“Call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven.” (Matt 23:9)
This question can become a point of contention between Catholics and evangelical Christians. Not a few non-Catholics take this verse in its most literal sense, and so they contend that Catholics are acting in disobedience to Jesus by calling their priest named Jim, for example, “Father Jim”.
In objection to this Catholic discipline, Matthew 23:9 is quoted. Of course, Catholics recognize that Jesus is speaking with hyperbole here, and is making it clear that the Almighty Father is the eternal prototype of all fathers, the eternal Giver of Life (Consider also in this passage that Jesus also says to call no man “teacher”, so to be consistent…).
But hold on. Catholics don’t just call priests “father” and stop there; indeed, Catholics elevate one particular priest to a title even more decorated, calling him their “Holy Father”. This priest is the pope, the Vicar of Christ, God’s earthly representative. But is the decorated title of “Holy Father” for a mere man taking things just a bit too far?
Before we discuss this further, however, let’s backpedal a few chapters in Matthew’s Gospel and recall an encounter between Jesus and his apostles. It’s a familiar passage for both Catholics and Protestants (Matt 16:13-19).
The “You are Peter” Discourse
Jesus and the apostles are gathered in Caesarea Philippi. Behind them is a gigantic wall of rock towering over them as a backdrop. Up to this point He has made quite an impression upon many with His sermons, exorcisms and miracles — and He has become the “talk of the town”.
So Jesus looks to the ones closest to Him and says,
“Who do people say that the Son of man is?” (Matt 16:13)
The apostles give general answers to His inquisition. They inform Him that some say he is Elijah, while others say he is Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.
But then suddenly things get serious.
Jesus, with intense eyes that cut to the heart, looks at His chosen men and says:
“But who do you say that I am?” (Matt 16:15)
Silence. At least until the slack-tongued Peter belts out a response, unexpectedly electrified by the Holy Spirit:
“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (Matt 16:16)
Silence again. Jesus’s eyes are locked with Peter’s and no one is speaking. This time Peter has not said anything foolish or hasty, and Jesus’ seriousness melts into a smile more tender than a mother’s first look at her new infant and He says with joyful affirmation to the stunned fisherman:
“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” (Matt 16:17)
But suddenly Jesus’s eyes are radiating intensity once again. He continues:
“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matt 16:18-19)
Much more, Catholics profess, is changed for Peter than just his name here. For here, Peter has been set apart from all other followers of Christ to carry out a very unique mission.
The Rock of Ages
It is here, in the 16th chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel, that Catholics have asserted that Jesus bestows the office of the papacy upon Peter; and they have professed this in unison with such early Christian writers as Tatian, Tertullian, Origin, Cyprian and Firmillian.
Truly, these few verses are much too rich to be completely unpacked in this post, but I want to focus on something often overlooked in the discussion of the “You are Peter” discourse;
When Catholics and Protestants dispute these verses they often focus on whether Peter is the rock upon which Jesus is building His Church; or whether Jesus is drawing a comparison between Peter “the pebble”, and Himself “the Rock”, and thus nullifying the idea that Peter is being given any authority by Jesus (as the argument goes).
But regardless of what Jesus may or may not have been saying in the “rock” passage, I think the real key here is what Jesus meant when He said to Peter, “I will give you the keys.” This, I believe, is where things become undeniably clear.
Let’s abruptly shift gears now and go to Isaiah 22:15-25. In this passage we are introduced to Eliakim who succeeds Shebna in the royal office of steward. As steward, Eliakim exercises the king’s authority while the king is absent and until he returns. This is precisely what the pope’s function is in the Catholic Church — to be the head overseer and key-holder of the Church on earth in Christ’s absence.
Does the following passage sound familiar?:
“I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and no one shall shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open.” (Is 22:22)
If it does, that is because you recognized that Jesus is drawing from this Old Testament passage when He is speaking to Peter in the dialogue above and “giving him the keys” (Mt 16:18). What Jesus says to Peter is almost verbatim from Isaiah:
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matt 16:19)
See, to a first century Jew (like Peter and the apostles), “keys” would have been understood as a sign of authority bestowed; and in this case, authority bestowed upon a steward by the King.
A Father Set Apart
But there is even more to the passage in Isaiah 22 that bears important significance; and this is where we return to the question of calling the pope, “Holy Father”.
Let’s go back to Isaiah 22:
“On that day I will call my servant Eliakim son of Hilkiah, and will clothe him with your robe and bind your sash on him. I will commit your authority to his hand, and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and no one shall shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open.”
The Davidic king in the Old Testament shared his “fatherly” role with his steward; and Jesus, the fulfillment of the Davidic line of kings, the King of Kings, does the same. The title represents a sharing of authority, and such a sharing with men is not a surprise as God clearly shares His acts of creation (Gen 1:28), shepherding (Jn 21:17), mediating (1 Tim 2:1-4) and saving souls (1 Cor 9:22; 1 Tim 4:16) .
And so, as Jesus called Abraham “father” (Jn 8:56), and St. Paul called himself a “father” (1 Cor 4:15), and Steven called the Jewish leaders “fathers (Acts 7:2), so also do Catholics call the very steward of the Kingdom of God, “Holy Father”, because he is the sole representative of Christ the King on earth and the sharer in His authority until He comes again. And as the word “holy” means “set apart” it would seem only appropriate, after observing the significance behind Jesus’ words to Peter, that Peter and his successors are not just called “Father” but, out of reverence for their special office established by Christ, that we call each of these men “Holy Father”.