To us Catholics, calling priests “father” is the most natural thing in the world. That’s just their title, much like we call doctors “doctor,” we call lawyers “counselor,” and we call married women “Mrs.” But as with many things in life, not everyone agrees. Protestants often object to this practice, and they say it violates one of Jesus’ clearest commands in the Gospels:
“And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven.” (Matthew 23:9)
On the surface, this looks pretty decisive. Jesus said that we shouldn’t call anyone “father,” so the Catholic practice of calling priests “father” is wrong. Case closed, right?
Not exactly. Elsewhere in the New Testament, we see faithful Christians calling people “father” all the time, and it doesn’t seem to be a problem. To take an easy example, when St. Stephen, the first martyr, was on trial before the Sanhedrin, he addressed them as “brethren and fathers” (Acts 7:2). And even before that, when the Apostles faced a similar trial, St. Peter testified that “The God of our fathers raised Jesus whom you killed by hanging him on a tree” (Acts 5:30).
There are numerous other examples we could bring up, but those two are enough to show that Jesus didn’t mean to prohibit us from ever addressing anyone, even our biological male parents, as “father.” So what did he mean? At this point, a Protestant might respond that Jesus was really telling us not to call anyone our spiritual father, and that seems to make sense. Sure, we all have our own physical fathers, but we only have one spiritual Father, God. Right?
Again, not quite. If we read the New Testament carefully, that doesn’t work either. For example, St. Paul calls Abraham the “father” of all Christians, even those who aren’t physically descended from him (Romans 4:16). On top of that, there are also numerous passages that express the idea of spiritual fatherhood without using the word “father.” Take a look at these texts:
“Therefore I sent to you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church.” (1 Corinthians 4:17)
“She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings; and so does my son Mark.” (1 Peter 5:13)
Timothy wasn’t St. Paul’s biological son, nor was Mark St. Peter’s. Rather, they were the Apostles’ spiritual sons, and that logically implies that Paul and Peter were their spiritual fathers. Granted, these passages don’t use the word “father,” but the concept is clearly there. You can’t have sonship without fatherhood (and vice versa), so if you mention one, you’re necessarily implying the other as well.
And if the concept of spiritual fatherhood is permissible, then it has to be okay to use the word “father” too. A word is only as valuable as the concept it expresses, so it doesn’t make much sense to allow the concept but not the word.
The All-Important Context
But that’s not all. There’s also another reason why the literal interpretation of this teaching doesn’t work. Let’s take a look at the verse right before Jesus’ command to call no man “father:”
“But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brethren.” (Matthew 23:8)
Just like modern Jews, ancient Jews also addressed their teachers by the Hebrew word “rabbi,” so Jesus is really telling us not to call anyone “teacher” (he obviously doesn't mean that it’s wrong to use the Hebrew word but okay to use similar words in other languages). However, if we read the New Testament closely, we find some pretty clear counterexamples. For instance, check out these verses:
“And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, then healers, helpers, administrators, speakers in various kinds of tongues.” (1 Corinthians 12:28)
“And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers.” (Ephesians 4:11)
Clearly, Jesus didn’t literally mean that we should never call anyone “teacher.” He must have been speaking hyperbolically (a technique he used often) to make the point that God is our ultimate teacher, especially in religious matters, and that sets the stage for his similar teaching in the very next verse.
We Can Call Priests “Father”
It tells us that Jesus was already speaking hyperbolically in this part of the sermon, so we have reason to suspect that his prohibition of the word “father” may be hyperbolic as well. Then, when we combine this with the fact that the rest of the New Testament doesn’t take this prohibition literally, the truth becomes clear.
Jesus didn’t mean that we should literally never use the word “father” to refer to another human being. No, he was simply speaking hyperbolically to make his point as strongly as possible. He was telling us that all fatherhood ultimately comes from God and is a reflection of his own fatherhood (just as St. Paul teaches in Ephesians 3:14-15), so as long as we recognize that, we’re free to use the word “father” to refer to priests, biological male parents, and anybody else who plays a fatherly role in our lives, just like the authors of the New Testament often did.