Sunday, July 6, 2014

Ask Tony: Can you address a bishop as "Father"?

Writes a very dear friend of mine:

I have a regularly scheduling in-home massage client who is a "prominent" Catholic priest. When his secretary originally set up his appointments with me, she referred to him as Father , so that is how I've always addressed him. As we've gone along, we've had a few casual conversations. Within those conversations, I've addressed him as simply "Father", without the last name attached. He didn't seem offended at the familiarity. At my last visit, in one of these casual conversations, he discovered that, while I have a deeply rooted relationship with God, I am not Catholic. He seemed very surprised, almost shocked. I know that in his position he works with many people who are non-Catholics. I wondered what would cause this reaction. I thought that perhaps it is improper for me to address him in such a casual way or to refer to him as "Father". My intent was to reference his position and authority by addressing him as his title (as in "Mr. President", "Governor", "Doctor", etc). I don't want to offend him (if indeed I did). If it is improper for me to address him that way, what would be the better thing for me to use?

My answer: If you were introduced to him as "Father", then by all means address him as "Father" unless he himself objects to it. I take it by her comment that he "didn't seem offended at the familiarity" that he's probably a little higher up the ecclesial food chain — perhaps a monsignor? or the archbishop? Doesn't matter; the American hierarchy tends to be a pretty casual bunch. One blogger told me that, at one conference or another, he snuck outside for a cigarette and found himself in conversation with a cardinal who was also getting his nicotine fix. (As an "out" group, we smokers have a kind of instant cameraderie.) 

At any rate, calling him "Father" is more respectful than calling him by his first name alone, or calling him "Mister So-and-so". I know that there is some social pressure to get immediately chummy with every one we meet by calling them by their first name, even by their nickname. In fact, I usually know when someone has called me that I don't want to talk to — a salesman, a bill collector, a political pollster — because they inevitably call me "Anthony". And in my various inbound customer-service roles, my bosses have insisted we address customers by their first names even though I know from personal experience that it can be a customer irritant. So when a customer snaps back, "You don't know me well enough to call me '______'," I can relate all too well.

The issue here is one of basic respect, not of clericalism. I know some Evangelicals have a problem with calling priests "Father" because of Matthew 23:8-10 ("But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brethren. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called masters, for you have one master, the Christ.") I believe this is not just an out-of-context fallacy but also too selectively literal a reading of what's clearly rabbinic hyperbole; I don't know of any Evangelicals who have torn out their eyes or cut off their hands to avoid sins (Matthew 5:29-30), or who have emasculated themselves for the sake of the kingdom (Matthew 19:12).

Having said that, I do have to admit that there is a valid point underneath the Evangelical's out-of-context reading: People do take titles, especially their own, way too seriously. The late Gen. H. Norman Schwartzkopf remembered in his memoirs a sardonic quip from one of his commanders: "It's amazing how much my sense of humor has improved since I became a general. Now when I tell a joke, everyone laughs." Schwartzkopf then went on to remark that, in his experience, many colonels did seem to think that getting that first star made them smarter, wittier and sexier to young women. The same goes with civilian titles, such as "Doctor", "CEO" and "President" — many people act as though to be granted a position or a certificate of accomplishment is to be clothed with divinity.
This is no less of a danger in the Church than anywhere else, because holy oils don't of themselves make you holy. Pastors, bishops and other Church functionaries must be occasionally reminded that their authority is given to them to serve the people as much as to guide and teach them. In the burial ceremony of the Habsburgs, the only title that could get the body of the Emperor through the doors of the church and into his tomb was the one he shared with all humanity — ein sterblicher, sündiger Mensch ("a mortal, sinful man"). In the same way, Pope and Prince and President all face judgment alike in a Court where they have no title greater than that of the least significant peasant; ecclesiarchs have less excuse than secular leaders because they know better:

Never will I call the emperor God, and that either because it is not in me to be guilty of falsehood; or that I dare not turn him into ridicule; or that not even himself will desire to have that high name applied to him. If he is but a man, it is his interest as man to give God His higher place. Let him think it enough to bear the name of emperor. That, too, is a great name of God's giving. To call him God, is to rob him of his title. If he is not a man, emperor he cannot be. Even when, amid the honours of a triumph, he sits on that lofty chariot, he is reminded that he is only human. A voice at his back keeps whispering in his ear, "Look behind you; remember you are but a man." — Tertullian, The Apology 33

Still, there's an old military rule, enunciated perfectly by the late Maj. Richard Winters: "We salute the rank, not the man." Most positions of trust and authority, both civil and ecclesial, merit respect even when the persons currently holding them don't. Elementary courtesy to such people gets us more with less emotional outlay than does open disrespect. And there is some truth to the Aesopian maxim "Familiarity breeds contempt": by taking too much note of others' faults, weaknesses and vulnerabilities, you stand in danger of forgetting their virtues, their strengths and their weapons. Just because the lion let the fox speak with him didn't mean the lion was no longer dangerous.

As a general rule, how a clergyman introduces him/herself to you — or, as in this case, how a third party introduces himher to you — is your best rule to how you address him/her. If you initiate the contact, though, then it's best to start off with the proper form of address unless and until s/he indicates otherwise. WikiHow has a breakdown of the forms of address specific to each rank. American bishops and cardinals you can often just call "Bishop" or "Cardinal" instead of "Your Excellency" or "Your Eminence"; it's a little less formal without being disrespectful. Just remember: respect has more to do with your generosity than it does with the other person's merit. It's an application of the Golden Rule — "So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets" (Matthew 7:12).