Why do we Catholics call our priest's “father” when Our Lord said in the Gospel of St. Matthew 23:9 “Call no one on earth your father”?
In this particular passage of the Gospel of Matthew, Our Lord also says not to call anyone “teacher.”
“You, however, must not allow yourselves to be called Rabbi, since you have only one Master, and you are all brothers. You must call no one on earth your father, since you have only one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor must you allow yourselves to be called teachers, for you have only one Teacher, the Christ. The greatest among you must be your servant. Anyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and anyone who humbles himself will be exalted.” - Gospel of St. Matthew 23:8-12.
Typically this issue is brought up by a certain kind of Protestant who subscribes to a self-determined kind of “biblical literalism.” Yet, these same people have no problem calling their Sunday school staff “teachers.” This is inconsistent on their part. Private (arbitrary) interpretation of the Sacred Scriptures, outside the True Church, leads one into even further error and has resulted in a myriad of competing church communities and false doctrines.
The Apostolic Tradition and the historic teaching of the Church, clearly tell us that Our Lord spoke in many different ways to many people or audiences. His speech was filled with parables, he spoke both allegorically and metaphorically, and at times His speech was even sparse and direct. Just as we speak differently when we speak to children or to adults, before a formal gathering or in a group of our closest friends, so the Lord Himself used speech in different ways to the greatest effect. As God incarnate, Our Lord, who created us and knows us better then we ourselves can, knows how to speak that we might hear Him. We hear our Master's voice.
As Catholics we understand that church communities which have broken with Apostolic Tradition, lack the fullness of grace and the sanctifying life of the Holy Spirit within them. Hence, they fall into much error and misunderstanding.
Perhaps the best way to demonstrate that Our Lord did not mean “call no man father” in the literal sense is to point out that Our Lord, St. John, St. Paul, St. Stephen and others in the New Testament directly refer to themselves and/or to other men using the title “father.” It is not the nature of God (Christ) to contradict Himself, and so Our Lord thus meant what He said in an other than literal sense.
Let us look at just a few examples from the Sacred Scriptures: In the Gospel of St. Luke 16:24 Our Lord uses the words “Father Abraham” in the story of Lazarus and the rich man. In Romans 4:17 St. Paul refers to Abraham as the “father of many nations.” In 1 Thessalonians 2:11 St. Paul refers to himself as the “father with his children.” St. John uses the term repeatedly in his letters. St. Stephen, the protomartyr, uses the terms “brethren and fathers” in Acts of the Apostles 7:2.
God, as He has revealed Himself to us, is both perfect in union and harmony, without contradiction or opposition. Properly understood and interpreted, we know it is not possible for the Sacred Scriptures to be in contradiction either. The written Word of God only builds upon and fulfills itself.
Within the apostolic Church which Our Lord has founded, and which the Holy Spirit guides and gives life to, the Sacred Scriptures are seen and interpreted in their fullness and they give life and meaning to all the faithful. Outside of this sanctifying life, outside the Church, are found the errors, confusion and misunderstanding of which this literal idea “call no man father” is but one of so many examples.
To learn more on the topic check out these great apologetics books: