The Catholic custom of addressing priests as “father” dates back to the early years of Christianity. The writings of the early Church fathers brim with examples of priests, bishops, and popes being referred to as “father.” In fact, the term “pope” derives from the Latin papa, an affectionate form of address given to many bishops in the early Church, though now, in the Western Church, it refers specifically to the Bishop of Rome.
The Bible, however seems to contradict this ancient Catholic practice, and many Bible-believing non-Catholics regard calling priests “father” to be a direct violation of Christ’s instruction in Matthew 23:9.
“Call no one on earth your father; you have but one father in heaven.” At first glance, those 14 words seem to cinch the case against this longstanding Catholic custom. But let’s look deeper and see if that’s really the case.
For reasons we’ll see in a moment we can be sure that the Lord did not literally mean that we may call no one “teacher,” “father,” or “master.” If he had, we would expect to see this literal interpretation being followed by the Apostles throughout the rest of the New Testament, but in fact we see just the opposite, indicating that they understood that his words here were not meant to be taken literally.
Rather, it seems that Christ was warning us not to look to any human authority as a teacher, father, or master in the way that only God can fulfill those roles in our lives. The Pharisees and Scribes had wrongfully arrogated to themselves some things reserved to God alone, such as their concocting of chicanery of the “Korban” rule that sought to supply a loophole to get around God’s commandment to “honor your father and mother” (cf. Mt 15:1-9; Mk 7:6-13).
The first clue that Catholics are not violating Christ’s instruction by calling priests father is that Christ, who is God himself, is utterly incapable by his divine nature of contradicting or somehow being at odds with the two other persons of the Blessed Trinity, the Father and the Holy Spirit. “God is not a God of confusion, but of peace,” St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 14:33. And so, when we encounter episodes in Scripture where the Holy Spirit inspires people to use the word “father” as a form of address, we can safely conclude that Christ’s words in Matthew 23 cannot mean “do not call priests father.”
In Acts 7:2, shortly before he was martyred for his brave public testimony about Christ, St. Stephen addresses the Jewish elders and priests as “My brothers and fathers.” Stephen was “filled with the Holy Spirit” when he uttered these words (Acts 7:55; cf. 6:8), speaking to the very same men Christ had rebuked in Matthew 23. Throughout Stephen’s soliloquy before the Sanhedrin, he repeatedly refers to various men in the Old Testament as “fathers.”
If Christ had meant literally to call no man “father,” then how could the Holy Spirit have permitted Stephen to address his audience as “fathers”? Furthermore, how could the Holy Spirit inspire St. Luke to record this speech so favorably in the book of Acts? The answer is, he couldn’t have and wouldn’t have if in fact Christ had actually meant his comments in Matthew 23 literally.
St. John repeatedly addresses men as “fathers” in 1 John (i.e. 1 John 2:13-14).
St. Paul also addresses the Jewish leaders of his day as “fathers” in Acts 22:1. He uses the title “father” when writing about Abraham in passages such as Romans 4:17-18. And in 1 Thessalonians 2:11 he compares his ministry among the Christians in Thessalonica as “a father with his children.”
Most compelling of all is St. Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 4:14-16:
“I am writing you this not to shame you but to admonish you as my beloved children. Even if you should have countless guides to Christ, yet you do not have many fathers, for I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. Therefore, I urge you, be imitators of me.”
This passage demonstrates not just that calling priests “father” is not contrary to Christ’s teaching (after all, St. Paul urges us to imitate him in doing so) but more importantly, it shows us why this venerable Christian practice came into being in the first place. Priests are indeed our spiritual fathers. Consider these parallels between the spiritual fatherhood of the priest and the physical fatherhood of our human fathers:
Priests give birth to us spiritually through the waters of baptism (cf. Jn 3: 3-5; Titus 3:5). They nourish us with the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist (cf. 1 Cor. 11:23-32). Priests care for us and bind our spiritual wounds through the healing sacraments of baptism, confession, and anointing of the sick (cf. Jn 20:20-23; 2 Cor. 6:18-20; Jas 5:13-16). And they shepherd their flocks with the fatherly love and concern that any good human father has for his own family.
As St. Paul makes clear in 1 Corinthians, once we understand the fatherly nature of the priesthood, it makes perfect biblical sense to call priests “father.”
One additional point is worth mentioning here. Many who quote Matthew 23:9 against the Catholic practice of calling priests “father” often overlook verses 8 and 10 in that passage. “As for you, do not be called ‘rabbi.’ You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers.” And “Do not be called ‘master,’ for you have one master, the Messiah.” If Catholics are violating Christ’s command in verse 9, any Protestant minister who uses the title “doctor” (doctor is a Latin word for “teacher”) is just as guilty. Dr. Jerry Falwell, Dr. Billy Graham, and Dr. D. James Kennedy are prominent examples of such ministers. Similarly, any Christian with a master’s degree is in trouble!
Patrick Madrid is an author, public speaker, and the publisher of Envoy Magazine. Visit his web site at www.surprisedbytruth.com