Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Why Do Catholics Call Priests "Father"?

A common objection to Catholicism is that Catholics ignore the Bible in calling priests Father. After all, in Matthew 23:9, Jesus says, “call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven.

It seems, on the surface, that Catholics are just violating Scripture wantonly. And really, how hard is it to just call the priest Reverend?  But when you start to examine Scripture, you'll quickly discover that Matthew 23:9 is one of the most misunderstood passages in all of Scripture.

So let me do three things: first, show that men are called “father” throughout the New Testament; second, that “father” is used as an honorific throughout the New Testament; and finally, explain why this is compatible with what Christ is talking about in Matthew 23:9.

“Fathers” Throughout the New Testament

Let's start in an obvious place, the beginning of Matthew's Gospel.  The genealogy in Matthew 1 lists a lot of fathers: “Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers…” (Matthew 1:2).  Jesus talks about our fathers in Matthew 10:37 and Mark 10:29.  Ephesians 6:2 reminds children, “honor your father and mother.”  In fact, there are countless men referred to in the New Testament as fathers or father.

Protestants recognize this, and concede that it's okay to call a man “father” in the biological sense, just not in the spiritual sense.  Now, Matthew 23:9 doesn't actually say that, does it?  It says to call no man “father.” So my first point is that nobody takes Matthew 23:9 literally, including Mathew and Jesus.

Fathers In Faith

So what do we make of the idea that it's okay to call a man a biological father, but not a spiritual father?  That reading is also wrong, and contrary to the plain language of the Bible.

When Jesus tells the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, He has the rich man refer to Abraham by the title “Father Abraham” when praying to him (Luke 16:24; Luke 16:30).  There's not a hint anywhere in the passage that he's wrong to call him that, either.   James 2:21 likewise calls him “Abraham our father.”  That's the exact formulation that seems to be banned by Matthew 23:9.  Likewise, there's Acts 4:25, in which the Christians remind God of the words of “our father David Your servant.” Romans 9:10 refers to “our father Isaac.

But couldn't they just be calling them fathers, and meaning ancestors?  Nope.  Romans 4:11-18 explicitly tells us that Abraham is our father through faith:
He received circumcision as a sign or seal of the righteousness which he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them, and likewise the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but also follow the example of the faith which our father Abraham had before he was circumcised. 
The promise to Abraham and his descendants, that they should inherit the world, did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith.  If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression. 
All Are Welcome.
That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants -- not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham, for he is the father of us all, as it is written, "I have made you the father of many nations" -- in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.  In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations; as he had been told, "So shall your descendants be."
In Matthew 3:9, John the Baptist makes the same point, saying to the Pharisees and Sadducees, “do not presume to say to yourselves, `We have Abraham as our father'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”  In other words, biological descent from Abraham doesn't cut it.  It's being his son in faith that matters.  And Jesus Himself makes the same point in John 8:39, telling the Pharisees, “If you were Abraham’s children, then you would do what Abraham did.”  So clearly Abraham is called father (at least by Christians) because he's our spiritual father, rather than our biological ancestor.

We see this in plenty of other places.  St. Stephen, for example, uses it for the elders of the Jewish Council, beginning his speech, “Hear me, brethren and fathers!” (Acts 7:2).  Obviously, he's not claiming that the high priest and the elders he's speaking to are his physical ancestors: he's referring them as fathers in the same way we refer to priests as fathers today.

St. Paul even refers to himself as a spiritual father, saying, “in Christ Jesus I became your father through the Gospel” (1 Cor. 4:15).  And St. Peter refers to Mark as his (spiritual) son in 1 Peter 5:13 -- with the implication that Peter is his father in faith.  So basically everyone in the New Testament uses father as a spiritual title.  The Protestant formulation (that it's okay to call men father, but only if they're a biological ancestor) is clearly wrong.

