Recently a friend asked a question that has been asked many times before, but always deserves a fresh response: “Why do Catholics call their priests ‘Father’? Didn’t Jesus tell us to call no one on earth ‘Father’?
I briefly replied:
Yes, Jesus did say, “Do not call anyone on earth ‘father.’” (Matthew 23:8-11) This passage is often used to “prove” that Catholics are disobeying Christ and that we are un-Biblical. I would answer by pointing out that in this same passage Jesus also tells us to call no one “teacher.” So if we are supposed to follow Jesus’ words here literally, then any time we call someone “teacher” we are likewise disobeying Jesus. Obviously no one believes that Jesus was forbidding the use of the word “teacher,” and so it stands to reason that He was also not forbidding the use of the word “father.Catholics do not see this command of Jesus as a literal ban on the word “father.” In fact there are examples of Christians in the Bible using the term “father” to describe spiritual leaders. And even Paul calls himself a “father” to Christians. He writes: “For if you were to have countless teachers in Christ, yet you would not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel.” (1Corinthians 4:15) If Jesus commanded us to call no one on earth “Father” then why would such a verse appear in Scripture?
During the course of this exchange between me and my friend, we discussed what it means to be a priest in the context of “fatherhood.” I gave my friend a few points to ponder on this subject:
-Your father (your parent) is the head of the household and represents the primary authority for your family. Your parish church is like a family (we are all brothers and sisters in Christ) and the priest represents the head of that parish family. So we call him “Father” to show that we see him as the head of the family.-When we are baptized a priest is the ordinary minister of baptism, and so he receives us into the Church when we are “born again” in the waters of baptism. The priest is present beside us as we emerge from the waters just as our biological father is present as we are born from the womb. The Church is often called our “Mother” – she gives birth to us in baptism – and the priest is a “Father” to us because he instructs us and guides us and works with the Church, just as a mother and father would work together to raise a child.-You might object by saying that GOD is our “Father” in baptism…not the priest. And that is true. A priest is only a pale comparison to God. He can only really be a “step-father” of sorts. But even Jesus had a step-father. He loved and obeyed Joseph and lived under his authority as any son would a father. So a priest can rightly be called a father in the same sense that Joseph was a father to Jesus. We certainly recognize God as our true Father, but just as Jesus accepted Joseph as a father, we accept the earthly “father” that God gives us – the priest.-We have a custom in the United States of calling people like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson our “Founding Fathers.” Likewise in the Church we have a custom of calling the ancient Christian leaders the “Church Fathers.” People like Saint Clement, Saint Ignatius, Saint Irenaeus, and Saint Augustine are all called “Fathers.” This term “Father” came to mean someone who taught authentic doctrine through their writings and the examples that they made of their lives. It became a term of respect for someone who represented the truth of the faith in ancient times. At some point in history the term Father was also used by Christians to refer to any man who received ordination and became a primary teacher of the faithful. Just as the early Church Fathers were great teachers, so too a priest is called to fill such a role.- No father on earth is perfect. My dad was a pretty great father, but I know he had his flaws. Only God is a perfect Father. He is the model for all fatherhood. As a dad I am supposed to imitate God’s Fatherhood in my own parenting. By calling a priest ‘Father,’ we are pointing to God as a role-model for the priesthood. We are saying that the priest is called to imitate God’s fatherhood just as my dad and your dad and every man who has children is called to imitate God’s fatherhood. So calling a priest Father is meant to remind the priest of his overwhelming responsibility and to remind him to be humble in that calling.
These are just a few examples that came to mind when answering my friend’s question. It seemed to satisfy his curiosity and so I put the conversation to rest and that was that. Then a few weeks later I came across another discussion in which female ordination was being debated amongst Protestants. This piqued my interest. The Catholic concept of priestly “fatherhood” certainly points to a male-only priesthood and I immediately thought of the before-mentioned conversation on that subject. What I’ve posted above is a good place to start on the issue of male-only priesthood, but in the next few weeks I plan on adding more thoughts and attempt to explore this topic from several angles.