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Papal bull

There's a wonderful aphorism that I find saves me a great deal of anguish and outrage. There are several versions, but the core concept is this:

Never ascribe to malice that which can be adequately ascribed to ignorance/incompetence/stupidity.

A superb example can be found in the dustup about President Bush's meeting with Pope Benedict XVI, where the president addressed the pontiff not as "your holiness," but as "sir."

This is being ascribed as a major diplomatic gaffe, a huge slight, a great breach in protocol, a serious insult.

That's one possibility. But I don't think it's the likely one.

Let's look at the facts: George W. Bush, whatever else you say about him, has two characteristics that no one can dispute. The first is that, when called upon, he can act with remarkable grace and dignity and respect. (His momma can take a healthy dose of credit for that one.) The second one is that he often comes across as if English is his second or third language.

So, here's the situation: he's meeting the Pope on the Pope's home turf for the first time. (It might also be the very first time he's met this Pope, or any Pope -- I'm not certain.) That would give anyone at least a slight case of the jitters. So, if during the course of the conversation, he were to suffer a "brain fart" and forget that every time he addresses the Pope, he should use the honorific "your holiness." Instead of risking using the wrong term, he resorts to the default, generic term of respect and calls him "sir." The only people who might be offended by this would be women (military officers excepted, where "sir" is largely becoming a non-gender-specific term) and drill sergeants ("you don't call me sir! I work for a living!") -- and I feel fairly comfortable in saying that Benedict is neither a civilian woman nor a drill sergeant.

Of course, this could have been a subtle form of insult. But that would presume two things: one, that Bush would and could conceive of such a thing; and two, that he has an inclination to insult Catholicism. The former would contradict the stereotypes put forth by his critics, and the latter is in stark contradiction with a prior unguarded moment, when Bush showed a truly subtle -- yet highly significant -- form of respect for Catholicism's beliefs and traditions.

Maybe I am a bit sensitive to this because I've been accused of "Catholic bashing." (One commenter comes to mind.) This is because I have been freely and openly critical of the Church over conduct of some of its officials, and the Church's lackluster (at best) response in disciplining these vile people. The fact that I have, at least as often, been respectful and openly admiring of the Church doesn't matter: bringing up the bad stuff negates all that -- at least in the eyes of some.

So, did Bush insult Benedict XVI by not using the proper honorific? Possibly. But "there can be no offense given when none is taken," which means that if Benedict chose not to read anything into it, then the matter is closed. And I sincerely doubt that Bush would have done so deliberately.

At least he didn't follow George Carlin's advice:

"Hi, howdy, hello, how are ya, how do ya do, how ya doin, how's it goin, what's goin on, what's new, whatdya think, whatdya hear, whatdya say, whatdya feel, what's shakin, what's happenin, que pasa, what's goin down, what it is. Well we got all kinds of ways to say hello. We've got lots of ways to say hello. You know what my favorite is? "How's your hammer hangin?" That's a good one, isn't it? Doesn't work to well with women. Unless you're talking to a female carpenter, then it's all right. I"ve always wanted to say that one to a high church official. "Good evening, Your Holiness, how hangs the hammer?" So far, haven't had that opportunity."

Comments (27)

It should be fun watching t... (Below threshold)

It should be fun watching the Left, which generally ranks the Pope as equal to Osama bin Laden in respect, feign outrage about this insignificant faux pas, if it even is one.

As a Recovering Catholic, w... (Below threshold)

As a Recovering Catholic, who numbers among his friends two yobbos who now wear the RC collar who will never, ever hear me refer to them as "Father," I say W. was well within reasonable by calling Benny 16 "sir."

I really doubt Papa Ratzi c... (Below threshold)

I really doubt Papa Ratzi cares. Or that many Catholics care, except for those already looking out for something to ding Bush on. (Disclosure: I am just about to walk out the door for Mass.) I see nothing wrong with "sir".

If he back-slapped the Pope, though, people would be onto something.

A long as he didn't come up... (Below threshold)

A long as he didn't come up behind him, rub his shoulders and say "You're doin' a heck of a job, Bennie", I see nothing really wrong here.

At least he didn't say (PBU... (Below threshold)

At least he didn't say (PBUH) :)

As long as he kissed the ri... (Below threshold)

As long as he kissed the ring, he's golden.

Feh, they wouldn't know res... (Below threshold)

Feh, they wouldn't know respect if it saluted 'em.

It could also be as a Prote... (Below threshold)

It could also be as a Protestant, he assumed that title was only used by Catholics. Similar to Americans, need only address the Queen of England as "ma'am" and need not use "your Majesty."

If you're a Protestant, as I am, Pope Benedict is just another clergyman.

Wethal, as I was getting to... (Below threshold)

Wethal, as I was getting to post my comments I saw yours pop up! So now I can just type: "What Wethal said!"

As a naval officer, I am no... (Below threshold)

As a naval officer, I am not aware of any movement to render "sir" non-gender specific. It currently is used to refer only to men. Ma'am is the female equivalent. We had one manish female teacher in training and we kept mistakenly calling her "sir." It was awkward for us, and we corrected it immediately, but apparently she had heard it before. Love your writing otherwise.

