"Mother" Church? Church as a "she"?

Can someone help me understand the origin and meaning of why Catholics refer to the Church as a “she”? I’ve been asked this by a Protestant friend of mine (along with several other questions…I may be back for more help depending on how my research goes!)

Thank you!

Because the Church is the bride of Christ. :wink:

Does it also have something to do with the Church being the “Bark of Peter”? Aren’t boats typically referred to as “she”?

from Christ himself who refers to the Church as his bride so it follows as we are children of the Church she is our mother.

Which is to say, to the OP’s Protestant friend, Ephesians 5.

Revelation 12:1-2,5 "And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars: And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered. …] And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne. "

That’s a Heavenly image of Mary and the Church. It’s Mary, in that it’s a fulfillment of Genesis 3:15, that a Woman would give birth to a Son who would destroy Satan. And it’s the Church, in that Israel (the embryonic form of the Church) culminated in the King of the Jews, Jesus Christ. The twelve stars represent the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve Apostles. The Son, of course, is Christ.

The chapter ends like this:

Revelation 12:17, “And the dragon was wroth with the woman, and went to make war with the remnant of her seed, which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.”

Now, as I see it, a Protestant might, in good faith, fail to see the Woman as Mary, or fail to see the Woman as the Church. But it seems to me that they can’t negate both. I mean, a prophesy can refer to more than one thing, but it can’t refer to less than one thing. It seems to me that Protestants who are serious about Revelation 12 being God-breathed Revelation should be willing to acknowledge either Mary as Mother, or Mother Church, or both.

Consider the mother figure described in Revelation 12. As with many parts of Revelation, there can be more than one valid way to symbolically interpret this passage. As the Navarre Bible Commentary on Revelation points out, the Fathers of the Church saw this description of a woman giving birth as representing:

  1. The ancient Jewish people through whom the Messiah comes.
  2. The Blessed Virgin Mary giving birth to Jesus, the Messiah.
  3. The Church “giving birth” to Christians.

The last one, in particular, is the one to focus on in terms of this thread discussion. Consider this in light of how we are born again in baptism and receive spiritual nourishment through the sacraments and prayer life of the Church. Therefore, in a sense, the Church is our mother. And just as the mother figure and her offspring were attacked by the dragon in Rev. 12, so are the Church and her members attacked by forces of evil in the world with each generation. But the Church and her members are also protected by God.

(An edited bit of “P.S.” - it seems that Belloc Fan worked on his Rev. oriented post simultaneously with me, but “beat me to the punch.”)


I’m almost always the person this happens to, so this is a joyous occasion indeed.

The simplest answer is, because the Greek word for ‘Church’, ekklēsia (literally ‘a calling-out’, i.e. an assembly; the Latin ecclesia is a deritative) is a gramatically feminine noun derived from ek- ‘out of’ and kaleō ‘to call’. Hence we have the imagery of the Church being our mother.
It’s kinda like the situation in some parts of the Bible where wisdom is personified as a woman: because the Hebrew hokmah and the Greek sophia (as well as the Latin sapientia) are all gramatically feminine, the natural course of action is then to portray Lady Wisdom.

Remember the Hagia Sophia? This church is actually dedicated to the Wisdom of God (the Logos; i.e. Jesus Christ), with its full name being Church of the Holy Wisdom of God (Ναός τῆς Ἁγίας τοῦ Θεοῦ Σοφίας). However, because the noun sophia is feminine (and the adjective hagia ‘holy’ is in the feminine as well), the abbreviated name has led some to mistakenly think that it was a church dedicated to a saint named Sophia.

Are we not the bride of Christ? You’re sayin the bride of Christ is our mother? If so, I’d like a bit more explanation on that…


168 It is the Church that believes first, and so bears, nourishes and sustains my faith. Everywhere, it is the Church that first confesses the Lord: “Throughout the world the holy Church acclaims you”, as we sing in the hymn “Te Deum”; with her and in her, we are won over and brought to confess: “I believe”, “We believe”. It is through the Church that we receive faith and new life in Christ by Baptism. In the Rituale Romanum, the minister of Baptism asks the catechumen: “What do you ask of God’s Church?” And the answer is: “Faith.” “What does faith offer you?” “Eternal life.” (Roman Ritual, Rite of Baptism of Adults)

169 Salvation comes from God alone; but because we receive the life of faith through the Church, she is our mother: “We believe the Church as the mother of our new birth, and not in the Church as if she were the author of our salvation.” (Faustus of Riez, De Spiritu Sancto 1, 2: PL 62, II) Because she is our mother, she is also our teacher in the faith.


