Why do Catholics put so much stock in the Church Fathers?
Just as the natural family rightly honor and gives great weight to the words of the father who gave it biological life, so too does the supernatural family of God revere those apostles, bishops and teachers who have transmitted the spiritual life that animates the Church.
The practice is taken from scripture, where Abraham is called “the father of all who believe.” Paul is a “father in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (1 Cor 4:15) and calls the people he pastors “my children” (1 Thess 2:11). John also encourages a filial devotion from his disciples by addressing them as “little children” (1 John 2:11), and Peter refers to “the fathers” who have fallen asleep (2 Peter 3:14).
Some try to argue from Matt 23:8-12 that “no man is to be called father on earth for we have one Father, who is in heaven.” Likewise, according to the same passage, we are to call no man “teacher” or “master.” If the exaggeration in this passage is misconstrued as a literal command, then the above “paternal” passages are wickedly misleading, enticing us to do the very thing Christ forbids.
Furthermore, Paul specifies that God the Holy Spirit has given “teachers” to the Church just as he has given “apostles” and “prophets” and “workers of the miracles” (1 Cor 12:28; Eph 4:11). The literalistic interpretation of Jesus’ prohibition against calling anyone father or master or teacher on earth puts Paul and other teachers in the silly position of modeling for us what Christ has forbidden.
“Fathers of the Church” is an affectionate and popular term rather than an exact title. Depending on whose list you are consulting, the fathers number about 100 early Christian teachers. While most Church histories focus on creeds and councils, persecutions and prefects, emperors and exiles, the Church sees itself as a household of faith held together by strong fathers who strove to protect their spiritual children from danger, to discipline them and to teach them the Way of Jesus. These “fathers” also presided over the Eucharist and guarded the family’s patrimony from thieves who tried to break in and steal.
The term father is not restricted to bishops or even to those of unimpeachable orthodoxy. The appeal to the “unanimous consent of fathers” as a collective of sound teachers whose authority was generally recognized began in the mid-fourth century. Within a century it was common to invoke “the fathers” as one of the authorities to settle disputes.
They are a diverse lot, cut from very different cloth. While baptism immerses us into Christ and forms one mystical body, it does not impose one type of personality. Only an infinite number of personalities can image the infinite-personal God, so when God creates any one of us, he can afford to break the mold.
Catechesis is intimately bound up with the whole of the Church’s life — not only her geographical extension and numerical increase, but even more her inner growth and correspondence with God’s plan depend essentially on catechesis.
Periods of renewal in the Church are also intense moments of catechesis. In the great era of the Fathers of the Church, saintly bishops devoted an important part of their ministry to catechesis. St. Cyril of Jerusalem and St. John Chrysostom, St. Ambrose and St. Augustine, and many other Fathers wrote catechetical works that remain models for us.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, #7-8