Call no man your father?

Pope Benedict XVI.

Happy Father’s Day to our Holy Father.

For Father’s Day, I thought I would tackle a “fatherly” topic. But this one has turned out to be a bear. One of the the oldest and most persistent weapons in the arsenal of anti-Catholicism — one that seems on its surface to be minor, but upon examination, proved an obnoxiously hard fly to swat — is the argument that Catholics are in violation are Jesus’s edict to “call no man your father on earth” (Matthew 23:9) by giving their priests the title “Father.”

There are a large number of sites on the Internet both asserting this argument and refuting it (1, 2, 3, and more) in a lot more detail than I really care to, since they have done a fine and in-depth job. If we consider Jesus’s statement in its full context, the argument almost rejects itself (Matthew 23:1-12):

The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. . . . For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor [καθηγητὴς, guide, teacher, professor], the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

In this passage, Jesus is preaching against the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. And he is clearly speaking hyperbolically. For certainly we are to call our natural fathers “father”; and the Bible is rife with examples of spiritual mentors being called “father.” If we were to take this passage literally, not only would we not call anyone on earth “father” (including our natural fathers), but we would not call anyone “teacher” or “professor,” either. Jesus is not making a legalistic pronouncement here: he is speaking to the Pharisaic sin of exalting oneself over others, claiming for oneself empty titles and honorifics, rather than serving each other humbly.

As a prime example to refute the use of this passage as an attack on the priesthood, St. Paul writes (1 Corinthians 4:15):

For though you have countless guides [παιδαγωγοὺς, lit. pedagogues] in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

Here, if the anti-Catholic argument holds true, Paul is directly contradicting Jesus’s command. He frequently refers to especially Timothy as his spiritual child (Philippians 2:22, 1 Timothy 1.2, 2 Timothy 1:2), and he again calls himself the spiritual father of Onesimus (Philemon 10). St. John, in his epistles, frequently refers to his recipients as “his little children” (1 John 1:2).

So this (and especially those more elaborate refutations above) makes a convincing argument that there’s no problem at all with Jesus’s statement with regard to calling men on earth “father,” either our natural fathers or our spiritual fathers. But still this question bugged me. I wanted patristic support: early examples of priests being addressed as “Father.” I found numerous references that this was the custom “since the beginning” or “since the first century,” but not a single source citation connected with these statements. This instinctively sets off alarms in my historian brain.

I haven’t done any systematic search or study of the Church Fathers, but I’ve been shuffling through them as rapidly as I can for the past few hours. This search is complicated by the fact that a search for “father” turns up numerous references to both God the Father and to the Hebrew patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as fathers. And of course, there are the popes, who are frequently referred to as holy fathers. Eventually, in later patristic writings, there are plenty of references to the Church Fathers themselves. It’s late and I’m tired, but I am determined to post something tonight for Father’s Day, so let me summarize what I’ve found. And I will continue this research, because now I’m fascinated and determined to learn more.

  • According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the title papa (πάππας in Greek) — which means roughly “daddy” — was once in much wider use, in the East referring to any priest, and in the West referring to any bishop (I found St. Cyprian being frequently addressed as “Father” in his correspondence). It didn’t become exclusive to the bishop of Rome (whom we now know as the pope) until around the fourth century.
  • This article by Fr. William Saunders gives some brief history which supports the above. He adds that St. Benedict used the term “father” for spiritual confessors, and that the title of the monastic abbot is derived from the familiar Aramaic “Abba.” Mendicant friars came to be addressed as “father” in the Middle Ages. Heads of religious communities and participants in ecumenical councils (i.e. council fathers) have been given the title “father.” He doesn’t describe when it became customary to call all priests “father” in the English-speaking world — but I get the sense that it is a fairly recent development (i.e. since the Reformation).
  • I stumbled across this piece, “Are ‘Mother’ and ‘Father’ Appropriate Titles for Protestant Clergy?” by someone writing from an Anglican/Episcopal perspective, hence the suggestion of women’s ordination. He gives some compelling history, but it’s also a little troubling — I’m not sure it’s right. He claims that historically, Protestants had no problem using the title “Father” for their leaders, and only picked up the anti-Catholic charge above in the xenophobia toward Irish Catholics of the 19th century. He also makes this claim:

Most significantly, the decline of “Father” in Protestantism coincides with the rise of Irish immigration to the United States in the 1840s. Before that time, Roman Catholic priests in America were usually addressed as “Mister,” for most were secular (nonmonastic) clergy with roots in Europe or England, where Roman Catholic practice restricted “Father” to priests of monastic orders. Secular priests were called “Mister,” “Monsieur,” “Don” or other vernacular equivalents. Irish Roman Catholics, however, addressed all priests — whether secular or monastic — as “Father.” And by the end of the Victorian period, the Irish had influenced English-speaking Roman Catholicism to call every priest “Father.”

Is this true? It’s a fascinating claim that I will have to investigate further. Most of the early counter-examples I can think of — such as the early priests in Maryland, and Padre Las Casas — were associated with religious orders (the Maryland missionaries with the Jesuits and Las Casas with the Dominicans). The “Reverend Father” Martin Luther was an Augustinian. Is it still the case that priests in the non–English-speaking world are called something other than “father”? I think of Padre Pio, but he was a Capuchin. On the other hand, I think of Don Bosco, who was a parish priest. My world traveler friends and seasoned Catholics, help me out here?

UPDATE:More thoughts on calling priests ‘Father’

4 thoughts on “Call no man your father?

  1. Yeah, using the Matthew text is a really silly argument against calling priests Father. I wasn’t actually aware that people had theological arguments against calling priests Father. Though now that I think about it, Martin Luther probably had something to say about it, it’s just not coming to mind (the man had quite the mouth and an opinion on everything, it seems). I’ll have to see what I come up with.

  2. Pingback: More thoughts on calling priests “Father” « The Lonely Pilgrim

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