The rhetorical question Is the Pope (a) Catholic? is used ironically as a response to a question or statement felt to be blatantly obvious—synonym: Does a bear shit in the woods?—cf. also ‘Is a bear Catholic?’ | ‘Does the Pope shit in the woods?’.
It occurs, for example, in this advertisement published in The Oregon Statesman (Salem, Oregon) of Tuesday 23rd December 1975:
Barsotti’s Geppetto’s Italian Restaurant
Is Geppetoo’s [sic] REALLY Italian?
Is the Pope a Catholic?
In The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, New South Wales) of Friday 30th October 1987, David Dale quoted Is the Pope (a) Catholic? and several of its American-English synonyms from Maledicta: The Journal of Verbal Aggression (Waukesha, Wisconsin), a journal dedicated to the study of offensive and negatively valued words and expressions, founded, edited and published by Reinhold Aman (1936-2019):
There’s also a Jewish tradition of using sarcastic questions to show contempt for comments judged to be inappropriate. The most often heard is “What am I, chopped liver?” but the range includes: Does a snake have knees? Does a chicken have lips? Does the Pope know Latin? Is the Pope a Catholic? Is the hole close to a donut? Does a bear s— in the woods? Is a pig’s ass pork? Is a four-pound robin fat?
NON-RHETORICAL USES OF THE QUESTION
The question Is the Pope (a) Catholic? has sometimes been asked seriously, though. For example, this is from The Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts) of Thursday 28th December 1854:
A Catholic Know Nothing. An Irishwoman in this city, not long since, while listening to some conversation respecting Nicholas and the Pope, inquired, very innocently—“Is the Pope a Catholic?” Fact.
The U.S. journalist, author, poet and humorist Strickland Gillilan (1869-1954) told a similar anecdote in his column The Washington Wash, published in The Muncie Morning Star (Muncie, Indiana) of Sunday 22nd August 1937:
There is a bevy of housewives in Chevy Chase that constitutes a sewing circle. They are headline-readers, never reading such profound stuff as these treatises of mine in which the inscrutable is unscrewed every week.
One day as they sat and darned husbandly socks and mended ditto shirts, one of the women said:
“Tell ya what burns me up—it’s the way the Pope keeps cracking down on Hitler.”
One lady arose silently and left the room.
“What’s the matter with Mary?” asked the commentator on the papal behavior toward der fuhrer.
“Why, she’s a Catholic,” said a mutual friend.
“You’re telling me? Didn’t I grow up with her and go to school with her?”
“Well, what you said about the Pope”—
“What? You don’t mean to tell me the Pope is a Catholic, too?”
Who called this the age of intelligence? And who said knowledge is widely disseminated?
EARLY OCCURRENCES AS A RHETORICAL QUESTION
The earliest occurrence that I have found of Is the Pope (a) Catholic? as a rhetorical question is from the first lines of the column Railbird, by Bob Jardes, published in The Kilgore News Herald (Kilgore, Texas) of Sunday 8th July 1951—the author was writing about the progress being made by the Red Sox, a professional baseball team based in Boston, Massachusetts:
Are the Red Sox coming on?
Is the Pope a Catholic?
The second-earliest occurrence that I have found is from Loss of Foot Can’t Stop Adventurer from Travel, published in the San Antonio Express (San Antonio, Texas) of Sunday 24th August 1952—Jim Furlong, a young San Antonio adventurer, had travelled half-way around the world in a small sailing boat:
“Just 18 hours from Boston I got a rope twisted around my ankle,” Furlong said. “I was thrown into the water and dragged.
“I was afraid I’d lost my foot, but it was still there. But I must have had a premonition.
“I said, ‘Joe, I may lose it—but it sure has made a lot of tracks in its day.’
“Sure enough, the doctors decided it had to come off. But I’ll have an artificial one soon.”
Would he do it all over again?
“Is the Pope a Catholic,” grinned Furlong. “Sure I would. I’m already planning my next trip—and it’s going to be the biggest yet.”
I have found another early occurrence of the phrase in the Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio) of Sunday 15th February 1959:
Stanford, Calif., Feb. 14—(AP)—Max Baer Jr. can’t hit like his old man, but he’ll keep up in the joke department.
“I hope I feel this happy when I win,” the Santa Clara senior quipped Monday night after fighting and losing his first college fight.
After being stopped in the first round by Stanford junior Trev Grimm, a joker in the audience hollered, “Does he hit hard?”
“Is the Pope Catholic?” young Baer answered. “He hits hard. And he’s fast too. I wondered why I didn’t go down.”
VARIANTS OF THE PHRASE
There have been many variants of the phrase. One occurs in Scuffed Shoes and Euphoria: The ADA Heats Up the Kennedy Draft, about the 32nd annual convention of the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), by Celia W. Dugger, published in The Washington Post (Washington, District of Columbia) of Monday 25th June 1979—the ADA wanted Edward Kennedy (1932-2009) to be the nominee of the Democratic Party in the 1980 presidential election:
Three of ADA’s most venerable members stood in the center of the floor conversing in moderated tones. John Kenneth Galbraith 1 towered benevolently over his colleagues. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan 2, whose views have become unpopular with liberals, and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., 3 known as the dean of American liberalism.
