, God calls himself “Father”. Jesus himself teaches us to call God our Father and it would be disrespectful to refer to him in any other way.
The Catechism concludes its teaching on the fatherhood of God by saying: “We ought therefore to recall that God transcends the human distinction between the sexes. He is neither man nor woman: he is God. He also transcends human fatherhood and motherhood, although he is their origin and standard: no one is father as God is Father.” (CCC 239).
Fr John Flader: The feminine side of God
29 Oct 2008