Most Catholics have heard the critique from non-Catholics that it is wrong to call priests “Father.” It is a rather tired old charge, which basically goes as follows:
- Jesus says, “Call no man on earth your father.”
- But Catholics call their priests “Father.”
- Therefore, the Catholic Church is wrong to espouse this and is likely wrong in many other things as well.
The problem stems from a rather absolute and literal reading of Jesus’ words. At daily Mass on Saturday, we read this passage:
As for you, do not be called ‘Rabbi.’ You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers. Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven. Do not be called ‘Master’; you have but one master, the Christ. The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted (Matt 23:10-11).
The problem with reading the text literally (and thereby absolutely) is that it amounts to a complete banishing of the word “father.” Jesus says, “Call no one on earth your father.” The phrase “no one on earth,” if interpreted literally, is about as absolute a forbiddance as could be imagined. In effect, the term “father” must never be uttered in reference to any earthly, human male, ever!
If that be the case, though, then none of the New Testament authors seem to have gotten the message. In the New Testament there are nearly 200 occurrences of the word “father” in reference to earthly males. Most “egregiously,” St Paul wrote, For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel (1 Cor 4:15). Didn’t St. Paul (and the Holy Spirit who inspired him) know that Jesus forbade the use of the word except to refer to the Father in Heaven?
In fact, Jesus didn’t even appear to get his own memo; either that or He somehow forgot!
I have compiled a list of all of these “violations” here: New Testament verses using the term “father”. It is quite a long list and many of the verses came directly from the mouth of Jesus.
Obviously, then, Jesus does not mean to forbid or eliminate the use of the term or title. Getting into a tedious debate about the linguistics misses the whole point of Jesus’ teaching—and it is a very important one.
The central point that Jesus makes is that no one on this earth should have more authority in one’s life than God. No teacher, no matter how eloquent or convincing; no master, no matter how many advanced degrees; no expert, no matter how many letters come after his name; has the authority to overrule or set aside God’s teaching. None of them should have a greater prominence or influence on us than the Lord. Everything they say should be tested in the light of God’s revealed truth.
Sadly, this is too often not the case. We so easily allow worldly thinking and the views of “experts” or cultural icons to eclipse God’s teaching and His authority in our life.
St. Paul says,
Test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil (1 Thess 4:21-22).
Is this what we do in practice? When a popular musician comes out with a song celebrating fornication, many say, “I know, I know, but it is a pretty song.” They’ll even play it at Catholic wedding receptions and school dances. When an eloquent spokesperson for any number of sinful practices contrary to God’s law and teaching comes along, too many Christians fall for the false notions of compassion and tolerance. Do we really “test everything” with the measuring rod of God’s teaching? Sadly, often we do not. More often it is God’s teachings that go on trial, to be judged by worldly standards.
St. Paul laments,
For the time is coming when people will not endure sound doctrine, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths (2 Tim 4:3-4).
This leads us back to Jesus true concern: no one, be it a teacher, a rabbi, an expert, a scientist, a parent, or a clergyman, should have more authority in one’s life than God does. In effect, Jesus says, “If even your earthly father, whom you should otherwise honor, asks you to do evil or seeks your assent to teachings contrary to what my Father and I have taught, disregard his request and refuse to cooperate.”
Jesus is not focused here on titles, as some erroneously think; He is focused on truth. He is not removing words from our dictionary; He is requiring the truth that He teaches to be the measure by which we test everything else. No one should have a higher authority in our mind than God. We should have no greater devotion in our heart than to the Lord. Too easily we miss Jesus’ crucial point by debating the details.