Why are priests "father" and nuns "sisters"?

I was raised SDA but of course I’ve been to a handful of masses at my wife’s church. Beyond the usual stuff that seems odd to me :shrug: is that the laity never refer to each other as “brother"or"sister”. For instance, greeting someone as “Brother Johnson”.

Why are nuns “sister” and priest “father” if God is our heavenly Father? Doesn’t that make us all brothers and sisters?

This is more of a curiosity than anything.

Interesting you should ask, as the Priest at the Mass I attended on Monday spoke about this. As scripture tells us we are to “call no one father” except “our Father in heaven,” he decided to discuss the fact that we call priests “Father.” According to him this terminology was avoided in the first 300 years of so of the Church. However, leaders soon realized that people yearned for and needed a “leader” or someone recognized as the leader, for the purposes of seeking the authority and understanding the authority of the Church. (Not an exact quote here, but a generalization.)

As the apostles, and subsequent Church leaders, teachers where the ones instructing the faithful as representatives of Christ and God, it became a practice to refer to the priests as “Father.” I guess you could say it was started as a means of orienting people to the authority of the Church and God in their lives. Now again this is not a direct quote, but a statement of how I interpreted what he said during the Mass.

All I can assume about the nuns being sisters, as they are suppose to be the brides of Christ, so in that sense they are sisters in that relationship. Certainly all of us are brothers and sisters in Christ, but those who take vows seem to have a more recognizable position in that status. Anyone else with a better explanation, please take a go at it. This is just my reflection of what I have experienced and heard over the years.

St. Paul talks about how he became a father to many in the faith, especially noting it to Timothy and Titus, who he ordained and maybe even baptized.

Plus, there is a certain spiritual fatherhood when the priest baptizes a person. They are dying and rising again, experiencing a new birth, and new life in Christ.

Here are two clear explanations on why it is proper to use the honorific title “Father”:

Call No Man “Father”?

How can we respond to the “call no man father” question?

Calling Priests “Father”

In 1 John 2:13-14, St. John refers to the leaders of the church in Ephesus to whom he is most likely writing as “fathers” twice. And notice he gives them the title “father.”
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 overcome the evil one. I write to you, children, because you know the Father. I write to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning…

Notice, he does not say they are “fathers” because they are married with children. They are “fathers,” spiritually speaking. And they are presumably “on the earth.”

In Acts 7:1-2, St. Stephen, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, calls both Abraham and the elders of Jerusalem “father” in the same breath:
And the high priest said, “Is this so?” And Stephen said: “Brethren and fathers, hear me. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham…”

And in I Corinthians 4:14-15, St. Paul refers to himself as “father”:
I do not write this to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. 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.
What we need to do is get back to Matthew 23:9 and let the surrounding verses clarify things for us:

(8) But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brethren. (9) And call no man your father… for you have one Father… (10) Neither be called masters, for you have one master, the Christ.

We have “one teacher,” and yet, many are called “teacher” in the New Testament (see James 3:1; Ephesians 4:11, etc.). We have “one master,” or leader, and yet, we have many “leaders” in the body of Christ to whom we are called to submit (Hebrews 13:17 uses the same Greek root for “leader” when it says, “Obey your leaders and submit to them…”).

God, the Father, is our one true Father. All other fatherhood, be it a father “on earth,” spiritual leaders in the Church, or our spiritual forefathers in heaven, participates in the Father’s unique Fatherhood and represents it to us. They neither take away nor add to this one unique Fatherhood; they establish it on the earth.

The context of Matthew 23 emphasizes the sin of pride among the scribes and Pharisees. They loved to be called “teacher”, “father”, or “Rabbi," but their pride pointed men to themselves rather than to God the Father from whom they received true fatherhood and in whom their fatherhood subsisted.

**Ultimately, Jesus is condemning the usurpation of the fatherhood of God in Matthew’s Gospel, not the proper participation in that fatherhood. **

zz’s right about st. Paul.

There’s an excellent tract on this site regarding the “call no man father” issue.

Here it is…

Here’s an excerpt:

*Spiritual Fatherhood

Perhaps the most pointed New Testament reference to the theology of the spiritual fatherhood of priests is Paul’s statement, “I do not write this to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. 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” (1 Cor. 4:14–15).

So What Did Jesus Mean?

Jesus criticized Jewish leaders 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” (Matt. 23:6–7). His admonition here is a response to the Pharisees’ proud hearts and their grasping after marks of status and prestige.

