Miscellaneous topics

Biblical and patristic studies about miscellaneous topicsIn this section we share various topics related to apologetics, such as priestly celibacy, food prohibitions for Christians, tithing, etc.

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Talking with my evangelical friends about calling “Father” to the priest

By José Miguel Arráiz

You can read it in Spanish, English and Portuguese.

DiálogoWe reproduce excerpts of conversations between Catholics and Evangelicals from the book "Talking with my evangelical friends", very useful in helping our fellow Christians understand the Catholic faith.

Michael: I see the reason why you believe that the Pope is the successor of the apostle Peter, but what about the titles that are given to him, that in some case correspond only to God?

Joseph: Like what?

Michael: For example, the one of the “Holy Father”, Doesn’t Jesus clearly say in the gospel “Call none your father upon earth; for one is your father, who is in heaven.” (Matt 23,9)

Pauline: They really don’t do that only with the Pope, but with every priest, whom they call “Father”.

Joseph: Ok, let’s take one step at a time. In the first place, I imagine that you agree with giving the name of “saint” to him, because this is the way in which the Bible calls all members of the Church that is the body of Christ[1]. Therefore, if the Christians can be called “saints”, I see no reason why the Pope doesn’t have this right.

Michael: Ok, but you also call him “father”.

Joseph: We’ll get there, but first let me ask: Do you think that this text can be interpreted in an absolutely literal way? After all, it says “Call NONE your father upon earth”. Does it apply in every sense?

Pauline: We know that it doesn’t, because if this was right, we couldn’t call father to our biological parents. In my opinion, Jesus wasn’t forbidding that, but he was using that term in a spiritual sense”, just like the Catholics use it to refer to their priest.

Joseph: On the other hand, we Catholics don’t believe that this interpretation is viable or consistent with the rest of the New Testament.

Michael: Why?

Joseph: Because if it was in that way, even the apostles violated that command, because they call so many times “father” to other men with a spiritual meaning, and they did even with themselves. Remember, for example, how Jesus calls Abraham “our father”. (Luke 16,24.30; John 8,56, etc.), or remember…

Pauline: Heee… wait... in the New Testament, he calls Abraham “father” not in a spiritual sense, but in a carnal sense, as an ancestor of the Jews according to the flesh, in a similar way to which we call the biological fathers. St. Paul clarifies this when he says: “What shall we say then that Abraham hath found, who is our father according to the flesh?” (Rom 4,1)

Joseph: But he doesn’t do that only in that sense, but also in a spiritual sense, as the father of the believers of the faith. Because of that, St. Paul also says: “And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the justice of the faith which he had, being uncircumcised: that he might be THE FATHER OF ALL THEM THAT BELEIVE, being uncircumcised: that unto them also it may be reputed to justice: And he might be the father of circumcision; not to them only that are of the circumcision, but to them also that follow the steps of the faith that is in the uncircumcision of our father.” (Rom 4,11-12)

St. Paul even calls himself “spiritual father” when he says: “For if you have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet not many fathers. For in Christ Jesus, by the gospel, I have begotten you.” (1 Cor 4,15) or when he says: “I beseech thee for my son, whom I have begotten in my bands, Onesimus.” (Phlm 1,10)[2]

Let’s see the following text where St. John writes to the faithful and believers of the Church:

“I write unto you, babes, because you have known the Father. I write unto you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God abideth in you, and you have overcome the wicked one.” (1 John 2,14)

So we can ask, who was St. John referring to when he greeted the “fathers”? It doesn’t make sense that he was referring to the biological fathers because he had begun by greeting his not biological “children”, so, it’s very likely that when he said the “fathers”, he was referring to the ones who, like him, were spiritual fathers of the faithful (bishops and presbyters of the Church).

Michael: Joseph, but then who forbids Jesus to be called father, if they’re not the leaders of the Church?

Joseph: The thing is that Jesus was using a literary figure known as “hyperbole”, which is an intentional exaggeration with the aim of putting an idea or an image that the listener couldn’t forget. In the gospel, we find so many hyperboles in the preaching: “And if thy right eye scandalize thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee. For it is expedient for thee that one of thy members should perish, rather than thy whole body be cast into hell. And if thy right hand scandalize thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is expedient for thee that one of thy members should perish, rather than that thy whole body go into hell.” (Matt 5,29-30); “If any man come to me, and hate not his father and mother and wife and children and brethren and sisters, yea and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14,26). Using this hyperbole, he was trying to teach the disciples a lesson. In the Church, those who take positions of authority must do it for service, unlike the Pharisees that were searching the positions of authority to receive honors and praises. If we read the full text, we’ll see how the context confirms it: 

“Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to his disciples, saying: The scribes and the Pharisees have sitten on the chair of Moses. All things therefore whatsoever they shall say to you, observe and do: but according to their works do ye not. For they say, and do not. For they bind heavy and insupportable burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders: but with a finger of their own they will not move them. And all their works they do for to be seen of men. For they make their phylacteries broad and enlarge their fringes. And they love the first places at feasts and the first chairs in the synagogues, and salutations in the market place, and to be called by men, Rabbi. But be not you called Rabbi. For one is your master: and all you are brethren. And call none your father upon earth; for one is your father, who is in heaven. Neither be ye called masters: for one is your master, Christ. He that is the greatest among you shall be your servant. And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be humbled: and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.” (Matt 23,1-12)

Note that he doesn’t prohibit only calling “father” but also “rabbi” or “teacher”, even when being a “teacher” is one of the ministries of the Church (1 Cor 12,28-29). If we think about it in this way, they don’t have to call their pastor “shepherd”, because there is just one that is the shepherd of our souls: Jesus Christ. In particular, I’m pretty sure, like the early Christians, that it wasn’t a literal prohibition to use this word, but he wanted us to avoid the temptation of wanting to exercise the authority for personal glory and not for the glory of God.


[1] The Bible calls “saints” to every member of the Church (Matt 27,52; Acts 9,13.32.41; 26,10; Rom 1,7; 8,27; 12;13; 15;25.26.31; 16,2.15; 1 Cor 1,2; 6,1.2; 7,14; 14,33; etc.), even to the prophets (Acts 3,21) and the angels (Matt 25,31; Mark 8,38).In the Catholic Church, the term “saint” is used sometimes with this meaning, and in other times it is used to refer to the canonized saints.The evangelical brothers generally believe that when the Catholic uses the word saint, they mean the canonized saints.

[2] There are so many texts of the gospel where the apostles take the role of spiritual father (1 Pet 5,13;  1 John 2,; 3,7; etc.)