Yes, we call priests “Fathers,” but no, we are not violating Matthew 23:9.
A couple of years ago, before I became Catholic, I was listening to the radio on a Sunday morning, on my way to a Lutheran (LCMS) church service. The guy on the radio was the pastor of a local Assembly of God church. He proceeded to go on a tirade against the Church for labeling priests as “Fathers,” and cited Matthew 23:9 as proof that the practice was in violation of Jesus Christ’s teachings.
His accusation startled me. I had never thought of it like that before, and he sounded so sure of himself. I had just started learning about the Faith (albeit I was in the very, very early stages of the process), and this topic had never been brought up.
So, I asked Dylan, a Catholic friend of mine, about it. He had been studying Latin and Greek and about the translations of the Bible (not to mention the fact that he knew everything about Catholicism, in general). He explained it to me, and now, I will try to relay the good explanation to you.
Here’s the verse in question:
“Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven.” – Matthew 23:9 (NASB)
But it’s important to note that the verse before that is…
“But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers.” – Matthew 23:8 (NASB)
And after that is…
“Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. But the greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted. But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from people; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in.” – Matthew 23:10-13 (NASB)
“Rabbi” means “teacher,” and the Latin word for “teacher” is “doctor”. Is using the words “rabbi,” “teacher,” “doctor,” and “leader” evil? No. If they are, St. Paul (aka the guy that wrote, like, half of the New Testament) and some of Jesus Christ’s other disciples are in some serious trouble. Read the following verses:
“Masters, grant to your slaves justice and fairness, knowing that you too have a Master in heaven.” – Colossians 4:1 (NASB) (Some scholars question who wrote it, but most agree that it was written by St. Paul.)
“But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the Law, respected by all the people, stood up in the Council and gave orders to put the men outside for a short time.” – Acts 5:34 (NASB) (Written by St. Luke.)
“…for which I was appointed a preacher and an apostle and a teacher.” – 2 Timothy 1:11 (NASB) (Written by St. Paul.)
“I am writing to you, fathers, because you know Him who has been from the beginning. I am writing to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one. I have written to you, children, because you know the Father. I have written to you, fathers, because you know Him who has been from the beginning. I have written to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one.” – 1 John 2:13-14 (NASB) (Written by St. John.)
“For if you were to have countless tutors in Christ, yet you would not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel.” – 1 Corinthians 4:15 (NASB) (Written by St. Paul.)
It’s clear that when Jesus Christ forbade calling anyone “father” or “leader” or “teacher,” he was not speaking literally. He was correcting the Pharisees (who lacked humility and had elevated themselves above God as the ultimate authorities) and He was instructing us to always keep in mind that God is the ultimate Father, the ultimate Leader, and the ultimate Teacher.
Jesus Christ wants us to remember that God is the source of all authority. He wants us to be humble and to never think that we have any kind of our own authority that puts us on equal footing with God or any kind of our own special knowledge that is hidden from God, because God is omnipotent and omniscient, all-powerful and all-knowing.
When we call priests “Fathers,” it’s not that we see them as God’s equals, but that we see them as people that God has called to help us, to lead us, and to teach us about Him.
When we call priests “Fathers,” it’s no worse or more malicious than when you call your doctor “Doctor”.
(Picture cropped from original image from here.)