August 20, 2022 –
“… you have but one Father in Heaven.”
Today’s Gospel passage contains a verse that some Christians quote to “prove” that one of Catholics’ most common practices is “unbiblical”. Jesus declares, “Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven.” These words of Jesus would seem to disqualify the Catholic practice of addressing a priest as “Father”, as well as referring to the Pope as the “Holy Father”.
Those who make this argument might be taken aback, then, if it were pointed out to them how many passages from Saint Paul’s letters show the Apostle referring to himself as a spiritual father. For example, Paul explains how the Corinthians have one father. He squarely preaches to them, “You might have thousands of guardians in Christ, but not more than one father […] it was I who begot you in Christ Jesus…” [1 Cor 4:15]. It’s hard to imagine—if you were to interpret Holy Scripture in a literalistic sense—any words that more directly contradict Jesus’ command to “call no man on earth your father” than what St. Paul says of himself: “You might have thousands of guardians in Christ, but not more than one father […] it was I who begot you in Christ Jesus….”
What are we to make of this seeming contradiction? St. Paul’s following words only seem to heighten the contradiction against Jesus’ command. St. Paul commands those listening to him: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” [1 Cor 4:16]. Why doesn’t St. Paul just say instead, “Be imitators of Christ”? Some Christians will argue over and over again that the Catholic priesthood is a corruption of the Word of God because it puts a middle-man—a mediator—between Christ and the individual believer. They will say instead that the individual Christian can go straight to Christ, without needing men in between. (Of course they’ll turn a blind eye to the plain fact that the act of preaching—which is so prominent in Protestant denominations—is an act of a man mediating the Word of God to his listeners.)
It’s here that the teachings of Saint Paul—found, of course, in the Holy Bible—lead us deeper into the mystery of the Christian Faith. St. Paul’s words don’t contradict Jesus’ command to call no man on earth your father: St. Paul’s words deepen the revelation of Jesus. Christian fathers, whether in the home or in the sanctuary, whether through the Sacrament of Marriage or through the Sacrament of Holy Orders, are called to say—by their example if not by their words—what St. Paul proclaims here: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” Christian fathers are called to lead their children each day and each week deeper into the life of Christ.