Today it was noted in the secular press that Pope Benedict XVI would not be attending the State Dinner given at the White House in his honor. While such a decline to dine at the White House is not something, we would normally expect from a visiting head of state, it is keeping within the traditions of protocol for the Pope.

Traditionally, the Pope limits his dining companions to members of the Papal Household or prelates that discuss Church matters with him over a “working” meal. In the United States, it is sometimes difficult for us to comprehend the heritage of traditions associated with the world’s longest serving monarchy, the Bishop of Rome. While the Holy Father is the spiritual leader of over a billion Catholics, he is also the temporal ruler of the Vatican City State. Some of the traditions and customs that surround the Papal Court were established in the fourteenth century and have virtually unchanged until Pope Paul VI reorganized the Roman Curia in 1968.

The fact that the Holy Father does not dine in public is often an issue that is more deeply rooted in traditions associated with a monarchial papacy. John-Paul II during his papacy often dined with people outside of the well-insulated Papal Household, but he chooses always to be the polite host and not the guest at the table. Such is the same with the present Holy Father. One needs to understand that for Catholics, Benedict XVI is the embodiment of temporal and spiritual authority in the Church, and as a result, wherever he goes, he brings the presence of the Church with him. Popes until John-Paul II usually dined alone. Blessed John XXIII compared this unique aspect of papal behavior as something compared to being punished.

American culture needs to comprehend the fact that the papacy is an old and well-established institution that brings with it a variety of behavioral nuances. In addition to being a head of state, the Pope is also an absolute monarch in terms of authority over the destiny of the Catholic Church. American Catholics sometimes are unable to appreciate the fact that the Catholic Church is not a democracy in its form of government. Often, we want to apply the principles of the American Founding Fathers to the everyday life of the Catholic Church. However, our principles of a republic do not apply to the governance of the Holy See.

Perhaps the most closely related form of monarchy Americans are able to compare with the Pope is the constitutional monarchy of Great Britain. However, even this modern monarchy lacks the juridical and temporal authority that is exercised by the Successor to Saint Peter. Within the Church, there are specific protocols that govern the daily activities of the Holy Father and how he interacts with everyone around him. Additionally, there are diplomatic protocols that have been established for the world’s diplomatic community that need to be considered as well. After all, as temporal ruler of the worlds smallest nation, the Pope deserves certain diplomatic honors (e.g. 21-gun salute).

However, because of the unique combination of his religious and temporal responsibilities it makes perfect sense to understand the Catholic Church’s traditions that have given the papacy a certain mystique that does not permit the Pope public displays like the rest of the world’s leaders. Therefore, while the Pope is appreciative of the State Dinner at the White House, Americans should not interpret his lack of attendance as an affront to the United States. It should be seen as the preference of a religious leader of the world’s Catholic Church that prefers to dine with small groups of fellow clerics and not in the bright observations of the White House or the public.

When Benedict travels the entire bureaucratic government of the Church travels with him. When the Pope has dinner at the Apostolic Nunciature in Washington next week, he will not be considered as a guest, but rather the host at all of the meals and activities. After all, the Pope is the physical embodiment of the Church’s spiritual and temporal government. When he is physically present at a diplomatic residence, it is by custom part of his Vatican City State. Americans do not easily understand some of the nuances of diplomatic protocol. This author suggests reading The Church Visible, by James Patrick Noonan to get some glimpse over the details regarding the Papal Court and traditions associated with it.

Finally, everyone should just appreciate the Pope is an octogenarian and has an especially important message to deliver to the American Catholic Church and indeed the world. His preference towards a working dinner with the American Bishops is just part of the usual activities for the Holy See and a Pope that is a pragmatic and efficient leader that wants to meet with his American Bishops. No one should criticize the Holy Father for making the most of every moment he has in the United States with the domestic leaders of his Catholic Church.

Hugh McNichol is a Catholi author that writes on Catholic topics and issues. He write a daily column, “Nothing Left Unsaid!” at and writes frequently for

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