On Facebook people connect using their real names and identities.” “Titles of any kind” are forbidden; “the name you use should be your authentic identity.” So reads Facebook’s official policy, and among those affected are priests using the title “Father.”
Priests cannot call themselves “Father” on Facebook, at least on their personal pages, and Catholic folks are up in arms. There is even a petition going around Facebook: “Tell FB: Allow Priests to keep the title ‘Father’ in their FB name.”
Priests can use the title Father on a public page, or they can use it as a subheading under their name, or they can put a picture of “Fr.” as their profile picture—as many have done. But on their personal page, they cannot use “Father,” and this has caused quite a bit of rancor. I have seen many priests argue that the title “Father” is indeed part of their “authentic identity”—even further, that it is their identity. It is at the center of who they are as a person ordained to ministerial ministry in the Catholic Church.
Whether Facebook should change their policy about titles is an open debate. But in the meantime, it allows us to ask ourselves an interesting question: How central to a priest’s “authentic identity” is fatherhood? Many of the responses of priests to Facebook’s rule have been to proclaim that being a father is their identity. That is most deeply who they are. Or, as we were often told at Franciscan University of Steubenville: “If you can’t be a good father, then you can’t be a good priest.” But is this true? Is there any indication in the New Testament that being a father is even central to the identity of a priest? This question is worth asking in the face of so many priests insisting on being called Father and proclaiming it central to their own identity.
The central identity of a priest is to be in persona Christi, configured to Christ as “head and shepherd, servant and spouse.This is the fundamental theme of John Paul II in Pastores Dabo Vobis: A priest is conformed to the identity of Christ as “head and shepherd.” And so this is the first and most obvious point. Along with it comes the next fairly obvious observation that Jesus never referred to himself either as Father or as a father in relationship to his disciples. He was brother, teacher, shepherd, servant, laborer —even master—but never father. Whenever he allowed himself an honorific title, such as in John 13:13 (teacher, master), he immediately relativized it by behaving as a slave and washing the feet of his disciples. Jesus was master and teacher, but he never allowed nor encouraged his disciples to take on those names for themselves. He told them to go teach all nations (Matt 28:28), but never endorsed the use of honorific titles. It was important to Jesus that the identity of his disciples be modeled on the identity he assumed for himself—the identity of a slave, a servant, a brother and a shepherd. Those were some of the identities central to the priesthood of Jesus. But not father. He had one Father, in heaven, and he never described himself as taking on that fatherly role. Rather, whoever followed Jesus was his “brother, sister and mother” (Matt 12:50)—but not father.
When we turn to the rest of the New Testament, it becomes clear again that the central identity of religious leaders was not that of fathers but of apostles (1 Cor 1:1), servants (Rom 1:1, Tit 1:1, Rev 1:1), shepherds (1 Pet 5:1-4) and teachers (Rom 2:20, 1 Tim 2:7, 2 Tim 1:11), among many other designations. They were “presbyters” (2 and 3 Jn 1) and “bishops” (Tit 1:7) – though that title had little to do with what it later came to mean. Of course, as is well known, Paul several times referred to his role as spiritual father to some of his communities, such as in 1 Corinthians 4:15, Philemon 10, and 1 Timothy 1:2, but he also referred to his role as spiritual mother to those communities as well, e.g. in Galatians 4:19 and 1 Thessalonians 2:7 (“We were gentle with you like a nursing mother . . .”).
Finally, when we look at recent Church documents, there is much on the identity of the priest, but little on spiritual fatherhood. According to Presbyterorum Ordinis, the document on the priesthood from the Second Vatican Council, priests are first and foremost “ministers of Christ,” sent to preach the Gospel and to offer sacrifices on behalf of and along with the people of God. This is the primary identity of the priest. As “co-workers” with the bishop, priests have the “primary duty of proclaiming the Gospel of God to all.” So, according to Vatican II, the primary identity of the priest is one who, in union with Christ, preaches the Gospel and offers sacrifice.
Presbyterorum Ordinis then goes on to describe the relationship that a priest has with other people. Here is the only mention of fatherhood in paragraph 9:
Though priests of the New Testament, in virtue of the sacrament of Orders, exercise the most outstanding and necessary office of father and teacher among and for the People of God, they are nevertheless, together with all Christ's faithful, disciples of the Lord, made sharers in his Kingdom by the grace of God's call. For priests are brothers among brothers with all those who have been reborn at the baptismal font. They are all members of one and the same Body of Christ, the building up of which is required of everyone.
It is worth noting here that the mention of the priest’s fatherly role is: 1. Joined with his role as teacher; and 2. Placed in a relativizing context. Though the priest has an office of father and teacher, he is also disciple and brother. Thus, the distinction of the priest is immediately relativized in this paragraph.
Likewise, in this paragraph, the Christian faithful are offered this encouragement: “The Christian faithful, for their part, should realize their obligations to their priests, and with filial love they should follow them as their pastors and fathers.” Note again that nothing is said about calling a priest Father, but only that priests should be followed as pastors (shepherds) and fathers. This is one of the many roles of the priest, but it is never defined as central to his identity. Rather, as Pope Paul VI admonished priests: “We must become brothers to all at the very same time as we wish to be their shepherds, fathers and teachers. The climate of dialogue is friendship. Indeed it is service.” Here again, fatherhood is part of a list of roles. It is never highlighted on its own.
I have argued that the role of spiritual fatherhood, while part of the role of a priest, is not the most central part of his identity. Spiritual fatherhood is indeed part of the life of every priest. And I, like many, have called and continue to call priests by the title of “Father” and “Padre” with deep affection. I also treasure the role of spiritual father that I have with many people. But just as central as spiritual fatherhood to my priesthood is my identification with Christ as servant, shepherd, preacher, and brother. These, not fatherhood, formed the core of his identity—as well as of mine. And so it is not surprising that the “human precept” of calling priests “Father” grew up rather late, is not universally used by Catholics, is not mentioned in Church documents, and only became widespread in English in the late 19th century.
For this reason, priests ought to exercise caution in demanding or insisting in any setting—including Facebook—that they be called “Father.” I won’t argue here that they should dissuade people from using this title. Nor should uncomfortable Catholics be left in limbo about what to call a priest. I myself would prefer the title of “Brother” or “Pastor,” but I also understand that “Brother” is a title that typically refers to a separate religious vocation, and “Pastor” in English sounds Protestant (though that has certain ecumenical benefits). And so I accept, and feel deeply humbled, when people call me “Father.”
I am not arguing that priests engage in any form of downplaying their identity. I wear clerical attire whenever I travel, when I go to class, and when I do pretty much anything else in public. It is central to our witness as priests of Christ that we do not hide or shy away from the identity that has become central to who we are as men. My concern has nothing to do with downplaying identity. My purpose here is to question how central fatherhood really is to priestly identity.
What I offer priests is that they not get up in arms, whether on Facebook or elsewhere, about this “human precept” (Mk 7:8), a historically conditioned title that does not denote the central part of their identity. Their identity is most deeply discovered by acting in persona Christi, who shunned titles, and preferred to call his disciples “friends” (John 15:15).
Nathan W. O'Halloran, S.J. is a Jesuit priest and an incoming Ph.D student in systematic theology at the University of Notre Dame.