Some Christians, based upon Matthew 23:9, are opposed to the practice of calling priests “fathers.” They’re mistaken in this opposition, and risk doing a disservice to God out of their misreading of this text. Now, we already know that the practice of referring to spiritual fathers as “father” is in found throughout the New Testament (e.g., Luke 16:24; Luke 16:30; James 2:21; Acts 4:25; Romans 9:10; 1 Cor. 4:15; cf. Romans 4:11-18), and that taking Matthew 23:9 literally would forbid virtually every manner of referring to spiritual leaders (including “reverend,” “pastor,” “doctor,” etc.) as well as acknowledging one’s biological father as such (which would be a problem for the more than 400 times that the New Testament uses the term “father”).
But I want to go beyond that, and suggest that if did avoid using to any mortal men as “father,” we would be doing a disservice to God. That may sound counter-intuitive, but I think you’ll find that both Scripture and the Catechism point to this answer.
|Cima da Conegliano, God the Father (c. 1517)|
Since our knowledge of God is limited, our language about him is equally so. We can name God only by taking creatures as our starting point, and in accordance with our limited human ways of knowing and thinking.
There are a few points here. First of all, a God small enough to be comprehended by our finite human intellect could scarcely be the infinite Creator of the human intellect (and the entire universe). So God is necessarily bigger than us, and bigger than our intellects. As a result, our intellects are incapable of fully grasping Him. This is compounded by the fact that, this side of Heaven, we have not fully seen or experienced Him. As a result, the process of revelation describing God to us would be a touch like describing the color red to a man born blind. Everything is translated into realities with which we can understand, while we recognize that God transcends these realities.
As a result, all of our descriptors for God, or any Person of the Trinity, are analogous descriptors of creatures: Lord, Master, King, Father, Good Shepherd, Redeemer, Prince of Peace, etc. These are illuminating descriptions of God precisely because we know what a master is, or what a king is, or what a father is, and we know what these things are, because we seem examples from the world around us. So, for example, we can call God “Good,” because we know what goodness is from the many imperfect examples of goodness we see around us. From this, we can imagine what infinite and perfect Good might look like.
This is the only way it can work. If there was a descriptor of God that had absolutely no human analogue, the descriptor would be worthless. It does no good to describe God as King of Kings to someone who doesn’t know what a “king” is. You might as well use Edward Lear’s term, and say that God is “runcible.” Since no one outside of Lear knows what Lear meant by that made-up word, it’s not a particularly illuminating adjective.
Likewise, if we were to collectively interpret Matthew 23:9 literally, and completely stopped referring to anyone other than God as “father” or “teacher,” those terms would lose their meaning. They would become like “runcible” — adjectives that we can use without understanding what they mean.
|Bartolomé Esteban Murillo,
Holy Family with the Holy Spirit (c. 1682)
But it’s not simply that God must be described in analogical terms. It’s that fatherhood is one of the only analogies for God that Scripture actually prescribes.
In Ephesians 3:14-15, St. Paul tells us that every “family” (literally “patria,” from “pater,” meaning “father”) takes their name from the Father. In other words, we can understand the Fatherhood of God precisely through the fatherhood of man, and through the family. Extending this point, it’s also through the family that we can begin to understand the internal dynamic of the Trinity (which is why we’re given the names “Father” and “Son” for the first Two Persons).
Now, certainly, Paul’s description includes biological fatherhood. But it also necessarily includes spiritual fatherhood. And in this sense, it is perfect a more perfect analogy. After all, while God is our Creator, He isn’t our biological Father. On the other hand, He is our spiritual Father.
Of course, ideally, biological fathers are spiritual fathers, too. But it’s in their spiritual fatherhood, more even than their biological fatherhood, that they show their kids Who and what God is like. And of course, it’s possible to be one sort of father without being the other. After all, St. Joseph wasn’t Christ’s biological dad, but he’s still rightly called His “father” (e.g., Luke 2:33). And as we are about to see, Scripture considers Abraham to be the father even of those to whom he has no biological or familial connection at all.
Perhaps the most important point is that God gives us fathers, biological and spiritual, precisely in order to show us what His Fatherhood is like. St. Paul tells us as much in Romans 4:11-18, in his discussion of our father Abraham:
József Molnár, Abraham’s Journey from Ur to Canaan (1850)
He received circumcision as a sign or seal of the righteousness which he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them, and likewise the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but also follow the example of the faith which our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.
The promise to Abraham and his descendants, that they should inherit the world, did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression. That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants — not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham, for he is the father of us all, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations” — in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations; as he had been told, “So shall your descendants be.”