language corner

Cardinal Sins

First or middle name?
February 21, 2012

In ceremonies filled with pomp, twenty-two men were named cardinals in the Roman Catholic Church, including two from the United States: Timothy Dolan of the Archdiocese of New York and Edwin O’Brien, emeritus archbishop of Baltimore and now the Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. (Now, THAT’S a title!)

Depending on where you looked, the men are addressed in different fashions: In most news reports, they were referred to as “Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan” and “Cardinal Edwin F. O’Brien.“ But on the website of the Archdiocese of New York, the new cardinal is called “Timothy Cardinal Dolan.”

And therein lies a tale.

The tradition of putting “Cardinal” between first and last names has a long history. Before the Middle Ages, “Cardinal” was a title given to priests in prominent churches; later their numbers were limited and their power consolidated, and their selection became a matter for the pope.

Since cardinals had much political power as well, they were often referred to the way nobility was: Just as Alfred Lord Tennyson had “Lord” as his middle name, so did the cardinals have “Cardinal” as theirs. And just as Tennyson was sometimes referred to as “Alfred, Lord Tennyson,” so were Cardinals sometimes called “John, Cardinal Smith.”

As part of the Second Vatican Council (more popularly called Vatican II), Popes John XXIII and Paul VI greatly expanded the College of Cardinals, and, as part of the modernization of the church, they started to refer to cardinals in less-formal proceedings as “Cardinal John Smith.” It was left to the individual as to how to refer to himself. (Even those who maintained the middle-name tradition, though, would often abbreviate it, signing “John Card. Smith” on all but the most formal of documents.)

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But old habits die hard, and news outlets adapted more slowly: Most kept “John Cardinal Smith” as their style well into the 1970s and 80s. Today, nearly all style guides allow “Cardinal John Smith.” The Chicago Manual of Style says “Francis Cardinal George or, less formally, Cardinal George.” The New York Post and Daily News, perhaps following the lead of their city’s archdiocese, called the prelate “Timothy Cardinal Dolan,” as did many of the city’s TV stations.

William Safire wrote on this topic several times, the last time in 1987, when, he noted that New York Times style was to put “Cardinal” between the Christian name and the last name, even though one cardinal told him, “We don’t do that anymore.” Safire wrote: “In some matters, The Times thinks in terms of centuries.”

The stylebook Safire was bound by at the time had, however, moved some: In 1976, it started to require a first name for the local cardinal as well as the out-of-towners. (Is that a step forward or backward?)

In 1999, The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage finally modernized its style, saying, “Church authorities no longer place Cardinal between given name and surname.”

Apparently The Times’s hometown archdiocese hasn’t heeded the word, even though the Catholic News Agency and even the pope himself refer to the new Eminence as “Cardinal Timothy Dolan.”

Perhaps it’s time that New York caught up to the Vatican.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.