Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Call No Man Father

"But be not you called Rabbi. For one is your master; and all you are brethren. And call none your father upon earth; for one is your father, who is in heaven. Neither be ye called masters; for one is your master, Christ."

Protestants often attack Catholics for calling priests "Father" or referring to men as spiritual fathers, etc. Of course, that is grossly out of context, as they still recognize and refer to their own familial father; and Christ said to respect fathers and mothers like that in other places in the Gospel. Obviously this is just, in the hyperbolic style Jesus was so good at, a reminder of the universal spiritual equality of all mankind (regardless of position or status), and the Fatherhood of God, "of whom all paternity in heaven and earth is named."

However, one thing that has really started to annoy me is the sloppy use of the term "Holy Father," for the Pope.

I'm not saying it doesn't have a place, but I believe it is (or was originally) an informal title of address, analogous to "Father" for priests. The formal address is, of course, "Your/His Holiness", as "Reverend" is for priests. It is, or at least it should be, what is called in English an honorific, used in address.

That's all fine and good. If a member of the papal household, or even a subject who somehow manages to talk to the Pope one-on-one with filial piety addresses him, "Holy Father, I've got a problem to ask you about," etc...that makes grammatical sense and is fine.

What is a bit bizarre is the way that "Holy Father" has been transformed into a concrete particular noun, "the Holy Father." In third person references, I wouldn't refer to a priest in my parish as "the father," or even "a father" just free-floating like that. I'd refer to him as "Fr. Name", or else "the priest," or "the pastor there," or perhaps (though I find even this a bit affected) as "Father" with no article in front if it was already understood to whom I was referring. But never would "father" become a concrete noun meaning priest, rather than being understood as an honorific, as a title of address.

Yet it seemingly has in some Catholic circles with "Holy Father" and the Pope, to the point that some Catholics will say something like, "Benedict is the current Holy Father," rather than just "the current pope," or even more irritatingly, "the previous Holy Father said..." instead of just "the previous pope." If people can perhaps get away with applying it sloppily to the current holder of the title, applying it to the past like that as if it were the name of the Office in itself...is inexcusable.

Of course, the term "Pope" itself (which I'd say is the more appropriate concrete noun) comes from "papa" and just basically means "Father"...but in English that isn't as clear, so it makes a convenient concrete noun for the office and person of the supreme pontiff. But, to me, the use of "Holy Father" as a concrete noun equivalent to "Pope," is irritating, too precious.

We wouldn't use "mister" as a concrete noun like that, "The Mr. walked into the store," or "See that Mr. over there." We use it as an honorific when addressing someone ("Excuse me, Mister..."), or as a title before their name, but we don't treat it as a concrete noun any more that "sir" or "ma'am." Only in situations that call for affectation ("Is the Mrs. home?) would we ever do something like that.

Titles that are occupational or rank based (lieutenant, doctor, senator, etc) can also used as concrete nouns because the office or occupation is a concrete noun, with concrete instantiations in the form of the people. But "Holy Father" is an honorific or term of endearment, not the name of his office, at least in common English parlance; there is a "papacy," there is not (in English, at least) a "Holy-Father-hood" (analogously, the Church has a priesthood, not a "father-hood"). Hence why I said you especially should not refer to past Popes as "previous Holy Fathers," or anything so cloying.

"Holy Father" is something you should say to the Pope, not an equivalent concrete noun to be used when designating the Pope in third-person references. I mean, "our father" or "my father" both have other connotations (God and the person's familial father, respectively) that would exclude their use to refer to priests. Inserting the adjective "holy" in between doesn't seem to make that situation any better to me, especially when the founders of religious orders are also formerly referred to by their members as "Our Holy Father N." a situation made especially confusing for monks now that the Pope is named Benedict.

Now, perhaps the usage "the Holy Father" as a particular noun is slipping into common usage, though I find that affected and unfortunate. But it especially gets a sloppy and weird-sounding when people start using at as a generic noun and say things like, "Pius VII was a Holy Father in the 19th century," or even, now, using it as a concrete noun in the plural, as in "the writings of the recent Holy Fathers," meaning the Popes. Such usage makes me cringe. And it is confusing, not least of all because there are also the Fathers of the Church who have a more ancient claim to that sort of designation!

Ignorant Catholics act as if "Holy Father" and "Pope" are just synonyms, interchangeable in a sentence, for variety or whatever. It isn't true, they are not grammatically equivalent. "Pope" is a generic noun. We can speak of "a pope," "the pope," "past popes," "future popes," "this pope," "that pope," etc. You cannot throw around "Holy Father," like that. It is makes me cringe when I hear someone say something like, "That Holy Father did something, and now this Holy Father is doing stuff too." Even if you can get away with using it as a particular concrete noun, you just cannot use it as a generic noun like that!!!

I don't know all the exact rules of usage. Perhaps a grammarian or etiquettician could help. But I definitely think this usage is becoming disturbingly and annoyingly over-used, in the wrong grammatical contexts, by people (especially neocons) with a saccharine affection for the Pope. I'm not saying there might not be some contexts where using "the Holy Father" or "our Holy Father" in the third person would not be offensive to the ears, namely when (like Mr. or Mrs.) followed by his name: "Our Holy Father Benedict XVI." But, as a rule of thumb, I'd reserve "Holy Father" as a title of address, and stick to "Pope" in third-person references.

When in doubt, just say "Pope". It's affected to use four syllables when you can just use one, and it is simply stupid to turn an honorific into a concrete noun (especially of the generic variety).

Well, sorry for the petty rant, but as you can tell...this is really starting to get on my nerves. Not just because it's wrong grammatically, but because the people using it (albeit unknowingly) incorrectly are almost always obviously doing it to be obsequious towards the Pope.

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