Why have Priests?
Call no man Father, Confession, etc.

Many Evangelicals point to sayings like "call no man father" and consider Jesus' condemnation of the hypocrisy among some of the priests of his day as a blanket dismissal of the priesthood. They sometimes unearth the failings of some modern priests as proof of their theory and speak of empty rituals performed according to the "traditions of men." Catholics certainly don't think the priest is God. Catholics believe the priest simply does what Jesus commissioned the apostles to do, which is to serve the Church, that is, Christ's body on earth.

Doesn't the Bible forbid calling a human being your Father, saying, "call no man your father?"

Some Evangelicals point to the Scripture passage, "Call no man your father?"  (Matt 23:9-10) as a reason not to call priests "father." Yet in the same sentence Jesus says, "Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah." Using this passage to claim that we cannot call a priest "father" would mean that we could not call professors at an Evangelical Bible college "instructors." If we were to take this passage literally, it would mean that I could not call my earthly dad "father" either.

Catholics don't believe Jesus was forbidding the use of "father" in that passage. There are plenty of examples in the Bible where that the word "Father" applies to humans, and the Bible links the priesthood to fatherhood.

Catholics believe the fulcrum of Matt. 23:9-10 is, "The greatest among you will be your servant" (Matt 23:11).  That is the job of the priest, to be a servant. To serve the congregation. Jesus was condemning their hypocrisy, not their office.

Catholics don't think Jesus was against priests, he was against hypocritical priests. Jesus was condemning the hypocrisy of unholy men who were in office at the time, rather than their office. I believe that's how God felt 2000 years ago and that is how he feels today. There have always been some bad priests. Judas was the first bad priest in the Christian tradition, but the other disciples were good men. Jesus makes it very clear that he is not condemning the office of scribes and Pharisees. He was not saying that we should throw out the idea of an organized clergy. He had a great respect for their office.

"The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses seat; therefore do whatever they teach you and follow it" (Matt. 23:2). 

So I believe Jesus was saying, honour the office of the priesthood. God honoured the office and gave the high priest the gift of prophesy (Jn 11:51). God instituted the priesthood with the Levites. Jesus was not against the priesthood, he honoured and respected it, and I believe He is inviting us to do the same. Fr. Mateo writes:

In Judges 17:10, the Ephraimite Micah asks a transient Levite, "Stay with me; be father and priest to me." Later (Judges 18:19), a Danite war party persuades the same Levite to leave Micah, saying: "Come with us and be our father and priest." Indeed, the Bible finds priesthood and fatherhood inseparably united.

St. Paul says he is the father of his Christian converts (1st Thess. 2:10-11). Acts calls Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David fathers (4:25, 7:2, 8, 14). Paul says Timothy is his son, and he (Paul) is Timothy's father (Philip. 2:22). Reading Hebrews 12:9 reminds us of those spankings we used to get from our fathers! 1st John 2:13, 14 twice calls certain members of the congregation fathers.

Every Catholic priest is ordained in Christ to say, "In Christ Jesus I became your father through the Gospel" (1st Cor. 4:15). A priest is sent "to deal with us as a father deals with his children, encouraging, comforting, and urging us to live lives worthy of God" (1st Thess. 2:11-12).

Aren't all Christians Priests?

Catholics certainly agree that all true Christians are priests (1 Pet. 2:9). We call this the "common priesthood."

I believe at the last supper Jesus invited his apostles to a very special role in his ministry. We call this the "ministerial priesthood" and I believe that it has been passed down from generation to generation in the tradition of the Levites through the person of Jesus. Today when people talk about a priest they are generally talking about this special kind of "ministerial priest." (The guys with the collars.)

I think Evangelicals intuitively understand the distinction between the "common priesthood" (people in the pews) and the "ministerial priesthood" (the person serving the congregation). Otherwise they would not go through the process to training, certifying, and in some cases ordaining Evangelical pastors. Here are some excerpts of the Catechism to help explain:

The one priesthood of Christ

1545 The redemptive sacrifice of Christ is unique, accomplished once for all; yet ...it is made present through the ministerial priesthood without diminishing the uniqueness of Christ's priesthood: "Only Christ is the true priest, the others being only his ministers."19

Two participations in the one priesthood of Christ

1546 Christ, high priest and unique mediator, has made of the Church "a kingdom, priests for his God and Father."20 The whole community of believers is, as such, priestly... Through the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation the faithful are "consecrated to be . . . a holy priesthood."21

1547 The ministerial or hierarchical priesthood of bishops and priests, and the common priesthood of all the faithful participate, "each in its own proper way, in the one priesthood of Christ." While being "ordered one to another," they differ essentially.22 In what sense? While the common priesthood of the faithful is exercised by the unfolding of baptismal grace --a life of faith, hope, and charity, a life according to the Spirit--, the ministerial priesthood is at the service of the common priesthood...

