From the Jun 2000 Issue of Lay Witness Magazine
Why do Catholics call priests “father,” when Jesus says “call no man your father on earth” (Mt. 23:9)?
In Matthew 23:9, Jesus emphasizes the primary role of Our Heavenly Father. He created us in His image and likeness (cf. Gen. 1:26-28). He made us His children through Baptism in the death and Resurrection of His Son (cf. Rom. 5:12-21; 6:3-4; 8:12-17). Because God created us in His image and likeness, we share in the attributes of God. Insofar as men share in the attributes of the Father, they participate in the one fatherhood of God.
In Matthew 23:9 Jesus says, “And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven.” Many people interpret this to mean, “Do not call a priest “father,” and do not call your dad “father.” Some who hold this opinion go further and believe that calling a priest “father” violates Scripture because it seemingly involves the rejection of a direct command from Jesus. This is a common objection to the Catholic Church.
But, if we believe the conclusion that it is wrong to call others “father,” then what are we to make of the Scriptures that contradict this one? For example, in Mark 7:9-13, Jesus criticizes the Pharisees and scribes for not honoring their “fathers.” Furthermore, calling the apostles and their successors “father” was common within the early Christian communities (cf. 1 Cor. 4:15; 1 Jn. 2:12; Acts 7:2; 22:1). As in the case of all scriptural
interpretations, we must understand this passage in light of the rest of Scripture (cf. 2 Pet. 1:20; 3:16). This interpretative principle is called the analogy of faith (Catechism, no. 114).
Honor Thy Father
In Deuteronomy 5:16, God commands, “Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God commanded you; that your days may be prolonged, and that it may go well with you, in the land which the Lord your God gives you.” God made this command after telling us to honor Him. With this in mind, it seems reasonable to conclude that God Himself considers others to be “fathers.” Jesus upholds this commandment in Mark 7:9-13. In this passage, He berates the scribes and Pharisees who used traditions to rationalize not providing assistance to their fathers. Similarly, in Matthew 19:16-19, Jesus includes honoring one’s human father as a prerequisite to attaining eternal life.
A father is one who begets children. Biologically, to beget means to give the seed from which a child is conceived. A man begets and a woman conceives. In the act of begetting, the man shares in the attributes of God’s fatherhood by participating in the creation of this new life. In turn, God is the author of life who actively creates a soul and infuses it into the child at the moment of conception.
It is important to remember that a child does not choose its biological father. The father gives the child life. Just as God gives life to all men, and so deserves our honor and reverence, so a child owes its life to its father, and the father deserves honor from the child.
There is a spiritual sense to fatherhood as well. In John 8, Jesus identifies spiritual fatherhood in terms of whom one honors. If we honor the father of lies, the devil is our father; if we honor God, He is our Father (vv. 44-49). Thus, Jesus calls the devil a father of some, and He calls God the Father of others. Those alive in Christ owe their new life to God. But those who are in bondage to sin owe their enslaved existence to Satan. In light of this passage, we can best understand what Jesus meant in Matthew 23:9.
Text and Context
Matthew 23:9 is part of a larger passage in which Jesus comments on the example of the scribes and Pharisees. St. Matthew devotes the entire chapter to this discourse. While reading the entire chapter is most helpful in understanding this passage, the first 12 verses provide adequate context to begin the discussion:
Then said Jesus to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice. They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by men; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues, and salutations in the market places, and being called rabbi by men. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brethren. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called masters, for you have one master, the Christ. He who is greatest among you shall be your servant; whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
In the remainder of the chapter, Jesus expresses disgust with the many hypocrisies of the scribes and Pharisees. He ends by giving a lament over Jerusalem for killing the prophets and ignoring the Word of God.
While there are many things that can be gleaned from this passage, we can see that Jesus does four things here: (1) He identifies two authorities; (2) He explains the proper response to authority in general; (3) He condemns acts of pride and selfishness committed by those in authority; and (4) in doing all these things, He is preparing the crowd for the New Covenant ratified in His blood.
In verse 2, Jesus notes that “the scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat.” By this, He recognizes that they have an obligation to teach the people as Moses taught the people. Because he received the Law from God and then gave it to the people, Moses was the mediator of the Sinai Covenant. The scribes and Pharisees cannot add to what Moses did, but only teach it. As teachers of this Law, they must be respected. This is the first authority identified, and it is rooted in the Sinai Covenant.
“Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all men that were on the face of the earth” (Num. 12:3). And when Miriam and Aaron spoke in pride saying, “Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?” (Num. 13:2), God punished them (Num. 13:9-16).
