“Ask a Priest: Isn’t the Title ‘Father’ for Priests Going Against Scripture?”

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Q: In the book of Matthew, it states, “No one should be called father because there is only one father and he is in heaven …” But Catholic priests call themselves “father.” Why? If anyone should know better, it should be the ones who study and preach the word. – G.C.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: It’s good to understand the context of that passage. Jesus is addressing the hypocrisy of the scribes and the Pharisees — the learned religious leaders of Judaism. Our Lord corrects them for not providing good example.

His fuller response actually touches on three titles. “As for you, do not be called ‘Rabbi.’ You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers. Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven. Do not be called ‘Master’ [or Teacher]; you have but one master, the Messiah” (Matthew 23:8-10).

In effect, Our Lord warns against the use of these titles in cases where someone forgets the responsibility attached to them. Real authority on earth is a reflection of the ultimate authority of God.

St. Paul was well aware of his mission to preach brought him a title and a special duty. “Even if you should have countless guides to Christ, yet you do not have many fathers, for I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (1 Corinthians 4:15).

So, the passage you cite is a case of Jesus simply saying that God the Father is a Father in a sense far above any human father on earth.

Our Lord certainly isn’t banning our common use of the term. In fact, if we couldn’t use the word father for human beings on earth, the term would have no meaning for us.

Besides, Scripture itself freely uses “father” for humans. Examples abound in the first chapter of the Gospel according to Luke:

Verse 17 — He will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah to turn the hearts of fathers toward children …

Verse 32 — the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father

Verse 55 — according to his promise to our fathers, to Abraham and to his descendants forever …

Verse 59 — When they came on the eighth day to circumcise the child, they were going to call him Zechariah after his father

Verse 62 — So they made signs, asking his father what he wished him to be called …

Verse 67 — Then Zechariah his father, filled with the holy Spirit, prophesied …

Verse 72 — to show mercy to our fathers and to be mindful of his holy covenant …

Verse 73 — and of the oath he swore to Abraham our father

And lest we think all these references merely predated the teaching that came from Our Lord’s lips, we should recall that Jesus himself applied the word to human beings:

— “Amen, I say to you, there is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands for my sake and for the sake of the gospel who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age” (Mark 10:29-30).

— “A man had two sons, and the younger son said to his father,Father, give me the share of your estate that should come to me.’ So the father divided the property between them” (Luke 15:11-12).

You get the idea.

By the way, the term “father” for priests is a custom used in some countries but not in all. In any case, the term reflects the paternal care that a priest should show to the people he serves. It’s a reminder to us who are ordained that our work is to be a labor of love.

I hope some of this helps.

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