Call No Man “Father”? Really?

“Our Father, Who art in heaven….”  Jesus gives us the most perfect of all prayers when His disciples ask Him to teach them how to pray (Luke 11:1).  The image of God as our Father is a constant one throughout Holy Scripture.  We are the children of God; He is our Father.  The title of “father” is applied to other persons in our lives, other than God the Father.  Some Christians cite a verse in St. Matthew’s Gospel as a reason for denying this title to any person other than God.  In this verse, Jesus says:  “And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven” (Matthew 23:9).  Does Jesus really mean that we are never to use the word “father” except when addressing God?  Of course, it seems evident that He is not forbidding us to call our male biological parent “father.”  Holy Scripture repeatedly makes reference to biological fatherhood.  Most famously perhaps in Exodus 20:12 when God Himself commands us to “…honor your father and mother…”  It’s pretty clear that Christ wasn’t talking about our biological fathers when He was discussing our use of the title “father.”
Another use of “father” in Scripture is in reference to spiritual or religious leaders.  It is in this sense of the word that Catholics confer the title of “father” to priests of the Church.  Scripture has many references in this regard.  One review shows 144 occasions in the New Testament when the title of “father” is used for someone other than God.  The patriarchs of Israel, Jewish leaders and spiritual leaders are all called “fathers” in the Gospels and the Letters.  While Abraham was the biological ancestor of the Jews, Jesus also taught of Abraham’s spiritual fatherhood.  He once told a group of Jews that they were not Abraham’s “children” at all and that he was not their “father” because they were not of the same spirit as Abraham (John 8:37-44).  St. Paul refers to Abraham as “father” seven times in Romans 4:1-18.  When St. John writes to the spiritual leaders of the early Church, he refers to them as “fathers” (I John 2:13-14).  “I write to you, fathers, because you have known Him that is from the beginning…”  St. Stephen refers to the Jewish High Priests as “fathers” (Acts 7:1-2).  Most notably, St. Paul refers to spiritual leadership as “fatherhood” when writing of Timothy as “my own son in the faith:(I Timothy 1:2; II Timothy 1:2 and 2:1).  St. Paul writes to the church in Corinth to remind them that he is their spiritual “father”:  “I write not these things to shame you, but as my beloved sons I warn you.  For though you have ten thousand instructors in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus, I have begotten you through the Gospel”( I Corinthians 4:14-15).  Surely Sts. Paul, James, Stephen and John weren’t all in error in their understanding of Christ’s instructions about our “fathers.”
What Jesus was referring to in St. Matthew’s Gospel was the sin and pride of some scribes and Pharisees, who loved to be called “teacher” or “father.”  Their pridefulness pointed to themselves rather than to God the Father as the source of their authority.  When we understand the fatherhood of our spiritual leaders as subordinate to the Fatherhood of God, we come to a much truer sense of our Catholic priests as our “fathers.”  Catholics are following the examples of the Apostles by calling our priests “Father.”  In doing this, we recognize and honor a great gift God has bestowed on His Church:  the spiritual fatherhood of the priesthood.
“God, who alone is holy and who alone bestows holiness, willed to take as His companions and helpers men who would humbly dedicate themselves to the work of sanctification. Hence, through the ministry of the bishop, God consecrates priests…”   Pope Paul VI (1897- 1978)

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