The Catholic University of America

Shannon Marie McAlister Defense

Final Examination of Shannon Marie McAlister

For the degree of Doctor of Philosophy

Monday, April 23, 2012 1:00 p.m., Caldwell Room 125


Regis Armstrong, O.F.M. Cap., Ph.D.


A “Father” Who Conceives and Gives Birth: Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure of Bagnoregio on Whether God the Father May Be Called a “Mother”

In addressing a medieval question regarding the suitability of calling God the Father “Mother,” Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure of Bagnoregio drew upon patristic and medieval interpretations of Proverbs 8:24-25 and Psalm 109:3.  In the Latin West, these passages had long been viewed as references to the eternal generative activity of God the “Father,” in such a way that God the Father was said to “conceive” and “give birth,” “from the womb,” to the Eternal Word. Based upon this interpretation of scripture, Thomas and Bonaventure argued that God the “Father” conceives and gives birth from all eternity: generation in God includes not only paternal activity, but also the activity which (among corporeal beings) is proper only to mothers.

For both Bonaventure and Thomas, corporeal motherhood and corporeal fatherhood include perfections which pre-exist in God; yet Bonaventure and Thomas each defended calling the divine generator “Father” and not “Mother” by defining motherhood in terms of qualities which they viewed as imperfect and therefore inapplicable to God, while defining fatherhood in terms of qualities which they saw as perfect and therefore proper to God.  Unlike many theologians today, they did not appeal to the notion that only scriptural words can rightly be applied to God; in fact, they explicitly rejected this idea.

By drawing upon Thomas’s and Bonaventure’s general principles on how God’s perfections are known and named, and by examining the content and the sources of their contributions to the medieval question of calling God the Father “Mother,” this dissertation offers a resource for addressing current debates regarding gendered language for God.  An exploration of these present debates leads to the proposal that the writings of Thomas and Bonaventure can provide a resource for addressing objections to female language for God—and that the patristic and medieval interpretations of Proverbs 8:24-25 and Psalm 109:3, which they drew upon, can provide a precedent for female terminology for God today.