Why do Catholics call priests “Father,” when Jesus says “call no man your father on earth” (Mt. 23:9)?
Response: In Matthew 23:9, Jesus emphasises the primary role of our Heavenly Father. He created us in His image and likeness (Gen. 1:26-28). He made us His children through baptism in the death and resurrection of His Son (Rom. 5:12-21; 6:3-4; 8:12-17). Because God created us in His image and likeness, we share in the attributes of God. Insofar as men share in the attributes of the Father, they participate in the one fatherhood of God.
Discussion: In Matthew 23:9 Jesus says, “And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven.” Many people interpret this to mean, “Do not call a priest “father,” and do not call your dad “father.” Some who hold this opinion go further and believe that calling a priest “father” is a sin because it directly violates a command from Jesus. Many Protestants make this a common objection against Catholicism.
If we believe these opinions, then what are we to make of the Scriptures that contradict this one? For example, in Mark 7:9-13, Jesus criticises the Pharisees and scribes for not honoring their “fathers.” Furthermore, calling the apostles and their successors “father” was common within the early Christian communities (1 Cor. 4:15, 1 Jn. 2:12, Acts 7:2, 22:1). As in the case of all scriptural interpretations, we must understand this passage in light of the rest of Scripture (cf. 2 Pet. 1:20; 3:16). This interpretative principle is called the “analogy of faith” [Catechism of the Catholic Church (Catechism), no. 114].
Honor Thy Father
In Deuteronomy 5:16, God commands, “Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God commanded you; that your days may be prolonged, and that it may go well with you, in the land which the Lord your God gives you.” God made this command after telling us to honor Him. With this in mind, it seems reasonable to conclude that God Himself considers others to be “fathers.” Jesus upholds this commandment in Mark 7:9-13. In that passage, He berates the scribes and Pharisees who used traditions to rationalise not providing assistance to their fathers. It is clear that He means someone other than God.
A father is one who begets children. Biologically, to beget means to give the seed from which a child is conceived. A man begets and a woman conceives. In this act of begetting, the man shares in the attributes of God’s fatherhood by actively contributing the seed for life. [I]n turn, God is the author of life who actively creates a soul and infuses it into the child at the moment of conception. In this strictly physical sense, it is easy to determine the act of begetting, and who begets who.
It is important to remember that a child does not choose its biological father. The father chooses to give the child life. Just as God gives life to all men, and so deserves our honor and reverence, so a child owes its life to its father, and the father deserves honor from the child.
There is a spiritual sense to fatherhood as well. In John 8, Jesus identifies spiritual fatherhood in terms of who one honors. If we honor the father of lies, the devil is our father; if we honor God, He is our Father (v. 44-49). Thus, Jesus calls the devil a father of some, and He calls God the Father of others. Unlike the biological relationship between a father and his child, spiritual fatherhood is a choice of the “child.” In light of this passage, we can best understand what Jesus meant in Matthew 23:9.
Text and Context
Matthew 23:9 is part of a larger passage in which Jesus comments on the example of the scribes and Pharisees. Matthew devotes the entire chapter (23) to this discourse. While reading the entire chapter is most helpful in understanding this passage, the first 12 verses provided adequate context to begin the discussion.
Then said Jesus to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice. They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by men; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues, and salutations in the market places, and being called rabbi by men. But you are no to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brethren. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called masters, for you have one master, the Christ. He who is greatest among you shall be your servant; whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
Hypocrisies of the scribes and Pharisees
In the remainder of the chapter, Jesus expresses disgust over the many hypocrisies of the scribes and Pharisees. He ends by giving a lament over Jerusalem for killing the prophets and ignoring the Word of God.
While there are many things that can be gleaned from this passage, we can see that in general, Jesus does four things here:
- He identifies two authorities
- Jesus explains the proper response to authority in general
- He condemns acts of pride and selfishness committed by those in authority
- In doing all these things, He is preparing the crowd for the New Covenant ratified in His Blood.