Understanding Matthew 23:9

So we've covered two things that Matthew 23:9 doesn't mean.  It doesn't forbid the use of the word father, and it doesn't forbid the use of the title father for a spiritual leader.  So what does it mean? I explored this in some retreat notes that I posted at the dawn of this blog:
There Can Be Only One.
Jesus said, “call no man on Earth your Father,” (Matt. 23: 19), yet St. Paul says, “I became your father through the Gospel” (1 Cor. 4:15). St. Paul warns earlier in that epistle, though, that there is no Paul or Apollos, only Christ (1 Cor. 1:12-13). And this is the key that ties it all together.

Christ warns us not to call any man our father so as not to create an alternative to God, a figure to draw us away from God. If we are a Christian but also a Marxist, we find Marx and Christ pulling us in different directions. But to be a follower of St. Paul is to be a follower of Christ. Paul's fatherhood draws you in to the One Divine Father.
And from those same notes, “God is jealous of Baal, not Moses; of Mammon, not Peter. God's jealousy is of anything which draws us away from Him.”  That is, it's a jealousy of love.

Christ denounced the Pharisees for creating a separate set of allegiances, obedience to a rabbinical tradition that interfered with their ability to follow the Ten Commandments (Mark 7:9-13). In Catholicism, there is no separate allegiance.  Loyalty to the Bride of Christ, the Church, is loyalty to Christ Himself (Ephesians 5:25-32).

UPDATE: I'll be talking about this post on Son Rise Morning Show next week.  Interview is at 8:50 AM Monday morning, but I'm not sure when it's airing.

31 comments:

  1. Joe,

    Only God is THE Father; men (like me) who have begotten children here on earth are only called 'fathers' by analogy to Him. And this is an important point to consider when confronting modern feminist heresies, which tend to think that attributing fatherhood to God is to apply a (n increasingly harmful) metaphor. It isn't a metaphor, it's an analogy, and it doesn't run in the direction most moderns think it does. It's not that God is in some way to the cosmos as a human father is to his children, but that a human father is to his children in some way as God is to the second person of the Blessed Trinity. No one is a father as God is THE Father.

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  2. Shoot, that's a great point. I should have mentioned that. Ephesians 3:15 says that it's from God's Fatherhood that every father, in Heaven or on Earth, derives the name.

    So priests are fathers because God is Father.

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  3. I've never heard any in my Evangelical circle have an issue with Catholics calling their priests Father. I agree with your points here that it is valid to do so and not a violation of scripture. Is this really that rampant?

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  4. "So priests are fathers because God is Father."

    ...and priests are only priests because their share in the priesthood of Christ :)

    "I am the Good shepherd...Peter, feed my sheep"

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  5. @Joe

    It's actually even better than that. Priests are not fathers just because God the Father is Father, but because Christ Himself has become a father in the Father through His redemptive work. Consider, after the Resurrection Christ refers to the disciples as "children" (John 21:5). In Hebrews, we read that Christ has brought "many sons" to glory (2:10) and that He says, "Here am I and the children God has given me" (2:13, quoting Isaiah 8:18). So priests have to be fathers because of their configuration to Christ.

    Have you read Pablo Gadenz's article on this in "Catholic for a Reason: Scripture and the Mystery of the Family of God"? He does a great and quite thorough job of why we call priests "father."

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  6. Otsile,

    Personally, I've been asked it by a variety of people, and I know of others who have. Outside of anecdotal experience, I can't speak to how popular it is.


    Restless Pilgrim,

    Exactly. Actually, the scandal of alter Christus is what lead to my original retreat notes.

    I.X.,

    Joe

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  7. Andrew,

    Wow. I hadn't understood it to that level. That makes a lot of sense, and it fulfills the prophesy in Isaiah 9:6. Nice!

    I may need to check that book out -- I've heard positive things about it.

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  8. "I've never heard any in my Evangelical circle have an issue with Catholics calling their priests Father. I agree with your points here that it is valid to do so and not a violation of scripture. Is this really that rampant?"

    I'm a convert. I have one cousin who is Catholic and that's it. The entire rest of my family, which is quite large, is Evangelical Protestant. And yes, I get that all the time from family members and old evangelical friends as well.

