Father as a Title for a Priest

Author: Colin B. Donovan, STL

Matthew 23:1-12  [1] Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples, [2] saying, "The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. [3] Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice. [4] They tie up heavy burdens (hard to carry) and lay them on people's shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them. [5] All their works are performed to be seen. They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels. [6] They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, [7] greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation 'Rabbi.' [8] As for you, do not be called 'Rabbi.' You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers. [9] Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven. [10] Do not be called 'Master'; you have but one master, the Messiah. [11] The greatest among you must be your servant. [12] Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted. 

There is a curious blindness regarding both the context and other elements of this text. The text says to call no one Rabbi, no one Master and no one Father, yet "literalists" home in only on the Catholic priesthood. Who has ever rejected calling a Jewish expert in the Torah "Rabbi," or refused his "Master" of Divinity degree, or refrained from calling his male parent "Father," lest he violate the injunction of Christ? The fact is that all of these things are done without regret by biblical "literalists," who are strangely un-literal in this as in other matters. 

But a true literalism is guided not by prejudice (prejudging the guilt of Catholics), but by understanding the intention of the author, the literary style (which can effect meaning), the context of the text and other relevant factors - all of which point to the necessity of an authority such as the Magisterium, since what individual, even a great scholar, can discern every nuance of history, language and theology that might apply. In this Catholics have the advantage of the Apostolic Tradition of interpretation, an advantage private interpreters lack.

So, what was Jesus saying? Well, in Matthew 16 we see in verses 5-12 that Jesus warned his disciples about the leaven (teaching) of the Pharisees and Sadducees. This meant that they were the purveyors of human opinions about the truth. The Pharisees, in particular, had raised opinion to a science, with different schools of thought lead by a Master, Rabbi, Teacher, Father, whose opinions on the Law were meticulously transmitted to, and followed by, his disciples. These groups often tried to get Jesus on their side against their opponents, since people recognized that He spoke with authority, not like their scribes and lawyers.

It should not surprise us that the answer to human opinion in matters of doctrine follows immediately upon Christ's warning to His disciples about the human opinions of the Jewish teachers. "Simon, flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my Father in heaven. Thou art Rock and upon this Rock I will build my Church" (Mt. 16:13-18). The antidote to error is a teaching authority whose teaching is not opinion but comes from God the Father, the Source of all Truth.

God the Father is the ultimate principle of life, truth and love both within God (the Son and Spirit receive everything from Him) and within creation. The authority of all fatherhood comes from God the Father (Eph. 3:15). He graciously wills to allow human participation in the communication of natural life and to associate with human males the authority of His fatherhood. The male human parent is rightly called Father for his cooperation with the Fatherhood of God in giving life. 

God the Father also graciously wills to allow human participation in the communication of supernatural life and truth, and to associate with those who share the priesthood of His Son the authority of His Fatherhood. The male spiritual parent of sons and daughters in Christ is rightly called Father, therefore, for the dignity of their cooperation in the redemptive work of Christ and His Father. Like a natural father they communicate life, the supernatural life of Christ flowing from the Father. Like a natural father they teach their children about truth, the supernatural Truth which is Christ, the perfect image of the Father. Like a natural father they provide a point of unity in love, communion, around which the supernatural family of God forms.

Catholic priests deserve to be called Father as long as they are the faithful conduits of supernatural life, truth and love, passing on the Apostolic Faith, Sacraments and unity in Communion first transmitted to Peter and the other Apostles. Thus, St. Paul was able to say to the Corinthians that while they had 10,000 guides in Christ they had only one Father, himself (1 Cor. 4:15).