Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Is The Pope Catholic?

Posted by Elyse Bruce on January 8, 2015

When a question is asked to which the answer is obvious, you sometimes hear someone ask the rhetorical question:  Is the Pope Catholic?  The answer to that question (regardless of what religion, if any, you may observe) is a resounding YES!  The idiom is a polite way of inferring that the person asking the initial question is either stupid or needlessly ignorant.

In 1999, John Cantwell Kiley published a book entitled, “Is The Pope Catholic: A Novel Autobiography.”  The book is entirely fictional and is centered around Pope Peter II (a pope who never existed except in the mind of the author and on the pages of this novel).  As the author states in the Preface:  “The 21st century will be a spiritual century or there will be no century at all.”

This isn’t the first time the idiom has been used for entertainment purposes.  On April 23, 1987, Ira Rifkin of the Los Angeles Daily News wrote an article about two Irish Roman Catholic brothers (one working as a counselor, the other working as a psychologist) from Boston who came up with an alternative to bingo for Catholics who enjoyed games.  The game was a cross between “Trivial Pursuit” and “Monopoly” and was named, “Is The Pope Catholic?

The board was set up so players advanced along a rosary, starting off as altar boys and finally becoming Pope.  All players had to do was to answer questions about topics such as pagan babies, Patron Saints, spiritual works of mercy, the Commandments,and more.  The game was four years in the making and cost the two brothers $50,000 USD to develop.  Do board game aficionados consider the game a vintage board game?  Is the Pope Catholic?

At the Proposed Amendments to Federal Transportation Laws Hearings of April and May, 1962, Senator Monroney asked Mr. Carter:  “Do they still have in the furniture business, from your competition in Baltimore or other large centers, the switch-up, the “nail to the floor” selling, in some of these things, when bait advertising is used?”  The answer Mr. Carter gave in response to this question was:

My little boy has a saying, “Is the Pope Catholic?”  I am sure there are many, many areas in this type of merchandising where you have the bait and switch.

In other words, back in 1962 this expression was so well-known that even children were known to use it.  Four years earlier it was also found in the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company “Field Notes” Volume 58/59 where George G. Everhart of Kansas City, Missouri was quoted on page 9 as saying:

Is the Pope Catholic?  This is a smart answer!  Certainly making the Million Dollar Round Table adds a lot of prestige and stature.”

In the September 16, 1967 edition of Billboard magazine, an interview with Voyle Gilmore, then Capitol Records’ A&R vice-president, he told a story that dated back to the late 1950s about American jazz singer Keely Smith and Frank Sinatra.

“Easing back in his swivel chair, Gilmore, 55 years old, streaks of gray in his hair and a former band drummer in the San Francisco area, explained:  “I had been after him to record a duet with Keely Smith.  He came in with two tunes, one from a Bob Hope picture which he’d promised Hope he would record.  So I called Keely one afternoon.  I asked her, ‘Do you want to make a record with Frank Sinatra?’  She said:  ‘Is the Pope Catholic?‘  I’ll never forget that.  We made the record but it didn’t sell well.”

The saying was a recognized and established expression if everyone from insurance agents to singers to little boys were using it in every day conversations.  Although Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version of this idiom, it’s safe to say that it was floating about in the lexicon in the early 1950s and possibly in the late 1940s.

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One Response to “Is The Pope Catholic?”

  1. Larry Petrie said

    Having heard this expression since I was a wee lad (1960s), I have never taken it to be an indication of the speaker’s implication that the questioner is “stupid” or “ignorant” in any way (“Well, DUH?”). But more along the lines of, “Not only yes, but Hell Yes!” An emphatic agreement with whatever offer or situation was proposed.

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