Why do Catholics call their priests “father,” when Jesus clearly commands us in Matthew 23:9 to “Call no one on earth your father”?

Catholic Priest

At first glance, it does seem like Catholics are being unbiblical. After all—“call no man on earth your father” is pretty clear. And priests are clearly men, on earth, and we Catholics are clearly calling them father. How can we reconcile this apparent discrepancy?

In Matthew 23:1–12, when Jesus tells us to call no man “father” or “teacher,” He is using figurative language—in this case hyperbole, or deliberate exaggeration—to emphasize that all legitimate authority and truth ultimately come from God.

Jesus is saying, in effect, don’t confuse the lesser with the greater: don’t put earthly authority and earthly teachers above the heavenly authority and heavenly teacher. Jesus is reminding us that all earthly fatherhood, authority, and truth come from God the Father.

But we can’t take these passages literally. Jesus is not forbidding the words “father” or “teacher” from being applied to human beings. Otherwise, Jesus would be contradicting Himself for repeating the 4th commandment, “honor your father and mother” (Mt 19:19), and referring to “Father Abraham” (Luke 16:24).

Throughout the Bible, men are called fathers and teachers. Both Catholics and Protestants call earthly men fathers and teachers. St. Stephen and St. Paul call the Jewish religious leaders “fathers” (Acts7:2 and 22:1).

St. Paul, in his letters, demonstrates the use of the term "father" in a spiritual sense. He addresses the Corinthians as "my beloved children" and says, "For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the Gospel" (1 Cor 4:14–15). He also writes to Timothy, "to Timothy, my true child in faith" (1 Tim 1:2), and to Titus, "to Titus, my true child in our common faith" (Tit 1:4).

St. Paul assumes the role of a spiritual father to the Corinthians because he cooperated with God in giving them spiritual life, just as biological fathers cooperate with God in giving physical life. The Catholic practice of calling priests "father" stems from the recognition that, like St. Paul, priests also cooperate with God in giving spiritual life to their flock through preaching the Gospel and administering the sacraments.

In fact, St. Paul himself encourages us to imitate him. Immediately after referring to himself as a spiritual father to the Corinthians, he says, "Therefore I urge you, be imitators of me" (1 Cor 4:16).

By calling our priests “father,” Catholics are simply imitating St. Paul and acknowledging the spiritual fatherhood of those who cooperate with the heavenly Father.

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About the Author

Jim Burnham

Writer & APologist

A cradle-Catholic evangelist, the second oldest of ten children. He graduated as valedictorian from Hillsdale College in 1989 with a degree in philosophy. Later he attended Thomas Aquinas College where he met his wife, Lisa. They have been married since 1992 and have six children. Jim has given hundreds of seminars to teach Catholics how to charitably and effectively defend their faith. He is the co-author of more than ten publications, including the popular Beginning Apologetics series.  Jim has been a guest on the radio program Catholic Answers. Catholic Faith Store is the official distributor of the Beginning Apologetics series.