Bush Violates Papal Protocol

People are apparently upset that President Bush violated protocol in his meeting with Joe Ratzinger this morning.

US President George W Bush drew gasps at the Vatican on Saturday by referring to Pope Benedict XVI as “sir” instead of the expected “His Holiness”, pool reporters said. They could clearly hear the US leader say “Yes, sir” when the pope asked him if he was going to meet with officials of the lay Catholic Sant’Egidio community at the US embassy later during his visit.

This causes gasps? Really?

Bush isn’t Catholic. He’s the leader of the dominant country on the planet. Aside from the age gap, it’s rather remarkable that he’s addressing the pope as “Sir.” Why on earth should he address him in the third person, let alone pretend that he considers him “holy”?

UPDATE: Ed Morrissey guesses that Bush likely called Ratzinger “Your Holiness” several times and that this was just a single answer to a direct question.

Michael van der Galiën thinks it’s simply a matter of “manners” to address people by their customary honorifics.

In Michael’s comments, I joked that “if I met the head of the KKK, I wouldn’t address him by whatever exalted title that comes with that position, either.” Perhaps differing with Christopher Hitchens, I don’t consider the pope and the Grand Wizard moral equivalents. But honorifics that apply within a particular society don’t automatically extend outside it, either.

I’d address Tony Blair as “sir” or “Mr. Prime Minister.” I’d address Queen Elizabeth II as “m’am” out of deference to her age and responsibility but certainly wouldn’t address her as “Your Majesty” nor kneel in her presence. I’m not her subject. “Sir” or “m’am” connote respect; “Your Holiness” or “Your Majesty” imply subservience.

Furthermore, heads of state are not subservient to one another. The United States is a sovereign country and Bush is its leader. Kowtowing to religious leaders and monarchs would be unbefitting his station.

Similarly, I wouldn’t think the head of other churches would address Ratzinger as “Your Holiness” nor would another monarch address QEII as “Your Majesty.”

FILED UNDER: Religion, US Politics, , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. James,

    I told my wife this story. She thinks I should Bush a Knucklehead award. You got to love those devout Catholic. Filipinas.

    Welcome home.

    Bill

  2. cirby says:

    …and, in the next few days, we’ll see horrified posts from people who are mightily offended by the way Bush addressed the Pope.

    Of course, at least half of those people who will be making all of the noise are also folks who think dressing up as a “naughty nun” or a “horny priest” during Halloween is the height of humor.

  3. just me says:

    This is much ado about nothing.

    Bush isn’t Catholic.
    I seriously doubt the Pope was offended-“Yes, Sir” isn’t exactly direspectful, and I know for a fact some of the people who will chide him have probably called the pope worse.

    Seems to me the people who dropped the ball here are the protocol people that prep the president for such meetings.

  4. Ten Jones says:

    OK, so how about I’d address the President of the United States of America with “Yo, Homes!” in public? Or “Whassup, Mofo?”

    I mean (to adapt your argument): my neighborhood is really, really cool (maybe the coolest ‘Hood evar) and besides terms like “Homes” or “Mofo” are considered terms of endearment and respect where I come from…

    … do you see my point?

    Whenever I’m a guest anywhere I try to adhere to local protocol — among leaders of state and suchlike that’s actually often vitally important (see: diplomacy). So, yes, that was bad behaviour by Mr. Bush (or his protocol should have briefed him better), and, no, it’s of course not the end of the world. But definitely noteworty for the lack of respect it shows (deliberate or through sloppiness).

  5. Nikolay says:

    Given the great respect that Bush gives to Islamic butchers, it would seem fair not to piss off Pope either.

  6. just me says:

    OK, so how about I’d address the President of the United States of America with “Yo, Homes!” in public? Or “Whassup, Mofo?”

    But these aren’t really comparable to calling the Pope “sir.”

    I would say calling the president “Mr. Bush” instead of “Mr. President” or “President Bush” is along the same lines as calling the Pope “Sir.”

  7. William d'Inger says:

    Yawn. Um,by the way, what did Paris have for breakfast?

  8. Ten Jones says:

    to: “just me”

    Yes, I know. I was using a rethorical figure called “hyperbole” to make my argument more fun to read. The actual argument, though, still stands: It was impolite (bordering on rude in the particular situation/environment), and in diplomatic circles (at that level) something like that definitely should not happen, be it by deliberation or sloppiness.

    As I said: No “biggie” in the grand panorama of human relations through the ages; but I’m also not surprised that it was noted “with raised eyebrows”.

  9. Anderson says:

    I don’t think it’s shocking, but by JJ’s logic, an atheist ought not to call a pastor “Reverend,” etc. I think plenty of people who aren’t Catholic, or even Christian, have obeyed common courtesy and addressed the pope as he likes to be addressed.