Unlike Moses, from whom they claim authority, the scribes and Pharisees used their positions for their own profit and glory. And so while Jesus tells the people to follow the teachings of the scribes and Pharisees, He warns them not to follow their prideful practices. As God punished Miriam and Aaron for their pride, so Jesus warns the scribes and Pharisees of punishment for theirs. One such act of pride was to be called “teacher,” “father,” and “master.” As in other places of Scripture, Jesus emphasizes here that one who seeks to be a teacher, father, or master must serve the rest, and not seek their own
glory or power. He does this by introducing a second authority, which would be rooted in the New Covenant ratified in His blood.
In Matthew 23:9-10, Jesus identifies fatherhood with the Father in heaven, and authority with the authority He received from His Father. In a different way, He had already done this in Matthew 10:40. In that passage, Jesus commissioned His twelve apostles and sent them out in His name. Jesus told them, “He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me.” In this way, the apostles knew they acted not on their own authority, but on the authority of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Furthermore, those who accepted them were accepting Christ and His Father in heaven (see also Mt. 18:5; Mk. 9:37; Lk. 9:48; Jn. 13:20; 12:48; Gal. 4:14). Thus, our “father” is the one whom we choose to honor. In Matthew 23:9, Jesus exhorts us to choose His Father and those who act in His name.
Priests of the New Covenant
At the Last Supper, Jesus gave His Church the gift of the ministerial priesthood. He gave His apostles the authority to act in His person with the authority given by the Father. Jesus had made this clear in Matthew 10:40 as noted above, and He reemphasized it in John 17 when, while praying to the Father, He said, “While I was with them, I kept them in thy name, which thou hast given me . . . As thou didst send me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (vv. 12,18). This Sacrament of Holy Orders makes present the graces necessary for our spiritual rebirth and sustenance in Christ. For it is at the hands of priests that we are baptized, confirmed, and receive the precious body and blood of Our Lord.
The title “father” does not confer upon priests the same status proper to Our Heavenly Father alone, nor does it diminish God’s absolute and universal fatherhood. However, it is incorrect to interpret Matthew 23:9 in an exclusively literal sense. In 1 Corinthians 4:15, St. Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, says, “For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” St. Paul calls himself “father” because he recognizes his cooperation with God in begetting the spiritual life of the community entrusted to his care. There are several other passages, such as Acts 7:2; Acts 22:1; Corinthians 4:15; Galatians 4:19; 1 John 2:12; and Philemon 10, which show that the title “father” was applied to others besides God and biological fathers in the New Testament.
Where Do We Go from Here?
We cannot interpret Matthew 23:9 as prohibiting reference to dads or priests as “fathers” without contradicting other scriptural passages in which the word “father” is used. Such an interpretation would render the commandment “honor your father” meaningless and would diminish the authority of the apostles and their successors. Admittedly, it is easier for a Protestant to accept the title “father” for those who beget children biologically. To use the title for others would imply the recognition of Jesus’ intention to establish a ministerial priesthood through the Sacrament of Holy Orders.
However, our lives of faith are conceived by the acts of those who sow the seeds of faith. The apostles and their successors were commissioned by Christ Himself. They bear His Word in our lives and are ministers of His grace through the sacraments of the Church, beginning with our spiritual rebirth in Baptism. By sharing in the high priesthood of Christ, bishops and priests share in the attributes of the Father. As there is no father but the one Father in heaven, and no teacher or master but Christ, we properly understand that these men, having been commissioned by Christ to act in His person, also represent the Father, whom the Son reveals (cf. Jn. 1:14-18). Insofar as they uniquely participate in the spiritual begetting of God’s children, bishops and priests are our fathers. For they share in the mission of Christ who reveals the eternal Father. St. Ignatius of Antioch, who knew the apostles, expressed this well when he wrote: “Let everyone revere . . . the bishop as the image of the Father” (as quoted in Catechism, no. 1554).
When addressing this issue with those who do not agree, we do well to point out the various opposing Scriptures and ask them to explain the meanings. Remind them that God cannot contradict Himself, so the Scriptures, which are His Word, cannot be contradictory. After hearing their answers, charitably question any contradictions. Most importantly, find common ground through which you can further an understanding of fatherhood. This common ground will probably be at the level of biological fatherhood. For on this level, interpreting Matthew 23:9 in an exclusively literal sense would undermine the Fourth Commandment. Most will recognize that in no way does this title take away from the ultimate power and authority God has over human life: “Thou didst knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Ps. 139:13). Rather, we recognize that all fatherhood comes from God, as St. Paul teaches in Ephesians 3:14-15: “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named. . . .”
In this context, we can explain the fatherhood of a priest. Rather than bearing the authority of man and providing an example of pride as the scribes and Pharisees, a priest bears the authority of God in the New Covenant sealed in the blood of Christ. With such a commission, the priest is obligated to live in service to others.
Thus, whether we are speaking of biological fathers or spiritual fathers, we understand men in both circumstances to be participating in the one fatherhood of God. This is a gift from God, and must be lived in a godly manner. Only in this way can they raise their children to be children of light.
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