At times, business people will address priests as “Mister” or “Sir.” In a way, it is intended to be polite and priests aren’t necessarily offended. On occasion, a person may address a priest as “Mister” to make the point that he considers the title “father” as presumptuous and even contrary to the teachings of Christ. The priest is not his father in any way.
Among English speaking Catholics, calling priests “father” seems to have developed in the 1840s. Does the practice violate Jesus’ teaching on not calling anyone “father”? In Jesus’ time, it was not the religious leaders who were called “father” but the heads of families. Even the most fervent followers of the Scriptures still call their male parent, “father,” and their teachers, “teacher.”
A difficulty with the title is that it may suggest superiority. In today’s Gospel, Matthew 23:1-12, Jesus criticizes the behavior of the religious leaders of His day for using their religious roles for their own aggrandizement, being greeted with respect and having the principle places at feasts. Their religious practices were exaggerated to call attention to themselves.
Jesus asserted “Their words are bold but their deeds are few … All their works are done to be seen” (Mt 23:3, 5). Jesus charged that many of them didn’t even try to do what they told others to do: “They bind up heavy loads, hard to carry, to lay on other peoples’ shoulders, while they themselves will not lift a finger to move them” (Mt 23:4).
Jesus concluded: “Do everything and observe everything they tell you but do not follow their example” (Mt 23:3).
Why does Jesus reject titles, such as “father,” “teacher, “or “master”? From what Jesus said, the titles feed into the claims of rising above others. The underlying problem is self-centeredness. This can take many forms.
Surely, King Herod’s entire existence fed into his enormous ego. However, Jesus was more disturbed by those who directed other people’s relation to God towards themselves. Religious leadership should be about service to others not self-service, as Jesus declares: “The greatest among you will be the one who serves the others” (Mt 23:11).
This problem has not been limited to the first century. St. Thomas Aquinas describes this as “vainglory”: “What is the reason why they say and do not do? It is because they are incorrigible. The reason why a man is difficult to correct or incorrigible is the seeking of one’s own glory” (Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew).
Thomas recalls that St. John Chrysostom thought the clergy were especially susceptible to vainglory: “Take away vainglory from the clergy and you have curtailed all their other vices without labor.”
The heaviness of the burdens that such leaders place on others causes Thomas to recall other words of Chrysostom: “Such are the men who say great things, but do little… The Lord will spare you more if you incline to mercy, rather than to severity.”
Just as human fathers are sons of God even as their own sons are, so religious leaders are as much the children of God as others are. St. Thomas affirms: “They ought not to love the authority of a father, ‘All of you are brothers,’ and he demonstrates this from their equal condition.”
Christ is the real teacher: “Christ is the Word; and for that reason, it belongs to Him to teach, for no one teaches except through words. He is the teacher in respect to His human nature, because He was sent to teach: “No one has seen God but the only-begotten Son who is ever at the Father’s side who has declared Him’ (Jn 1:18).
The efforts of teachers assist learning: “The teacher only brings exterior help, as the physician who heals: but just as the interior nature is the principal cause of the healing, so the interior light of the intellect is the principle cause of knowledge. Both of these are from God … through which light all things are shown to us” (I, 117, 1, ad 1).
Thomas explains that a teacher should realize that his teaching is not from himself: “If it were so he would be free to give his teaching to whomever he wished, but he cannot; in fact, this belongs to God alone who inwardly enlightens the heart … one who teaches applies certain helps to the teaching, as a doctor does with regard to health, but only God operates in the intellect” (Commentary on Matthew).
Should there be ministers of the Gospel who preach and teach? When Jesus called His first disciples, He proclaimed: “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men: (Mt 4:19). As Jesus ascended to His Father, He declared “Go and make disciples of all nations … teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you …” (Mt 28:19-20).
In identifying the abuses, Christ was not disregarding the possibility of genuine religious leadership. According to St. Thomas, religious leaders should be both teachers and examples: “A prelate is given a position of authority so that he may teach not only by his doctrine but also by his life. And we ourselves ought to be in agreement with him as to the things he teaches … Likewise, we also ought to conform our lives to his. For his life ought to be our model, just as the life of Christ is our model” (Commentary on Matthew).
Jesus Himself is the model of leadership. Jesus showed us what authority should be like. At the Last Supper, Jesus asked His disciples: “For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves” (Lk 22:27). At the Last Supper, Jesus washed the feet of the disciples and declared: “If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; you also ought to wash one another's feet” (Jn 13:14).
Those who use religious titles in a self-centered way are giving false advertisements. They are not what their names indicate.
Catherine of Siena wrote to the Archbishop of Pisa: “You, the shepherd, will have learned the rule and doctrine of the good Shepherd, who has laid down his life for us. And so I said that I desired to see you a good shepherd because in any other way or manner I do not see your salvation or theirs....You know that you are a Father. Then as a Father, feed your children.”
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
References to St. Thomas Aquinas’ Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew are taken from the translation of Fr. Paul M. Kimball, published by Dolorosa Press in 2012, pp. 733-741.
References to St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae give the part of the Summa, followed by the particular question, then the particular article. If the quotation is from the reply to an objection, the objection is indicated with the Latin ad (to).