Why is God called ‘Father’? Can He be called ‘Mother’? In the Second Reading, we see an example of the unanimous tradition of calling God, ‘Father’: “All who are led by the Spirit of God are sons and daughters of God… When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom 8:14,16).
[Watch Fr. Justin’s homily delivery here.]
Here are four considerations to help us understand the theology behind God as Father:
1) God has no body. He is a pure spirit existing outside of the universe, so He has no sex and is neither male nor female (Cf. CCC 239). But how then do we relate to Him as a person? Because He is a person, and we only know persons as either male or female.
2) The Old Testament does use the language of motherhood to describe God: “As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you” (Is 66:13). “Can a woman forget her suckling child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you” (Is 49:15). In the Old Testament, the word to describe God’s mercy etymologically came from the word ‘womb,’ because a mother’s womb is the most concrete image of “the intimate interrelatedness of two lives and of loving concern for the dependent” (Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, Volume 1, 139). So, to understand God’s mercy, we need to understand the nature of motherhood.
3) Even though maternal language is used to describe God, the Bible refers to God only as father, but never as mother. Jesus Himself called God ‘Father’ many times. For Christians and those who believe that Jesus is God, we look at His example as not accidental, but as purposeful. Obviously, if you don’t believe Jesus is God, you won’t take His example as normative. However, people who do acknowledge His divinity would try to learn from His actions. His example is the main reason why we call God ‘Father.’ But was Jesus just following the norms of His day? When we look closely at His actions, we see that He wasn’t bound by contemporary customs that were unjust towards women. In first-century Judaism, men could divorce women, but women couldn’t (Dt 24:1)—Jesus rectified this imbalance saying that no one should divorce (Mk 10:2-12). Women’s testimony was also not accepted by law (Sara Bulter, MSBT, The Catholic Priesthood and Women, 66-67), but Jesus still chose women as His witnesses to His Resurrection. He also had women as His disciples, let a sinful woman touch Him, and talked to women in public, which was another action not done then. The point is: Jesus broke many customs, and offended many people with His teaching that He was equal to God, that He could forgive sins, etc. He even called God, ‘Daddy,’ or, ‘Abba,’ which is what St. Paul does today. So, Jesus could have called God mother but didn’t.
4) This is the main reason given by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and the one that makes the most sense to me. Historically, the Jewish people and early Christians were surrounded by other peoples who worshipped false gods as mother, as we might say, ‘Mother Earth.’ It was a kind of pantheism, in which god is everywhere: the trees, the animals, the sky are god. Everything is god. But what God revealed to the Jewish people is that He’s outside of the universe. If we cut down a tree, we’re not cutting God; if we eat animals, we’re not eating God. He’s transcendent. This reflects the human experience of birth. When a child is born, the mother is usually close by—she’s imminent. But the father is outside of this process—in a certain sense, he’s transcendent to the child. So, the mother must introduce the child to his or her father. God is called Father primarily because He’s transcendent, and the Church is called mother, because she introduces us to Him. Women bear life within them, whereas men give life outside of themselves. In the same way, spiritual life comes from God and gives birth in the Church. Is remembering God’s transcendence that important? Yes, it is. Throughout the Old Testament, the Hebrew people were always tempted to worship false gods and make idols. But God constantly reminded them that He is beyond their grasp and control, and that He couldn’t be manipulated. Mothers are always closer to us. So, remembering that God is ‘Father’ reminds us that He’s further from us than nearer.
There are two other ideas on which we can reflect because of this reality of God’s being our Father.
First, it protects the distinction between the sexes. God has no sex, but He did create man and woman as distinct. In the opening lines of Genesis, it says, “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (1:27). It’s in our masculinity and femininity that we image God.
Our culture correctly sees men and women as being equal in dignity and is on guard against sexism. We’re right, for example, to combat spousal abuse, which more often occurs with husbands’ abusing their wives. But now the pendulum is swinging the other way, where there’s no more distinction between men and women. Gay adoption has weakened the right of children to have a mother and a father. The principle is simple: Because children naturally come from a mother and father, and because men and women are different, children have a right to have one of each.
In 2012, Dr. Mark Regnerus published New Family Structure Study in the journal Social Science Research. “Compared with offspring from married, intact mother/father homes, children raised in same-sex homes are markedly more likely to… report overall lower levels of happiness, mental and physical health; be in counseling or mental health therapy (2xs); suffer from depression (by large margins)… as adults, more likely to be unfaithful in married or cohabiting relationships”. The study had the largest sample size and representativeness of any study up to that point on this subject (15,000 Americans ages 18 to 39). Despite intense attacks, Regnerus wrote in his response, “The probability-based evidence that exists… suggests that the biologically-intact two-parent household remains an optimal setting for the long-term flourishing of children”.
The transgender movement also eliminates the differences between men and women. For Christians, recognizing God as Father will push against this denial of reality. The reality is that only women can give birth, and men cannot chestfeed; sorry, guys. Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons writes, “Among the many distinctive talents that mothers bring… three stand out: their capacity to breastfeed, their ability to understand infants and children, and their ability to offer nurture and comfort… Numerous reports indicate that infants and toddlers prefer mothers to fathers when they are hungry, afraid or sick. Mothers tend to be more soothing… they are better able than fathers… to distinguish between a cry of hunger and a cry of pain. They are also better than fathers at detecting the emotions of their children by looking at their faces, postures, and gestures… Clinical experience suggests that deliberately depriving a child of its mother, motherlessness, causes severe damage because mothers are crucial in establishing a child’s ability to trust and to feel safe in relationships… Fathers excel when it comes to providing discipline, play, and challenging children to embrace life’s challenges. They also provide essential role models for boys. Their presence in the home protects a child from fear and strengthens a child’s ability to feel safe. The extensive research on the serious psychological, academic, and social problems among youth raised in fatherless families demonstrates the importance of the presence of the father in the home for healthy child development”.
Second, calling God Father reminds us that, as Dr. Gregory Bottaro states, a father’s gaze on his children is different than a mother’s. “Every single one of us longs for the father’s gaze. We want to be seen and chosen by our dads. It is biological, psychological, and spiritual. We are predisposed for this longing from the moment of our conception… Mom’s gaze comes easier, we expect it, and it is the primary necessity to remain secure in our being as we are. It is the gaze of the father, however, which draws us out of ourselves to become more” (Dr. Gregory Bottaro & Jennifer Settle, Consecration to Jesus through St. Joseph, 84). Dr. Bottaro points out that when our own fathers love and delight in us, then we find that naturally in God. So, “fathers are called to be the link between heaven and earth.”
When I heard this, I started to question if I give a gaze of love to my own spiritual children: Do I look at people with love? St. John Paul II had this capacity. When people conversed with him, even if only for 30 seconds, they noted feeling loved (Andreas Widmer, The Pope & the CEO, 73-75). I think I sometimes fail in this regard. It’s something about which I need to pray more. But I’ll accept this challenge, because, being a man and a spiritual father, I was created to give what God the Father has given me. And I pray all men receive the Father’s look of love, and pass it on to others.
God loves us perfectly with a mother’s love and will never abandon us. But we call Him Father because He’s transcendent, and He calls us up to Himself. It matters that we call Him ‘Father.’