Why do Catholics call priests “father” when Jesus said not to?

Why do Catholics call priests “father” when Jesus said not to?

Full Question

Jesus says to call no man father. Yet Catholics use the title Father to refer to the priests. Why is this?


Jesus indeed said: “And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven” (Matt. 23:9). But if you read the entire passage, you will understand the context. If this was meant literally, then no one could call their own dads “father” without going against the word of Jesus. But we know this was not what Christ had in mind. The very concept of calling God “Father”, draws from our earthly understanding of the term. Removing this will make the use of the term for the First Person of the Trinity a little meaningless.

In the Bible, the concept of fatherhood is not just applied to earthly fathers and to God. It is most times used to talk about people held in high esteem and with whom a special relationship is shared.

 “So it was not you who sent me here, but God; and he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt” (Gen. 45:8).

“I was a father to the poor, and I searched out the cause of him whom I did not know” (Job 29:16). 

“In that day I will call my servant Eliakim, the son of Hilkiah . . . and I will clothe him with [a] robe, and will bind [a] girdle on him, and will commit . . . authority to his hand; and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah” (Isa. 22:20–21).

And Elisha called Elijah “My father, my father!” to Elijah as the latter is carried up to heaven in a whirlwind (2 Kgs. 2:12). 

The real meaning of the text

Jesus was known to criticize Jewish leaders for their love of earth honors and for always choosing the choicest places in synagogues. They loved to be saluted and recognized everywhere and be called “rabbi”. (Matt. 23:6-7). He used hyperbole to show how ridiculous they were for not looking up to God and conducting themselves humbly. Hyperbole is used as a means of showing how absurd something is employing exaggeration. Just like he said:  

“If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell” (Matt. 5:29, cf. 18:9; Mark 9:47). 

Jesus clearly did not mean either of these literally but was trying to show his followers a better, humbler way to conduct themselves. And in the second part, the seriousness of sin. 

Spiritual Fatherhood

St Paul considered himself a father to all the people he evangelized to. And this was not against the words of Jesus.

“Therefore I sent to you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ” (1 Cor. 4:17); 

“To Timothy, my true child in the faith: grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord” (1 Tim. 1:2); 

“To Timothy, my beloved child: Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord” (2 Tim. 1:2).

“This charge I commit to you, Timothy, my son, in accordance with the prophetic utterances which pointed to you, that inspired by them you may wage the good warfare” (1 Tim 1:18)

 “You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 2:1)

“But Timothy’s worth you know, how as a son with a father he has served with me in the gospel” (Phil. 2:22).

“To Titus, my true child in a common faith: Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior” (Titus 1:4)

“I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment” (Philem. 10). 

For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (1 Cor. 4:14–15).

“Here for the third time I am ready to come to you. And I will not be a burden, for I seek not what is yours but you; for children ought not to lay up for their parents, but parents for their children” (2 Cor. 12:14)

“My little children, with whom I am again in travail until Christ be formed in you!” (Gal. 4:19).

St Peter:

 “She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings; and so does my son Mark” (1 Pet. 5:13). 

St John

 “My little children, I am writing this to you so that you may not sin; but if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1)

“No greater joy can I have than this, to hear that my children follow the truth” (3 John 4).

Paul was referring to his spiritual fatherhood with them, not biological. So, in the same way, the priests who feed the flocks of Christ are rightly called “father”. This is in keeping with the apostolic custom as seen above. 

Why do Catholics call priests “father” when Jesus said not to?

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  1. Well done Chad. I am a catholic and to read all your comments and the way you dealt with Tony has been very interesting. He seems (and so do other individuals who read the KJV Bible) to have his perception on the interpretation of the passages in the bible. The interesting thing is that those individuals all seems to have their own interpretations, which make them argue amongst themselves. I’m very impressed by your knowledge on the RC faith and I guess( if you’re not doing this) you could teach and guide those who want to mount the RC Church. God bless you.

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