170 We do not believe in formulas, but in those realities they express, which faith allows us to touch. “The believer’s act [of faith] does not terminate in the propositions, but in the realities [which they express].” (St. Thomas Aquinas, STh II-II, 1,2, ad 2) All the same, we do approach these realities with the help of formulations of the faith which permit us to express the faith and to hand it on, to celebrate it in community, to assimilate and live on it more and more.

171 The Church, “the pillar and bulwark of the truth”, faithfully guards “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints”. She guards the memory of Christ’s words; it is she who from generation to generation hands on the apostles’ confession of faith. (I Tim 3:15; Jude 3) As a mother who teaches her children to speak and so to understand and communicate, the Church our Mother teaches us the language of faith in order to introduce us to the understanding and the life of faith.


181 “Believing” is an ecclesial act. The Church’s faith precedes, engenders, supports and nourishes our faith. The Church is the mother of all believers. “No one can have God as Father who does not have the Church as Mother” (St. Cyprian, De unit. 6: PL 4, 519).

What? No, what? The Holy Spirit bears, nourishes and sustains my faith. We are the church I’m so confused? You didn’t answer my question

Maybe the idea of the Church being the mother of Christians comes from 2 John 1:1 and 1:13, where “the elect lady and her children” (1:1) mentioned might refer, not to a real woman and her children, but to a local church and its members and “the children of your elect sister” (1:13) mentioned might refer, not to a real woman’s nieces and nephews, but to the members of another local church, a “sister” church. If a local church can be personified as a lady and its members as her children, then its not much of a leap to the personification of the universal church as a lady and its members as her children.

Yes, you are right. But as with all Divine mysteries, the mystery of the Church is multi-faceted. Protestants have a very simplistic, or excessively narrow view of the Church. So although the Church is the Body of Christ, it is also the Bride of Christ. As the Church is a visible polity on earth, it is also an invisible eternal mystery, consisting of all the Angels and Saints in heaven, as well as the suffering in Purgatory. The Catholic Church has many documents and constitutions on the mystery of the Church, and they are well worth reading if you wish to know more. :slight_smile:

I can see where this may seem confusing. Yes, the Church is the Bride of Christ, and yes, Catholics traditionally speak of the Church with motherly terms (i.e., “Holy Mother Church”). These are cases of symbolic language expressing two different aspects of spiritual life. One aspect is the goal of spiritual life (i.e., union with God, which is often described in the Bible in marital imagery) and the other is the manner by which we are nourished for this spiritual journey (which includes the sacraments and prayer life of the Church, which, in turn, act as channels of God’s grace). One of the most tender-hearted images of someone providing nourishment is that of a mother with her child.

Naturally, there is no rule that says there can only be one symbol for us. And just as it is possible for one person to be both a bride and mother in the physical order of things, so it is possible for us to be both in the spiritual order of things. Each Christian should seek to be in an intimate loving union with God (i.e., be a “bride”) and at the same time seek to be nourished (as a child goes to a mother) for the purpose of being in loving service to others (i.e., to be a “mother” to others).

In terms of symbolic language expressing other aspects of our spiritual journey, we are also supposed to be warriors, kings, priests, pilgrims, sheep, shepherds, etc.

Although you directed this question to Patrick, I’ll go ahead and try to address it. The Church is both an earthly institution and a heavenly one. Remember that the New Testament describes the Church as having a head and a body. We are the body, but Christ is the head. And wherever one person of the Holy Trinity is, so are the other two. In light of this, when Catholics say that spiritual nourishment can be gained from the Church, we recognize that the source of this nourishment is God.

The imagery of God as the bridegroom and His people (Israel in the Old Testament, the Church in the New) as the bride, is pervasive throughout Scripture. Consider the prophecy of Hosea or the Song of Songs or Ephesians (cited above), how often Israel is referred to as “virgin daughter Sion”, how even the Blessed Virgin Mary, a holy person in her own right, is also a figure of the Church.

“Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad because of her,
all you who love her;
exult, exult with her,
all you who were mourning over her!
Oh, that you may suck fully
of the milk of her comfort,
that you may nurse with delight
at her abundant breasts!
For thus says the LORD:
Lo, I will spread prosperity over Jerusalem like a river,
and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing torrent.
As nurslings, you shall be carried in her arms,
and fondled in her lap;
as a mother comforts her child,
so will I comfort you;
in Jerusalem you shall find your comfort.” Isaiah 66.

I’d have a hard time viewing the Church as anything other than a mother, and applying the femine pronoun to “her”, after all that.

Hi Catechizeme,

Some of the answers you got beg the question.

Things are simpler than they look. The Greek and Latin word for church is “ecclesia”, which is a feminine noun. That allows personifications such as Mother and Bride.


Since we worship One God Who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, it should not be surprising that we may relate to Him as child, brother/friend and spouse. . . .

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