This basically means that priests serve the lay people (common priests).

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Isn't God against the use of rituals?

Catholics don't think God is against the use of ritual as part of the way he ministers to his people. He is only against empty rituals that are performed with no heart behind them (Matt 6:7). By the way, I think Evangelicals have rituals too, like lifting their hands when they sing praise music. This is totally cool with me - I do it too, so does my priest! And I love it when Evangelicals turn their chairs around, and facing the chair, kneel on the floor, resting their elbows on the chair. The first time I saw that at a conference of Evangelical pastors, I thought to myself, "it would be a lot easy for them to just get kneelers." Of course, I got down on my knees and prayed with everyone using these makeshift kneelers. I felt very much at home in this traditional Catholic prayer position.

After Jesus healed the man of leprosy he sent the man to the priest for the ritual cleaning. Jesus could have easily done the ritual, but he chose to us the office of the priesthood to perform those duties on his behalf (Lk 5:12-16).

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Priesthood in the Bible

Catholic's believe there is plenty of scriptural evidence that God has a unique role for ministerial priests in his economy of salvation. The very fact that Jesus came out of the Jewish people indicates that God did not want to throw out the Jewish way of relating to God. If Jewish history, and their ritualistic approach, was unimportant then God could have easily chosen the Moabites, Philistines, or some other non-Jewish race from which to birth the Saviour. God did not want us to completely throw out the Jewish tradition, which is the fountain of our Christian heritage. He wanted us to understand it. The rituals came from God and are written in his Holy Word, the Bible. Obedience to The Law pleased Him. God was angry when they didn't perform the rituals. He does not want us to rip the first 1200 pages out of our Bibles. He wants us to understand the New Covenant in relation to the Old Covenant. Jesus said "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill" (Mat 5:17). Catholics believe that fulfillment does not mean total abandonment of the old way. God did not want us to destroy the foundation that He built in the Old Testament, and rebuild from scratch. He wanted to complete this structure that he began with his promise to Abraham.

In the Old Covenant, God ordained Aaron, the brother of Moses, to be a priest (Ex 38:21). He extended the spirit of Moses to seventy wise men and shared among the sons of Aaron the fullness of their father's Power. That's why Jesus called the priesthood "Moses Seat" (Mat 23:2). Their ministry passed from generation to generation through the bloodline of Levite family.  In a way, they were a prefigurement of the ordained priestly ministry of the New Covenant. The Catechism says:

1544 Everything that the priesthood of the Old Covenant prefigured finds its fulfillment in Christ Jesus, the "one mediator between God and men."15 The Christian tradition considers Melchizedek, "priest of God Most High," as a prefiguration of the priesthood of Christ, the unique "high priest after the order of Melchizedek";16 "holy, blameless, unstained,"17 "by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified,"18 that is, by the unique sacrifice of the cross.

Melchizedek is the only priest of the Old Testament who was not a Levite.  He sets the stage for Christ as High Priest.

"Melchizedek brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High. He blessed him and ...Abram gave him one-tenth of everything."(Gen 14:18-19)

Right after his blessing upon Abraham, Abraham's son Isaac was born and God's promise that he would father a great nation came alive (Gen 17:2). King David prophesizes Jesus as the new High Priest:

"The Lord said to my lord 'sit at my right hand' . You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek" (Psm 110:1-4)

At the last supper Jesus served bread and wine (the first Mass) just as Melchizedek had done with Abraham (Gen 14:18). He said to the disciples "this is the New Covenant in my blood" (Lk 22:20), signifying, among other things, God's transfer of Priestly duties from the Levites to Jesus who was the "true priest with the others [disciples] being only his ministers" (Aquinas, Hebr. 8.4). That night Jesus washed their feet and taught them to be servants in their new ministry. He said "I have set you an example, that you should do as I have done to you" (Jn 13:15). Catholics believe that night, he conferred the ministry of the new priesthood upon them. He did not do so because the job was too much for him, (as it was when God ordained the Levites to help Moses). Jesus invites them to share this priesthood because of the overabundance of his Graces.

