Q: #443. Is it ok to call a priest / bishop "Father?"
By: Steve Shirley
A: The practice of calling a priest or bishop "Father" is primarily found within Catholicism. However, based upon (Mt 23:9), it is believed by many that this should not be done. In (Mt 23:9), Jesus says, "And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven." What did Jesus mean here? Does this apply to Catholics calling their priests "Father?" Does this mean that we shouldn't call our own dads "father?" Let's look at this.
First, this clearly is not referring to calling our dad "father." There are numerous verses in the Bible where God Himself calls our earthly dad a "father" (Ex 20:12)(Deut 5:16)(Mt 10:35,37)(Mt 19:5,19,29)(Mt 15:3-6)(Eph 6:1-4)(Mk 7:9-13). Therefore, this must be acceptable.
However, when we look at this verse in context, it does seem to be pointing to not calling "religious leaders" Father. In (Mt 23:1-12), we see that Jesus is condemning the Pharisees for being "hypocrites" (Mt 23:1-4), and for pride / putting themselves above others (Mt 23:5-7). They "loved" to have the title "Rabbi." In response to this, Jesus said "do not be called "Rabbi (Teacher)" or "father." Then in verses 11-12, Jesus says, "But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. (12) And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted."
So, do these verses fit those in ministry who would allow themselves to be called "Father?" When you run a search online on this topic, you will find page after page of Catholic websites defending this practice. Their primary defense is showing that spiritual leaders are called "father" over and over in the Bible [i.e. (1 Cor 4:15)(Acts 7:2)(Rom 9:10)(Phile 1:10)(James 2:21)(Lk 16:24)(Rom 4:1,11-12,16-17)]. With all of these verses (and others), it is hard to deny this did happen. We see people calling others their "spiritual father," or considering themselves a "spiritual father" to others. However, these do not seem to be instances of "pride."
Can the same be said for a "priest" being called "Father?" I want to clearly state here that we cannot know the hearts of priests who wish to be addressed by this title. I feel quite certain that there are a number of priests out there being called "Father," who are not using the title as a prideful thing. They truly do believe that they are simply like a "spiritual father" to their flock, and not trying to make themselves in any way like God, or put themselves in the place of God. However, when one looks at traditional Catholic teachings, it is hard to avoid this serious charge.
Here are a few things that the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church teaches:
The "Magisterium" (the Pope and bishops) alone can authentically interpret the Word of God. (Catholic Catechism Pg 30 #100).
The priest has the ability to turn the bread and wine of Communion (the Eucharist) into the actual body and blood of Jesus (Catechism Pg 347 #1376 & #1377, Pg 336 #1333).
Priests are given the authority to forgive sins in place of God (Catechism: Pg. 256 #982, Pg. 257 #986, Pgs 363-364 #1448, Pg 367 #1461, Pg 255 #979, Pg 256 #983).
The Pope (also called "Holy Father"), when speaking "ex cathedra" is infallible in matters of faith and morals. (Decreed at Vatican I - July 18, 1870) (Catechism Pg 235 #889, Pg 235 #891).
The "Magisterium" (bishops) is also "infallible" (Catechism Pg 235 #890, Pg 495 #2051).
There are more of these as well. Is THIS pride? It certainly seems like the Roman Catholic Church is giving its leaders God-like powers. This certainly does seem to fit Jesus' description of the Pharisees in (Mt 23:1-12): prideful and placing themselves above others. In fact, in many ways, it is making them equal with God. Keeping this in mind, giving oneself the title of "Father" (capital "F") in the same way we call God our "Father" (capital "F") might be viewed a little differently. Therefore, in my opinion, it seems unwise to allow oneself to be called "Father," or for us to call any "spiritual leader" Father.
***Note: Point to ponder: If Jesus was here right now, would He call a Catholic priest "Father?"