“Sir” and “ma’am” have long been considered respectful and courteous ways to address adults and those in positions of authority. Parents are delighted to hear their children address adults with such considerate language. Bosses are very appreciative of their employees responding with a respectful “Yes, sir” or “Yes, ma’am.” Kings, presidents, and military heroes demand our deference. God commands Christians to “[r]ender therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor” (Romans 13:7, emp. added).
Recently, the highest ranking political and military official in the United States, President and Commander-in-Chief George W. Bush, visited Pope Benedict XVI for the first time. What will be remembered most about their meeting? That President Bush had the “audacity” to refer to the pope several times as “Sir.” News organizations all over the world reported how “Bush drew gasps at the Vatican...by referring to Pope Benedict XVI as ‘sir’ instead of the expected ‘His holiness’” (“Bush...,” 2007). Columnist John Hooper wrote: “[B]efore he got down to cases with Bush, the Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles and Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church had the unusual experience of being called ‘sir.’ ‘It’s good to be with you, sir,’ said Bush as he sat down” (2007). In addition to “consistently” addressing the pope as “Sir,” Catholic World News also noted how President Bush “did not bow when he met the Pope” (“Iraq...,” 2007).
Bush spoke respectfully to the pope, yet was criticized heavily for not venerating him as “The Holy Father” or acknowledging him as “the Vicar of Jesus Christ.” In reality, every faithful Christian falls under the same criticism because the pope deserves no such reverence. Christians must never feel pressured into honoring any human being in the way we honor God. There is only one Holy Father (Ephesians 4:6), and no man should expect to be called by that name in a religious context (Matthew 23:9). Even the apostle Peter (whom Catholics errantly allege was the first pope; see Pinedo, 2005) rejected such adoration (Acts 10:25-26). Only God is worthy of our worship and sacred praise (Matthew 4:10).
Respecting our fellow man and giving “honor to whom honor” is due is biblical (Romans 13:7). Venerating a man above all men in a religious sense, however, is unscriptural. All Christians are part of the “royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9), but we serve no High Priest but Christ (Hebrews 8:1; 9:11; 10:21). He has no vicar on Earth. Rather, Jesus has “all authority...in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18).
Regardless of what one thinks of George W. Bush as President, his refusal to call the pope by one of his “holy” names is a noble act worth emulating. If the pope was obedient to Almighty God, he would (among many other things) be content with respectful addresses, rather than expecting reverence due only to God.
“Bush Makes a Gaffe at Vatican City” (2007), The Times of India, June 11, [On-line], URL: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/Bush_makes_a_gaffe_at_Vatican_City /articleshow/2113119.cms.
Hooper, John (2007), “What the President said to ‘His Holy Father,’” The Guardian, June 10, [On-line], URL: http://www.guardian.co.uk/italy/story/0,,2099715,00.html.
“Iraq Tops Agenda as Bush Meets with Pope” (2007), Catholic World News, June 11, [On-line], URL: http://www.cwnews.com/news/viewstory.cfm?recnum=51704.
Pinedo, Moises (2005), “The Pope, the Papacy, and the Bible,” Apologetics Press, [On-line], URL: http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/2724.
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