Catholic and Orthodox Counterfeits of Spiritual Fatherhood Part 2: Sacramental “Fathers”

By Yaroslav Sebastian Tegza

Former Ukrainian Priest of the Greek Catholic Church Khust, Ukraine

The Sacramental Counterfeit of True Spiritual Fatherhood

As stated earlier, the sacramental approach to fatherhood at large was unknown to adherents of the Jewish religion.  This is a distinction of the Catholic approach, which is more characteristic of a pagan worldview.  Similar to the pagan worldview, sacraments come into play, but with even a more prominent and critical role.  Namely sacraments lie at the basis of life and practice of the Roman Catholic Church.

The Sacramental Approach

Catholic theologians specifically view the sacraments as a token of the rootedness of the church in Christ.   According to Catholic doctrine, the Church is Christ’s, first of all due to the sacraments.  This lies at the deepest, ontological level.  This is why any revival and renewal fo the church from the Catholic perspective must begin with the revival of sacramental life.  Catholic identity is founded in the deep conviction that the source of grace is found exclusively in the sacraments for only in sacraments can people enter into a union with Christ.  This is why the Catholic understands life “in Christ” as participation in the sacraments.  The Catholic says that the Word of God speaks about Christ, but Christ is present in the sacraments.  “Having died and risen, Christ is always present in his Church, especially in the sacraments…”[i]

Catholic teaching considers that thanks to the sacramental principle in the church is preserved the priority of the Divine beginning.  For this reason, evangelical churches are not recognized as true churches, but merely church fellowships of believers.  It is vain to think that Catholic theologians simply have gotten carried away on formalities and bureaucracy because the reason for such an attitude toward Protestants is grounded upon something significantly deeper – in a particular conception of the church and its nature.  The idea is that the church must possess a holy beginning, that is “hierarchy”.  This does not merely consist of holy power, but holy succession, a holy succession from God.  According to Catholics, that specifically sacraments guarantee that their church truly is God’s Church and not man’s.  Here is what authoritative Catholic sources say:

“Thus the risen Christ, by giving the Holy Spirit to the apostles, entrusted to them his power of sanctifying: they became sacramental signs of Christ.  By the power of the same Holy Spirit they entrusted this power to their successors.  This ‘apostolic succession’ structures the whole liturgical life of the Church and is itself sacramental, handed on by the sacrament of Holy Orders.”[ii]

“Today the word ‘ordination’ is reserved for the sacramental act which integrates a man into the order of bishops, presbyters, or deacons, and goes beyond a simple election, designation, delegation, or institution by the community, for it confers a gift of the Holy Spirit that permits the exercise of a ‘sacred power’ (sacra potestas) which can come only from Christ himself through his Church.”[iii]

“No one – no individual and no community – can proclaim the Gospel to himself: ‘Faith comes from what is heard.’  (Rom. 10:17) No one can give himself the mandate and the mission to proclaim the Gospel. The one sent by the Lord does not speak and act on his own authority, but by virtue of Christ’s authority; not as a member of the community, but speaking to it in the name of Christ. No one can bestow grace on himself; it must be given and offered. This fact presupposes ministers of grace, authorized and empowered by Christ. From him, bishops and priests receive the mission and faculty (‘the sacred power’) to act in persona Christi Capitis (in the person of the Christ-Head); deacons receive the strength to serve the people of God in the diaconia of liturgy, word and charity, in communion with the bishop and his presbyterate. The ministry in which Christ’s emissaries do and give by God’s grace what they cannot do and give by their own powers, is called a ‘sacrament’ by the Church’s tradition. Indeed, the ministry of the Church is conferred by a special sacrament.”[iv]

“In the bishops, therefore, for whom priests are assistants, Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Supreme High Priest, is present in the midst of those who believe. For sitting at the right hand of God the Father, He is not absent from the gathering of His high priests, but above all through their excellent service He is preaching the word of God to all nations, and constantly administering the sacraments of faith to those who believe, by their paternal functioning.(1 Cor. 4:15) He incorporates new members in His Body by a heavenly regeneration, and finally by their wisdom and prudence He directs and guides the People of the New Testament in their pilgrimage toward eternal happiness. These pastors, chosen to shepherd the Lord’s flock of the elect, are servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God, to whom has been assigned the bearing of witness to the Gospel of the grace of God, and the ministration of the Spirit and of justice in glory…

For from the tradition, which is expressed especially in liturgical rites and in the practice of both the Church of the East and of the West, it is clear that, by means of the imposition of hands and the words of consecration, the grace of the Holy Spirit is so conferred, and the sacred character so impressed, that bishops in an eminent and visible way sustain the roles of Christ Himself as Teacher, Shepherd and High Priest, and that they act in His person.”[v]

