What Our Lord Meant When He Said ‘Call No Man Father’

Why do we call priests ‘Father’ when Christ said, ‘And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father — the one in heaven?’

Carl Bloch, “The Sermon on the Mount,” 1877
Carl Bloch, “The Sermon on the Mount,” 1877 (photo: Public Domain)

I got a hushed and fevered call one stormy night from Marc, one of my old catechumens.

“I have a colleague who’s been making a lot of noise about the Catholic Church,” he said.

Marc was a great RCIA student and has become a good friend. Very sharp guy with a good heart.

“Can you handle his questions or criticisms?” I asked.

Marc was dealing with a confused man who spent a great deal of time with atheists, Protestants and even satanic occultists. He knew little about Christianity and even less about the Bible. I sensed an anti-Catholic theme running through this guy’s browser history. I hung up and offered up a quick prayer of gratitude to God because I enjoy a challenge.

Marc and I invited “John” to my house for a chat and on the agreed-upon date, the doorbell rang. I opened the door and welcomed my new friend into my home.

We sat down and I poured coffee and offered my homemade chocolate tiramisu (whose recipe will come with me to my grave) and asked if he had any questions about the Faith.

He was all business and got down to it right out of the gate.

“Why do Catholics call priests, ‘Father?’”

“Is that a problem?” I asked, feigning innocence with a soupçon of Socratic irony.

“Yes!” he cried, a bit too energetically, considering we were alone in the room.

“Why is that?” I asked.

“Because of Matthew 23:9. That’s in the Bible,” he assured me.

I turned to Matthew 23:9 and read: “And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father — the one in heaven.”

“Let’s consider the lines before and after Matthew 23:9,” I said, and read:

The [pharisees] 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. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

I asked him, “Did you have teachers who taught you in high school?”

He assured me that he had.

“Did you call them ‘teachers?’” I asked, acknowledging the elephant in the room.

He nodded silently — exactly how wisdom comes to man.

“Jesus often speaks to us hyperbolically as when he tells us to cut off a hand or to pluck out an eye if it were to cause us to sin as in Matthew 5:29-30. Or again when he tells us that people with a faith larger than a mustard seed can command mountains to move from here to there or for trees to plant themselves into the sea as in Matthew 17:20-21 or to hate our parents, spouses, siblings and children or we can’t be his disciples as in Luke 14:26-27.”

“Hyperbole,” I continued, “is an intentional exaggeration for emphasis or effect. Jesus often used it in the Gospels. He didn’t mean that we should only forgive our brother 539 times when he told us to forgive others seven times 77 times as in Matthew 18:21-22.”

My guest smiled a little smile.

“Only a very petty person would keep a running score as to how many times he forgave everyone in his life. Christ clearly didn’t mean it mathematically. It’s meant to show how important it is to forgive generously and without limit. The same goes for calling other people, ‘father’ or ‘teacher.” 

And then I pointed out that St. Paul called Abraham the “Father of Christians” 16 times in Romans 4. In Acts 6, St. Stephen is martyred after saying, “Abraham is the father of Christians and Jews.” St. Paul calls himself “father” in 1 Corinthians. In 1 Timothy 1:2, Paul refers to Timothy as a son in the faith. In 2 Timothy 1:2, Paul repeats the sentiment.

“In 1 John, St. John similarly called himself ‘father,’” I said. All priests and bishops do, and Sts. Paul and John were bishops of the Catholic Church as appointed by God when he walked among us 2,000 years ago.”

“I should also point out that when you came to my door, you addressed me as ‘Mr. Stagnaro.’ ‘Mister’ is just another form of “master” and the Latin word for teacher is magister from where we get the term magisterium — the word we use to describe the Catholic Church in her role as teacher. St. Paul constantly refers to masters and teachers of the Faith. He calls them ‘spiritual fathers’ who guide believers.”

The rest of our evening went pleasantly enough. “John” turned out to be a nice guy and I became his sponsor when he decided to convert to the Church. It all started that night.