Wikipedia explains the etymology of the word Pope as follows:

The word pope is derived ultimately from the Greek πάππας (páppas) originally an affectionate term meaning "father", later referring to a bishop or patriarch. The earliest record of the use of this title is in regard to the Patriarch of Alexandria, Pope Heraclas of Alexandria (232–248) in a letter written by his successor, Pope Dionysius of Alexandria, to Philemon, a Roman presbyter:

τοῦτον ἐγὼ τὸν κανόνα καὶ τὸν τύπον παρὰ τοῦ μακαρίου πάπα ἡμῶν Ἡρακλᾶ παρέλαβον.

Which translates into:

I received this rule and ordinance from our blessed father/pope, Heraclas.

From the early 3rd century the title was applied generically to all bishops. The earliest extant record of the word papa being used in reference to a Bishop of Rome dates to late 3rd century, when it was applied to Pope Marcellinus.

Eventually the term Pope/Papa was limited to the Bishop of Rome alone and now, in the Roman Catholic church, the term 'Father' is usually used to address priests:

In the early church, members of the clergy generally did not have standard titles. However, an accepted way to address bishops was “papa” or “pappa,” which referred to the role of the bishops as father figures. This name eventually became associated solely with the Bishop of Rome. The highest title in the Catholic Church, that of “Pope,” is derived from those early titles. By the late Middle Ages, priests belonging to various religious orders were called father. This practice has persisted to modern times, as priests are customarily called father today. - Mercy Home

Regardless of whether papa/father is used to refer to the Pope or Bishops or local Priests the idea underneath seems to be a reference to spiritual and familial paternity based ultimately upon the notion that Adam was created to be both High Priest and Father of all humanity:

Adam is the father of the human race, as well as the high priest of humanity. Thus, there is an intimate link between priesthood and fatherhood. The priesthood leading up to Aaron and the Levites is a familial priesthood. What is important to understand during this period of salvation history is that the father of the family is a priest, and the prominence of the first-born son in the family. - Catholic News Agency

In Matthew chapter 9 Jesus is speaking to the crowd and the disciples and He is talking about the Scribes and Pharisees, that is to say the religious teachers and leaders. What he tells everyone is:

But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren. And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven. Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ. - Matthew 23:8-10

  1. Don't allow anyone to call you teacher/guide or Master because Christ is in that role and you are all brothers/equal under Him.

  2. Don't call anyone on earth your Father because only God fills that role

The prohibition appears to be twofold: One is against accepting the designations of teacher or master over another and the second is against assigning the designation of Father to anyone. It should be obvious that these prohibitions are expected to be understood 'spiritually' both from the immediate context and the Bible as a whole (since Jesus has made clear that, spiritually, there are only two fatherhoods: God or the Devil) as well as from common sense ... we all have natural fathers as well as secular teachers, mentors, and bosses.

Taking the Matthew passage at face value there is no clear prohibition against a priest, for example, accepting the designation (spiritual) 'Father' but there is clear prohibition against anyone actually assigning that designation to 'any man on earth'.

A highly voted answer to this strongly related question indicates a Catholic view that Jesus was prohibiting the term 'Father' being applied to those who are undeserving of the term:

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.

With this understanding in mind coupled with the fact that priests in the Catholic Church seem to be called 'Father' by custom rather than according to whether they deserve the title (that is to say, a priest who does not have the heart of a shepherd nor the well-being of his flock as priority will still, by custom, be called 'Father'), how does the Catholic Church interpret Matthew 23:9 so as to normalize priests being called Father irregardless of their performance?

  • " there is no clear prohibition against a priest, for example, accepting the designation (spiritual) 'Father' but there is clear prohibition against anyone actually assigning that designation to 'any man on earth'" Well ... this sounds like splitting hairs. If one shouldn't be called 'Father', one shouldn't accept that designation either. Commented Jan 12, 2023 at 19:42
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    "It should be obvious that these prohibitions are expected to be understood 'spiritually' both from the immediate context and the Bible as a whole as well as from common sense" Also from basic logic. Since 'father' gets its core meaning from biological fathers, if you only called God 'Father', you would no longer have a conceptual base from which the term would get its meaning. 'Father' would just come to mean 'God' and imply no further information about God. Commented Jan 12, 2023 at 21:49
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    Catholic answer from many angles here. Commented Jan 12, 2023 at 23:36
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    There are also Lutherans who call their pastors "priests" and "fathers." This is especially true in European countries. Martin Luther wrote a commentary on the commandment "Honor Your Father & Mother" and spoke of its applications in light of also spiritual fathers.
    – Jess
    Commented Jan 13, 2023 at 21:03
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    @GratefulDisciple Re: the article you linked. In the section offering NT examples of teachers appointed in the Church ... every example is a different Greek word than Jesus used in Matthew. Commented Jan 14, 2023 at 14:43

4 Answers 4


Taking the Matthew passage literally

This would be the key. Catholicism doesn't interpret that passage as a literal prohibition. For one, the New Testament doesn't or else Peter, John and Paul missed the memo.

