Why are Catholic priests called “Father?”

thCAOS0X36 In the Bible, Jesus says, “Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven (Matthew 23:9).” What did Jesus mean when he said this. Are we to take this saying literally? Are we not allowed to refer to our dad as father? Of course not!
If you would look up the word father in a Bible concordance, you would discover 124 instances in the New Testament alone where human beings are called “father” (Greek: pater). Here are a few examples from Jesus Christ himself:

(1) “What father among you would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish” (Luke 11:11).

(2) “…a father will be divided against his son and a son against his father…(Luke 12:53).

(3) “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother…he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26).

(4) “honor your father and your mother…” (Matt. 19:19).

Maybe Jesus was speaking about calling no man father in a spiritual sense? Well, St. Paul didn’t seem to think so. St. Paul calls Abraham “father”: “…Follow the path of faith that our father Abraham walked…” (Romans 4:12). In Romans 4:16-17, St. Paul refers to Abraham as “…the father of us all…” Even though St. Paul was a celibate Christian minister who did not have any natural born-children of his own (cf. 1 Cor. 7:8), he uses the title “father” to refer to himself: “…For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. Therefore, I urge you, be imitators of me. For this reason I am sending you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful son in the lord…” (1 Cor. 4:15-17). St. Stephen calls human beings “father”, in the Acts of the Apostles: “…My brothers and fathers , listen. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was in Mesopotamia…” (Acts 7:2).

Traditionally, a father: thCAFPZX1P

(1) Provides food for his family.
(2) Brings new life into the world.
(3) Counsels and encourages members of his family to lead good lives.

In calling priest “father”, the Catholic community is recognizing that he:

(1) Feeds them with God’s Word in the Holy Scriptures (cf. Acts 6:4) and with Jesus’ Body and Blood in the Holy Eucharist (cf. Luke 22:19-20).
(2) At the baptismal font, he is, supernaturally, bringing new Christians into the world (cf. John 3:1-5, 22).
(3) Counsels and encourages members of the faith community just as what St. Paul talks about: “As you know, we treated each one of you as a father treats his children, exhorting and encouraging you and insisting that you conduct yourselves as worthy of the God who calls you into his kingdom and glory” (1 Thess. 2:11-12).

When Jesus says “call no man your Father” in Matthew 23:9, he appears to be restating the 1st Commandment: “You shall not have other Gods besides me (cf. Exodus20:3; Deut 5:7).” It is as if he is saying, remember that there is only one “heavenly” father. So, when Catholics call their priests “father,’ they are not making them equal with God. Just like St. Paul has a God given role as a spiritual “father,” the priest is also exercising his role as a “spiritual father” to his congregation. Until next time, God bless.

6 thoughts on “Why are Catholic priests called “Father?”

  1. References to Abraham as father may equally be in the sense of Paul’s ancestral father or father of the nation.
    Paul’s relationship to Timothy is likened to that of a father to a son as Paul was to Timothy in a spiritual sense it describes his relationship with Timothy – the role Paul fulfilled in relation to Timothy.
    The issue is one of TITLES – there are definitely no titles of superiority or hierarchy given to any servants of Christ in the New Testament and not a single reference to anyone calling another believer by a title. Such as Father Paul, Apostle Paul, Pastor Peter, Teacher John etc. There are very few groups of Christians that obey Christ in avoiding titles most Protestants that point the finger at Catholics have a number of fingers pointing back at themselves on this matter.
    What we read is Paul an apostle etc. This is entirely a different matter and is descriptive of the person’s gifting and calling. It’s NOT A TITLE and is never used in the NT as a TITLE.
    The giving of TITLES can easily feed the fleshly pride of the recipient, assist in building an un-biblical basis for superiority and hierarchy and reduce the status of the one required to address others with pompous TITLES.