    But I’m confident Bush meant nothing by the slight, and I’m sure reports of his lack of intelligence and tact are familar to Benedict.

  10. ocdemocrat says:

    From Ten Jones:

    OK, so how about I’d address the President of the United States of America with “Yo, Homes!” in public? Or “Whassup, Mofo?”

    First off, our boy King has too much on his mind to remember how to properly address world figures. Secondly, Bush is basically an uncouth person who has
    somehow convinced Republicans that he is “cool”.

    And as far as “Wassup Mofo”, I would say: ‘Hey POTUS, when are you going to start acting like the leader of the “free world” instead of some fraternity jock trying to be clever or funny? Hey POTUS, grow up!!

  11. Henry Martin says:

    There are certain protocols for addressing officials. The queen is “Her Majesty”, a minister is “The Reverend”, the President is “Mr. President”. It is not a matter of being Catholic, I would be expected to address the queen of England as “Your Majesty”, or a judge as “The Honorable”. The reason people where horrified was that Dubya didn’t know or refused to use proper etiquette. In Texas this is known as “White Trash”

  12. Anjin-San says:

    People either have class, or they don’t. Mr. Bush would fall in the latter category…

  13. Cernig says:

    When Bush heard the US was a “classless society”, he misunderstood.

  14. ocdemocrat says:

    Sorry, have to tell this one.

    After Katrina, they asked the boy king what he thought of Roe vs. Wade, and he said:”That’s a decision for each New Orleans resident to make on their own!”

  15. Jim Henley says:

    At least he didn’t try to give the Pope a shoulder rub.

  16. Paul Barnes says:

    I would probably call the Pope sir too, but out of nervousness.

  17. kenny says:

    “I wouldn’t think the head of other churches would address Ratzinger as “Your Holiness” nor would another monarch address QEII as “Your Majesty.””

    In a situation where they’re representing their respective countries/churches ? Of course they do and they’d expect the same courtesy back.

    So the pope calls (for example) the Head of the Syrian Orthodox Church “Your Holiness” and the pope is in return called ‘Your Holiness’.

    In this case Bush wasn’t meeting the Pope as a private citizen, but as Head of State was meeting another Head of State (and as a guest).

    Now in this case , no breach of protocol was meant (nor i think would it have been perceived as such). However the point remains , that it is good manners to follow protocol.

  18. Dr. Joyner,

    I understand your reasoning but I think that your two commenters Kenny and Ten Jones explained it quite well: in this particular surrounding Bush should refer to the Pope as Your Holiness, not “sir.” Again, whether or not Bush considers the Pope to be holy is quite irrelevant.

  19. Andy says:

    At least he didn’t try to give the Pope a shoulder rub.

    As long as he followed official Catholic shoulder rubbing protocol, I think that would have been fine.

  20. I’m not convinced that we have to do whatever is “established procedure”, especially if it makes no sense. Why, exactly, do some people get to be called whatever absurd title they assign themselves, and others not?

    If I declare I am to be addressed as “Your Supremest Holiness, Pope-above-Popes”, is Ratzinger going to comply? If not, why should I play his silly games, either? (Note that “because he’s [gasp, swoon] the Pope” is no answer. I’m the Supremest Holiness Pope-above-Popes, and on just as much authority.)

    Those kinds of gestures are especially inappropriate for members of other religions. There are at least some gestures of submission that Bush, as a Methodist or whatever, is prohibited from making to the Catholic Pope; granting the Pope a title more exalted than the ones claimed by his own religious leaders is understandably objectionable on the same grounds. Even though it was probably just cluelessness on his part, in this case, and possibly for the first time, I have to say that Bush did the right thing.

  21. Another hypothetical: how should one address Perez Musharraf? He styles himself as the President of Pakistan, despite the fact he is clearly not a President by any meaningful definition of the word. Ought he be addressed as Mr. President?

  22. Boyd says:

    I’m just shocked that protocol can be so warped as to regard the use of “sir” a breach.

    Also, speaking as a (displaced) Texan, it’s kinda ingrained in us that the affirmative response to a question from a man is “yessir.” This is the first time I’ve ever heard of that response being considered anything but respectful.

    But hell, I’m just one of those unintelligent, tactless Texans, so I have more opportunities to learn and improve than all those other smart, tactful folks.

  23. Michael says:

    Ok, I don’t see why anyone is upset that Bush referred to the Pope as “Sir”. But James, why do you keep referring to him as “Ratzinger” when he has taken the name “Benedict” now?

  24. James Joyner says:

    James, why do you keep referring to him as “Ratzinger” when he has taken the name “Benedict” now?

    I still haven’t gotten around to referring to Marvin Hagler as “Marvelous” even though he changed his name much longer ago. Call me a creature of habit.

  25. Michael says:

    I still haven’t gotten around to referring to Marvin Hagler as “Marvelous” even though he changed his name much longer ago.

    Who?