Sunday, March 12, 2017

Just a short tract I wrote addressing an objection to Catholics calling priests "father"....(It's a first draft, so please bear with it).


Why do Catholics call priests “Father” when in Matthew 23:9 Jesus states “And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven.”


An interesting bit of a trivia I once encountered is that the third century Christian writer Origen reportedly castrated himself, apparently taking literally our Lord’s statement concerning those who “have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake”. (Such an action is all the more surprising given Origen's reputation for applying allegorical methods of interpretation to the Scriptures.) Regardless, however, of the particular circumstances of that incident, it is useful for illustrating the dangers of approaching Scripture with a remorselessly literal interpretation at all times. One could choose other examples as well, such as Christ’s commands to pluck out our eyes or cut off our hands if they offend us. In those circumstances, we all realize that He is using hyperbole and to take such verses in a strictly literal sense is to do damage to the point that is being conveyed, and is to in fact distort the teaching of Scripture.

Yet we also realize that
other parts of Scripture are indeed to be taken literally. For instance, when the Gospels records the words of Christ stating that we should love our enemies, or St. Paul affirms the historicity of the Resurrection, such statements are to be taken literally; to do otherwise is to spurn the word of God in favor of our own ideas. So the question we must ask ourselves is this: what kind of statement would Matthew 23:9 qualify as? Should we interpret it strictly literally, or is Jesus (as when He states to mutilate ourselves in the examples cited above) simply using a hyperbole to make a larger point? I think other passages of Scripture makes it clear that it is the latter, but first let us set up the fundamental problem with the former approach (apart from the Scriptural difficulties it faces which I will discuss later).

The obvious objection to taking it strictly literally is to note that under such a scenario, we would be forbidden to call even our male parent father. Few are willing to go to that extreme, of course, but even those who would bite the bullet and start referring to their male parent differently (say, by his given name) still face an obstacle: they would be depriving the term “father” of any source of meaning as an analogy as applied to God. What would saying God is our Father mean if we have no human person we refer to as father? For while like all analogies it is imperfect (human fatherhood bearing only a faint likeness to the Divine fatherhood from which it is derived), nevertheless it is the shadow of the Divine fatherhood found in human fatherhood that helps us to comprehend in a dim way God’s fatherhood. That is why Christ refers to God as our Father in the first place. If we destroy the notion of human fatherhood, then the word “father” can no longer function as an analogy, and simply becomes a meaningless term to us.

Most people rightly recognize this problem, and therefore restrict applying the term “father” simply to others in a religious context. Yet is such justified? If one is to insist on taking the text strictly literally, simply based on the words of the text (no more and no less) then the command would appear to be absolute. Therefore, by acknowledging exceptions (as in the case of human fatherhood), it becomes clear that the person objecting to Catholic practice is already acknowledging Jesus has something more fundamental in view than simply using a certain word in reference to other people. They already partially acknowledge that Jesus's words are to that extent not to be taken absolutely literally, but are hyperbolic. The question then becomes: why should we take them literally then in a religious context?

For, indeed, the writers of the New Testament had no difficulty in the concept of spiritual fatherhood as applied to men as well as to God. St. Paul famously refers to Abraham as “the father of us all” (cf. Romans 4:16-17), including the Gentiles, and that obviously being in a religious sense (for he was not the father of the Gentiles in a biological sense). St. Paul himself states in 1 Corinthians 4:15 that “though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers: for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel.” He refers to St. Timothy as “my own son in the faith” (1 Timothy 1:2), and Onesimus as “my son...whom I have begotten in my bonds” (Philemon 10). So, too, St. John refers to others as his spiritual children (cf. 1 John 2:1; 2 John 1; 3 John 4). One could go on, but that makes it clear that the idea of men who are spiritual fathers is well established in the New Testament as legitimate.

But some may still maintain that even though spiritual fatherhood may be acknowledged, using the word “Father” as a title is nevertheless forbidden. This distinction, besides suffering from the same difficulty as noted above as not being rooted in the actual words of the text (and so what is the basis for it?), would also prove too much (and therefore, as the saying goes, would prove nothing). For Jesus also states not to call any man Rabbi, which simply means teacher. Yet how few object to calling others “Teacher” as a title! And, again, Jesus forbids us to call others Master. And yet, the title Mister is derived from the word Master. Are we therefore forbidden to call other men Mister as well? (“Fred Roger’s Neighborhood” does certainly have a different ring to it!)

In short, nobody takes the words of Matthew 23:9 completely literally. Indeed, it seems the
only time they are taken literally is when the subject of Catholics addressing priests as father is addressed, but the rest of the time the hyperbolic nature is acknowledged. It would seem, therefore, with no better reasons being given, that Christ's words should not be taken literally in that case, either.

But if the text is simply a hyperbole emphasized for a larger point (as in the other examples of Jesus use of hyperbole noted above), what is the point he is trying to hammer home?
It would appear from the context to be this: that we should allow no man to take the place of God’s supreme fatherhood. “One is your father which is in heaven” in that God is the source of all fatherhood. No man (such as a priest or Pharisee in Jesus time, or in a modern-day context for Catholics, no priest, pastor, bishop, or pope, for that matter) has any claim that would trump God’s supreme Fatherbood.

But that does not mean they cannot share in his Fatherhood in a subordinate position, just as our own earthly fathers do. Similarly, Christ is the “one mediator between God and men” (1 Timothy 2:5), yet that does not prevent others from partaking in that one mediatorship in a subordinate position by praying for others, for instance (1 Timothy 2:1); on the contrary, the former is the basis of the latter. And so, too, others can be fathers only by God sharing his own fatherhood with them. But cut off from that source, they cease to have any claim to being acknowledged as father. One should not call any man father whose fatherhood is not in fact sourced in some way, and therefore an acknowledgement of, God’s supreme fatherhood, thereby eliminating any basis for pride.

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