While for Catholics, calling a priest ‘Father’ seems like a non-issue, for many other Christian denominations, this practice is seen as unbiblical. The accusation is an understandable and thought-provoking one, given that Jesus says: “Call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven” (Matt. 23:9). These words couldn’t be any clearer, so how are Catholics to respond to the accusation that referring to priests as ‘Father’ is theologically inaccurate?
It seems strange to think that Jesus was literally forbidding his Jewish audience from calling anyone father. The word is used to refer to our biological fathers or legal guardians, and there’s also a precedent in the Bible for those with a special relationship with God being described as father.
Genesis, the first book of the Bible, for example, states that man leaves his father and his mother to be united with his wife, indicating that biological references using the word are permissible. Likewise, Abraham is referred to as ‘our father’ in the Acts of the Apostles.
Are we to believe that Jesus was condemnatory of these passages? Such a view would undermine our own trust in the Bible, and cause serious confusion. What’s more likely is that Jesus didn’t literally mean that we shouldn’t refer to anyone as father except God. If that’s the case, what did he mean?
It’s important to remember the context in which Jesus made this remark; he was criticising the hypocrisy of the scribes and the Pharisees who were overly focused on burdensome rules and regulations rather than focusing on the spirit of the law.
“The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.”
For the same reason, this is why Jesus later says in the same passage that we are to call no one instructors except God; this admonition doesn’t literally mean we can’t refer to anyone as an instructor, but to remember that ultimate sovereignty rests solely in God.
This hyperbolic (exaggerated) language is used to emphasise how far the Jewish authorities had fallen astray from their faith by arrogating to themselves paramount power, forgetting that God was their true teacher and father figure. This is reinforced when Jesus says: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness.”
By reading this passage in its full context, it’s hard to argue that Jesus was literally forbidding people from referring to others as ‘Father’, but reminding us not to forget who our true father is: God. If that’s the case, we should have no qualms is calling priests ‘Father’, as through ordination, they establish a special relationship with God.