“Just Call Me Father Bob”

Deacon James H. Toner

By Deacon James H. Toner

Deacon James H. Toner, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Leadership and Ethics at the U.S. Air War College, a former U.S. Army officer, and author of Morals Under the Gun and other books. He has also taught at Notre Dame, Norwich, Auburn, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and Holy Apostles College & Seminary. He serves in the Diocese of Charlotte.

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In the past few decades, a number of people contend, we have made great progress in no longer being stuffy and pompous. We have, for example, finally scrapped many of those old-fashioned titles. A cardinal may still be addressed as “Your Eminence,” but many clergy now use first names, with optional titles—as in the case of “Father Bob.” Many high school teachers and college professors have caught the spirit, too, using only their first names. Three cheers, it seems, for informality!

I dissent.

Except for more “exalted” positions (such as Cardinal, or President, or Colonel), we have largely lost, it is true, a certain “social distance” (except for standing in queues) which used to mark positions of authority. We celebrate this—mistakenly, in my judgment—by claiming that informality is a great good, and we are merrily abolishing many of the so-called stiff and stodgy titles of yesteryear. Even parents are sometimes referred to as “Marge” or “Fred” instead of “Mom” and “Dad.” And the priest who prefers “Father Smith” to “Father Bob”—or even just “Bob”—runs the risk of seeming to be unapproachable or anti-social.

In my own case, I was never addressed in the Army as “Captain Jim,” or as a college teacher as “Professor Jim,” or as a coach as “Coach Jim.” As a deacon, though, I have had to try hard and often to indicate that I much prefer “Deacon Toner” to “Deacon Jim.” It helps, I think, that I am old!  

In fact, this whole “name game” is a minor social revolution. When I was in high school about ninety years ago (that’s hyperbole, by the way), my Latin teacher was “Mr. Harrington,” not “Tom”; my pastor was Father Hoey, not “Father Richard”; and my basketball coach was “Mr. Costa,” not “Tony.” Had I ever called my Army drill sergeant by his first name, I would have done 200 push-ups (well, at least I would have been told to do that many).

Teacher, priest, coach, Army sergeant—they all had an office. They all had the responsibilities of that office. The manner in which I addressed them continually reminded me—and them—of their particular duties. They were not my friends. They had legitimate authority over me; they were, in one way or another, in charge of me. My calling them “Mister” (or “Professor”), “Father,” “Coach,” and “Drill Sergeant” was not an onomastic amusement but verbal recognition that their authority was grounded in their obligation to teach, shepherd, coach, and train me according to the nature of the office they held.

Teachers and coaches normally do not have 24-hour duties toward their students or athletes. Priests and military officers, by contrast, normally do have that duty. Good priests and good military officers are never off duty.  

We recognize that duty by referring to the priest not as “Bob,” but as “Father Smith,” for he is a priest forever (cf. Hebrews 7:17). Soldiers recognize their officers’ rank and responsibility by referring to them as, say, “Colonel” or “Sir” or “Ma’am.” As for the parents whose children address them as “Marge” and “Fred,” well, the children will have many friends with whom they will be on a first-name basis; but they will normally have just two parents, their Mom and their Dad, whom they should honor (Exodus 20:12) by respectfully addressing them by their God-given titles.

Spiritual directors used to spend considerable effort in teaching the virtue of detachment, by which, in part, is meant the duty of responsible authorities to commend and to correct, to applaud and to admonish, to pat on the back and to kick, well, lower—as circumstances may require. Correction, admonition, and punishment require detachment. Even as a former Army soldier, I can admire this succinct Marine Corps expression: “A Marine on guard duty has no friends.” 

If we understand the noun friend (see Sirach 6:13-17), in the sense of one whom another can rightly and reasonably favor over others, then Father Smith, Colonel Jones, and Professor Brown have no friends (see Acts 10:34 and Romans 2:11). They have parishioners, soldiers, and students whom they must always guide and guard and whom, from time to time, they must reprove. That can be tough enough for an appropriately detached Father Smith; it is much tougher, I suggest, for the jocund “Father Bob.”

Read through some of the threads following posted columns. Suppose “John Smith” has written such a column. If the thread is long enough, someone will invariably refer to Mr./Professor/Dr. Smith as “John.” Now, there is nothing evil or sinful about that. But one is prone to asking the person using the familiar “John” if his or her parents (“Fred” and “Marge”?) failed to teach basic etiquette. If the writer of the article happens to be, say, “Jean Smith,” the use of an appropriate title resolves the social question of Miss/Mrs./Ms.—until the publisher knows the writer’s preference. To refer to her, however, as “Jean” is gauche. “Life is short,” Ralph wrote, “but there is always time enough for courtesy.” (Er—Mr. Ralph Waldo Emerson, that is.) 

Some time ago, after Mass, a young man (perhaps 13), with his friend, passed by the tabernacle, waved, and said, “Hi, God!” I tried gently but firmly to correct him, saying something such as “That is the God who lived, died, and rose again for all of us. It would be better just to genuflect as an act of reverence than to say ‘hi.’ Don’t you think so?”      

Informality is carried to blasphemous lengths, of course, when we refer to God as “the big Guy Upstairs.” Then there is the “Hail Mary Pass”—not actually intended, I am sure, to be offensive to the Mother of God and to Catholics who daily pray to Our Lady. I think, though, that I am not being overly sensitive in finding these expressions to be spiritually repellent.  

Be careful, therefore, lest informality devolve into profanity or irreverence. If it’s true—as I believe it is—that we ought to speak what we believe, and that we ought to believe what we speak, an easy-going informality may very well lead to laxity, not just in personal names, but in moral norms. Familiarity may not always breed contempt (cf. Mark 6:1-6); familiarity rooted in what psychologist Edward E. Jones called “Ingratiation” (pleasing people in a possibly manipulative manner) is, however, the utter opposite of the spiritual good of detachment.    

In June 2008, we were instructed by the Church that, in liturgical celebrations, songs, and prayers, we should not speak the name “Yahweh.” Always, we must preserve the greatest respect for Almighty God (see Exodus 3:13-15) and for the sacred name of Jesus (Philippians 2:9-10—at the mention of which every head should bow or knee bend). We must never use the sacred names in vain (Exodus 20:7; Ezekiel 39:7). Informality—excessive familiarity—toward God is, in fact, sacrilegious. That is, by the way, a compelling reason for retaining the devout language of thy and thou, which denote reverence because they are a distinctive manner of addressing Our Lord and Our Lady.  

We should, and must, show respect for the sacred office of priest, and for him who is privileged to hold that office, by referring to him not as “Bob,” but as “Father Smith.” And Father Smith, for his part, should manfully request the use of the title of his sacred office, the responsibility for which is his…forever.