To some protestants, the Catholic tendency to call priests ‘father’ is seen as disobedient to Jesus command to ‘call no man your father’ in Matthew 23:9-10. However, in the same sentence Jesus also says, “Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah.” Taking this passage so literally as to say that we cannot call a priest “father” would mean that we couldn’t call professors at an Evangelical Bible college “instructors.” It would also mean that we were forbidden to call our biological male parent ‘father.’
Catholics believe that Jesus purpose in using this strict language was to confront the hypocrisy of the pharisees and make a point about humility, service, and reverence due to God. He was against the abuse of their office, not against the office of religious authority itself [“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice” (Matt. 23:2-3)].
We know that Jesus was not actually forbidding the use of words like ‘father’ and ‘instructor’ since the Holy Spirit frequently inspires the use of these exact words throughout Sacred Scripture. The Bible even links the priesthood to fatherhood in Judges 17:10, when the Ephraimite Micah asks a transient Levite, “Stay with me; be father and priest to me.” In Judges 18:19, a Danite war party persuades the same Levite to leave Micah, saying: “Come with us and be our father and priest.” The Biblical connection between priesthood and fatherhood is found in the New Testament as well.
In 1st Thessalonians 2:10-11, St. Paul says he is the father of his Christian converts. He also says that Timothy is his son and he is his father in Philip. 2:22. Acts calls Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David fathers in Acts 4:25, 7:2, 8, 14. In Hebrews 12:9, the example of ‘our earthly fathers who disciplined us’ is compared to God. Members of the congregation are called ‘fathers’ twice in 1st John 2:13-14.
Like St. Paul, Catholic priests are able to say, “In Christ Jesus I became your father through the Gospel” (1st Cor. 4:15) and qualified “to deal with us as a father deals with his children, encouraging, comforting, and urging us to live lives worthy of God” (1st Thess. 2:11-12). We do well in understanding that their fatherly service to us is grace from God our heavenly Father.