Acts 4:25 - Who, by the Holy Ghost, by the mouth of our father David, thy servant, hast said: Why did the Gentiles rage, and the people meditate vain things?

Titus 1:4 - To Titus my beloved son, according to the common faith, grace and peace from God the Father, and from Christ Jesus our Saviour. (if Paul calls Titus "son", that implies Paul is "father")

I John 2:13 - I write unto you, fathers, because you have known him, who is from the beginning. I write unto you, young men, because you have overcome the wicked one.

As further evidence that the passage cannot be taken literally would be that literal interpretation would imply that one's biological father could not be called father because it does say "Call NO man father" but that would seem exceedingly bizarre (plus, no Protestant raising this question would accept that reading).

  • 1
    +1 It seems the OP is asking about a specifically spiritual application of the term, which the CC employs. It's not clear to me if 'father David' is a specifically spiritual usage. 'unto you, fathers' also doesn't seem spiritual but rather seems to be about age. Paul's use of 'son' is more interesting. Commented Jan 12, 2023 at 19:34
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    But OP is reading a spiritual aspect into it. Does Matthew say "call no man father spiritually"? Christ is generally talking about humility (not doing things to be seen, for status, etc). Father, rabbi and master are not explicitly nor exclusively spiritual terms
    – eques
    Commented Jan 12, 2023 at 22:24
  • @eques I don't think I'm reading anything in. I've made an edit including John 8:39-44 for perspective. Commented Jan 13, 2023 at 16:35
  • @MikeBorden if you aren't reading anything into it, what in the context of that passage makes it clear that Christ only means spiritual fathers, spiritual masters and spiritual rabbis?
    – eques
    Commented Jan 13, 2023 at 18:05
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    Your edit amounts to moving the goalposts. If you want to understand how Catholicism understands something, you can't tack on more Protestant understandings around it when an answer is presented.
    – eques
    Commented Jan 13, 2023 at 18:09

"Taking the Matthew passage at face value there is no clear prohibition against a priest, for example, accepting the designation (spiritual) 'Father' but there is clear prohibition against anyone actually assigning that designation to 'any man on earth'."

So, was Paul inciting the Christians of Corinth to disobey Jesus when he told them the passage below (translation from Berean Literal Bible)?

"For if you should have ten thousand guardians (paidagōgous) in Christ, yet not many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel." (1 Cor 4:15)

Clearly Paul is telling the Corinthians that they have one and only one father in Christ, Paul himself.

The key here is "in Christ". No Apostle, bishop or priest may become spiritual father of anyone by and of himself, but only in Christ.

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    I don't think Paul is claiming fatherhood of believers here because it is the gospel through which folks are begotten and the gospel is not sourced in Paul but in God however, even if he is, there is no clear prohibition in Matthew of designating oneself as 'father'. The prohibition is against me designating any man on earth as 'my (spiritual) father' and the reason given is that God is my only spiritual father. To assign this title to anyone else is to lessen God's Fatherhood. Commented Jan 14, 2023 at 14:23
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    @MikeBorden "even if he is, there is no clear prohibition in Matthew of designating oneself as 'father'." This is splitting hairs. So Paul is encouraging others to think of him as a spiritual father, but that's OK? Commented Jan 14, 2023 at 18:26
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    @OnlyTrueGod Again, I don't think Paul is claiming spiritual fatherhood of believers...they are begotten through the gospel. Commented Jan 15, 2023 at 12:41
  • @MikeBorden OK, but you said 'even if he is'. I disagree with what you're saying here - if there is a prohibition against calling someone else a spiritual father, one ought not to go around saying that one is a spiritual father. Commented Jan 15, 2023 at 17:07

How does the Catholic Church interpret Matthew 23:9, so as to normalize priests being called Father?

One of the most common grumbles one hears from Protestant against the Catholic Church is from Matthew 23:9! Jesus said “Call No Man Father” - so why do you Catholics call your priests “Father” in contradiction to the words of Jesus?

Guess we should not call priests pastors either as Jesus clearly stated he is the Good Pastor.