In verse 2, Jesus notes that “the scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat.” By this, He recognises that they have an obligation to teach the people as Moses taught the people. Because he received the Law from God, and then gave it to the people, Moses was the mediator of the Sinai Covenant. The scribes and Pharisees cannot add to what Moses did, but only teach it. As teachers of this Law, they must be respected. This is the first authority identified, and it is rooted in the Sinai Covenant.
“Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all men that were on the face of the earth” (Num. 12:3). And when Miriam and Aaron spoke in pride saying, “Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?” (Num. 13:2), God punished them (Num. 13:9-16). Unlike Moses, from whom they claim authority, the scribes and Pharisees used their positions for their own profit and self-emulation. And so while Jesus tells the people to follow the teachings of the scribes and Pharisees, He warns them not follow their prideful practices.
The Authority of Christ
As God punished Miriam and Aaron for their pride, so Jesus warns the scribes and Pharisees of punishment for theirs. One such act of pride was to be called “teacher,” “father,” and “master.” As in other places of Scripture, Jesus emphasises here that one who seeks to be a teacher, father, or master must serve the rest. He does this by introducing a second authority, which would be rooted in the New Covenant ratified in His Blood.
In Matthew 23:9-10, Jesus identifies fatherhood with the Father in heaven, and ruling with the authority of the Christ. From a different angle, He had already done this in Matthew 10. In that passage, Jesus commissioned His twelve apostles and sent them out in His name. Jesus told them, “He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me.” In this way, the apostles knew they acted not on their authority, but on the authority of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Furthermore, those who accepted them were accepting the Christ and His Father in Heaven (see also Mt. 18:5; Mk. 9:37; Lk. 9:48; Jn. 13:20; 12:48; Gal. 4:14). Thus, our “father” is the one whom we choose to honor. In Matthew 23:9, Jesus exhorts us to choose His Father and those who act in His name.
Priests of the New Covenant
At the Last Supper, Jesus gave His Church the gift of the ministerial priesthood. He gave His apostles the authority to act in His person with the authority given by the Father. He had made clear in Matthew 10:40 as noted above, and He emphasised it again in John 17 when, while praying to the Father, Jesus said, “While I was with them, I kept them in thy name, which though hast given me…As thou didst send me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (v. 12,18). This sacrament of Holy Orders makes present the graces necessary for our spiritual rebirth and sustenance in Christ. For it is at the hands of priests that we are baptised, confirmed, and receive the precious Body and Blood of our Lord.
The title “father” does not confer upon priests the same status proper to Our Heavenly Father alone, nor does it diminish God’s absolute and universal fatherhood. However, it is incorrect to interpret Matthew 23:9 in an exclusively literal sense. In 1 Corinthians 4:15, St. Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, says, “For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the Gospel.” St. Paul calls himself “father” because he recognises his cooperation with God in begetting the spiritual life of the community entrusted to his care. There are several other passages, such as 1 Corinthians 4:15; 1 John 2:12; Acts 7:2, and Acts 22:1, which show that the title “father” was applied to others besides God in the New Testament.
Where do we go from here?
As noted above, we cannot interpret Matthew 23:9 as prohibiting reference to dads or priests as “fathers” without contradicting other scriptural passages in which the word “father” is used. Such an interpretation would render the commandment “honor your father” meaningless and would diminish the authority of the apostles and their successors. Admittedly, it is easier for a Protestant to allow the title father for those who beget children biologically. To use the title for others would demand a certain recognition of Jesus’ intent to establish a ministerial priesthood through the sacrament of
However, our lives of faith are conceived by the acts of those who sow the seeds of faith. The apostles and their successors were commissioned by Christ Himself. They bear His Word in our lives and provide the necessary grace for us to be born again in baptism and nurtured through the sacraments of the Church. By sharing in the mission of Christ, these men share in the attributes of the Father. As there is no Father but the one Father in heaven, and no master but Christ, we properly understand that these men, having been commissioned by Christ to act in His person, also represent the Father, whom the Son reveals (Jn. 1:14-18). Insofar as they share the gift of faith, and beget children in faith, priests are our fathers. For they share in the mission of Christ who reveals the eternal Father. St. Ignatius of Antioch, who knew the apostles, expressed this well when he wrote, “Let everyone…revere the bishop as the image of the Father” (Catechism, no. 1554).
