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Call no man Father

clerical collar

Recently, I wrote about the call to stop using “Father” for priests because of the abuse crisis. This post continues that reflection by thinking about the selective biblical literalism that eschews addressing clergy as “Father”. It is repeating a post from an earlier time.

Jesus says:

“And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven.” (Matthew 23:9)

Firstly, is Jesus forbidding calling our biological, adopting, or earthly father, “father”?

For the God-as-rock metaphor to function, we need to be able to use the word “rock” for… well, rocks. If we cannot call rocks “rock”, then the metaphor of using “rock” for God cannot work. Similarly, if we can literally call no one “father” on earth, then the metaphor of “Father” for God cannot work.

Those who take Matthew 23:9 literally, presumably also take Luke 14:26 literally, where Jesus says,

Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.

Who says Jesus wasn’t in favour of divorce?!

In fact, St Paul certainly thought of himself as a father (1 Cor. 4:14–152 Cor. 12:14Gal. 4:19, etc) Others share in this approach (1 John 2:13 John 4), and others are fathers (1 John 2:13–14). If you take the Matthew 23 text as literalistically normative, we cannot use the term “doctor” (just the Latin for “teacher”). Church Fathers and Mothers, Desert Fathers and Mothers – all go. Abbots. Ammas.

Scripture, tradition, and reason all argue strongly against taking Matthew 23:9 literally. Jesus, as he so often does, is using hyperbole.

Let’s not go to the opposite extreme and require the use of “father” for clergy. Some will call a male priest, “father”; some will call a female priest, “mother”. Some will prefer to be addressed in this way, others will prefer to be addressed in another way.

What would motivate someone to selectively take this verse of the Bible literally? Far more important, it seems to me, is the attitude of clergy than their title. Jesus says:

But woe to you, … hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. Woe to you, … hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves…

For you …have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practised … You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!

There is an all-too-human tendency and need to distinguish ourselves from others: if you cross yourselves with your right hand, we will use our left; if you use leavened bread, we will use unleavened bread;… if you call clergy “priests”, we will call them “ministers”… if you address clergy as “father”, we will…

Once again we see the limitations of basing teaching on such a small selection from the biblical material, and the lenses we all bring to our reading of the scriptures which undermine the usefulness of any sola scriptura approach.

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13 Responses to Call no man Father

  1. Dear Bosco, being brought up in rural England to address our priests as ‘Father’ – rather than ‘vicar’ or ‘reverend’, we tended to respect them as God’s representative among us. Of course, for those whose behaviour towards us was truly nurturing (and, in my experience, most of them were nurturing) we used this title as a discrete form of address which, I believe, enabled them to conscientiously act for us ‘in loco parentis’. They because for us our local ‘Father-in-God’ – a title still used in England for the bishop.

    Later, when I joined the Franciscans as a lay novice, I was called ‘Brother’ – a title which we used towards one another without distinction – simply because we shared a filial relationship rather than a hierarchical one in Community. However, this did not prevent outsiders addressing priest-Brothers as ‘Father’ if they happened to be a priest – especially in the context of presiding sacramentally.

    Since becoming ordained myself, I have accepted the fact that in my capacity an a priest, I am called to
    a relationship of being ‘in loco parentis’ to those who look to me for a particular sacramental and pastoral ministry. As Jesus said to Peter: “Feed my sheep”; this is the call to all ordained pastors of the Flock that God has entrusted to our charge. This distinction also calls for the exercise of a careful and loving relationship akin to a parent – hence the term ‘Father’ as applied to an ordained male priest. Similarly, I am accepting of the term ‘Mother’ for a woman priest – a title normally given to the Superior who has a parental role in a Convent.

    (The term ‘reverend’ has never appealed to me, perhaps because of my sometime irreverence!)

  2. In Spain and Italy, Catholic diocesan priests are commonly addressed as Don – like Don Carlo. Catholic religious priests – like Franciscan, Jesuit – are addressed as Father.

    Similarly, in France, Monsieur l’abbé vs Mon Père.

    • Thanks, Diego. Is the title with the surname or with the Christian name? Don Bosco is with the surname – and my understanding is that he continued as Don Bosco even after taking religious vows? I have also read – I cannot remember where – that the English practice of calling priests “Father” spread from the religious orders to diocesans. Do you know more about that? Blessings.

      • in many non-english countries they are not called ‘father’ , a title reserved for religous priests only not secular. there was a debate about this recently in some Scandinavian country, i think Sweden, and they decided on ‘pastor’ for secular priests.

        in english language history secular priests often called mister or doctor depending on their education. some are stilled called ‘mister’. in polish, ukrainain and russian all priests (and deacons) are called ‘father’. i dont see the controversy. interestingly i see the black uniform and collars more a symbol of modern corruption than the various titles.

        • Thanks, Alexander. I think your black uniform point is worth exploring further – can you yourself say more about that? Blessings.

          • Not really, just a personal perception i have noticed myself having. Probably because my own (orthodox) priest never wears it, just nice ‘civilian’ clothes, but he has has a secular medical profession that he is always busy with.

            But thinking now say the word clericalism and roman collar and black is what first comes to mind. I dont get the negative vibes when i see habits of religous.

            on the news, which is so antiChristian one always sees some terrble headline about the church with a roman collar and black uniform. I am 30 so two decades of this “drive by” media is probably what has done it. people deny it but reality is that appearance means a lot. if i was hired to rebrand the (Catholic) Church thats first thing i would do, ban the roman collar.

            So if i have this perception, makes me grimace what the wider unchurched population thinks consciously or unconsciously. Orthodox priests often wear the large silver cross, perhaps this tradition for Western Christians would better distinguish clergy – at least any hate encountered in public would be for the cross and not for the sins of mortals. Hmmm for saying ‘not really’ i guess i did have some things to say

  3. I’ve never been able to find a primary source for this (though there are multiple secondary sources), but Cardinal Manning (1808-1892) is said to be the one who first promoted the practice of calling secular priests Father in the United Kingdom.

    It was brought to Britain by Irish Catholic migrants, who had used “father” because the clergy who kept Catholicism ticking over under the penal laws were monastic clergy like the Capuchins. English-speakers had apparently always used “father” for them. As mentioned above, this seems to be the practice in Catholic European countries as well.

    Bishops, too, were addressed as “reverend father in God,” along with other titles like “my lord.”

    Given that the Irish had moved to the United States by then, it may be that the Irish were independently responsible for spreading the custom elsewhere.

    Certainly, in the pre-Reformation English-speaking church, secular priests were called either “sir” or “mister/master” (if they had a degree). For example, John Knox, who was ordained in the pre-Reformation church, was called “master John Knox.” We have no record of him having been to university, but this title is often cited as evidence that his contemporaries assumed he had a university education.

    In France, I’ve noticed that secular priests are called “Abbé” or “Monsieur l’Abbé.” This is sometimes mistakenly translated as “Abbot” in Anglophone newspapers that don’t know any better.

    • Thanks, Nick. I’m getting a similar impression to what you describe here from responses via social media. This might be worth a blog post 🙂 Blessings.

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