A clear injunction denied
This is No. 15 in the series. Please read my introduction and explanation here.
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.”
“That was a wonderful homily, Father Bob.”
“The Holy Father, say those close to him, is wearing himself out.”
Matthew 23:9 “And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven.”
In the 22nd chapter of Matthew’s gospel, the Jewish scribes and Pharisees make thinly-veiled and unsuccessful attempts to outsmart Jesus, and get summarily schooled. In the 23rd chapter, Matthew records Jesus subsequently turning to his disciples and the attending crowd to expose the Jewish leaders for their hypocrisy and warn his followers against undue and improper adulation of religious leaders. It is in this context that Jesus says, “call no man your father on earth.” That this has nothing to do with what we all our biological father is clear from the context and other verses. Jesus is specifically referring to those in a position of spiritual authority.
Yet every Catholic priest is properly addressed as Father, in direct disobedience to Christ’s command. The Church, of course, sees it differently and has a defense of the practice here. Their argument can be summarized as follows:
- Jesus couldn’t have been saying that under no circumstances should you call a religious leader Father because Abraham is referred to as Father and he was a spiritual leader.
- What’s more, New Testament figures Stephen and John address non-familial men as fathers, and Paul refers to himself as father to the Corinthians.
- The Jewish leaders were pridefully usurping the fatherhood of God and their pride was all Jesus was proscribing.
But the many references to Abraham as “father” are not supportive of the Catholic viewpoint because they refer to his paternity to the nation of Israel, as well as all nations, as ordained by God in Genesis 17:5. Not as a spiritual leader or teacher. In Acts 7, Stephen’s use of “brothers and fathers” is something quite different as well. He begins his defense by establishing that he is one of them – a Jew – some of whom are young like he, and some are his elders. “Father” is a term of respect to those who have gone before him in the faith. He uses the term a lot in that chapter when giving the history of the Jews. They were his ancestors, those who have preceded him, and in that sense they were his fathers. In a similar way, those who are still living and are older can be said to have preceded him, and out of respect for his elders, Stephen calls them fathers.
In 1 Corinthians 4, Paul is backing up his right to chastise and correct the church at Corinth, and perhaps soften the blow a little, by reminding them of his role as their spiritual father in bringing them the gospel. They are his children in the faith, and by virtue of that they can know that he loves them and they would be wise to receive his discipline. But I am confident he would reject the title of Father Paul.
In 1 John 2, I see no indication that John is speaking to leaders of the church. By “fathers” he is likely addressing professing Christians who are mature in the faith.
Jesus was highlighting and condemning the error of giving any spiritual leader the reverence and exaltation due only to God, and more so, of spiritual leaders expecting and allowing it. But the Catholic church says that “the priest, by virtue of the sacrament of Holy Orders, acts in persona Christi Capitis…Now the minister, by reason of the sacerdotal consecration which he has received, is truly made like to the high priest [Jesus] and possesses the authority to act in the power and place of the person of Christ himself.” It goes on to quote Ignatius of Antioch as saying that a bishop is “like the living image of God the Father.”1
I believe that what the Catholic church has done in designating that priests be addressed as “Father” is exactly what Jesus was warning against. Catholics give (and are expected to give) an inordinate level of honor and prestige to their priests. Jesus was teaching his followers, who would be leaders, not to follow the example of the scribes and Pharisees who loved to be greeted in the marketplace and get the best seats at parties and events and be noticed because of their robes and vestments – exactly like a lot of priests today. Not that there aren’t many who are truly humble servants, but the fact that the Church confers such authority and status on them, partly by giving them the title Father, ensures that many will end up looking just like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day.
1 Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 1548-49