"Call no one on earth your father," Jesus taught; "you have but one Father in heaven" (Mt 23:9). In light of these words from the Gospel, many non-Catholic Christians object to Catholics calling priests "father." How do Catholics understand this passage?

On this occasion, Jesus was rebuking the scribes and Pharisees for their pride and hypocrisy (see vv. 2-10). He reminded them that only God the Father is the ultimate source of all authority, even the authority these men wielded within the religious community.

But was this simply an admonition to the proud, or did Jesus actually mean that under no circumstances are we ever to refer to anyone as "father"? Just consider: If the latter is true, then we could never legitimately speak of Church Fathers, founding fathers of a country, fathers of a movement, or even biological fathers, foster fathers and stepfathers.

This could not have been Jesus' intent, however, given that Our Lord himself used the term "father" numerous times to refer to human fathers and ancestors, sometimes quoting from Scripture when He did (see Mt 15:4-6; 19:5,19,29; 21:31; Jn 8:56). In telling the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, Jesus even had Lazarus use the title "Father Abraham" to refer to the patriarch of ancient Israel (see Lk 16:24,27,30).

As Scripture shows, St. Stephen, St. Paul and St. James all referred to Abraham as "father"(Acts 7:2; Rom 4:12; Jas 2:21), and St. Paul wrote as well of "our father Isaac" (Rom 9:10). In fact, the apostle had no qualms about even calling himself a "father" to other Christians (Phil 2:22; 1 Cor 4:15).

Call No One "Teacher"?

All this could be said as well of Jesus' instruction immediately before His words about not calling anyone "father." He warned: "Do not be called 'Rabbi' [literally, "teacher" in Jesus' native tongue, Aramaic; see Jn 1:38]. You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers" (Mt 23:8). Do those who object to calling priests "father" refrain from calling anyone "teacher" as well?

Jesus himself spoke of teachers (see Mt 10:24-25; Lk 6:40; Jn 3:10). St. Paul called himself a teacher (1 Tm 2:7; 2 Tm 1:11) and noted that teachers are in fact one of the ministries God has set in the Church (1 Cor 12:28-29; Eph 4:11).

Any Bible concordance will reveal many other occurrences of the words "father,""fathers,""teacher" and "teachers"throughout Scripture.

Clearly, then, Jesus was not forbidding any use of the word "father" or "teacher." As the Catholic tradition has always understood, the correct interpretation of this command -and of every biblical passage - must be discovered in light of the Scripture as a whole.