    • Rob, thank you for your comment. A title simple identifies what a persons vocation or what someones job description implies. Again, when Catholics call their priests “father,’ they are not making them equal with God. Just like St. Paul has a God given role as a spiritual “father,” the priest is also exercising his role as a “spiritual father” to his congregation. Let us pray for all Catholic priests and ministers of all Christian denominations. Let us pray that they do not begin to behave like a little “god,” but that they always live like the committed spiritual “fathers,” “leaders,” and “teachrs” that God calls them to be.

      • “A title simple identifies what a person’s vocation or what someone’s job description implies…”
        I wish this were so but unfortunately tiles do more in relation to perceived status, can do much more in feeding the ego of the recipient, harming their efforts towards humility and lowering the self image of the title giver.
        “… Again, when Catholics call their priests “father,’ they are not making them equal with God …”
        I’m fully aware of that and the claim that to use the title ‘father’ was some sort of claim of equality with God was not the issue I raised and was farthest from my mind. The issue raised was the use of titles, calling people by titles and putting people on pedestals. Being a “spiritual father” and describing one’s self as such as Paul the apostle does is an entirely different matter to receiving a tile when addresses or requiring one’s self to be addressed in such a manner.
        Just like St. Paul has a God given role as a spiritual “father,” the priest is also exercising his role as a “spiritual father” to his congregation. Let us pray for all Catholic priests and ministers of all Christian denominations. Let us pray that they do not begin to behave like a little “god,” but that they always live like the committed spiritual “fathers,” “leaders,” and “teachers” that God calls them to be.
        I fully agree but I like to translate the actual meaning of words e.g. even the title of minister to me implies status whereas the word simply means ‘servant’ and has no status value.
        Fulfilling the role of “spiritual father”, “teacher” and “priest” I also meet with a group of interdenominational church leaders all of whom carry titles by which they addresses each other and by which their laity address them. On introducing myself it may have been easier to go along with the general practice but out of conscience I could not. So I spoke to the one convening the association expressing my respect for each of them and the work they each carried out. I introduced myself as Rob and asked if I might simply address them in the same informal way, to which they were agreeable and as we have got to know one another we have mutually benefited.
        Another experience was working in a township in South Africa amongst a community whose homes were built out of rubbish they were able to scavenge. In spite of my efforts they insisted on addressing me with a title. However I felt that I was the one to be privileged to be with them amongst people with such faith and joy while in such need and poverty was humbling. So come Sunday morning as I welcomed each as they arrived for the gathering I gave each a title and told them if you insist on giving me one then I will do the same to you. I think that’s what your church calls the “apostolate of the laity”. We had a wonderful time.

  2. A few years ago a question was asked from someone who attends a “non-denominational church”: “Your Grace, Why are priests called ‘Father’ in your Church? This is not what the Bible teaches! Doesn’t Jesus Himself say, ‘Call no man on earth your father, for you have one Father who is in heaven.’ (Matthew 23:9).”

    This is simply another example of what can only be called the “fundamentalist gridlock” of some Christian groups in understanding and interpreting the Scriptures: the taking of this or that biblical passage out of context and applying it to whatever you want. St. Athanasios, the 4th century patriarch of Alexandria in Egypt, was the first person in Christian history to definitively list those 27 books that we today call the New Testament. A pivotal person in the formation of the New Testament canon, St. Athanasios says that when Christians read the Bible, they are not to take passages out of context but rather to keep the “skopos”, the scope or “big picture” in mind. Let’s examine this question keeping the full scope – or “big picture” – of the Scriptures in mind.

    First: the question asked seems to presuppose that this passage of Scripture should be taken literally as an absolute prohibition i.e., that we should call no man father. In other words, if we were to interpret Matthew 23:9 literally, no one could be called father, not even our biological fathers. Christians could not, for example, celebrate Father’s Day. Nor could George Washington be called “the father of our country.” Is this what Jesus intended? Of course not! Doesn’t Jesus Himself tell the rich young man to “keep the commandments” including the one to “honor your father and mother” (Matthew 19:19)? And when the Jews questioned Jesus about His teaching that He is “the bread of life,” doesn’t He respond to them by saying: “I am the bread of life. Your fathers (i.e. the ancestors of the Jewish people who took part in the Exodus from Egypt with Moses and are therefore called the “fathers” of Israel) ate the manna in the wilderness and they died” (John 6:48-49)?

