“How come you Catholics call men ‘father,’ in direction violation of Jesus’ command: ‘Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven’? This is just another example of Catholics following man-made traditions and ignoring the Word of God. That’s why you’re not real Christians!”
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Wow, have you ever been confronted with these questions by a friend or co-worker or, most zealous of all, a family member who USED to be Catholic? How do you respond? Is it really true that we Catholics violate a direct command from the Lord when we call our priests “father”?
Well, it is a fact that in Matthew 23:9 Jesus said, “Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven.” And it is a fact that non-Catholics have been citing this verse for centuries to claim that Catholics blatantly violate Jesus’ command by calling priests “father.”
But is this what Jesus really meant? To fully understand Jesus’ “call no one…father” statement, we have to read carefully the first half of this passage. Jesus’ main objective was to highlight the attitude of pride and superiority held by the scribes and Pharisees. The key statement here occurs in verses 5 and 6. Describing the selfish motivation of the religious leaders of His day, Jesus said, “All their works are performed to be seen….They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Rabbi.’”
Jesus was telling His followers to be humble. We know this by the last verse of the passage: “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” He was describing the Pharisees’ obsession with titles of honor—Rabbi, Teacher, Father, Master—and warning His disciples to avoid that type of sinful pride and arrogance.
Still, some people will insist, “But Jesus said, ‘Call no one…father.’ And if He said it, then we gotta do it, and since you Catholics DON’T do it, you’re not Christians!” This is taking a very literalist approach to Scripture, which can cause a lot of confusion when Jesus used symbolic language or exaggerations to make a point. For example, in Matthew 5:29-30, Jesus said, “If you eye causes you to sin, gouge it out.…If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.”
If it is true that we are supposed to take each word Jesus said literally, and if it is true ALL people have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23), then every church ought to be filled with people facing a difficult dilemma: they are blind because they gouged their eyes out, but they can’t hold their white canes very well because they have no hands. I think you get my point.
Let’s take a closer look at this so-called divine command that no one should ever use the word “father” to describe another human being. In Acts 7:2, St. Stephen said, “Brothers and fathers, listen to me!” Oops, was Stephen violating Jesus’ command?
In 1 John 2:13, St. John wrote, “I write to you, fathers, because you have known him…” Oops, was John violating Jesus’ command?
In his first letter to the Corinthians (4:15), St. Paul wrote, “In Christ Jesus I became your father through the Gospel.” Oops, was Paul violating Jesus’ command?
In Matthew 15:4, Jesus Himself said, “Honor your father and mother.” Oops, was Jesus violating His own command?
From these verses in the Bible it is clear that Jesus was not offering a sweeping command that no one shall ever use the word “father” when referring to a man. Otherwise, all of these great saints in Scripture (plus the Lord Himself) were in violation of that command.
It’s perfectly OK to call a Catholic priest “father.” Just as St. Paul called himself the spiritual “father” of the Corinthians, we Catholics call our priests “father” because they nurture the spiritual life of the flock by preaching the Gospel and administering the sacraments.
Oh, and one last thing, in case you’re not sure: Catholics definitely ARE real Christians.