Monday, April 29, 2013

Why are priests called "father?"

Recently my dad celebrated a “milestone” birthday – one when the person is over 70 and their age is divisible by five.  Many family members celebrated the occasion with him at my house. 

My dad arrived first at the party so he could help setup and was one of the last to leave so he could help clean.  We didn’t have to request “no gifts” because family and close friends just know the routine – any gifts should be a donation to charity rather than something given to him.  As per usual, my dad talked to his children and grandchildren – often asking questions to learn about their lives and to learn about life in general.  He dropped pearls of wisdom in the mix of conversation but was at ease shifting between being a learner and an educator.  Thus is the case with many good fathers. 

We do not call my dad “father” preferring more familiar terms such as “dad” or “pa” instead.  Yet we have a tremendous amount of respect for him.  I think if we addressed him as “father” he would assume we were joking.  However, throughout my dad’s birthday festivities, I found myself contemplating why this man who is a true father, and a very good one at that, isn’t called as such while conversely many priests who aren’t fathers insist on being called precisely that, “father.” 

I then started to compare my dad’s behavior with that of many priests, thinking perhaps the title was fitting due to vast similarities between the two.  However, it was instead a parade of opposites.   So I decided to make a table and share my comparative contemplations.  As a side note, since priests rarely have biological children, the priest column often refers to spiritual children, i.e., laypeople whereas the column for my dad refers to his actual children.

Has one or more biological children

Raised his children with the help of his wife

Collegially shared power with a female

Lived most of his life in community with multiple women

Has numerous healthy deep interpersonal loving relationships including with women

Taught his children to love via the example of his deep interpersonal loving relationships

Taught his children to love via his deep interpersonal loving relationships with them

Taught his children values via persistent unwavering alignment between his words and actions

Spent hours per day with his children in their formative years

Is available to his kids 24 x 7

Makes his children schedule appointments with him

Bi-directionally communicates with his children

Primarily uni-directionally speaks at his children

Encourages his children to ask questions and think critically

Demands unquestioned obedience from his children

Thinks his children are of inferior intellectual capacity

Treats even infants as intelligent beings who have tremendous capacity for wisdom

Readily learns from his children

Frequently seeks advice from his children

Takes direction from his adult children

Treats his adult children as adults

Dictates to his adult children

Assumes his children are incapable of helping with many chores until proven otherwise

Declares himself as the sole competent person to perform numerous tasks

Welcomes his children’s diversity

Supports expelling some children from the family

Asks his children for money

Prefers children give money to needy people rather than him

Highlights his human fallibility

Practices true reconciliation outside of the sacrament on a daily basis

Reconciles with others because he realizes he is no better person than them

Reconciles with others because he believes he is better than others

Asserts he is closer to God than his children

Feels his children interfere with him having time to devote to God

Feels his wife and children bring him closer to God

Cooks meals for his children

Does laundry for his children

Changed his children’s dirty diapers

Attended his children’s activities

Wears dresses

Has an expensive wardrobe to wear at church

Encourages his daughters in non-traditional roles

Treats his sons and daughters equally

In fairness I must highlight the one behavioral similarity between my father and most priests; they pray.  Also in fairness I must acknowledge there are some priests whose behavior aligns somewhat closer to my father’s but, not so much so that I would ever confuse a priest as my father.  And I realize that not all fathers behave like mine.   But it has been my experience that my father more closely emulates Jesus’ behavior than any priest I have ever known.  Therefore I find myself wondering if it bothers real fathers that priests co-opt the term “father” while not conducting themselves as such.

I realize many Protestants based upon MT 23:9 (“Call no on earth your father”) criticize Catholics for calling priests “father.”  But, I find myself questioning the practice given the tremendous divergence in behaviors.  At best the lack of cognitive similarities makes the practice very illogical but with differences far outnumbering similarities, it seems to confuse and degrade fatherhood to call priests “father.” 

As is often the case when I contemplate such things, my mind heads down tangential avenues paved with more questions.   Priests say they best represent Jesus – whom they say wasn’t a father.  Why do they want to be called “father” since Jesus is never portrayed as one?  God is portrayed as “father” in the Holy Trinity.  By desiring to be called “father”, are priests subliminally proposing to be God?   

First, we must remember the context of the passage. Jesus is addressing the hypocrisy of the scribes and the Pharisees—the learned religious leaders of Judaism. Our Lord castigates them for not providing good example; for creating onerous spiritual burdens for others with their various rules and regulations; for being haughty in exercising their office and for promoting themselves by looking for places of honor, seeking marks of respect and wearing ostentatious symbols. Basically, the scribes and Pharisees had forgotten that they were called to serve the Lord and those entrusted to their care with humility and generous spirit.

With priests detached from God’s people, operating as if superior to God’s people, taking seats upon the altar while wearing a blinding amount of “bling”, instructing people as though they are mindless children, living more comfortably than many of God’s people, seeking donations where the vast majority of funds are used to promote their environment rather than feed, clothe or house the poor, and admonishing God’s people for not following the vast array of rules they invented whilst they wantonly ignore some of God’s commandments in their own behavior, are we again at a point where in MT 23:9, “Jesus is addressing the hypocrisy of…the learned religious leaders…?”   

Saunders’ article continues to explain the evolutionary process by which calling priests “father” became a common practice amongst Catholics.  Originally bishops, the word meaning “those who oversee”, were often called “papa” (pope) until around the year 400 when that term was reserved for the bishop of Rome (i.e. THE pope).  In the 6th century St. Benedict called monastic community leaders “abbot”, a derivative of “abba” (the Aramaic word for “father”).  In the Middle Ages, monks from religious orders who worked amongst the people caring for physical and spiritual needs were often addressed by the people as “father.”  Eventually that morphed into people calling all priests, “father.”  However, the official title of a priest is “Reverend.”

It seems originally when the bishops actually intimately cared for people on a practical level and when the mendicant friars lived amongst the people caring for them, those who were addressed as “father” more closely resembled the behavior of my dad.  It is curious that the title morphed to include more and more men whose behavior less and less resembled that of my father. 

I think there is danger in associating behavior that is almost mutually exclusive from something with the title of that thing, such as associating the title “father” with priests whose lives have almost no parallel behaviors with good fathers.  I think it confuses people, especially those raised by men with sub-optimal fathering skills.  It validates biological fathers who treat their children as subordinates, who are domineering, who are hypocrites, who abuse their children, who abuse power, who operate by one set of rules while imposing more demanding rules upon their children, who indulge their tastes while watching their children lack for basic necessities, etc...

The clergy bemoan the decay of the family structure as well as its societal impact.  They point to many potential culprits but what role does their abysmal example of “fathering” while calling themselves "father" play?  Why do people permit the image of fatherhood to be co-opted by men who would make abysmal fathers?  Do the people of God play a role in the distortion of fatherhood, by mindlessly using the term “father” for priests?

God has blessed me with an excellent father whose spirituality, charity, humility and love surpass those of any priest I’ve ever met.  My father has blessed me with the fruits of his character.  In this I not only see but experience the Holy Trinity.  I prefer my father not share the same title as that of priests.  Perhaps it’s time to address priests by their baptismal names rather than indulge them in what Saunders calls “seeking marks of respect.”  Or, if they have earned respect, why not address them by their actual title, “Reverend?”