As I have progressed through my time in the seminary, I have heard encouragements from multiple formators to avoid one of the most offsetting and unattractive qualities in a priest… clericalism. Clericalism has done damage to the image of the priesthood in the eyes of many of the faithful. It is precisely these sentiments of the authoritative roles of religious denominations that have served as one of the most potent places of scandal. From leaders who are tyrannical in their dealings with the faithful in their congregation to the disinterested, unresponsive leader who is motivated by only self-interest, both scandal and pride have seemingly always been part of the picture with those in leadership positions. The leaders in the first century Jewish context are as imperfect as any in the exercising of their power. In Matthew 23:1-12, Jesus bluntly and publically criticizes the scribes and Pharisees for abusing this power in their cultic and social roles. For us as Catholics, we have the specific controversy around the title “father."
There are three ways in which “father” could have been used in first century Judaism: Jewish religious leaders, early Christian leaders, or honoring the dead (i.e. “Father Abraham”). But which of these is Christ actually condemning? It is generally accepted that it could be either Christian or Jewish leaders. This is the practice in the Old Testament wisdom tradition, and St. Paul is the example par excellence of Christian leaders being called “father.” It makes sense that this would have been a natural development in the early Church due to the organic growth for the newly established Church’ development out of this first century, Jewish context.
In this pericope, Christ’s exhortation to the crowd and his disciples must be framed within the context of the series of commands that Christ is stating. He warns against a triad of titles of which the scribes and Pharisees apparently were proud. Here is the fuller context of these verses:
They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. (Matt 23:6-10; emphasis mine)
Jesus attacks the Jewish leaders, who are taking pride in the being called rabbis, fathers, and instructor/master. To better understand the teaching of Christ, it would be best to briefly address each of these titles individually. The word “rabbi” is often translated as “teacher,” but the literal meaning of this title is “my great one.” The second title has been discussed above in detail, and the final title of “instructor”/“master” is yet another instance of an exalted way of expressing “teacher.”
The fundamental teaching behind these condemnations is that Christ is discouraging the seeking of these titles. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis recognizes a Trinitarian theme within these condemnations. He refers to the scribes and Pharisees as not properly holding these titles because they are already claimed by God. He explains his theory…
“If this is the case, then ‘Father’ of course refers to the eternal Source both of the other two Persons and all creation. ‘Messiah’ is obviously the Christ, the divine Son of God who became Jesus of Nazareth to reconcile the world with God. The title ‘Teacher’, in this interpretation, would refer not to Jesus himself, but to the eternal Teacher, the Holy Spirit, whose teaching role is essential in enlightening the interior life and understanding of the redeemed…”
While this is a pious idea, it is hard to accept it as being based off of the literal meaning of the text. This sort of depiction of the Trinity can be interpreted in a heterodox manner by over emphasizing the separation of the persons of the Trinity and ultimately disturbing the unity of the One and Triune Godhead. But let’s not go that route and recognize the wisdom in his statement, which will save a perusal into the rabbit hole that can be Trinitarian theology.
However, the solid conclusion that can be drawn from this discussion is that Christ’s warning of using the name Father is a warning against the pride that often accompanies social status or titles based on accomplishment. Christ is firstly emphasizing the necessity of humility. “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Mt 23:12) Secondly, Christ does not compromise the familial role of the male parent, but He does frame it within its proper context. God is the father par excellence in any and all contexts, and this is the way in which true fatherhood should be understood, as a sacramental sign of God’s fatherhood to us all.
The notion of calling priests “father” is often challenged with the words of Christ (Mt 23:9), but—as shown above—this is not the point of Christ’s words. One should recognize that on the surface of this Scripture, it seems to be a contradiction to the practice of calling priest “father” as a title, and it has served as a proof text of sorts for those who desire to deface the Church and Her leaders of their sacramental, ecclesial, and authoritative roles, but the Second Vatican Council addresses this sort of objection to the practice. In Presbyterorum Ordinis, the council fathers explain,
“Though priests of the New Testament, in virtue of the sacrament of Orders, exercise the most outstanding and necessary office of father and teacher among and for the People of God…” (PO 9)
It is through this lens that one can come to recognize the role of the priest goes beyond simply a figurehead, worship leader, or administrator, but that the priest is meant to be a father to the people entrusted to his care. The issue is that the title of father in referring to a priest is more than a recognition of the office, or seat, that he holds; it refers to the recognition of a new identity that has been given to him by virtue of his ordination into the person of Christ, the head (in persona Christi capitas).
In short, the title is more than simply a title of honor. It is an identity that is taken up by the virtue of their ordination. Diocesan priests are called to serve the people of God as the father of the family that is the parish; similar to how a father is to be the priest of his household, ecclesia domestica. Fatherhood is an identity that is planted in the heart of every man and needs to be nourished, cultivated, and actualized in the hearts of all men.
I’ll end with a quick story… Back in high school, I asked a spiritual father of mine about my vocational discernment. I’ll never forget his words: “I always knew you would be a good father one day. Now you have to realize if it is with a family or a congregation.” Simple, but profound! Frankly, it takes the same stuff to be a good priest or husband. But that can be subject of another blog post one day…