The early Church had central direction evidenced by the way it handled the crisis of faith over circumcision (Acts 15-16). Paul and Barnabus went to Jerusalem to settle the circumcision issue. "As they (Paul and Timothy) went through the towns they delivered to the believers the rules decided upon by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem, and they told them to obey those rules" (Acts 16:3).

Within a short time, there was a structure to this new ministerial office with bishops, deacons, and priests (1 Tit 3:1). Peter was its head (Mat 16:18, Jn 21:17). It was not haphazard. It was very organized, even though they were often in hiding. The reason they were not in the temple was not because they dishonoured it. It was because they were under persecution. And as soon as the persecution lifted under Constantine, they were able to once again have a "House of God" which they so desperately longed and prayed for where Jesus truly did dwell in the flesh as the Eucharist. The early Church was not, as some believe, a bunch of dislocated cell churches. It is quite easy to trace today's Catholic clergy back through the generations to this early apostolic priesthood of the first century. A timeline is here.

Catholics think that Jesus is totally into the priesthood. I think many Evangelicals understand this on some level and have attempted to address this by appointing ministers to lead their congregations. Catholics think Scripture and history indicate that Jesus had something more formal, empowering and Sacramental, in mind. Up until 500 years ago, all Christians agreed on this.

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How can priests have power to forgive?

Here are some other biblical passages:

  • 2 Cor 5:18-19 "...gave us the ministry of reconciliation..."
  • 2 Cor 2:10-11  "What I have forgiven... in the presence of Christ..."  Paul has forgiven people's sins in the name of Christ.
  • 1 John 1:9 "If we confess our sins..."
  • James 5:14-16  "...Let him call for the elders of the church... he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another..."   
  • 2 Chronicles 26:1, Uzziah was chastised for performing priestly functions because he wasn't a priest. He got leprosy and died

Many Evangelicals have trouble with the idea that a priest can "forgive sins." Part of this is simply a misunderstanding of the position of the priest. Article 1442 the Catechism says:

Only God forgives sins (Mk 2:7) Since he is the Son of God Jesus himself says "The Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins" and exercises this divine power "Your sins are forgiven" (Mk 2:5, Lk 7:48)  Further he gives this power to men to exercise in his name (Jn 20:21-23)

The distinction is that God does the forgiving, the priest has simply been commissioned to carry this out. (2 Cor 5:18)  The apostle is sent out "on behalf of Christ" with "God making appeal" through him and pleading "Be reconciled to God" (2 Cor 5:20)

Catholics feel that the sinner sins in the material world and therefore the forgiveness must also manifest itself in the material world as well as in heaven. The only way that this can happen is through a human being - a priest. Jesus recognized that forgiveness must still be manifested in the material world after he died. This is why he commissioned the apostles to do it, and  this is why Catholics believe this has continued to this day through priestly secession in obedience to Jesus' command "whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven." This does not take away from Christ's role as the One True Priest, it actually empowers his role on earth. There is a great song by an Evangelical Christian rock band Audio Adrenaline that says, "I want to be your hands, I want to be your feet." Catholics have no problem that Jesus has ordained some to act on his behalf in the material world. We must remember, the priest is not the one who forgives. The forgiveness comes from Jesus. Before every confession the priest calls upon Jesus to come. He is simply performing a service for Jesus. Jesus was not against the priesthood, he honoured and respected it, and I believe he is inviting us to do the same. The priest in our parish is a very humble man who is from India, where he served in a leprosy colony for five years. He is truly a servant and a great priest.

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Didn't Christ give the authority to ALL Christians to bind and loose sin, why apostolic succession?

Catholics believe that there was something special about the apostles, and although he gave power to all who believe in Christ, there was special consideration to the apostles. Some Evangelicals believe that Matthew 28:16-20 is for all. However, he said it to the 11 disciples

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them ... And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

The same is true for the corresponding passage in Mark 16:14-20

Later he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were sitting at the table; ... And he said to them, ‘Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.

