Understanding Catholics on “Call No Man Father”

Happy Feast of St. Joseph

Today the Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Patronage of St. Joseph (Wednesday preceding the Third Sunday after Easter, as noted in the 2022 Fatima Calendar).[1] St. Joseph served as the earthly father for the Incarnate Son of God and is the spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Tradition holds that God has granted him, after Our Lady, the greatest honors and the highest place in Heaven, even greater than St. Peter, St. John the Baptist, or St. Michael. Catholic tradition also maintains that St. Joseph, like the Precursor, was sanctified in his mother’s womb and that he was never guilty of any personal sin (the Scriptures refer to him as a “just man,” cf. Mt 1:19). Jesus Christ honored and obeyed St. Joseph in perfect fulfillment of the Fourth Commandment. We can be quite certain that Our Lord surely called him “father.

A Common Misreading of Scripture

So, what did Our Lord Jesus Christ mean when He said to “call no man father”? This is often a charge levelled against Catholics by Protestants who view the Catholic practice in direct contradiction to the Lord’s own command in the Gospel according to St. Matthew. The full passage, in its context, is as follows:

“Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, saying: ‘The scribes and the Pharisees have sitten on the chair of Moses. All things therefore whatsoever they shall say to you, observe and do: but according to their works do ye not; for they say, and do not. For they bind heavy and insupportable burdens, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but with a finger of their own they will not move them. And all their works they do for to be seen of men. For they make their phylacteries broad, and enlarge their fringes. And they love the first places at feasts, and the first chairs in the synagogues, and salutations in the market place, and to be called by men, Rabbi. But be not you called Rabbi. For one is your master; and all you are brethren. And call none your father upon earth; for one is your father, who is in Heaven. Neither be ye called masters; for one is your master, Christ’” (Matthew 23:1-10).

Our Lord, in the same statement, tells us to call no man “father,” “teacher” (i.e., Rabbi), or “master.” Yet, we refer to our earthly fathers as “father” and no one objects to that. And no one objects to referring to our instructors as “teachers,” even though this would seem to be literally against Our Lord’s words; that is, if we merely understand His words in a banal and haphazard manner lacking context.

A Study of Scripture Shows the Baseless Claims of Protestants

A closer examination of the Sacred Scriptures reveals that Our Lord refers to Abraham as “father” in the parable of the rich man in both Luke 16:24 and John 8:56. Saint Stephen, in the Acts of the Apostles, refers to Abraham as “Father Abraham” in Acts 7:55. And St. Paul writes on the spiritual fatherhood of priests in his first letter to the Corinthians: “I do not write this to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (1 Corinthians 4:14-15).

The Scripture commentary on DRBO.org therefore explains the meaning of this passage by saying: “The meaning is that our Father in Heaven is incomparably more to be regarded, than any father upon earth: and no master to be followed, who would lead us away from Christ. But this does not hinder but that we are by the law of God to have a due respect both for our parents and spiritual fathers, (1 Cor. 4:15) and for our masters and teachers.”

All Paternity

No passage of Scripture should ever be understood out of context. It helps to be familiar with all of Scripture in order to understand each individual passage. One particular teaching from St. Paul that helps us understand this saying of Our Lord is, “the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom all paternity in Heaven and earth is named” (Eph 3:14-15).

St. Paul is explaining that God is THE Father. The essence of Fatherhood is to serve as the originator for life. He then has the authority which corresponds to this role. Philosophically, God the Father means (amongst other things) that He is the First Cause (the Source) of all that exists. Scripturally, this same concept is expressed when God reveals His Name in Exodus as, “I AM WHO AM.”

Every other “father” – be he spiritual or natural – derives his limited fatherhood from the Fatherhood of God. Nevertheless, their fatherhood is real.[2] It is real precisely because it participates in the paternity of God the Father, albeit in an infinitely inferior degree. We can use this term for our biological father and our spiritual father (priest) because it is expressing a truth. Moreover, when the believer acknowledges the fatherhood of others he is actually honoring God the Father because he recognizes that God is the source of all paternity.

When Jesus insists that we call no man father, He is reminding fallen man to never think that any mere creature can serve as the Origin of all that exists. This is a powerful argument against those who believe the errors of evolution. Second, Our Lord is insisting that we acknowledge God as the source of all paternity. A man will be a very poor father if he is not striving to emulate God the Father. Every father needs the Father’s paternal grace to better fulfill the reality he is called to be. Third, Our Lord teaches that all authority – in Heaven and on earth – comes from God the Father. One should never think he has authority on his own or because ‘the people’ gave it to him. All those with authority do well to live this truth, for it will help them exercise the most necessary virtue of humility.

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These three meanings of Our Lord’s teaching in no way exhaust the depth and richness of God’s mysteries. We invite you to write in with the fruit of your own meditation regarding this passage. What else might Our Master be teaching us by these words?

Conclusion

Our Lord Jesus Christ, St. Paul, and St. James all referred to Abraham as “father”. Saint John on two occasions refers to Church leaders in his letters as “fathers”, and St. Paul refers to himself as “father” in 1 Corinthians. The Lord was telling His followers, in the 23rd chapter of the Gospel according to St. Matthew, to not give to another the authority that which God is entitled. Notice He said to call no one “teacher” also in the line before “Call no man father”. Therefore, the accusation that Catholics sin by referring to priests as “Father” is far from sinful. It is entirely baseless and comes from a superficial reading of Scripture and an ignorance of Our Lord’s own words before and after that line.


[1] This feast of St. Joseph is found in the Roman Missals prior to 1962. The revised 1962 Missal introduced a liturgical feast for the Universal Church on the first of May in honor of St. Joseph [the Worker] and eliminated (!?) the solemnity of his Patronage.

[2] We should have a similar understanding of the Priest. There is only One Priest. He is the Eternal High Priest Jesus Christ. And He only has one sacrifice to offer – His very humanity upon the Cross. However, every ordained priest is a true priest. Why? Because through the Sacrament of Orders, a man receives the grace to participate in the one Priesthood of Christ. And each validly ordained priest is given the power to offer the One Sacrifice of Christ, the Holy Mass. Consequently, when we honor, obey and pay due respect to our Catholic priests, we are in fact rendering that honor, obedience and respect in an even greater manner to Jesus Christ, the One Eternal high Priest.

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