In Matthew 23:9, Jesus says:

Matthew 23:9 (NIV)

And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.

What is the Roman Catholic view on this? In the Roman Catholic Church there are at least two titles that are based on the word father: abbot (head of a monastery) and pope (head of the Church). In addition to this, it is common to address a priest with the title father (at least in fiction). How do the Roman Catholic Church reconcile these two facts?

  • 4
    Did you know that that was the reading at Mass yesterday or is this just a coincidence?
    – Peter Turner
    Commented Oct 31, 2011 at 18:06
  • 11
    What do you call your father? "Bob can you pass the salt?" How do you reconcile this? Commented Nov 1, 2011 at 1:37
  • 5
    @JamesBlack Obviously, Jesus is not talking about our earthly fathers, that would just be silly.
    – Shathur
    Commented Nov 1, 2011 at 7:39
  • 5
    @Shathur - But, if people are going to be so literal about "Call no man father", even though that word was a translation, then why not have it apply to the man who raised you? Commented Nov 1, 2011 at 23:22
  • 3
    @JamesBlack, you reconcile it by looking at the context. In Matthew 23:1-10 Jesus was speaking about contemporary religious leaders, the titles used by such leaders, and what kind of (religious) titles his followers should use. This is why he said in verse 8 that "you are all brothers". To ask "What do you call your father?" sounds like an attempt to invalidate what Jesus said in verse 9. Anyway even according to a very literal interpretation like that it would still be wrong to call a religious leader "father".
    – user19845
    Commented Jul 14, 2017 at 20:10

4 Answers 4


It's pretty blatant hyperbole, evidenced by the fact that St. Peter and St. Paul both used the term "father" in their letters freely and repeatedly.

In Romans 4:11-12:

11And he received the sign of circumcision as a seal on the righteousness received through faith while he was uncircumcised. Thus he was to be the father of all the uncircumcised who believe, so that to them [also] righteousness might be credited,
12as well as the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised, but also follow the path of faith that our father Abraham walked while still uncircumcised.

In Romans 9:10:

And not only that, but also when Rebecca had conceived children by one husband, our father Isaac

In 1 Corinthians 4:15:

Even if you should have countless guides to Christ, yet you do not have many fathers, for I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

In 1 Thessalonians 2:11:

As you know, we treated each one of you as a father treats his children,

In 1 Timothy 5:1:

Do not rebuke an older man, but appeal to him as a father. Treat younger men as brothers,

In Hebrews 12:9:

Besides this, we have had our earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not [then] submit all the more to the Father of spirits and live?

In James 2:21:

Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar?

In 1 John 2:13:

I am writing to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning.
I am writing to you, young men, because you have conquered the evil one.

St. Paul also used it in Acts 22:1:

“My brothers and fathers, listen to what I am about to say to you in my defense.”

As well as St. Stephen in Acts 7:2:

And he replied, “My brothers and fathers, listen. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was in Mesopotamia, before he had settled in Haran,

The list of references to the apostles calling people (or themselves) fathers continues on from there.

The dead giveaway though is in Matthew 19:18-19, when Jesus himself makes mention of worldly fathers in his recitation of the commandments:

18He asked him, “Which ones?” And Jesus replied, “ ‘You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness;
19honor your father and your mother’; and ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

Jesus was known for using hyperbole as a rhetorical device. Consider Matthew 5:29-30:

29If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.s It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna.
30And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body go into Gehenna.

Obviously, Jesus doesn't mean for you to pluck your eye out or cut your hand off.

So if it's not meant to be taken literally, what was the point Jesus was trying to convey? For that, I turn to an essay on Catholic Answers, which was declared nihil obstat by the Censor Librorum of the Archdiocese of San Diego:

Jesus is not forbidding us to call men "fathers" who actually are such—either literally or spiritually. [...] To refer to such people as fathers is only to acknowledge the truth, and Jesus is not against that. He is warning people against inaccurately attributing fatherhood—or a particular kind or degree of fatherhood—to those who do not have it.


This was also a temptation in the Jewish world of Jesus’ day, when famous rabbinical leaders, especially those who founded important schools, such as Hillel and Shammai, were highly exalted by their disciples. It is this elevation of an individual man—the formation of a "cult of personality" around him—of which Jesus is speaking when he warns against attributing to someone an undue role as master, father, or teacher.

  • 6
    The verse from 1 Corinthians is the only one that might convince me. The verses about Abraham (and Isaac) could support your point, but since Paul was a jew, he might have referred to Abraham as his forefather (many times the Bible makes no difference between "father" and "forefather"). In the following I interpret "fathers" as fathers or elder men in general, not the author's own fathers. And Matthew 19:18-19 is obviously referring to our earthly fathers. Still, you answer my question with the Catholic explanation for this, so I accept your answer.
    – Shathur
    Commented Nov 1, 2011 at 7:52
  • 4
    1 Corinthians 4:15 doesn't have the word father in the Greek. Father wasn't used as a spiritual title for men in these verses. Father is used for physical fathers or figuratively, but not spiritually.
    – user16659
    Commented Jan 4, 2012 at 19:04
  • What about Eph. 3:15, that "all paternity in heaven and earth is named" after God the Father?
    – Geremia
    Commented May 18, 2020 at 0:31

Rather than answering in comments, let me answer here.