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  9. I would also add that priests are called father because they beget spiritual children through baptism. The divine command to increase and multiply can be satisfied both carnally or spiritually. Holy Orders can satisy it in one way, Matrimony in another.

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  10. I say Holy Orders knowing anyone can baptize in necessity, but to counter the critical claim against priests not having biological children.

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  11. Good point. In fact, St. Augustine made a very similar point about spiritual motherhood, in his commentary on Matthew 12:50, which was in yesterday's Office of Readings. The whole thing is good, but the part I'm thinking of is at the end:

    "Now having said that all of you are brothers of Christ, shall I not dare to call you his mother? Much less would I dare to deny his own words. Tell me how Mary became the mother of Christ, if it was not by giving birth to the members of Christ? You, to whom I am speaking, are the members of Christ. Of whom were you born? ““Of Mother Church”,” I hear the reply of your hearts. You became sons of this mother at your baptism, you came to birth then as members of Christ. Now you in your turn must draw to the font of baptism as many as you possibly can. You became sons when you were born there yourselves, and now by bringing others to birth in the same way, you have it in your power to become the mothers of Christ."

    I.X.,

    Joe

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  12. Jesus called God the Aramaic/Semitic word for Father: "Abba" "Father".

    (What follows is a bit more Semitic grammar than most people would ever want to know so feel free to skip to the end...)

    Semitic languages put possessive suffixes at the end of their nouns. ie: "my book" in Semitic languages would be written as "book+[sound that indicates it is mine/our/their]"

    The sound for the first person plural (We/Our) in Semitic languages such as Arabic, Hebrew, or the Aramaic if Jesus is an "N" sound. Verbs that are translated as "We [insert action here]" have an "N" sound in their prefixes many of the times.

    "Abba" = "Father", "-n" = "our", which morphs into the word "Abwoon" (father+our) = "Our Father" in English.

    In short, Jesus is basically ordering us to not call any mere human being "God Almighty".

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MAEIrp4MFBE

    And that's just a nice little video of the Aramaic "Our Father" set to music that I liked and thought I'd share.

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  13. Might you be able to speak to how protestants criticize our practice of calling the Pope "Holy Father"? Thanks.

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  14. Priests remind me of my own biological father but also reflect Our Father in Heaven because of their love for us.

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  15. If you are unaware of the reason for calling a Priest "Father" then you need to study your catholic faith. The church does a terrible job of teaching the Catholic faith so it is up to you to become a learned catholic. Try it, it is worth it. God Bless.

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  16. If there is one thing that is clear in this article, it is that loyal Roman Catholics like Joe aren't interested in what Jesus taught. All that concerns them is what Joe at least admits is “shameless popery”.

     Joe starts out by saying: "when you start to examine Scripture, you'll quickly discover that Matthew 23:9 is one of the most misunderstood passages in all of Scripture.  It seems, on the surface, that Catholics are just violating Scripture wantonly."

    I beg to differ. The problem isn't that Matthew 23 is one of the most misunderstood passages in all of Scripture. And there is nothing superficial about the fact that Catholics and the Catholic hierarchy in particular are "just violating Scripture wantonly.” I recognized this even as a young priest, when I saw how ridiculous it was for people older than myself to be addressing me as "Father".
    The 1st problem that jumps out at me when I look at this article is the way it rips out one verse from its context. Yet, when you read on, and the author comes to the teaching of his real guru, "Saint" Paul, Joe quotes his Epistle to the Romans profusely.
    Using other parts of the Bible to undermine the teaching of Jesus is a time-honored tradition among those who find that teaching distasteful. For several hundred years the “Bible Belt” of North America regularly chastised those who rejected their use of many passages from St. Paul to justify the practice of slavery as “anti-Christian”, even though such "abolitionists" may have been moved at least in part to end slavery because it couldn't be reconciled with the second of Jesus two great commandments, "Love thy neighbor as thyself".
    Joe cites Paul's proclamation that "there is no Paul or Apollos, only Christ"  (1 Cor. 1:12-13) as proof that Paul of Tarsus spoke for Jesus of Nazareth.  What kind of thinking is this? If I present a check of yours for $50,000, should a bank hand over this money of yours to me just because I signed your name on that check? 
    It would be significant if Jesus said that Paul spoke for him, but the reverse means nothing. As I show at Jesuswouldbefurious.org/Paulvsall.html, the failure over the centuries to distinguish between the authority of "St. Paul" and that of Jesus has been tragic in any number of ways.
    [ due to space limitations, this post will be continued and completed in the next ]

