Sunday, June 16, 2013

A good friend of mine, who happens to be an excellent theologian and not Catholic (the combination happens more often than you might think!), asked me a question about the use of the word “father” in the Roman Catholic Church to refer to priests.  This is the question:

I had a conversation recently with a Protestant friend who took me to task for using "Father" when referring to a priest. He cited the passage in Matthew that directs us to call no man father. What is the Catholic justification for this venerable practice?

The passage in Matthew to which he refers is from Matthew 23:9: “and call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven.” The Greek is straightforward in this verse, but the context is a broader denunciation in Matthew 23 of the “scribes and Pharisees.

1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 "The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; 3 therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6 They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7 and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. 8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9 And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah.

I offer this context in the chapter to see that the prohibition against calling anyone “father” on earth is embedded in a broader ban on calling anyone “rabbi” or “instructor,” that is particular terms of honor are excluded because there is one Rabbi/Teacher (Jesus), one Father (God) and one Instructor (Jesus).  
Here is my initial response, sent by e-mail yesterday, with slight revisions to preserve anonymity and for grammar (it was an e-mail!):

There are two issues with respect to this I think. One, is that we do tend to call our physical fathers “father” (dad, daddy, papa, etc.), so how extensive is this limitation? See Romans 4:16-17 for Paul’s use of “father”  for Abraham: “For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, "I have made you the father of many nations")—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”  Second, more apropos of the ecclesial context is Paul the Apostle himself: 1 Cor 4:15, “For though you might have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers. Indeed, in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel;” 1 Thess. 2:11, “As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children.” Paul presents himself as a father to his churches (and mother! See Beverly Gaventa’s work on this).

There are two notions of family at work in Paul’s letters: the apostle/ecclesial leader is the “father” of his children whom he wants to raise to spiritual maturity from infancy; and we are all, Paul included, brothers and sisters, that is, children of the one father, into whose family we have been adopted through Jesus Christ.
I did not check the catechism; I’m going with Paul!

It seems that if we want to take this prohibition seriously, why would we call our physical fathers “Father”? There is, of course, also the fact that we have no problem calling people “Instructor” or “Teacher,” neither of which accord with Matthew 23 either.

Whether this solves the issue of what Jesus was getting at in Matthew – which I think was a prohibition against elevating any person to the exalted role or position equivalent to that of Messiah or God within the Church – it seems that if the Roman Catholic practice of calling someone a (spiritual) father is bothersome (and ought to be forbidden), so, too, should the practice of calling someone a (physical) father be just as problematic. In addition, if we have a problem calling someone father then we ought to have the same problem calling someone instructor or teacher.

I am sticking with wishing all fathers a happy father’s day, which includes those who are spiritual fathers.

If you have any thoughts, please feel free to leave them below.

John W. Martens
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