Vatican made Right Call with Title for Pope Benedict XVI

Houston Chronicle

The Vatican very wisely decided what Pope Benedict XVI would be called after he stepped down on February 28: He will be known as Pope Benedict XVI.

The 2000 year-old papacy simply did what’s done in the 200 year-old United States: When a president leaves office, he surrenders his powers but retains for life the courtesy title of president. He is called President Bush or President Clinton but is no longer “the President”. Only the incumbent occupant of the White House may be called that.

The “the” makes all the difference. Whoever succeeds Benedict will without question be the Pope, in charge of the Roman Catholic Church and its sole and infallible source of dogma. Only one such person may sit on the papal throne at a time, so there should be no problem having elsewhere on the premises a former pontiff who merely tends to scholarly pursuits, prays for the Church, and makes occasional public appearances.

Benedict will still be addressed as “Your Holiness”, much as former chief executives in the US are still called “Mr. President”.

Europeans are stricter about this sort of thing than are Americans. Just a couple of weeks ago, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands announced her abdication, the third Dutch queen in a row to give up the throne. Her mother, Queen Juliana, reverted to being Princess Juliana when she abdicated in 1980. The soon-to-be-ex-queen presumably will once more be Princess Beatrix. Likewise, when King Edward VIII of Great Britain abdicated in 1936 to marry “the woman I love”, he was introduced on a radio broadcast as “Prince Edward”. He later was made duke of Windsor.

We Americans always imagine Europeans to be preoccupied with titles, what with their countless counts, excellencies, marchionesses, eminences, worships, and herr doktors. And yet they think we Yanks are far more title-conscious than they.

True enough, over here we routinely call a wide variety of individuals by titles they held earlier in life: General, senator, governor, commissioner, ambassador – even coach. Houstonians still speak fondly of “Mayor Bob” (Lanier), and the late Louie Welch was called “Mayor” for more than three decades after he left City Hall.

But calling someone by his or her old title simply is not done across the pond. As an aide to then-Vice President George Bush in 1981, I attended a reception in his honor given in London by the US ambassador. I was talking with the editor of the Economist when Edward Heath, prime minister from 1970-74, began walking towards us. I quickly asked the editor, “What should I call him: Mr. Prime Minister?” The editor shrank in horror, as if I were proposing to call Heath something obscene. “No!” he said. “It’s Mr. Heath.”

Americans also give the honorific “honorable” to anyone who’s ever been elected to public office, down to the proverbial dogcatcher, as well as to numerous appointed officials at the state and national levels. Such a widescale use of this title amuses people in the U.K., where only the younger offspring of dukes, marquesses, and earls may be “honourable” and only members of the Queen’s Privy Council are “right honourable”.

This recalls a story that Louis Macey, then a Houston city councilman, liked to tell after being introduced to audiences as “honorable”. An auctioneer (who in the US for some hoary reason is always called “colonel”) was arrested for being drunk and disorderly and was hauled before a magistrate. After studying the rap sheet, the judge gazed in disbelief on the wobbly heap before him. “It says here that you’re a colonel,” the judge asked. “Are you really a colonel?”

The auctioneer hiccoughed and replied, “No, Judge. It’s kinda like that ‘honorable’ in front of your name: It don’t mean a thing.”

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