Cardinal John Dew said the change would help combat clericalism
New Zealand Cardinal John Dew has said it is time to stop calling priests “father.” In an April newsletter, Dew said that ending the use of the title “father” could be “the beginning of the reform in the Church” in the wake of the sexual abuse scandal.
Since then, Dew told New Zealand media outlet Stuff that he would no longer like to be referred to by his title and encouraged priests to do the same.
Dew suggested that this could be one way to respond to Pope Francis’ call to combat clericalism in the Church. He said his effort “is part of a package of changing the whole clerical attitude.”
In his letter, Dew summarized three main points from an article written for La Croix International by French priest Jean-Pierre Roche titled “Stop calling me Father.”
Roche first pointed to the Gospel, in which Jesus says “And do not call anyone on earth ‘Father,’ for you have but one Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 23:9). Although Dew admits that the passage is “difficult to interpret and understand, “ he said “the meaning is clear. Jean-Pierre Roche says that to be called “Father” is to usurp the place of God.”
Second, Dew drew attention to the power dynamics of referring to priests as “father.” Dew said “It is not possible to have equal relationships between adults who are brothers and sisters if we call one of them “Father.”
Lastly, he claimed that the practice of calling priests “Father” “can be unhealthy because it becomes an expression of dependence which is based on a false and unreal idea of obedience.”
Dew, the Archbishop of Wellington, said he has received mixed feedback, and some believe the cardinal’s desire is unlikely to come to fruition on a wide-scale.
Peter Lineham, a retired professor of religious studies at Massey University in New Zealand told Stuff that several priests said they regarded it an “oddity” that Dew “would say such impossible things.”
Lineham emphasized that a major decision would necessitate the approval of the Vatican and that he believes “it would take an enormous amount to move that language from Catholicism, because at the heart of it is the special status of the priest, and the title is one way to preserve it. And deep down there is a deep protectiveness about the priesthood: it’s the essence of the Catholic Church.”
While Dew believes this could be the first step in reforming the Church, others think differently. Deborah Pead, a public relations executive does not believe the change in the use of the title would have any effect and is “no more than a band-aid” to repair the Church’s reputation.
“But they are dreaming if they think dropping the word ‘Father’ is going to deliver anything meaningful for them – that should be just one thing in a whole suite of activities,” Pead said. “But on its own, it’s nothing.”