First, if you look at the rest of the verses: Matt 23: 8-12

8 “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

It would appear we shouldn't call anyone instructor or teacher, if we shouldn't call anyone father.

But, as pointed out by others, the prohibition isn't on the word, itself.

The issue is that the Pharisees would expect the best seats, and the best treatment, as they held themselves as father figures as well as teachers, so, they were arrogant, rather than being humble before God, they put themselves above God.

We should strive to be humble before others and before God, rather than holding ourselves up.

So, the entire question can be put into context by reading the rest of the verses, and see that just taking one verse out of context can be misleading.

And for an interesting article on the word used in this verse you can look at:


  • Yes, I had the entire context in mind when writing the question. My question is not how the RCC reconciles the usage of the word "father" with these verses. I personally think that even if a particular priest, abbot or pope is humble, these titles are inviting people to be proud. But I get what you and the others say and maybe this prohibition is about people that are not deserving of the title and that there are some people that really are deserving of the title. But even if that is the case, I think it would be better to not use them at all to avoid pride as much as possible.
    – Shathur
    Commented Nov 3, 2011 at 9:15
  • 3
    So we should avoid teacher, instructor, doctor as well? Commented Nov 4, 2011 at 0:32
  • 1
    As Jesus stated: yes. There's to much potential pride involved. If someone looks at you and call you some of those titles and you accept it, you will soon look at yourself as that title, which is a huge risk for pride. Jesus told us to humble ourselves and he even told us not to let other people exalt us. I don't think there's any great need for those titles and God already fulfills all of them. We don't need bishops and priests: The Holy Spirit is our teacher, instructor and doctor, the Father is our father and the Son is our savior.
    – Shathur
    Commented Nov 4, 2011 at 7:53
  • The call teacher is also forbade mathew 23:8 John the baptist is called teacher jonh 3:26 luke 3:12 Additional of that the Lord is the Only one Holy as we read Revealation 15:14 The Lord is the only Holy Paul call Holy to his bretheren christian hebrew3:1 acts 4:32 and many more Additional jesus is the only Son of God john 1:18 The christian called son of God 1 john 3:1
    – Noel Ko
    Commented Oct 6, 2018 at 21:19

'Father' in this context refers to calling Abraham 'Father Abraham' ala John 8:39. Not calling any particular individual father.

They answered and said to him, “Our father is Abraham.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works of Abraham.

John 8:39 NABRE

Jesus statement is in connection with the Pharisees who take pride in exulting themselves. They call themselves Abraham's Children, take their place on the seat of Moses, make up new laws purely for self gratification.

The title 'Father' is in regards to the relationship a priest may have with his flock. It's not an honorific in that sense, any more than calling your own dad father is. Priests are Reverend, Bishops are Most Reverend. Priests don't assert their spiritual fatherhood for self gratification, but as a gift of self, the way natural parents do.

However, the commentary in the NABRE acknowledges a discrepancy in the historical practice, so make of it what you will.

These verses, warning against the use of various titles, are addressed to the disciples alone. While only the title ‘Rabbi’ has been said to be used in addressing the scribes and Pharisees (Mt 23:7), the implication is that Father and ‘Master’ also were. The prohibition of these titles to the disciples suggests that their use was present in Matthew’s church. The Matthean Jesus forbids not only the titles but the spirit of superiority and pride that is shown by their acceptance. Whoever exalts…will be exalted:


  • The NABRE thing is wrong...Jesus is talking to the crowd and the disciples in Matthew, (see v. 1). Commented Jan 12, 2023 at 15:24
  • @mike, I see why you'd think that, but this questions is about the Catholic view on the matter. It's still plausable that the "you" is just the disciples, even if he's addressing the crowd and the disciples. Looks like a lot of translations don't even both mentioning that he's possibly addressing someone else - maybe that's left out intentionally? It's in the greek.
    – Peter Turner
    Commented Jan 12, 2023 at 18:00

How do the Roman Catholic Church reconcile these two facts?

Similarly to how she interprets 1 Tim. 2:5 ("For there is […] one mediator of God and men, the man Christ Jesus") as not excluding Blessed Virgin from being Co-Redeemer:

There is only one Fatherhood, the Divine Relation of the First and Second Persons of the Holy Trinity, of which all other fatherhoods are said analogously and of which they are but imperfect participations.

Eph. 3:15: "all paternity in heaven and earth is named" after God the Father.

There are various degrees of fatherhood.

  1. "divine fatherhood within the Godhead" (fatherhood in the proper sense)
    "True generation by way of identity of nature." The Father and Son are both God.

Fatherhood ranked by degree of participation in #1:

  1. "fatherhood of divine adoption" (Rom. 8:15)
    "True generation by way of a participation of nature.
    Formal Paternity."
    By grace we participate in God's nature.
  2. "human fatherhood"
    "True generation by way of a similitude of nature.
    Formal Paternity."
  3. "God's fatherhood of natural creatures"
    "No generation, but the procession of living beings by way of a similitude of God's essence.
    Non-formal Paternity."
  4. "fatherhood of human adoption"
    "No generation, no procession of creatures; but the external principle perfecting generation.
    Non-formal paternity."

source: pp. 276 & 283 Thomas E. D. Hennessy, O.P.The Fatherhood of the Priest.” The Thomist: A Speculative Quarterly Review 10, no. 3 (1947): 271–306.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .