Screenshot of James Cagney and Pat O’Brien from the film Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]
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Anti-Catholics often ask Catholics the following garden variety objection, “How can Catholics explain calling their priests ‘Father’ in light of Matthew 23:9 (RSV, as throughout): ‘And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven’?”
We reply as follows:
Jesus was simply teaching (using the common Hebrew method of exaggeration or hyperbole: see Mt 19:24, 23:24; Lk 6:42, 14:26) that God the Father is the ultimate source of all authority. He said this during the course of rebuking the Pharisees for spiritual pride (Mt 23:2-10). Those who use this argument neglect to see that it would prohibit all uses of the word father whatsoever; even biological fathers. Since that is an absurd outcome, it is clear that the statement cannot be taken in an absolute sense.
Beyond that, Jesus Himself uses the term father many times (Mt 15:4-6; 19:5, 19, 29; 21:31; Lk 16:24, 27, 30; Jn 8:56, etc.). Several other passages from others utilize the term, too (sometimes twice), so unless it is believed that they were being disobedient to Jesus, the objection to calling Catholic priests father must be discarded:
Acts 7:2 And Stephen said: “Brethren and fathers, hear me. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham, . . .”
Romans 4:12 . . . the father of the circumcised . . . our father Abraham . . .
Romans 4:16-17 . . . Abraham, for he is the father of us all, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations . . .” (cf. 9:10; Phil. 2:22; Jas. 2:21)
1 Corinthians 4:15 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.