Someone asked Schlesinger when he joined the ADA. He laughed, and a man standing nearby remarked: “That’s like asking when the Pope became a Catholic.”
1 John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006) was a Canadian-born U.S. economist.
2 Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1927-2003) was a U.S. politician, sociologist and diplomat.
3 Arthur Meier Schlesinger, Jr., (1917-2007) was a U.S. historian, educator and public official.
According to Howell Raines in Haig 4 Takes Offense, and Makes It Public, published in The New York Times (New York City, N.Y.) of Sunday 8th November 1981, Richard V. Allen (born 1936), national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan 5 from 1981 to 1982, used an extended form of the phrase:
Asked if he would be able to stay in his job, Mr. Allen added, “Is the Pope a Catholic and will he remain one? Of course, I’m staying on.”
4 Alexander Haig (1924-2010) was Secretary of State under President Ronald Reagan from 1981 to 1982.
5 The Republican statesman Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) was the 40th President of the USA from 1981 to 1989.
Another variant occurs in Jeffrey Levitt’s new life, by Michael James, published in The Sun (Baltimore, Maryland) of Sunday 16th March 1997—Jeffrey Levitt had served six years in prison for embezzling $14.6 million from Old Court Savings and Loan, a savings and loan association headquartered in Pikesville, Maryland; he then ran Dan’s News, a retail shop selling newspapers, magazines and cigars:
It is dusk, and Dan’s News is closed but for a couple of young guys who have stopped in to buy La Gloria Cubana Torpedo Number One cigars. They’re from a nightclub in Boca Raton, and they are picking out several smokes from the cases on the wall.
One man brings over a handful of Dominican and Nicaraguan cigars and drops them on the counter.
“I hope you guys brought cash, because I’m broke,” Levitt says.
“Well, I haven’t been selling any cigars this week,” one of the men replies somewhat sheepishly, as though he’s not quite telling the truth.
“Oh, yeah, like the pope isn’t Catholic this week,” Levitt says, smiling good-naturedly.
USAGE IN OTHER VARIETIES OF ENGLISH
The phrase has spread to other varieties of English. In Australian English, it was used for example on the occasion of the visit of John Paul II (Karol Jozef Wojtyla – 1920-2005), Pope from 1978 until his death—as reported by The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, New South Wales) of Friday 29th August 1986:
Among the approved souvenirs for the forthcoming visit of Pope John Paul II to Australia will be a T-shirt displaying the words “Is the Pope a Catholic?”.
Interestingly, when Karol Wojtyla was elected Pope on Monday 16th October 1978, several media erroneously announced the election of the first non-Catholic Pope. For example, in his column Pipe Dreams, published in the Pacific Daily News (Agaña, Guam, Mariana Islands) of Friday 27th October 1978, Joe Murphy mentioned a story his newspaper had published about the new Polish Pope:
At the end we concluded that he was the “first non-Catholic pope in more than 400 years.”
Our reporter meant to write “first non-Italian pope”, but it came out wrong and nobody caught it.
And Paul Harvey reported the following in the Tribune (Tipton, Indiana) of Saturday 28th October 1978:
An announcer at radio station WMFT rushed to his microphone excitedly to announce the election of “the first non-Catholic Pope.”
You think that didn’t light up the switchboard!
In Formulaic Genres (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), Koenraad Kuiper, Associate Professor, Department of Linguistics, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand, noted a humorous translation of Is the Pope (a) Catholic? in a cartoon by the Australian cartoonist and children’s book illustrator Cathy Wilcox (born 1963):
There is one ingenious case of a loan translated PLI [= phrasal lexical item]. The lady asks an academic-looking gentleman, Do you speak Latin? The gentleman replies, Pontifex catholicus est? the latter being a loan translation of Is the pope a Catholic?
The phrase is also used in British English and Irish English. For example, the following is from Whites-only row rocks opera, by Neil Gibson, published in The Observer (London, England) of Sunday 5th February 1989:
Scottish Opera organisers and anti-racist groups have been astonished by a campaign against a black singer playing the lead role in ‘Das Rheingold’. Protesters claim that Jamaican-born Willard White is miscast in the role of Nordic god Wotan and that Scottish Opera has misinterpreted the true sense of Wagner’s masterpiece.
The campaigners, describing themselves as ‘concerned Odinists,’ say only a white man should be allowed to play Wotan, who is ‘a living god worshipped by many white people throughout Britain and northern Europe today.’
Leaflets and stickers have been printed in Brighton and sent north for Scottish sympathisers to distribute outside the Theatre Royal in Glasgow. On the stickers are three questions: ‘Is the Pope a Catholic?’, ‘Is Nelson Mandela black?’ and ‘Is Wotan white?’ Protesters also plan to carry their campaign to Edinburgh and Aberdeen, where the opera will be performed later this year.