Since the subject came up in the combox of Jimmy’s post on calling priests “father” in Latin, a few quick thoughts on the subject of the custom of calling priests “father” at all.
Protestants who object to this practice (not all do object, of course) focus their objections on Jesus’ words in Matthew 23:9. Here’s the passage in context:
 Then said Jesus to the crowds and to his disciples,
 "The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat;
 so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice.
 They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger.
 They do all their deeds to be seen by men; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long,
 and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues,
 and salutations in the market places, and being called rabbi by men.
 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brethren.
 And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven.
 Neither be called masters, for you have one master, the Christ.
 He who is greatest among you shall be your servant;
 whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
How are we to understand this passage? Does Jesus really mean to absolutely forbid his followers to call men “father”? If not, what does he mean? What can we say about this?
As Christians who take the Bible and Jesus’ words seriously, we should be cautious about too quickly or easily concluding “He didn’t really mean what he said.” It is certainly true that Jesus’ teaching included a lot of figurative and non-literal language. Classic examples include “I am the door” and “You are the salt of the world.” There are also cases where we would likely go astray if we sought literally to follow Jesus words, e.g., cutting off limbs and plucking out eyes in order to avoid sin.
On the other hand, Jesus also meant what he said a lot too, even when some people try to make out that he didn’t really mean it. “Love your enemies,” for instance. And “If you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” There are those who would like to explain away his warnings about the outer darkness and weeping and gnashing of teeth. But he meant that too.
As Catholics, too, we take Jesus literally at points where many or most Protestants spiritualize or otherwise water down his teaching: “My flesh is food and my blood is real drink,” for example. (Note the unusually insistent language: He doesn’t say “I am a real door” or “You are real salt.”) And "He who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery."
What of the present case, “Call no man on earth father”? Is that a dramatic, parabolic expression, or a literal proscription?
Perhaps the first point to note is that it is not only calling men “father” that is discussed here. Verse 9 mentions calling men “father,” but the adjacent verses immediately preceding and following, 8 and 10, likewise forbid the titles (translations vary) “teacher” (“rabbi”) and “leader” (“master”) on the identical grounds that we have one teacher and leader, the Christ. Yet even among Evangelicals that object to the Catholic custom of calling priests “father,” it is common to encounter terms like “worship leader” and "Bible teacher."
Of course this doesn’t prove that Jesus didn’t mean what he (literally) said. It could be that Evangelicals and Catholics are both guilty of violating Jesus’ teaching here.
On the other hand, if we do take Jesus’ teaching here as a literal prohibition, it looks like we may also have to ding both St. Paul and St. John for breaking Jesus’ teaching in holy Scripture itself.
St. Paul, speaking to the Corinthians, calls himself a “father” to them (1 Cor 4:15), since he fathered them in the Gospel. It’s true that St. Paul’s usage doesn’t exactly parallel the Catholic usage of calling any priest “father,” since St. Paul considers his role in bringing the Corinthians to the Gospel a unique one, and contrasts it with the countless “instructors in Christ” they may have. To follow St. Paul’s usage exactly, we might call a priest “father” who brought us to Christ, but not other priests.
However, the point is not that St. Paul’s usage provides an exact precedent for the Catholic usage. Rather, it is a data point in our effort to understand Jesus’ prohibition on calling men “father.” Although Jesus says “call no man on earth father,” St. Paul calls himself the Corinthians’ father and encourages them to think of him in that way. At the very least, this suggests that we should not understand the unique divine Fatherhood Jesus cites as excluding any and all spiritual fatherhood on a human level.
Also worth noting is the usage of St. John in 1 John 2:13-14, where he addresses “fathers.” Note that throughout the letter John addresses his readers as “children” or “little children,” certainly not meaning literal minors only; “childen” is a metaphor, presumably in the same spirit as Jesus’ teaching that we must “become as little children”; similarly, it seems likely that “fathers” is likewise addressed not to biological fathers only, but to elders or leaders in the community, i.e., to spiritual fathers.
Granting this, however, isn’t the same as explaining Jesus’ words in Matthew 23. Toward this end, let’s consider another passage in Matthew’s Gospel, from the Sermon on the Mount, that I think is similar in construction and spirit, and which in fact addresses the same spiritual condition:
“Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:1-4)
So far so good: but now compare this verse, also from the Sermon on the Mount:
“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16)
See the problem? Which is it? Are we to let our light shine before men so that they can see our good works and give glory to our Father in heaven? Or are we to beware of practicing our piety to be seen by men, to the point of giving alms in secret? We can’t possibly do both – at least, not at the same time. Are we supposed to alternate between one and the other? If we make a point of doing good deeds like almsgiving in secret, how can men see our good works and give glory to our Father in heaven?
Interpreted as literal prescriptions of specific acts, Jesus’ teachings here seem flatly contradictory. I think it’s safe to say, though, that the real point of these exhortations is, for one thing, the actual likely consequences in any particular situation, and more importantly the attitude of the heart.
Note how 6:1-4 begins with a warning relating first of all to motive, not action: “Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them.” What follows is meant, I think, in the spirit of a cautionary parable, a vivid pictoral exhortation addressing the temptation of practicing piety in order to be seen by men: Don’t even let people see what you’re doing; do it in secret, and then your father will reward you.
Not entirely unlike the teachings about chopping off limbs and plucking out eyes, it says, “Prefer this behavior to a sinful alternative.” This is not of course meant to suggest that we should not literally do good deeds in secret – we should. But neither is it meant to suggest that doing good deeds in a visible way is necessarily sinful behavior. On the contrary, it can be meritorious behavior, as Matthew 5:16 makes clear.
The structural and thematic similarities of Matthew 6:1-4 and Matthew 23:5-10 are striking. Both begin by explicitly addressing an attitude of the heart, of motive; in Matthew 23 the warning is against the attitude of those who “love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues, and salutations in the market places, and being called rabbi by men.” (See also verses 11-12, which return to the theme of humility.)
In both passages, the heart attitude involves aspiring to the honor of men, and in both cases Jesus exhorts us to see where we really stand before our Father in heaven. In Matthew 6:1-4, we are urged to aspire to the honor of God; in Matthew 23:5-10 we are urged to remember that God’s honor is unique.
Finally, in both passages Jesus exhorts a course of action contrary to this temptation: Don’t even use titles like teacher, father or leader, for only the Christ is your teacher and leader, and only God is your Father. Like the exhortation not to let men see our good deeds, I take this as a vivid pictoral or parabolic example dramatizing the humility we are meant to have. It is not meant actually to forbid us to use titles like teacher, father and leader, any more than Matthew 6:1-4 is meant to forbid us to do good deeds in a visible way, as long as our motives are right.
What would make the parallel complete, of course, would be if we had a countervailing example elsewhere in Jesus’ teaching, in which, say, he exhorts those who are teachers, or fathers, or leaders to glorify God through their carrying out of their responsibilities.
Lacking that, though, the examples of 1 Cor 4:15 and 1 John 2:13-14 seem to me to suffice to establish that there is nothing per se wrong with calling or being called father (or teacher or leader), as opposed to loving the honor of such titles.