Ex cathedra is a Latin phrase, literally meaning “from the chair.” The chair in question is actually more of a throne.
The phrase is most commonly used in a religious sense and is typically referring to the Pope’s throne in the Vatican. When the Pope issues a statement that is “ex cathedra” he is issuing a decree with full papal authority.
In general usage, it means that the individual is speaking not as themselves as an individual, but rather from their seat of authority as an extension of the offi ce.
In British Commonwealth countries, it is common to see the mayor or other high official in a community wearing a chain of office during ceremonial or official occasions. This is a clear indication that they are acting “ex cathedra” and separates when they might be in a more casual setting such as sitting around watching a sporting event with friends and when they are “on the clock,” so to speak, as the voice of their government.
This level of formality is sadly lacking in American politics. Informality with our elected officials is something Americans take for granted, but it holds them to an impossible standard. Presidents, governors, congressmen, mayors and other officials are always assumed to be on-duty and the mass media latches onto every utterance as carrying the full weight of a declaration of war.
This wasn’t so bad in previous decades when there was a clear separation between the private life of people such as the president and their public image in office. How people act on a stage in front of microphones is seldom how they act when they are in their private office having a conversation with advisors or when they are talking to their spouse and children.
While social media and smartphones allow those in high political offices to make pronouncements from a throne, it is not the type of throne that was ever intended to make pronouncements from.
Americans should adopt the concept of “ex cathedra” and rather than clinging to every 280-character Tweet as spelling out public policy, demand that when officials from the president to the governor to the speaker of the state legislature have something to say as the holder of the office, it should be done formally with the dignity of the office intact. Otherwise, their off-the-cuff comments should be given the same amount of weight as you would to anyone else and saved for when insiders write their tell-all books long after the people involved are retired from office.
This would prevent every inane Tweet from being reported and treated like it was the Sermon on the Mount. Tied to this is that politicians at all levels need to put away their cellphones and actually get their work done. *** Last week I had a chance to visit with fifth graders at Rib Lake Elementary School and talk with them about interviewing. The students will be doing a Rib Lake history project and eventually be interviewing community elders to record stories about the community’s past. I am looking forward to seeing the result of their work, it should be very interesting.
As always, I was impressed with the thoughtful questions the students asked. From my perspective, it is always refreshing to go from sitting in government meetings, and wading through budgets and reports, to talking with young people and sharing with them why I love what I do.
If the fifth graders at Rib Lake are any indication, the area’s future is a bright one
Brian Wilson is News Editor at The Star News.