Why are Catholic priests called father? You might assume that Catholics are deliberately defying Jesus’ teachings by calling their priests ‘Father’.
Often, when this issue arises, Matthew 23:8-12 is quoted.
“But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth your Father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. And do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. But the greatest among you shall be your servant. And whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted”
The big question is, did Jesus mean for those words to be taken literally? Read on…
Studying The Context
In this fast-paced consumption of news era, coupled with our detachment from biblical culture and language, it is very easy to miss a figure of speech. We end up quoting out of context and taking it literally instead.
According to his teachings, Jesus was very fluent in hyperbole. He used exaggerated language to emphasise a point.
Let’s take for instance this verse; Luke 14:26
“If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”
Should we at least pause before taking these words to heart exactly as they are? We probably should. Surely, Jesus did not mean that his disciples should hate and abandon their family members.
In the case of Matthew. 23:8-12, Jesus was pointing out hypocrisy portrayed by the supposed religious leaders.
The scribes and Pharisees used their designations to seek respect. They ceased to provide spiritual guidance as dictated by their office. Instead they caused fear and suffering to the very people they were meant to protect. They lacked humility in service and had forgotten their responsibility and authority.
In that context, Jesus warns against calling the power-hungry Father or teacher. He teaches the value of humility and service to others.
Looking back to the issue at hand, the reason Catholic Priests are called Father boils down to context.
Abraham is called our spiritual father by the apostle Paul. In Romans 4:11-12, Scripture says that Abraham was “the father of all those who believe.”
It is in this context that Catholic Priests are called Father. Priests provide spiritual guidance and leadership. In this sense, they mirror the duties of the Father in heaven.
We cannot hope to settle the heated debate on whether it is right to use the term ‘father’ to refer to a priest, at least not here. But some history might help you understand how the term came to be so common.
- Read also: Why Do Catholic Priests Wear Black?
A Bit Of History
Since the beginning of the church, religious leaders always had a title that conferred a certain respect and honour to them.
Some of the common titles used for priests include presbyter, senior and sir priest.
The term ‘father’ goes back to the medieval period. Then, monastery heads were called ‘Abbot’ to mean a father to the community. Over time, clergy living in monasteries came to be referred to as ‘fathers’.
In England as recently as the 19th century, only Monastic priests were called father. But over time, the title for monastic and ordinary priests was harmonized, and they all came to be known as ‘Father’.
By the way, ‘Pope’ is also derived from the word ‘father’.
The history of the term sounds a lot like the history of many other words in language. They started out as other related words to refer to specific people or things. Over time, words evolve and grow into common usage.
There isn’t a cabal plotting to give catholic priests divine titles. As for whether it’s right to use the term, that’s for you to decide. We recommend talking to the Father in your Catholic church. They likely can understand and interpret the scriptures far better than we can.