Vierteljahresschrift für das Gesamtgebiet der katholischen Theologie
Begründet von Kardinal Leo Scheffczyk • ISSN 0178-1626


Martin Mayerhofer:
The Spiritual Fatherhood of the Priest in Patristic and Medieval Pauline Commentaries
(FKTh 2020-2, p. 80–100)

In several passages of his epistles the apostle Paul describes himself as a father to
his church communities (especially 1 Cor 4:14–16, 1 Thess 2:11–12). This relationship is
based on his having „begotten them through the gospel“ (1 Cor 4:15) and continuing to
be close to them with fatherly care. Patristic and medieval exegesis saw in these verses
a description of the spiritual fatherhood of the priest. However, is a priest allowed to be
addressed as „father“, since Christ expressly forbids calling anyone on earth „father“ (cf.
Mt 23:9)? According to the exegetical consensus, this is indeed possible as long as the
priest does not claim with this title an authority that is due to God, but rather understands
his office as a service. The interpretative tradition develops a quite uniform conception
of spiritual fatherhood, which is distinguished by four main characteristics: the spiritual
father serves the faith of the people, which is founded in Christ and not in human affection;
he provides a model of faith and virtue through his own life; he is devoted to his
people with a “motherly” care and guides them, among other things, by loving correctio
paterna; the aim of his ministry is to guide the faithful so that Christ may take form in them
(cf. Gal 4:19). The understanding of the priest as spiritual father is a powerful stimulus for
a deeper understanding of the priestly identity and for overcoming one-sided, reductive
views of the priest (e.g. as manager, administrator, theologian, liturgist).

© FKTh 2020