He was using hyperbole (exaggeration to make a point) to show the scribes and Pharisees how sinful and proud they were for not looking humbly to God as the source of all authority and fatherhood and teaching, and instead setting themselves up as the ultimate authorities, father figures, and teachers.

Christ used hyperbole often, for example when he declared, “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell” (Matt. 5:29, cf. 18:9; Mark 9:47). Christ certainly did not intend this to be applied literally, for otherwise all Christians would be blind amputees! (cf. 1 John 1:8; 1 Tim. 1:15). We are all subject to “the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16).

Since Jesus is demonstrably using hyperbole when he says not to call anyone our father—else we would not be able to refer to our earthly fathers as such—we must read his words carefully and with sensitivity to the presence of hyperbole if we wish to understand what he is saying.

Jesus is not forbidding us to call men “fathers” who actually are such—either literally or spiritually. (See below on the apostolic example of spiritual fatherhood.) 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. *

The male counterpart of a sister is not a priest - it would be a brother.

When calling a nun “sister,” it’s usually a title (Sister Mary Ellen). She is a member of a Religious Order. There are also non-ordained males who are members of such Orders, who may be called “Brother Joseph.”

I’ve heard many priests refer to the congregation as “brothers and sisters” (even though a father would not normally address his children in this way). It is unusual in US Catholic culture for people to refer to each other this way, though it is popular in some protestant cultures.

The head of a group of nuns might be called “Mother Anne” (or Reverend Mother), but that’s not to suggest she is a counterpart of a priest. There are no female counterparts of priests.

It’s kind of a culture thing - it doesn’t map one-to-one with human family relationships.

Google search “Catholicism use of father.” Many excellent links come up that explain this well. Matthew 23:6-12 where this is found Jesus also condemns the use of the term “rabbi”, “teacher” an “instructor.” Jesus was speaking to the Pharisees here, who had raised themselves above God as the ultimate authorities, as father image and teachers. Lacking humility, they failed to humbly look up to God as the source of all authority, fatherhood and teaching. I would be willing to bet those who would like to “Bible quote” to use this against Catholics who use this as a term of reverence for priests would not deny their children the use of father, or that they do not call teachers “teachers” or “instructors.” Scripture has to be taken in the light of its whole context, not just one verse out of Matthew 23:6-12. Also I might mention, if the original poster is not aware, in religious orders of men those who are not ordained are referred to as “brothers.”

The nuns I went to school with were called Mother. Later, they started going by Sister. I think it may depend on the order.

First of all, Priests are seen as the ‘spiritual father’ of their whole congregation. The people of the Church are all members of the family of God, so in a spiritual sense, the Priest is the head of that family on earth. Another reason for calling him Father, is because during the Mass he stands “In persona Christi” meaning “in the person of Christ”, whenever he offers the blessed bread and wine (the Body and Blood of Christ) to God the Father, during the consecration of the Holy Eucharist. Jesus represented the Father when he walked the earth, so the Priest also reflects the Father in that same spiritual sense.

As far as nuns being called “Sisters”, it’s a kind of special title that differentiates them from the rest of the congregation, like the title of “Brother” is given to monks for the same reason. They dedicate their whole lives to the service of God, by taking special vows. The titles are a way for us to show respect for their special office in the Church. They are there to serve and pray for all of us, who don’t always have a lot of time to pray for ourselves.

Also, not all Sisters are nuns, but many nuns use the title “Sister.” Also, not all monks are Brothers, and not all Brothers are monks.

Just to confuse the issue a bit further… :wink: :smiley:

As the outsider I never expected all of Catholicism to make sense. :slight_smile:

Click on my link which is at the bottom of my post. I have a section there which speaks about calling no man father. I gathered verses that demonstrate the Catholic Church teaching on the topic.

Word of advice. Don’t try to understand Catholicism in one day. Just have faith that the church is who she says she is. The bride of Christ. The church which Christ instituted. Trust me as a cradle catholic I still learn things. Granted some things I’m like oh chute I didn’t know I was sinning, or be more like, ah now I understand why this is how it is.

^^^ right on point. I went to a catholic school run by a congregation, this was a congregation of brother but they were not monks and they were not priests either. Also yes not all sisters are nuns. And some nuns are called mother. One good example, mother Angelica. It is a little complicated :slight_smile:

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