Q. How can Catholics call their priests “Father” when scripture clearly says, “Call no man father”?
A. When you read Matthew 23:1-12 it can seem like Jesus is prohibiting the practice of calling Catholic priests “Father”.
Matthew 23:8-12 “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. 9And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ.[a] 11The greatest among you will be your servant. 12For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
However, from this we see that if we were to take these words literally no Christian should ever call anyone ON EARTH Rabbi, Father, or teacher. Now of course Rabbi is not used at all among Christians but not because of this verse in Matthew but because it is reserved for use of Jewish teachers. However, no one in all of Christendom seems to have any problem with calling a teacher a teacher or their dad Father. Why is this OK but calling a Catholic priest “father” is NOT OK?
Jesus is emphasizing in context that all legitimate authority and truth reside in God alone. And we must not let ourselves replace the authority of God with mere human authority. He could not possibly be prohibiting the use of the words father and teacher, as we shall see.
In the Old Testament alone there are over 1500 uses of the word “father” by the inspired authors. Sometimes it is referring to…..well…fathers…and sometimes it is referring to fathers in the faith. The Matthew passage cannot be an absolute prohibition of the word “father.” After all no one in Christendom follows this anyway.
But, it will be argued that, “Of course, Jesus was not talking about birth fathers but about religious authorities. They are the ones who should not be called, “Father”. However, Scripture does not support this theory either.
This verse says, “call no one on earth father”. So it is an interpretation to say this refers only to religious leaders.
Why does Scripture use this title for religious leaders?
Luke 1:73 the oath he swore to our father Abraham ( John the Baptists Father)
Also, in his speech to the Sanhedrin, Stephen addresses the Jewish religious leaders as fathers.
Acts 7:1-2 Then the high priest asked him, “Are these charges true?”2To this he replied: “Brothers and fathers, listen to me!
St. Paul also addresses the Jewish religious leaders as fathers.
Acts 22:1“Brothers and fathers, listen now to my defense.”
St. Paul, in writing to the Corinthians reminds them that they only have one father in Christ, himself. And he claims them as his spiritual children.
1 Corinthians 4:14-15 I am not writing this to shame you, but to warn you, as my dear children. 15 Even though you have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel.
St. Paul continues this father/child relationship in the following epistles. He identifies himself as their spiritual father either directly as in I Thess. or indirectly by calling Timothy and Titus his “true son in faith”.
1 Thessalonians 2:11 For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children,
1 Timothy 1:2 To Timothy my true son in the faith: Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.
Titus 1:4 To Titus, my true son in our common faith: Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior.
St.Paul felt a fatherly affection for those he brought to life through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And he had no problem with appropriating this title to himself.
And then Jesus Himself uses “father Abraham” in
Luke 16:24 & 30So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire….’No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
John 8:56 Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.”
Based on the reality of so many other passages of scripture it would seem that picking out the phrase “call no man on earth..father” has been latched onto for the sole purpose of vilifying the Catholic Church. Especially, since the application of this passage is not consistent because the use of “teacher” and “rabbi” are not equally excoriated.
Our priests forgo ordinary marriage in order to marry the Bride of Christ–The Church. As a faithful Bridegroom, the priest is even more fruitful than an ordinary husband, by giving birth to many souls for the Kingdom of God through the sacraments. Out of love and respect for these doctors of our souls we fittingly honor them by calling them Father.