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  17. [ continued from prior post ]

     All you need to do to see how badly the Roman Catholic Church has mangled the teaching of Jesus in Matthew, Ch.23 is to read the entire chapter from which verse 9 was ripped out: 
           "At that time, Jesus addressed the crowds and His disciples, saying : 'The scribes and the Pharisees speak with the authority of Moses, so you must do what they tell you and follow their instructions.  But don't make the mistake of imitating their lives!  For, they preach but do not practice.  They pile up back-breaking burdens and lay them on other men's shoulders – yet they themselves will not so much as raise a finger to move them.  Their whole lives are planned with an eye to effect.  They increase the size of their prayer books and lengthen the tassels of their robes; they love seats of honor at public functions and front places and to have men call them 'rabbi' or 'teacher'.  As for yourselves, don't you ever be called 'rabbi'  – you only have one teacher, and all of you are brother of one another.  And don't call any human being 'father'  – for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.  And you must not let people call you 'leaders'  – for you have only one leader, the Anointed One (Christ).  The only 'superior' among you is the one who serves the others.  For, every man who promotes himself will be humbled, and every man who learns to be humble will find promotion.
            But alas for you, you scribes and Pharisees, play actors (hypocrites) that you are!  You lock the doors of the kingdom of Heaven in men's faces.  You will not go inside yourselves, and neither will you allow others to enter."

    No one who ponders THESE WORDS of Jesus, instead of looking for the teaching of others that NEGATE the teaching of Jesus can possible DEFEND clerics talking and acting like nobles, princes, kings and emperors, instead of the SERVANTS of his people that Jesus intended them to be. God only knows how many of the problems with the R.C. church come from its clergy "wantonly violating" the clear teaching of Jesus in general and THIS scripture in particular. See more on this at my Jesuswouldbefurious.org/callnomanfather.html page.

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  18. Liberator_Rev,

    It'd be much more productive if you interacted with the arguments Joe presents in his article.

    Joe gives ample evidence to show that Jesus could not have been referring to an absolute ban of the title "father" in either a biological or spiritual sense, so we must be careful of interpreting this passage in a literalistic fashion.

    If you would like to convince anyone of your position, you will need to address his arguments.

    (Out of interest, do you also object to the use of the title "teacher"?)

    > "The 1st problem that jumps out at me when I look at this article is the way it rips out one verse from its context"

    In what way do you think Joe has done this?

    > "Using other parts of the Bible to undermine the teaching of Jesus is a time-honored tradition among those who find that teaching distasteful"

    I'd call that reading the totality of Scripture, rather than cherry picking verses.

    Should we conclude from your comments that you don't think Paul was an Apostle, inspired by the Holy Spirit or accepted by the Apostolic Church?

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  19. Having been a fanatical Catholic myself for 33 years, culminating in ordination and a stint as a seminary professor, I know what it is like to be in the shoes of people like you who identify with "Shameless Popery". But I can assure you that Jesus was right when he promised that "the truth will make you free".
    The further I get from this "popery" of yours, the more I want to help good people who are still suffering from it to appreciate the differences between CHRIST and the "VICAR of Christ", which is the purpose of my whole web site, and of THIS page in particular http://JesusWouldBeFurious.Org/VicarsvsChrist.html .

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  20. Father,

    I mourn that you've turned your back on the indelible mark bestowed on you in ordination, and be assured that you've been in my prayers these past two days. As Restless Pilgrim said, if you've got a coherent response to a point that I raised, you're more than welcome to present it. But if you're just interested in self-promotion, imputing bad faith to others, and accusing those of us who haven't abandoned the Church of not loving Jesus Christ as much as you do, what is there to talk about?

