Q. Why do Catholics call priests “Father” when Jesus taught we should “call no man father”?
A. Jesus did indeed say: “Call no one on earth your father. You have but one Father in heaven” (Matthew 23:9). In light of these words from the Gospel, many non-Catholic Christians object to Catholics calling priests “father.” So how do Catholics understand this passage?
In this situation, Jesus was rebuking the Pharisees for their spiritual pride (see Matthew 23:2–10). He reminded them that God alone — God the Father — is ultimately the source of all authority, even the authority these men wielded within the religious community.
But was this simply an admonition to the proud, or did Jesus actually mean that under no circumstances are we ever to refer to anyone as “father”? Just consider: If the latter is true, then we could never legitimately speak of Church fathers, founding fathers of a country, biological fathers, adoptive fathers, or stepfathers.
This could not have been Jesus’ intent, however, given the words He spoke on other occasions as reported in the Gospels. The truth is that our Lord himself used the term “father” numerous times to speak of someone other than God (see, for example, Matthew 15:4-6; 19:5, 19, 29; 21:31; John 8:56). In telling the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus even used the title “Father Abraham” three times to refer to the patriarch of ancient Israel (Luke 16:24, 27, 30).
Was the Son of God contradicting Himself? Of course not. His repeated use of the word “father” to refer to someone other than God makes it clear that His instruction to “call no one on earth father” cannot rightly be interpreted as an absolute prohibition.
We should note, too, that St. Paul certainly had no qualms about calling himself a “father” to other Christians, and his use of the word that way is a part of Sacred Scripture: “For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (1 Corinthians 4:15). “But Timothy’s worth you know, how as a son with a father he has served with me in the gospel” (Philippians 2:22).
As a parallel case of Scripture interpre-tation, consider the matter of calling someone “teacher.” Immediately before His instruction about calling anyone “father,” Jesus warned: “Do not be called ‘Rabbi’ [literally, “teacher” in Jesus’ native tongue, Aramaic; see John 1:38]. You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers” (Matthew 23:8). Do those who object to calling priests “father” refrain from calling anyone “teacher” as well?
Jesus himself spoke of teachers (Matthew 10:24–25; Luke 6:40; John 3:10). St. Paul called himself a teacher (1 Timothy 2:7; 2 Timothy 1:11). The Apostle also noted that teachers are in fact one of the ministries God has set in the Church (1 Corinthians 12:28–29; Ephesians 4:11).
Consult any Bible concordance. It will reveal many other occurrences of the words “father,” “fathers,” “teacher,” and “teachers” throughout Scripture.
Clearly, then, Jesus was not forbidding any use of the word “father” or “teacher.” As the Catholic tradition has always understood, we must examine this command — and every biblical passage — in light of the Scripture as a whole to discover its correct interpretation.