In Matthew 23:9 Jesus says, "And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven." Many people interpret this to mean, "Do not call a priest "father," and do not call your dad "father." Some who hold this opinion go further and believe that calling a priest "father" violates Scripture because it seemingly involves the rejection of a direct command from Jesus. This is a common objection to the Catholic Church. But, if we believe the conclusion that it is wrong to call others "father," then what are we to make of the Scriptures that contradict this one? For example, in Mark 7:9-13, Jesus criticizes the Pharisees and scribes for not honoring their "fathers." Furthermore, calling the apostles and their successors "father" was common within the early Christian communities (cf. 1 Cor. 4:15; 1 Jn. 2:12; Acts 7:2; 22:1). As in the case of all scriptural interpretations, we must understand this passage in light of the rest of Scripture (cf. 2 Pet. 1:20; 3:16). This interpretative principle is called the analogy of faith (Catechism, no. 114).

At the Last Supper, Jesus gave His Church the gift of the ministerial priesthood. He gave His apostles the authority to act in His person with the authority given by the Father. Jesus had made this clear in Matthew 10:40 as noted above, and He reemphasized it in John 17 when, while praying to the Father, He said, "While I was with them, I kept them in thy name, which thou hast given me . . . As thou didst send me into the world, so I have sent them into the world" (vv. 12,18). This Sacrament of Holy Orders makes present the graces necessary for our spiritual rebirth and sustenance in Christ. For it is at the hands of priests that we are baptized, confirmed, and receive the precious body and blood of Our Lord. The title "father" does not confer upon priests the same status proper to Our Heavenly Father alone, nor does it diminish God's absolute and universal fatherhood. However, it is incorrect to interpret Matthew 23:9 in an exclusively literal sense. In 1 Corinthians 4:15, St. Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, says, "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." St. Paul calls himself "father" because he recognizes his cooperation with God in begetting the spiritual life of the community entrusted to his care. There are several other passages, such as Acts 7:2; Acts 22:1; Corinthians 4:15; Galatians 4:19; 1 John 2:12; and Philemon 10, which show that the title "father" was applied to others besides God and biological fathers in the New Testament. - Call No Man Father: Understanding Matthew 23:9

St. John Chrysostom wrote how not to apply these terms in a way the would be confusing and ambiguous with its’s usage in reference to God the Father. No Church Father has stated that we cannot call our spiritual teacher father, teacher or master or pastor.

They understood that Christ is the perfect teacher and master and leads us to the Father.

Right from the very being the Desert Fathers freely used the wordings similar to father to denote their trust in a person dedicated to enlighten them matters of the spiritual life.

St. Paul of Thebes is often credited with being the first hermit monk to go to the desert, but it was St. Anthony of the Desert who launched the movement that became the Desert Fathers. Sometime around AD 270, Anthony heard a Sunday sermon stating that perfection could be achieved by selling all of one's possessions, giving the proceeds to the poor, and following Jesus. He followed the advice and made the further step of moving deep into the desert to seek complete solitude.

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers are full of references of hermits and monks calling their mentors Abba which means Father. The term Abba clearly predated the of term pope as an ecclesiastical title! Catholics are not unique with employing terms like pope are an uniquely Catholic thing, we definitely get called out on this more than other denominations! What about the Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church!

The question deals too much on this one historical term’s usage!

Examples of Abba in the Saying of the Desert Fathers:

  • One time, the blessed Abba Theophilus the archbishop went to Scetis. But the brothers gathered and said to Abba Pambo: 'Tell the Father one word that he may benefit.' The old man told them: 'If he does not always benefit from our silence, then if we speak he will still not benefit.'

  • Abbot Pastor said: If a man has done wrong and does not deny it, but says: I did wrong, do not rebuke him, because you will break the resolution of his soul. And if you tell him: Do not be sad, brother, but watch it in the future, you stir him up to change his life.

  • A hermit saw someone laughing, and said to him, "We have to render an account of our whole life before heaven and earth, and you can laugh?" Abba Longinus said to Abba Acacius: 'A woman knows she has conceived when she no longer loses any blood. So it is with the soul, she knows she has conceived the Holy Spirit when the passions stop coming out of her. But as long as one is held back in the passions, how can one dare to believe one is sinless? Give blood and receive the Spirit.'


how does the Catholic Church interpret Matthew 23:9 so as to normalize priests being called Father irregardless of their performance?

They are spiritual fathers because of their vocation, they have been called by God to their position. I'm not sure why you think maintaining a specific level of performance would be necessary to keep the title. Peter didn't lose his status as an apostle when he denied Christ.

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