    RP asked you some a couple direct questions, including: "Should we conclude from your comments that you don't think Paul was an Apostle, inspired by the Holy Spirit or accepted by the Apostolic Church?" You've ignored these questions, and just continue to plug your own blog, instead.

    If I may add a question to those pending, I'd ask this: you claim that "loyal Roman Catholics" like myself "aren't interested in what Jesus taught." That's a sweeping accusation of bad faith on those who don't see things the way you do. Yet in the same comment, you talk about how you were ordained as a Catholic priest. Is this because you didn't care about what Jesus taught?

    In the love of Christ our Lord,

    Joe

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  21. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  22. Stumbled on this page and care to enter comments that are the debate being had.

    1 - I agree pretty much with what Liberator - Rev's take on Matthew 23:9 is stating. I have the same vigor his words carry, but as he already made the point with emphasis, I feel I need not.

    2 - Biological fathers aren't generally understood to be Holy Fathers. That this might be used as justification for calling someone on earth by a title of Father (with capital F) or Holy Father seems absurd. If it really is, then I just assume call such people Dad or Daddy, or Daddy-O and it ought not to matter, as my biological father would have no problem with that, and neither would some brothers and sisters. IOW, making a mockery out of the term in this case I think is 'most appropriate' given the one to whom the term is applying to.

    3 - Father Abraham, Father Isaac and Father (fill name in here for person not living on earth) are all people that are, as I just stated, not living on earth. So, if one reads what Matt 23:9 says, this is not a violation of what Jesus suggested. Hence, it would be more awkward for Jesus to use that event as a 'teachable moment' when he had already set the record straight.

    If there was another point that I didn't address, then perhaps I missed it. But to be clear, Paul's words of Revelation aren't Jesus words of Testament. Again, Lib-Rev. spoke to this, I think, so if citing passage about Paul's reference to Father, that is covered. But to be clear, if there is no Paul revelation in NT, there is no Christian / disciple of Christ calling brothers Father or Holy Father. If the title of Father makes sense to you, you can thank your Holy Father Saul for (falsely) humbling you as such.

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  23. Wonton disregard to scriptures. Thats what catholism is and has been. Long explanation but it would take a day long to go through every verse listed in its entire chapter.

    Lets put it this way. No man on earth today is without sin. There has only been one some 2000 years ago. So all priests are no different from me and hence does not warrant being called Father unless like me, I have a biological son. Even on that score the catholic teachings have wontonly misrepresented the truth to not allowing its priest to marry.

    If I need any clarification on the bible or my faith I shall ask Jesus for the Gift of the holy spirit and so the word God will "come alive". And its then the truth will shine like the brightest beacon of light.

    God bless.

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    1. So we’re wrong, but you can’t say why? Please, continue.

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  24. What is the correct respectful term for a non-Catholic to address a Catholic "father" in a business context?

    "Father" . . . or "Reverend"?

    Thanks!

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  25. I have never had a problem with men being called father. I have a problem with the term Holy Father being applied to a human being. There is no man that is holy in and of him self. There IS only one Holy Father. Also if you could help me find the scripture that asks us to kiss anyone's ring. I assume there must be a scripture.

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    1. Brian,

      I'm glad to hear that you haven't had a problem with being called father. As for calling men "holy," Scripture does so multiple times, e.g.:

      Matthew 27:52, "The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life."
      Mark 6:20, "Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man."
      Acts 9:13, "“Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem."

      That said, I agree that neither the pope nor any of the saints (which means "sanctified," or "made holy," by the way) are holy by their own power. No pope would disagree with you on that score.

      As for your comment about kissing anyone's ring, we're called upon to respect our leaders (both civil and ecclesial). Scripture doesn't specific how, but why does it have to? Where do you find a verse saying that it must?

      I don't think your standard can live up to your standard... making it self-refuting.

      I.X.,

      Joe

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  26. The RCC is a legal system and masters at legalistic double speak.

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    1. That's just blind, irrational bigotry, I'm afraid.

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  27. Great teaching!!! I imagine calling my other friend ''Father'' had he gone through the priesthood..

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