I have three fathers.
“Three?!” you might say, “Was one not enough?”
However, I am referring to the term of “father” and how we apply it physically and spiritually. Firstly, there is my physical father, who begot me physically. Secondly there is my heavenly Father, who begot me spiritually (and therefore, eternally). This is all well and good, and fairly easy to understand. However, what about the intermediary between these two extremes of a physical and heavenly father? There is, potentially at least, the priest, who often goes by the term “Father”.
Where did the appointment of this term to a priest come from, and why?
First, let’s address the main argument used against the idea of calling a priest (or, indeed, anyone but God) by this title:
“And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven.”
This is indeed a powerful ally (and has been, in particular, for Protestant attacks on Catholicism) for anyone who wants to dismiss the idea of calling a priest “father” (or, indeed, the idea of the priesthood at all), but, I feel, only on the surface.
Firstly, one must note that the word priest is not used at all here, and the command is only to abstain from appointing God’s fatherly title to a mortal, not to abstain from having a priesthood (though, it could be argued, Jesus made several comments against the Jewish priesthood in other instances, which could easily be forwarded to a Christian reprisal of this role).
Secondly, and I feel this is the key point in destroying the argument (one which is almost always ignored when this verse is used as a weapon against Catholicism [and similar traditions]), the verse actually commands that we call no one here on earth by the title of “father” – so, that means bye-bye to our daddies, as they’re not worthy anymore (surely not everyone was begotten by virgin birth?). So, why do some people seemingly “obey” this command by not calling a priest “father” (or not allowing the priesthood in the first place) but then fail to obey it by still calling their biological father by this title? I will leave that for you to ponder.
Thirdly, the term “father” has absolutely no meaning when removed from the association of an earthly father; it is used in relation to God to describe those fatherly, protective, creative, and similar qualities that we are familiar with from fatherhood. If we divorce the term from that which originally gave it meaning, what relevance or descriptive potency does it have anymore?
Lastly, I would like to point out what my intuition, my heart and soul, and my Gnostic core screams at me: this verse (like most, if not all, others) should not be interpreted literally (indeed, the previous point alone is enough to illustrate this). I feel strongly that this is suggesting that we have, rightly enough, but one true Father, who is of spirit, for we have but one true life, which is eternal (though I readily believe in physical reincarnation, which means not only multiple lives, but multiple physical fathers – getting complicated?) – all else is, in effect, transitory and illusory.
So, again, why use the term “father” in relation to a priest? As pointed out above, the term has certain associations, ones which we can attribute to God (in our weak and limited effort to understand the Divine), who treats us in a divine fatherly manner. However, have we not ever used this term in relation to those who are not our biological (or divine) fathers? For example, we might get on extremely well with an older male, and may say “he is like a father to me” (and the older male may also say “he is like a son to me” too). Also, what about the “father of science” and the “father of modern medicine”, etc.? Aren’t these terms used precisely because they hold meaning? Indeed, Job 29:16, being but one of many passages in the Bible that uses this term, says:
“I was a father to the needy, and I championed the cause of the stranger.”
This is obviously a different kind of fatherhood, a conceptual, not literal, kind – a kind which is also exemplified in the role of the priest (or, at least, what the priest should be, part of which involves the paternal [i.e. fatherly] care of his parishioners). Indeed, spiritual paternity is a common thread throughout many religious traditions over the millennia, and occurs frequently in the Bible, in reference to (as shown above) fathering the poor, to being a spiritual father of the people (see much of Paul’s letters, which contain numerous examples), and even to our ancestors, one example of which shows Jesus himself (who, at least purportedly, said what is quoted in Matthew 23:9) using the term “father” in relation to Abraham (who is obviously neither God nor our physical father):
“Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad."
(Note that the word father is changed to “ancestor” in the NRSV translation, which I usually use when reading the Bible)
Since the priest effectively acts in paternal service to his parishioners, who are also effectively his spiritual children (in the sense of mentorship, spiritual counselling, etc.), why not use it (especially when we use it so frequently elsewhere)? Yes, we should not look to a priest as God Himself or as a required intermediary between us and the Divine, nor should we look to them as infallible authorities (though a certain respect and honour for those who have done the work and study, etc. should always be afforded, as we do for professors, doctors, martial arts masters, etc.), but can we not change our attitudes while retaining the meaning and respect?
Lastly, before I leave off, let’s get feminist. Why aren’t female priests (or priestesses) called “Mother”? In all honesty: I don’t know. Most usually content themselves with the title of “Reverend” (which can also be taken by male priests, and is sometimes done so as a token of unity with the female priesthood [though this does not mean that those who do not do so are in any way disrespecting their spiritual sisters]). Many will think of nuns at this point, and the title “Sister”, thinking it is the equating term for “Father” in the vocational sense, but we also have to remember that monks are called “Brother”, and they are more rightly the equivalent of nuns than priests are. Obviously the lack of female priests over the generations has impacted heavily on this lack of the title “Mother” (though there were female priests and prophetesses in early Gnostic Christian sects [not to mention traditions before it], and the Gnostics of today, along with other liberal and reformative Christian groups, continue to honour that tradition). However, what about Mother Teresa, probably the most famous and revered nun we know? Isn’t the term “Mother” used in reference to leaders of certain groups of nuns, and why can’t it be extended to female priests? Again, I will leave this to my reader to decide.
I hope this will help illuminate why we use such terms – understanding such is, I believe, a major step to both letting go of our religious hang-ups and also in allowing us to have a fuller appreciation of the depth, potency, and meaning present in spiritual honorifics.
P.S. I forgot to give a brief mention of the title of “Holy Father” which is used by the Pope. This term is, in a sense, a kind of honourary relation to the title of God Himself, since the office of Pope (in Latin: “Papa”, that is, “Father”) effectively equates with that of God. Theologically-speaking, I do not agree with this (and am glad that there is no Pope in Gnostic tradition, and hope it stays like that), but I understand how it developed, with the empirical slogan of “One God, one emperor, one empire, one church, one faith” quickly transmuting to “One God, one Bishop” (i.e. Bishop of Rome, the Pope), which effectively has a Bishop replace the “divine” role of the Emperor of ancient times (indeed, the Pope even took the title of “Pontifex Maximus”, Supreme Pontiff, which was previously attributed to the Emperor).