DALLAS — A walking stick is the unlikely center of a debate about political protocol, theological precision and news-marketing as a corporal work of mercy.

President Bush gave the odd, carved walking stick to Pope Benedict XVI on June 9 on a visit to Rome. In some quarters, the gift became a laughingstock.

As a post on one Catholic blog put it, “You go all the way to Rome and you give the Pope a stick! Mr. Bush, has America nothing better to offer?”

But stick supporters point out that the staff, inscribed with the Ten Commandments, was one of several gifts of state the president presented to Pope Benedict that day. And the fact that the president gave it to the Pope may have kept a former homeless man and his wife off the streets and in their rented apartment.

First, the case against the stick.

Detractors point out that not only was the stick homely, but the version of the Decalogue carved into it was the Protestant one. Bush seemed to commit a further faux pas when he forgot to address the Pope with the usual honorific, “Your Holiness,” and used “sir” instead.

The Pope did not seem fazed by the choice of words — or offended that the president did not come bearing something more precious than a cane.

“The Ten Commandments?” he asked curiously.

“The Ten Commandments, yes, sir,” President Bush responded.

One critic called it “an embarrassing breach of protocol.”

“Protestants don’t necessarily recognize the Pope as ‘his holiness,’ but George Bush wasn’t there representing himself. He was there representing the United States,” said Frank Flinn, a professor of religious studies and a practicing Catholic at Washington University in St. Louis.

Furthermore, Flinn said, any gift featuring the Ten Commandments should have included the version used by the Pope and most Catholics.

“This gets the president involved in a religious controversy,” he said. “More appropriate would have been a nice copy of the United States Constitution. When the president gets into the business of distributing the Ten Commandments, it raises the question, ‘Which version should he use?’”

But others say the walking stick may be the most thoughtful, heartfelt gift a president has given to a head of state.

“I think this gift is better than what President Lyndon B. Johnson gave to Pope Paul VI, which was a statue of Lyndon B. Johnson,” said Jimmy Akin, head apologist for Catholic Answers, a San Diego-based Catholic apologetics organization.

Akin also said he understands why Bush referred to the Holy Father as “sir,” and he doesn’t think it reflected disrespect.

“As someone who grew up in Texas, I know that it’s drilled into you to call everyone either ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am.’ So even if it’s not proper protocol, it’s the kind of thing that can slip out without thinking about it,” Akin said.

As for the Protestant version of the Decalogue, Akin agreed Bush could have done better.

“It was a nice gift, but it would have been nicer if it were inscribed with the version of the Ten Commandments that the Pope uses,” Akin said. “It doesn’t make the gift offensive, and I’m sure the Holy Father received it in the spirit it was intended — the spirit of good will and an appreciation that the ability of people in impoverished conditions can contribute to society.”

Why a Stick?

The stick was designed and carved by Roosevelt Wilkerson, a man who lived on the streets of Dallas with his wife until a good friend of George and Laura Bush discovered his craft and began helping him sell the carvings, known as Moses Sticks.

Susan Nowlin, of Dallas, was the “big sister” of Laura Bush at a Southern Methodist University sorority. She and her husband, Edwin Nowlin, are frequent guests at the White House, and Nowlin has given Bush two of Wilkerson’s Moses Sticks.

Nowlin met Wilkerson in 1997 at a craft class at her church, First Presbyterian of Dallas, and later decided she wanted to buy one of his sticks. She asked around, and ended up tracking Wilkerson down by shouting his name in a rough area of southeast Dallas.

Nowlin and Wilkerson struck up a friendship, and she agreed to try selling the sticks. They devised a plan in which Wilkerson would carve sticks, Nowlin would sell them for $75 each, and proceeds would help Wilkerson and his wife rent an efficiency apartment and get off the street.

The first stick Nowlin bought was given to her pastor. Subsequently, she gave a stick to then-Gov. Bush because she knew he cared about the homeless and the poor — and the Ten Commandments. Greeting Nowlin for a luncheon at the governor’s mansion, Laura Bush told her that Gov. Bush considered his Moses Stick “the greatest gift ever.”

“Later, President Bush told me: ‘I have to admit, when I first saw it I thought it was a fishing pole,’” Nowlin said.

Homeless to Celebrity

In preparing for the Vatican visit, Bush contacted Nowlin about acquiring a stick so the White House protocol office could review it as a possible gift for Pope Benedict XVI.

Wilkerson and his wife haven’t been homeless for most of the past 10 years because of the Moses Sticks, but Nowlin says it hasn’t been easy. Sometimes, sales have been slow.

“I needed to sell at least seven sticks a month, if they were to stay off the street,” Nowlin said. “When orders were slow, Roosevelt and I would pray. We would just pray and pray and pray and the orders would come in.”

As a result of the president’s gift to the Pope, Nowlin said she and Wilkerson can’t keep up. She has raised the price of the sticks to $100, but says she could probably charge $1,000 or more and still have a backlog of orders.

Nowlin said Wilkerson remains a shy, soft-spoken man who doesn’t want publicity. She said a CNN crew showed up at his apartment recently and confronted him with cameras while his false teeth were out.

“He was very upset, and was in tears over it,” Nowlin said. “He’s a very simple man who has been given a simple purpose in life. People want him to say something about all of this, and he doesn’t know what to say. He doesn’t want to disappoint them.”

Wilkerson and his wife have long melded into the crowd at St. Paul United Methodist Church, the oldest black church in Dallas. When they walked in June 10, the pastor announced from the pulpit that a “celebrity” was in the congregation, telling the story of a Moses Stick carved by Wilkerson making its way to the president and Pope.

“The entire congregation gave them a standing ovation,” Nowlin said.

Nowlin said Wilkerson is honored to have carved a stick for the Pope. However, she said he’s so shy about the publicity that he and his wife have temporarily left their home to stay with friends of the Nowlins.

The New York Museum of Folk Art has inquired about displaying Wilkerson’s work, and Nowlin said people are calling and writing with requests for different versions of the Ten Commandments on a stick.

“One man called this morning and said he needed the Fourth Commandment to say ‘remember the Sabbath’ which is on the stick, but he wanted it to also say ‘and keep it holy.’ I told him there’s no more room on the stick. We are not doing multiple varieties of the Ten Commandments. We just can’t manage that,” Nowlin said.

Akin said Catholics, Jews and Protestants use slightly different Hebrew-to-English translations of the Ten Commandments, but he said none of the differences are substantive. The biggest difference between the Protestant and Catholic versions, Akin said, involves grouping. Catholics combine into the First Commandment what Protestants separate into the First and Second Commandments. Likewise, Protestants combine into the 10th Commandment what Catholics break out into the Ninth and 10th.

“Historically there have been three different schemes, but the Church doesn’t dogmatically favor one over the other,” Akin said. “These differences, and some of the abbreviations that are common, mostly reflect practical considerations.”

Wayne Laugesen is based in

Boulder, Colorado.