In providing a synopsis of an article by Fr. Jean-Pierre Roche that appeared in La Croix, Cardinal Dew said he joined the French priest in wondering why priests are called “Father.”
He continued, “In August last year Pope Francis wrote a Letter to the People of God, to all of us. The Holy Father appealed to all of God’s people to take action against ‘clericalism’ which he sees as the source of abuse perpetrated by priest and bishops.” Thereafter, he summarizes Fr. Roche’s epistle.
Roche wrote that he and other Catholics are “overwhelmed, shocked and appalled” and “traumatized” by the sex abuse crisis that has afflicted the Catholic Church. Roche called for transforming the Church by returning to the Gospels and adhering to Pope Francis’s call to action against the “clericalism” that is ostensibly responsible for abuse perpetrated by priests and other clergy. Thus, he gives three reasons why Catholics should not call priests “Father.”
The first reason Roche cites is also often used by Christians who do not share the traditions of the Catholic and Orthodox churches. “The first reason should be sufficient in itself, as it is found in the Gospels,” Roche wrote. Quoting the Gospel of Matthew, Roche wrote, “Priests wish to be disciples of Jesus, who said, ‘You are not to be called “Master,” for you have but one Master, and you are all brothers and sisters. And do not call anyone on earth “Father,” for you have but one Father, who is in Heaven’” (Mt. 23: 8–9). Saying Jesus’s words are clear, Roche wrote, “To be called ‘Father’ is, quite frankly, to usurp the place of God, the Father of all people. It is, literally, to play God!”
Apparently seeking to psychoanalyze priests and laity, Roche suggested that while priests “exercise a sort of spiritual fatherhood” by permitting the laity to address them as ‘Father,’ they may be compensating for their lack of natural children. He asked bishops to leave off the title of “Monsignor.” Finally, he said referring to priests as “Father’ is “unhealthy when it is the expression of an emotional dependence based on a false idea of obedience.”
Roche has long supported the “Action catholique ouvrière” movement in France and has written books on the spirituality of work.
Cardinal Dew presumed the reasons why priests are called “Father” by their flocks, writing, “Being called ‘Father’ may seem important to some priests, but is it really that important?” He goes on to write, “Making a choice to tell the people we serve not to call us Father (or for me ‘Your Eminence’ or ‘Cardinal’) might seem a very small thing to do, but it may be the beginning of the reform in the Church which we have been asked to do by Pope Francis.” The papal letter to which the cardinal refers was issued after revelations of clerical abuse in Pennsylvania that had been covered up and largely involved homosexual acts.
In a comment to LifeSiteNews, Papal Dame Colleen Bayer wrote: “Faithful Catholics feel betrayed by our Shepherds down here in New Zealand[.] … Dew is doing nothing at all to instil confidence in those whom he is charged with shepherding, in his latest attempt to belittle the reality of spiritual fatherhood, just as he has also decided to reduce the number of churches in his diocese.”
Dame Colleen is the national director of Family Life International in New Zealand. She added that she is “deeply saddened that those faithful who have always respected … the Fathers of the Church our Holy priests, are now expected to address His Eminence as John.” Writing that tiny New Zealand, “God’s Own,” has “lost its soul,” Dame Colleen said that she fears the day when Cardinal Dew must “face the reality and truths of the real problems facing the Catholic Church in New Zealand regarding homosexuality in the priesthood.”
Echoing the criticisms of many Catholics disappointed by February’s controversial conference of bishops at the Vatican to discuss the abuse of minors, Dame Colleen wrote that the crisis “has nothing to do with showing respect for spiritual fatherhood.” She wrote that the term “clericalism” stands for a game played, “where nobody is supposed to know what the meaning or goal of the game actually is. So much goes on to divert and break down the truth and beauty of His truth.”
Catholic theologians and commentators have noted in the past the reasons why Catholics generally refer to priests personally as “Father.” For example, as the apologists at Catholic Answers explain, to take the words of Jesus Christ literally would mean that no one would call his own paternal parent “Father.” The use of the term in the Old Testament was not limited to one’s natural father. For example, in the book of Genesis, Joseph tells his brothers that God had given him a fatherly relationship with the Pharaoh of Egypt: “So it was not you who sent me here, but God; and he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt” (Gen. 45:8). The Prophet Job says: “I was a father to the poor, and I searched out the cause of him whom I did not know” (Job 29:16). And the Lord told King David’s steward, Eliakim: “In that day I will call my servant Eliakim, the son of Hilkiah … and I will clothe him with [a] robe, and will bind [a] girdle on him, and will commit … authority to his hand; and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah” (Is. 22:20–21).
In the New Testament, protomartyr St. Stephen refers to “our father Abraham” (Acts 7:2), while St. Paul speaks of “our father Isaac” in Romans 9:10. Also, various early writers, such as St. Clement of Rome and St. John Chrysostom, are known as “Fathers of the Church.”
It has been suggested that Jesus was engaging in rhetoric in order to make a point. The entire passage of Matthew 23 reads: “But you are not to be called ‘rabbi,’ for you have one teacher, and you are all brethren. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called ‘masters,’ for you have one master, the Christ” (Mt. 23:8–10).
Because Jesus appointed his disciples as teachers (rabbis) and Paul preached the Church as apostles, prophets, and teachers, some commentators have indicated that what the Gospel recorded is that Jesus was appealing to scribes and Pharisees, who were not humble before God.
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