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Contemporary Catholic Belief and Action


Clifford Longley
Your Eminences, Your Graces, My Lords - this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, how about a joint demonstration of unity in humility? Pope Francis has ruled that the title Monsignor (literally "My Lord") should no longer be awarded to priests under the age of 65. He opposed the use of all such titles by his clergy when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires. Isn't it time you went the whole hog, and got rid of every last trace of all that feudal pomposity? It is sending precisely the wrong message. 
In both the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church, archbishops are regarded as the equivalent to dukes, and so, like dukes, are entitled to be addressed as "Your Grace". Bishops, likewise, are regarded as equivalent to the rank of an earl or baron, and so are entitled to be addressed as "My Lord". 
The "correct" style of address for an archbishop is "the Most Reverend" and for a bishop, "the Right Reverend". Ordinary priests are "the Reverend", either "Reverend Mr" or "Reverend Father". The Church of England also has "the Very Reverend" for archdeacons and the like, but I haven't come across that usage in the Catholic Church. But isn't it time we recognised that all this is an out-of-date piece of nonsense? Why should ordained clergy be automatically revered? I am sure it makes them uncomfortable if they think about.
An ecumenical act of professional renunciation by down-sizing forms of addresses and titles would draw attention to the coming Kingdom of Heaven where the first will be last and the last first. "Mr" is an adequate form of address for the clergy, however senior. 
There is no problem with Archbishop Smith, Bishop Jones or Dean Brown, where appropriate. And Cardinal Jackson is sufficient. A cardinal may or may not be eminent, but we cannot assume it. Cardinal Hume once told me he had the utmost difficulty adjusting to being addressed as Your Eminence and it made him feel hypocritical. The designation "Prince of the Church" belongs in the history books of the "Ancien Régime".
I am in two minds about the Pope's own title of Holy Father, though it is hardly used any more in the mass media. One would hope a Pope would be holy, though it seems strange to regard that description as ex-officio. Attaching that title to the Borgia Pope Alexander VI does raise a few problems. I doubt that was what his illegitimate children (or his mistress) called him.
There is no need to object to "Father", shortened to "Fr", though in Matthew 23:9 Jesus is reported to have told his disciples "Call no man father, as you already have a father in heaven." But he was manifestly not talking about ecclesiastical titles, and in any case, no-one who calls a priest "Father" is mistaking him for their biological male parent, which is what Jesus was trying to convey. (Except in those rare cases where they really are, see Borgias above.)
This may seem trivial, but symbols matter. A church deeply attached to an outdated, indeed mediaeval, class system is easily misunderstood as wanting to retain these titles as signs of social privilege, an ecclesiastical version of Upstairs Downstairs. Growing inequality is a stain on modern societies, and is not only measured in economic terms. How does the Church attack inequality, when it has built it into its own internal language? It is one of the many unconscious pillars of the pervasive culture of clericalism.
So what would it take for the House of Bishops of the Church of England, say, to make a proposal to their equivalents in the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales - or vice versa - for a once-for-all bonfire of their spiritual vanities? No more honorific Lords, Graces, Mosts, Rights or Verys. Just Christians, doing their best.