Why call priests ‘father’?
Al Kresta defends the Catholic & Orthodox practice of calling priests ‘father . . .
Jesus warned against the behavior of the scribes and Pharisees who exalt themselves and covet the seats of honor in public. They use their authority to bask in praise while oppressing the common believer.
“Call no man your father on earth,” Jesus told his followers, “for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called masters, for you have one master, the Christ” (Mt 23:8).
In light of this passage, some Christians believe that the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Episcopalian custom of calling their priests “father” ignores Jesus’ words. But this interpretation of the passage ends up proving too much. If it forbids any honorific title, then what are we to make of common Protestant titles such as pastor, reverend, teacher, doctor and bishop?
When taken with wooden literalness, the passage even forbids calling our biological or adoptive male parent “father” — after all, we’re to call no one on earth “father” because our real “Father” is in heaven.
This strictly literal application of the passage mocks the practice of the very apostles we are called to emulate. The New Testament writers affectionately called Jewish or Christian leaders “father.” Paul called Abraham “the father of all who believe” (Rom 4:11). He also referred to himself this way: “Like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you” (1 Thess 2:11).
These aren’t odd or isolated references. At least nine times in his first letter John fondly called his disciples “children” or “little children.” Paul called the Galatians “my children” (Gal 4:19) and Timothy “my true child in the faith” (1 Tim 1:2).
How can this be, given Jesus’ apparent prohibition? It’s not difficult to fathom. A spiritual parent, like a physical parent, is accountable to God for the care and nurture of his children. That accountability to God was just what the scribes, Pharisees and rabbis neglected in the exercise of their office.
Why then does Jesus use such absolute language? Hebrew scholars remind us that the Jews employed the linguistic convention of using absolute contrasts to make comparative points. It’s a form of hyperbole.
Jesus’ warnings about calling men teachers, fathers, masters, leaders, and so on do not utterly prohibit the language of spiritual parentage, but the debasing of such language. Better not to use it at all than to mock God by corrupting it. Jesus uses extreme language to combat extreme abuse.
Al Kresta is CEO of Ave Maria Communications and host of Kresta in the Afternoon. This column is taken from his book “Why Do Catholics Genuflect?” © 2001. Used with permission of St. Anthony Messenger Press. To order copies, call 1-800-488-0488 or visit servantbooks.org