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.”

A Slice of America in 2007
Skeptically Naive