    Second: What would we do with the apostle Paul? When St. Paul discusses the Exodus, doesn’t he – like Christ Himself – refer to the ancestors of the Israel of his day as “our fathers” (1 Corinthians 10:1)? When discussing discipline in the Christian family, doesn’t he say “Fathers, do not provoke your children or they may lose heart” (Colossians 3:21).

    Furthermore, with regards to spiritual fatherhood in the Christian community, to the Church in Corinth he wrote: “I do not write this to make you ashamed but to admonish you as my beloved children. For though you might have 10,000 guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers. Indeed, in Christ Jesus I became your father through the Gospel” (1 Corinthians 4:14-15). And he describes his relationship with the Christians of the Church in Thessalonica as being “like a father with his children” (1 Thessalonians 2:11). Doesn’t St. Paul, in the above passages, claim to be the spiritual father of the Corinthian and Thessalonian Churches, their father in the Gospel – Father Paul, if you will?

    Third: When interpreting Matthew 23:9, it would be helpful to read the entire 23rd chapter of Matthew in order to get a proper understanding of the context of this passage. This 23rd chapter of Matthew contains the Lord’s indictment of the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy, their focus on the externals of religion without genuine repentance and a corresponding conversion of heart. So, not only does Jesus condemn the scribes and Pharisees for their use of the address “Father” in a vain and empty way, but in the very next verse says: “Nor are you to be called teachers, for you have one teacher, the Christ” (Matthew 23:10). Yet, many contemporary non-denominational TV preachers describe themselves as “Bible teachers” and no one has ever argued that the Church should not have Sunday school teachers on the basis of this passage. Indeed, Jesus Himself acknowledged Nicodemus to be a “teacher of Israel” (John 3:10) and in the Book of Acts we read that certain men in Antioch were called “teachers” (Acts 13:1), to give only two examples. Therefore, as can be clearly understood when one reads the 23rd chapter of Matthew in its entirety, Jesus takes issue not with these titles and roles in and of themselves, but rather with their self-aggrandizing abuse by the scribes and Pharisees.

    Fourth: The term “father” when used to address a priest is not merely an assertion of his “higher” status in the community of believers; rather, it is a term of endearment, of intimacy and love, as the apostle Paul uses it in 1 Corinthians and 1 Thessalonians, already mentioned above. In Greek, a priest in his village is addressed as “Papa” and in Russian as “Batiushka” – both being terms of endearment and intimacy. The spiritual fatherhood of the priest is intended to be a sign of the depth of intimacy and relationship which those in the life of the Church have with their leaders, a relationship based on the priest’s role in our second birth, our birth in the Gospel – our baptism. Just as our biological father has an important role in our birth and continuing nurture, so the priest – as the one who baptizes us – has an important role in our second birth, our birth “from above…of water and the Spirit” (John 3:3-5).

    Finally: This kind of attempt to interpret the Scriptures literally and then apply a passage taken out of context in a polemical way, usually towards Roman Catholics – but by extension often towards us as Orthodox Christians as well – is, unfortunately, all too typical of much “non-denominational” Christianity. At best, it is a misreading and misunderstanding of the Scriptures; at worst, it can be an expression of religious bigotry. Nonetheless, it remains a simple fact that the overwhelming majority of Christians in the world today (Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Anglicans, etc.) – and across the 20 centuries of Church history – have addressed and continue to address their clergy as ‘Father.” If anyone wishes to be contentious about this, we have no other practice – nor do the churches of God. – 1 Corinthians 11:16

    I hope this adds to this for you. 🙂

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