When addressing this issue with those who do not agree, we do well to point out the various opposing scriptures and ask them to explain the meanings. Remind them that God cannot contradict Himself, so the Scriptures, which are His Word, cannot be contradictory. After hearing their answers, charitably question any contradictions. Most importantly, find common ground through which you can further an understanding of fatherhood. This common ground will probably be at the level of biological fatherhood. For on this level, interpreting Matthew 23:9 in an exclusively literal sense would undermine the Fourth Commandment.
Fatherhood of a Priest
Most will recognise that in no way does this title take away from God the ultimate power and authority He has over human life: “Thou knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Ps. 139:13). Rather, we recognise that all fatherhood comes from God, as St Paul teaches. In Ephesians 3:14-15: “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named. . . .”
In this context, we can explain the fatherhood of a priest. Rather than bearing the authority of man and providing an example of pride as the scribes and Pharisees, a priest bears the authority of God in the new Covenant of His Blood. With such a commission, the priest is obligated to live in service to others.
Thus, whether we are speaking of biological fathers or spiritual fathers, we understand men in both circumstances to be participating in the one Fatherhood of God. This is a gift from God, and must be lived in a godly manner. Only in such way can their children be children of light.
The objection to calling our spiritual elders “Father” appears to be of recent origin. In his article “Are ‘Mother’ and ‘Father’ Appropriate Titles for Protestant Clergy?” David L. Holmes, a professor of religious studies at the College of William and Mary, explores the question of titles used to address clergy. In doing so, he examines the history of the use of the title “Father” for clergymen in the Christian churches in America.
He notes that:
In colonial America, “Father” was a commonly used term not only for respected clergymen but also for other respected men of the church: founders of denominations or religious communities, missionary pioneers, and the elderly who were mature in their faith. In early America “Father” was also a general title of respect for elderly men.
The term “Father” was not rejected in an attempt to be more biblical. Holmes states that even denominations that were founded “in an attempt to restore not only the doctrine and practice of primitive Christianity, but also its very nomenclature” retained the use of “Father” in addressing clergymen.
Like the Reformers, early American Protestants tended to believe that the “Matthean” passage condemned pharisaic vainglory rather than specific titles. That interpretation was natural, for a literal interpretation of the surrounding verses would also forbid Christians from using ‘Teacher’ and ‘Mister.’
Why, then, did this usage decline so sharply?
Holmes says that the most significant explanation for the decline of “Father” in Protestantism “coincides with the rise of Irish immigration to the United States in the 1840s.”
Before that time, Roman Catholic priests in America were usually addressed as ‘Mister,’ for most were secular (non monastic) clergy with roots in Europe or England, where Roman Catholic practice restricted ‘Father’ to priests of monastic orders. Secular priests were called ‘Mister,’ ‘Monsieur,’ ‘Don’ or other vernacular equivalents.
Irish Roman Catholics, however, addressed all priests—whether secular or monastic—as ‘Father.’ And by the end of the Victorian period, the Irish had influenced English-speaking Roman Catholicism to call every priest ‘Father.’
This change clearly influenced Protestant usage. Catholic priests called ‘Mister’ and Protestant clergy called ‘Father’ had lived side by side in America. Following the Irish immigrations, however, Protestants began to see the title as redolent of priestcraft and popery.
Coupled with this are two secondary explanations. The first is an increase in a literalist interpretation of Matthew 23:9. The second is the rise in clergy who obtained advanced academic degrees—and therefore took the accompanying title “Doctor.” The combination of all three, Holmes says, led to the decline of the title “Father” for Protestant clergy.