In that long list of powers for those who believe, he never says anything about binding and loosening. That is saved for the apostles. (Mathew 16:18-20)

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What about insincere Catholics that just run to Confession and keep sinning?

One of the big complaints against the Catholic practice of Confession with a priest is that people can just run back to the Priest every week and live poorly the rest of the time. God was clear that it will not go well for those who willfully persist in sin after having received the knowledge of the truth. (Heb 10:26) So if a Catholic makes insincere confession there could be some serious "Temporal Punishment." And God knows the heart. In my experience, the Catholics who go to confession are usually sincere. The nominal Catholics (the Christmas and Easter crowd) wouldn't be caught anywhere near a confessional. More about Confession in my article on the Sacraments.

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How do they get this special "Power?" - Succession of Priests

Of course the forgiveness comes from God. But in the case of the Sacraments such as "absolution" (forgiving) the Priest receives the power through the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit provides this special gift through the process of "succession." That means there is an unbroken line of Bishops laying hands on priests which can be traced directly back to the Last Supper. It is directly because of the commission at the Last Supper on the Apostles, who laid hands on Bishops who laid hands on priests who were appointed bishops who laid hands on priests etc..., that the priests of today who are in an unbroken lineage to that day have this unique role.

Catholics feel this commission is not without biblical precedent. In the Old Testament we see prophets passing on power to their successors by the laying on of hands and anointing. For example:

Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him (Deut 31:1-8)

You [Elijah] shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place (1 Kg 19:16)

...Samuel took a horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers and then spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. (1 Sam 16:13)

So the LORD said to Moses, "Gather for me seventy of the elders of Israel ... bring them to the tent of meeting, and have them take their place there with you. I will come down and talk with you there; and I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them; and they shall bear the burden of the people along with you so that you will not bear it all by yourself....and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied." (Num 11:16 -25)

Catholics believe these were a foreshadowing of Christ's ministry. In the New Testament:

After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. (Lk 10:1)

Jesus said..."As the Father has sent me, even so I send you." And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." (John 20:21-23)

Perhaps an important thing to note is that Thomas was not present at this time - but he did receive the gift. This suggests that perhaps Peter (who was given the keys to the kingdom) gave it to him. Jesus said to Peter  "whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven" (Mat 16:19)

These apostles prayed over the next generation of apostles. Some of them became Bishops. The Bishops in turn prayed over the newly ordained priests. Every priest from the beginning of the Church right back to Peter was prayed over in the same way. And hence Catholics feel that from generation to generation this Grace has been passed on. The Bishop places an "indelible seal" upon the priest when he prays over him. In Catholic terminology this is called "secession." For a list of every Pope back to Peter go here.

Two chapters after giving the keys of the kingdom to Peter, Jesus is more clear that power has been given to the Church.

If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector, for very truly I tell you whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. (Mat 18:17-18)

Jesus says the same thing twice within 3 verses. Catholics think that this means He was very serious. In the Greek text of Mat 18:18, the word "you" in "whatever you bind" is plural. When He says the same thing to Peter in Mat 16:18 the Greek text used for "whatever you bind" is singular. Catholics think these two juxtaposed but similar phrases lay out the early structure of the Church with Peter as the Pope and the other apostles as priests.

Let's look at a verse that Catholics think refers to three generations of "Apostolic Succession":

[W]hat you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. (2 Tim. 2:2).

First Generation: "me" = Paul, "an apostle of Christ Jesus by command of God our Saviour and of Jesus Christ our hope" (1 Tim 1:1)

Second Generation: "you" = Timothy, who was most likely ordained by Paul: "Do not neglect the gift you have which was conferred on you through the prophetic word with the imposition of hands of the presbyterate." (1 Tim 4:14) "For this reason, I remind you to stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands." (2 Tim 1:6)

Third Generation:  "faithful men" = successors who will receive this "imposition of hands" after Timothy.

Catholics believe that what is handed down in succession is twofold: (1) the teaching of Christ given to the Apostles (known as Apostolic Tradition), and (2) the power to teach it with binding authority, one aspect of the "gift" conferred 1 Tim 4:14 above (known as Apostolic Authority).(1)

Lord Jesus, let Your prayer of unity for Christians
become a reality, in Your way.
We have absolute confidence
that you can bring your people together,
we give you absolute permission to move.
Amen