The Pope, His Most Excellen... (Below threshold)
civil behavior:

The Pope, His Most Excellent King Chimpy, a scientist, and a boy scout are all traveling on Air Force One when a terrorist bomb blows up in the cockpit. They are the only survivors, and there are only three parachutes for the four people. As the plane starts to plummet the scientist says, "I'm sorry for you all, but I have to take one of the parachutes because I'm only days away from finding a cure for cancer." So he takes a parachute and jumps to safety. Then King Chimpster says, "I'm the leader of the free world and perhaps the only man smart enough to solve the problems in Iraq." So Chimpy grabs the bag and jumps. The Pope then says to the boy scout, "Son,I am old and have lived a long life--here, take this last parachute and jump to safety." The boy scout responds, "It's OK, Father, there are still two parachutes left. The leader of the free world just jumped out of the plane wearing my backpack."

Jimmy Carter went to Rome a... (Below threshold)

Jimmy Carter went to Rome after the last Pope died to supervise the Cardinals' election.

What Wethal Said. As a mil... (Below threshold)

What Wethal Said. As a militant Christian, the Pope is just another clergyman. The "Sir" might be okay since is is also technically the head of his own state.

Ma'am, is most definitely the term of address for female Army Officers. I have served with many female Army Officers and never, nerver thought to call them sir. They would of corrected me immediately if I had. I still see many, many officers every day and they addressed as sir and ma'am as appropriate.

Actually for Ugly American ... (Below threshold)

Actually for Ugly American tactlessness Jimmy Carter probably gets the prize. When the Queen Mother was visitng here, he gave her a big hug. Her response something like "Only my late husband did that."

You don't touch royalty.

This is no big deal, really... (Below threshold)
Grandpa Jones:

This is no big deal, really. Bush has been such a bad thing for the United States for so long, I don't know why anyone would ever choose something like this over something like Iraq as a reason to get uptight. No offense to the writers who are a lot better at their trade than I could ever be, but this kind of story ranks somewhere around the OJ Simpson, Paris Hilton, American Idol and Anna Smith category. It's just more of the dumbing down of America. I can't wait for us to pull out of this international nose dive.

The Pope doesn't care wheth... (Below threshold)

The Pope doesn't care whether you call him "sir" or "your holiness." This is typical fodder for the clucking Leftists. They're not religious anyway, so why do they care, if not to create a faux scandal for Bush.

Yeah, how many divisions do... (Below threshold)

Yeah, how many divisions does he have, anyway?

I agree with Grandpa above ... (Below threshold)

I agree with Grandpa above in that this is non-story, but will have to non-concur on his silly international nose-dive theory. I don't give two hoots how the world sees us. I care about our safety. And to think that we have not been attacked since 9/11 speaks volumes for our CINC and the men and women who fight for us.

It is interesting that you ... (Below threshold)

It is interesting that you should note that comment from the Anchoress. I thought of exactly that when I read your peace, and when I was in a catholic hospital I asked the sister that came by for an explanation of the procedure. It turns oout that what Bush did is appropriate if he cannot be expected to take communion at his own church, but if not, it is ok for non Catholics to take Catholic communion.

"Yeah, how many divisions d... (Below threshold)

"Yeah, how many divisions does he have anyway?"

Kim, if you honestly believe that the Catholic Church has no military power, you are seriously ignorant of the workings of the Jesuit order.

Not military in the traditional sense, more like clandestine special force "advisors" in black robes.

Whenever you hear about Priests involved in uprisings in South and Central America and Eastern Europe, you can bet it's a Jesuit.

You really think that Poland in the late 70s early 80s was a non-secular event?

Personally, I think it's cool that the President would like to participate in communion in the correct manner.

You got my joke, but hey c'... (Below threshold)

You got my joke, but hey c'mon, 'blood'? I've had little patience with mysteries until some excellent Lepanto slung fierce doubt through my Chesterton protector.

More aptly shafted the hole... (Below threshold)

More aptly shafted the hole, or heel, of agnosticism.

"Forgive us our trespass... (Below threshold)
Peter F.:

"Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us..."

Somehow--and I'm just guessing here--the Pope will get over it.

And at least the Prez didn't say "Hey, Big Fella! Love the hat! I've got a ten-gallon one back home just like it!"

Because I'm not 1) catholic... (Below threshold)

Because I'm not 1) catholic or 2) English, I don't see why someone like me should address the Pope as "your holiness" nor the Queen of England as "your highness". I don't care if it's a social faux pas or not, I don't subscribe to their beliefs, ergo, I don't see why I should give them anything besides normal human respect. If they or someone else doesn't like it, they can go pound sand!

No foul by the President. I... (Below threshold)
DJ Drummond:

No foul by the President. I don't have access right now to the reference, but I seem to recall that - barring JFK - few of our Presidents have had cause to feel obliged to the Pope.

I did notice how few people reflected on how, if the office of the Papacy reflected something worthy of honor, that they might owe a bit more respect to the sitting President of the United States, but then, what else is new?

this is a non story of cour... (Below threshold)

this is a non story of course. certainly our president should do his best to be diplomatic on the international stage but this seems like a reach for an issue. with the iraq war going on we have much bigger things to worry about.

I also agree with El-ahrair... (Below threshold)

I also agree with El-ahrairah in general. I certainly would never refer to the Queen of England or the pope in those terms. But I do think the president of the US has a duty to try and make friends all over the world. It's part of his job.






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