In this manner, specifically the sacrament of the priesthood is the fundamental basis of fatherhood in the Catholic mindset.  The spiritual father feeds his children with the teaching of the Church and its holy sacraments:

“Let them, as fathers in Christ, take care of the faithful whom they have begotten by baptism and their teaching. (1 Cor. 4:15; 1 Pet. 1:23)”[vi]

The Mystery[vii] of True Fatherhood

When the question arises why one should address a minister as “Father”, defenders of this practice often appeal to the words of the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 4:15.  By the way, this passage of Scripture along with 1 Peter 1:23, similar to the previous citation, are often used to affirm this very idea.  Catholic theologians view these texts with a sacramental meaning.  They are often used in the argument that they demonstrate the tradition of Paul and the other apostles, even Christ Himself, to call their disciples “Children”.  Thus, so they say, it is logical to assume that their disciples would refer to them as “Father”.  Let us examine 1 Corinthians 4:14-17 in detail to see exactly how exactly the apostles understood the concept of spiritual fatherhood:

I write not these things to shame you, but as my beloved sons I warn you.  For though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers: for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel.  Wherefore I beseech you, be ye followers of me. For this cause have I sent unto you Timotheus, who is my beloved son, and faithful in the Lord, who shall bring you into remembrance of my ways which be in Christ, as I teach everywhere in every church.[viii]

What can we say about this passage?  It clearly makes direct references to fatherhood.  But of what type of fatherhood does the apostle describe here?  Maybe Paul is speaking of fatherhood in the rabbinic sense, e.g. Paul as a rabbi and Pharisee refers to the expectation that people should accept him as “father and master”?

Or perhaps Paul is speaking of a mystical fatherhood, e.g. Paul taught his disciples the sacraments and led them into the mystery of the Christian cult, hence he is their “parent and father”?

Neither of these ideas is supported by the text.

First of all, Paul fully understood that he could be a teaching rabbi without having to be called a father.  Paul clearly knew that simply being an instructor did not convey the additional prestige of a father.  He writes in verse 15: “For though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers.”

Rather, the Apostle Paul is speaking about spiritual fatherhood and not a professional rank of “father”.

Now let us deal with the second argument.  When the Corinthians began to exalt the role of ministers, split into different factions, and overemphasized the meaning of baptism, Paul showed the utter irrationality of such perceptions.

Is Christ divided? was Paul crucified for you? or were ye baptized in the name of Paul?

I thank God that I baptized none of you, but Crispus and Gaius; Lest any should say that I had baptized in mine own name.  And I baptized also the household of Stephanas: besides, I know not whether I baptized any other.  For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel[ix]

Paul truly did refer to himself as a spiritual father to the Corinthians because he had begotten them through the Gospel.  He begat them not through the sacrament of baptism, but rather through the very preaching of the Gospel.  He did not baptize them, but he proclaimed to them the Gospel of Christ crucified.  That is how they became children of God.

The power of fatherhood comes through the Gospel, not in sacraments.  Sacramentalism does not make the church belong to Christ.  Rather, sacramentalism makes the church merely religious.

When Paul refers to himself as the father of the Corinthians, he is not saying that now it is right for them to address him as “Father Paul”.  Rather, he means that he is truly their spiritual father because he proclaimed to them the Gospel, by which they received spiritual rebirth.  And he did this like a true father, not demanding compensation for his work.  Just the opposite, he dedicated himself fully to their well-being like parents pouring themselves into their children:

Behold, the third time I am ready to come to you; and I will not be burdensome to you: for I seek not yours but you: for the children ought not to lay up for the parents, but the parents for the children.”[x]

This is the mystery of true fatherhood about which the apostle Paul is writing.

[i] John Paul II, Apostolic Constitution, Fidei Depositum: On the Publication of The Catechism of the Catholic Church on  .  Accessed on April 27, 2018.  Author’s emphasis.

[ii] Catechism of the Catholic Church, Paragraph 1087 on  accessed on April 27, 2018.

[iii] Catechism of the Catholic Church, Paragraph 1538 on  accessed on April 27, 2018.

[iv] Catechism of the Catholic Church, Paragraph 875 on   accessed on April 27, 2018.

[v] Pope Paul VI, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium (November 21, 1964), 21 on  accessed on April 27, 2018.

[vi] Idem., 28.

[vii] Translator’s note: the same word in Russian can mean either “sacrament” or “mystery”.

[viii] 1 Corinthians 4:14-17.  Author’s emphasis.

[ix] 1 Corinthians 1:13-17.  Author’s emphasis.

[x] 2 Corinthians 12:14.  Author’s emphasis.